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Behind the Scenes of Action Lab’s Quest for Indie Comics Domination

by  in Comic News Comment
Behind the Scenes of Action Lab’s Quest for Indie Comics Domination

Making a comic is no easy feat — but making it, printing it, publishing it, marketing it and then selling it? That’s truly daunting. For this reason, while a number of new publishers have attempted to make a place for themselves in the comics market over the last few years, few have had the impact or staying power of Action Lab Entertainment.

Founded in 2010, Action Lab started out small, publishing a few comics at a time. Now, the company has a whole line of miniseries, one-shots, graphic novels and ongoing series to their name. Utilizing crowdfunding and jumping into the world of digital comics early, its managed to find a place for itself in a crowded and competitive comics market.

RELATED: Jeremy Whitley Takes “Princeless” to the High Seas

Along with success stories like the Eisner Award-nominated “Princeless” and the arrival of Jamal Igle‘s “Molly Danger” series, Action Lab has plans to continue expanding its line of comics even further. With two imprints already in place, the publisher is making the move into licensed comics, including series based on “Puppet Master” and “NFL Rush Zone.”

At a time when comics publishing is continuing to evolve away from the “Big Two” mentality, how does Action Lab Entertainment fit into the big picture? To find out, CBR News spoke with the entire Action Lab team to trace the company’s journey from fledgling small-press publisher to the expansive organization it is today and where it aims to be as we head into 2015 and beyond.

CBR News: As this is a discussion about the company’s growth over its existence, let’s start at the beginning — when and where did the idea of Action Lab Entertainment take shape?

Chad Cicconi: As I recall it, I met Shawn Pryor at the Pittsburgh Comic Con in 2008 or 2009. We had been working together on “Mercury and the Murd” for a while via email. I met Dave Dwonch the following year at either a Comic Geek Speak event or at Heroes Con, where PKD Media and Big Monster Productions shared table space.

Shawn Pryor: Right. The Comic Geek Speak podcast introduced me to both of them, and I also met Shawn Gabborin at that show — and the following year he did artwork for a few books for my company I started in 2008, PKD Media.

So without Comic Geek Speak bringing us together, there’s a chance that Action Lab may never have existed.

What were your immediate goals in creating Action Lab? Was it initially just to have a place to publish your own works?

Dave Dwonch: I think so, yeah. I think we were all hitting the wall dealing with the business of comics and it was affecting our creativity.

Cicconi: I think almost right from the beginning the intent was to create a viable entity that would soon evolve into publishing more than just books created by the owners of the company. And that’s exactly what we did. We had to start out with our own books to begin with, because no one else knew who we were yet, so no one would bring their books to us!

Did you have a manifesto at the time? An ambition for what you wanted to be about, the type of comics you’d put out?

Cicconi: The metaphor of Action Lab was always a group of mad scientists experimenting in the “lab” of comics, making stuff with ideas that could change the world. The only criterion for what books we’d look at publishing was that they had to be good. We wanted, from the very beginning, to build a diverse and unique library of titles.

Pryor: We wanted Action Lab to be a strong publisher of creator-owned books. That was the first key thing that was talked about in 2010, and we stressed it heavily before other publishers coined creator-owned as a term to promote their works and ways many years later.

Dwonch: For me, it was about diversity. I wanted fans to not know what coming next. It’s why we followed “Princeless” with “Double Jumpers,” then “Pirate Eye.” My intent is always to raise eyebrows. The minute that you know what to expect from us is the minute I’ll know we need to blow the whole thing up and start over again.

Has the rising popularity of digital comics played a significant role in your growing profile as a company?

Seaton: Yes, I knew early on that there was concern about what effect digital comics would have on the print market. We did not share this concern. As a comic reader myself, digital didn’t stop me from buying print. It allowed me to try more titles and read more comics. This made us see digital as a way to market our books and build brand awareness for our company with the fans while being paid to do it.

Digital avenues have exposed our company’s line-up of books to hundreds of thousands of new fans that we had no other way to reach affordably. We quickly found early on that if the retailers didn’t bring our books into the stores, we couldn’t sell them to the fans. We had some strong support from some retailers early on and are very thankful to them for that support, but we couldn’t seem to get shelf space in other stores.

When we lunched the “digital first” program, where we released part of the book in split or guided view for $.99 at the same time it would be in “Previews,” we hoped that fans would read the first part of the book digitally, and then order the printed comic at their local store. We feel that this has been very successful, and credit it for helping us achieve the incredible growth we have seen over the last couple years.

