Vault Comicsa relatively new entrant into the $1.28 billion comics publishing market, just turbocharged its growth strategy, announcing it has secured investment in a round led by renowned activist investor Jeff Ubben. The roster of backers also includes an intriguing mix of entertainment industry heavyweights: global talent agency UTA; the investment arm of music talent management firm Crush; healthcare entrepreneur Rick Matros; and Black Squirrel Partners, representing the hard rock band Metallica. Vault CEO and publisher Damian Wassel says the investments will help Vault, which is privately held, expand its publishing efforts and build out a media pipeline for its IP. Terms of the round were not disclosed, although Wassel said the original founders will maintain a majority stake in the business.
Vault Comics was founded in 2016 by Wassel, his brother Adrian (who serves as Editor-in-Chief), and cousin Nathan Gooden (art director), funded by family and friends. The Missoula, Montana-based company began publishing periodicals and graphic novels mostly for the direct market of independent comic book stores in 2017, and has achieved some success with titles like Barbaric, Vagrant Queen, These Savage Shores and others. Vagrant Queen was developed for a television series on SyFy, with a season airing in 2020, and the company has other media projects in the works at networks and streamers, according to Damian Wassel.
The Montana connection helped secure the participation of Jeff Ubben, who has a home in the state. The legendary investor cofounded ValueAct Capital, a hedge fund specializing in contrarian investments with long-term value, and is now focused on social investment through his new firm, Inclusive Capital Partners (InCap). Ubben’s daughter Charlotte, an actress and producer (Loving Vincent, American Honey) will join Vault’s board, while Jeff will advise the business.
The entertainment industry connections don’t stop there. UTA, which represents leading figures in entertainment, sports and the arts and gets involved in the packaging and financing of media properties, is also on board. Jeff Ubben owns a minority interest in UTA. Crush Ventures is the investment arm of Crush Music, whose clients include Miley Cyrus, Lorde, Green Day and others. Matros, currently CEO of Sabra Health, is a self-described lifelong comics fan who has dabbled in film production. Finally, Black Squirrel Partners manages investments for Metallica. One imagines the company’s Board meetings will be more lively than average.
Damian Wassel says a couple of factors helped the deal come together. First is the traction that Vault has demonstrated, increasing its year-over-year revenues by nearly triple digits each year since its launch, selling several million units. Though the fragmented comics distribution landscape makes it more difficult to estimate market share, Wassel believes that Vault has cracked the top ten list led by Marvel, DC, Image Comics, Viz and others.
The company publishes exclusively in the genres of fantasy, science fiction and horror, with an emphasis on diversity of creators and subject matter. Wassel says Vault also deliberately keeps its catalog manageable so fans can read and follow a wide variety of titles without breaking their budget. One goal of the new capital is to scale up those operations. “We’re focusing on expanding our direct-to-consumer business, but not at the expense of our retail partners,” said Wassel. “We believe we can reach more people, beyond those who come into comic stores.”
“Vault’s breadth of content opens up whole new areas of creativity and excitement,” said Jeff Ubben. “Damian and Adrian are authentic founders wanting to make a difference in the media and entertainment industry and in their readers’ lives.”
Another key for the investors is the central role of comics in the entertainment IP space. Though most of Vault’s catalog is creator-owned, the company has been working to secure media production and licensing deals on the back of its well-crafted and well-received lineup. Vagrant Queen, a sci-fi epic adapted from the series by writer Magdelane Visaggio and artist Jason Smith, was the first of these to reach the public, but certainly won’t be the last, according to Wassel. It’s likely that the participation of several top-tier entertainment agencies will help keep those conversations going for the other 2-3 dozen titles on the imprint.
“Vault has built an impressive and unique catalog of story properties,” said UTA CEO Jeremy Zimmer. “We anticipate that Vault will emerge as a significant player in the entertainment landscape, and we’re excited to be part of their growth.”
Finally there’s the Keanu effect. One of the biggest-selling periodical comics of the past 25 years was BRZRKR, the ultra-violent techno-thriller by actor Keanu Reeves, with writer Matt Kindt and artist Ron Garney, published by Boom! Studios. The series launched on the back of a $1.45 million crowdfunding campaign and sold over 650,000 copies of its first issue at retail. The first trade collection is also a best-seller, and the property was immediately snapped up for development as both a feature film and an animated series.
It turns out having an A-list celebrity with a good story to tell is an excellent recipe for selling a lot of comics. Did that particular development ping the radar of a couple of the biggest talent agencies in the world?
“It was a motivating insight,” said Wassel, who said to expect some exciting announcements from the imprint in the months to come.