How important has Kickstarter been to the way you can operate as a company?

Dwonch: Let’s be real: We took that money and bought our own printer. That’s how we were able to survive that first year, by thinking outside the box. We were the Duke Boys jumping ravines for a while there.

Pryor: Without Kickstarter, “Fracture” (our first Direct Market title) may not have been able to be a reality. The Kickstarter for that comic also helped provide the company with seed money to operate our business.

Kevin Freeman: There are so many quality books out there, many of them still undiscovered. Kickstarter is a fairly easy way to see what sorts of groundbreaking work is being done in the industry. “Midnight Tiger,” “Molly Danger” and the “Stray” and “Runner” series all originated with Kickstarter, and I am sure there are more to come!

As you mentioned, an early turning point for ALE was probably the launch of “Princeless” by Jeremy Whitley and Mia Goodwin, which was both Eisner and Glyph-nominated. How did Princeless come to find a home at the company?

Pryor: That was all Dave. He was the mastermind behind that.

Dwonch: Mastermind is a strong word! It really didn’t take much to see the potential in “Princeless,” even in its earliest incarnation. I had met Jeremy at Heroes Con that fateful weekend when we founded ALE, and brought him in as soon as we were up and running based on the strength of his script. Shawn Gabborin had worked briefly with Mia on his “Short Stack” series, and he was instrumental in getting her involved with revamping “Princeless.” She really helped breathe life into his work.

Did the success of “Princeless” move the company to have a larger focus on all-ages titles, or was making comics for everybody always a part of your goal?

Cicconi: We wanted to make all kinds of comics, which included all-ages stuff. The success of “Princeless” started giving us a name in that area, which was added to by “Vamplets” and “Molly Danger” a year or so later. That’s why we created the Danger Zone imprint — to allow ourselves to keep bringing in diverse titles, while capitalizing on the all-ages notoriety we were getting as Action Lab.

Now, we can still publish any genre, at any age level (from all-ages to adults only) as long as we make sure the mature readers stuff is accurately labelled and placed in the Danger Zone catalogue.

Freeman: The Eisner nods for “Princeless” definitely opened a door for us as far as being a publisher of choice for a lot of creators, regardless of the target audience. It just happened that we got a reputation early for being a destination for all-ages books — and by all-ages, I mean books that EVERYONE can read.

What are the difficulties in setting up a small press publisher? Is it hard to get your books into the direct market, into comic stores, and grab the attention of reviewers, news sites, and readers?

Pryor: The first thing that we wanted to do was not to use the word “small press” as much as possible because sometimes it can serve as a bad connotation to comic book stores. For most, if you’re seen as small they’ll avoid you and not order what you have to offer. Even though most businesses for the most part start small and gradually grow, not everyone understands that or sees that.

During the first year and half I served as President, I also had the roles of Social Media Manager, Marketing Coordinator, Webmaster, Financial Tracker, Solicitations Supervisor, Publishing Schedule Coordinator and Digital Operations Coordinator. Needless to say I had my hands full!

Cicconi: During our first 2 years of operations, we encountered both unexpected problems, and unexpected luck, in equal measures. All of the steps referenced in your question are exceedingly difficult for a new publisher, no matter what the size and resources. Initially running on a shoestring, however, made it even more difficult for us.

With the smaller print runs we were doing in the first year or so, the only economically viable choice for us to stay in operation was to buy our own printer and print our own books. That was very, very difficult, but allowed us the economic breathing room to keep going and to expand.

Freeman: Publishing a book is very difficult. Publishing ten a month is even more difficult. But I think it speaks volumes about our staying power that we have been able to adjust and grow as demand for our books has increased over the years. Our growth has been purposely organic, meaning that we don’t want to grow too fast either. There is a nice equilibrium — you learn as you grow, but you don’t grow so fast as to exceed the rate in which you learn and adapt.

Another push forward came with Jamal Igle, who joined Action Lab with creator-owned series “Molly Danger” in 2013. Jamal, what about Action Lab made you want to bring your series to the publisher?

Jamal Igle: I’ve known most of the guys for several years: I think I may have met Shawn Pryor first. When they were running their Kickstarter for “Fracture” I became a backer. It was when I saw the PDF of the finished book, and the quality of the product, I said to myself, “These guys really have something going on here.”

When I started planning my own Kickstarter for “Molly Danger,” I knew that I wanted to work with a publisher, one that would work with the vision and scope had in mind for the series. The problem became trying to decide whom to approach.

I didn’t want to go to Image, because everyone goes to Image. Nothing against Image — I love a lot of the books they publish, but I didn’t want Molly to get lost in the sea of bigger name creators doing yet another Image book. I approached Shawn and Action Lab because I felt, at the time, the company was young enough that they would be more willing to take a chance with the format. I also hoped, because they were my friends, that my profile would help bring some attention to ALE as a whole.

You’ve since joined Action Lab as Marketing Director. How did you come to take up that position?

Igle: Last year, after I spent a lot of time with the guys at different shows, and after spending time with them at New York Comic Con, I basically volunteered because I saw real potential, really smart creative decisions being made. There is a level of professionalism with all of the principals at ALE that you wouldn’t normally associate with such a young company.

Among the many hats I’ve worn over the years is a background in print marketing and advertising, way back before I got into the industry as a writer/artist. That, coupled with my 20-plus years of working in comics, and my contacts, I felt I had something to contribute to the growth of the company. Personally, as a comics fan, I would stack any Action Lab Book side by side with any book at any major publisher, in terms of quality and innovative ideas.

We spoke earlier about Danger Zone — how do the various imprints at Action Lab break down?

Cicconi: We have our original Action Lab imprint, which is all-ages content, including books geared toward kids and young adults, up to about PG-13 equivalent style content. At the same time, we now offer all of our mature readers content (for any titles that contain more explicit content or subject matter not suitable for all-ages) through our Danger Zone publishing imprint overseen by Jason Martin.

Jason Martin: Action Lab was dedicated to publishing a full range of content from the get go, but as mentioned, they started to get some recognition in the all-ages space, so to continue offering a full scope of projects, they decided to create a separate line where the more mature content could be free to flourish and not damage the brand they were building with Action Lab proper. Danger Zone is the home for anything that falls into that category, and I came on board to help them continue in that space in 2013.

While the line can certainly house some more radical concepts — take our popular series “Zombie Tramp,” for instance — it’s also the home for more cerebral and challenging concepts, like “Dry Spell” or “Southern Dog.” As with the Action Lab label, the emphasis in Danger Zone is on a diversity and quality of titles.

What do you think marks Action Lab as distinct from other publishers? What provides your X-factor, so to speak?

Pryor: Action Lab has more creators of color than Marvel and DC combined, and promotes great, diverse books not just in character, but in genre. They talk the talk and walk the walk.

Cicconi: With very few exceptions, everyone involved in Action Lab has started as an individual trying to make comics or other content and push it out to the world by themselves. Dave, Jamal and I are artists. Shawn Pryor, Shawn Gabborin, and Kevin Freeman are writers. Even Jim Dietz is and has been a podcaster. Every one of us knows the difficulties of creating this stuff and trying to get it out into the world and to attract an audience.

As a publisher of mainly creator-owned books, we understand what our creators need from a publisher. We’re all lifelong comics readers and fans, so we’re pretty confident we know quality when we see it, and can keep our publishing line filled with creative, intriguing, amazing books.

Dwonch: I feel like we provide a platform for all types of stories to be told. We’re not pigeonholed like a lot of other publishers are. We have the flexibility to tell stories like “Mishka and the Sea Devil,” “Nutmeg” and “Herald,” and we’ve been lucky to get the attention of larger properties like “Puppet Master” and Nickelodeon’s “NFL Rush Zone.” It’s pretty amazing that I can put those last two properties in the same sentence.

Is this something you plan to expand on — bringing more licensed work and comics to Action Lab?

Gabborin: On a personal note, signing “Puppet Master” is huge! I grew up loving these films, so being able to give back to a franchise that helped make me a horror fan is pretty crazy. But I think that is the key to making a licensed comic work. It’s the passion.

I know it’s come up several times already, but it’s the truth of Action Lab. Every book we publish is someone’s passion on a page. Don’t expect to see us pick up random licenses just because they are available, but if we have a creator who has the love for a property (such as myself with “Puppet Master”), then we’ll go for it. It’s a matter of quality over looking to cash in on someone else’s name.

Seaton: We believe that in order to be successful as a company we need to publish great books by great creators in both creator-owned titles as well as licensed properties. The key to success isn’t picking licensed properties or creator-owned titles; it’s publishing great comics by great creators.

What are your priorities now, moving forward? What are the next steps you want to take, as a company?

Dwonch: Same as it always has been, really: limitless storytelling by the best and brightest in the business. We’ve always been a company looking for big ideas. That’s not going to change.

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