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THE KICKSTAND: Swinging into Action with Action Lab

by  in Comic News Comment
THE KICKSTAND: Swinging into Action with Action Lab

I went to the MoCCA Festival in New York on Saturday, and since it is a show geared for indy creators and small publishers, there was a lot of talk about the changing roles of publishers and creators in the era of Kickstarter — a topic I was must musing about in my last Kickstand column.

So when an e-mail came my way about the publisher Action Lab’s Kickstarter to raise money for printing and production of its Danger Zone books, I thought it would be a good opportunity to explore the topic a bit further. How do publishing and Kickstarter fit together? I fired off some questions to Jason Martin, the president of Action Lab: Danger Zone, and David Dwonch, Action Lab’s creative director, about using Kickstarter to cover the costs of doing business.

CBR News: What is the Danger Zone line all about?

Jason Martin: Danger Zone is a new mature readers imprint from Action Lab. Moving forward, any books we publish that aren’t all-ages friendly will be part of this line, which will include any genre of creator-owned comics. So, boundary-pushing, genre-vexing mature readers titles where, just like with Action Lab, the emphasis is on fun quality content.

I saw in an interview that you said you couldn’t put “Princeless,” which is an all-ages comic, next to “Double Jumpers” on the shelf. Why did you choose to create a separate imprint for your adult comics, instead of a special imprint for kids’ comics (which is what most publishers do)?

Dave Dwonch: As we were developing what would become the Danger Zone imprint, it became pretty clear that most of our current library was, for lack of a better term, PG-13 to G-rated. With “Princeless,” “Molly Danger” and some of the licensed work we are doing, it seemed like the right thing to do. In my early conversations with Jason, we definitely compared the shift to DC and DC/Vertigo. When you pick up a book with the Action Lab bullet, you can rest assured that there will be no swearing, gore or excessive violence. In the Danger Zone, all bets are off!

Martin: I’ll just add that I also recently joined with Action Lab, and seemed a natural fit to focus my efforts in this area, having previously run my own Super Real Graphics publishing — which was predominately mature readers. And we’re bringing some of those properties, like “Zombie Tramp,” on board here as well.

Why did you turn to Kickstarter to pay your printing costs? Isn’t that one of the functions of a publisher?

Dwonch: Though we’ve had success and are growing, Action Lab is not a large enough publisher yet to have huge marketing budgets to commit to a new line and still have money for printing and other production costs. Using Kickstarter funds to help defray printing and production costs will free up some of Action Lab’s budget to use for marketing. This will help to build the Danger Zone brand and put more revenue share in the pockets of the creators that took a chance in partnership with Action Lab on a new brand.

Martin: Also, in this transitioning market, we felt that ignoring Kickstarter as a viable new avenue to offer comic book content was a potential missed opportunity to reach a wider audience with these properties. Ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to do: reach as wide an audience as possible for our books.

You’re publishing Jamal Igle’s book, “Molly Danger,” which was funded by a Kickstarter that he ran. Why are you running this Kickstarter rather than having the creators do it? How do you make that decision as to who does what?

Dwonch: Jamal was one creator, raising funds for one book. With the launch of the Danger Zone line, we have multiple creators and multiple books. We felt it would be much easier and less confusing to create one Kickstarter and combine the titles and the efforts of multiple creators as well as our efforts to raise funds, than it would have been to have 6 or 7 smaller Kickstarter projects running at the same time. As the publisher, we coordinated the efforts.

What other things do you do in-house — do you edit the books? Do you do marketing?

Martin: With the majority of Action Lab books being creator-owned, all creative aspects are normally handled by each book’s creative teams. We do, however, offer help with the management of the creation, including editing as well as design and branding. And then yes, of course, Action Lab handles most of the marketing, distribution and all things business related. We’re pretty much as hands off, or hands on, as each book requires in the production stage. Some people want or need more assistance, others not as much. We do what we can to insure the best possible product for all, and have a full team in place to help however needed. That being said we still have limited financial resources compared to larger publishers and I think we do a good job playing on their field. But when it comes to launching a new line of this magnitude, we’re looking for all possible avenues of funding, and that is where Kickstarter can even the field.

Are the works creator-owned? Do you pay advances to your creators, or do they get royalties?

Dwonch: With the exception of our licensed projects, all of the books we publish are creator-owned. Action Lab’s business model does not involve payment of advances. From day one on a book’s production, Action Lab and our creators are in the game together in partnership to produce and market the books. The creators invest their time and effort in producing the books while Action Lab handles production, distribution and marketing, and invests the necessary up-front printing and marketing costs with no financial outlay from the creators. All sales revenues from the first dollar in the door are applied to the books, and once the book recoups its printing and marketing costs, all additional revenue is split between Action Lab and the book’s creator(s), with the creators receiving the lion’s share. Action Lab takes the initial financial risk of investing in production and marketing before sales figures are known, and we do recoup the invested production and marketing costs from sales revenue, but we don’t charge any other “management” or “editing” fees for our work on the projects we release.

Who is your distributor? And where will the comics and graphic novels be available for purchase — direct market, bookstores, digital?

Dwonch: We primarily distribute our printed comics and OGNs through Diamond, of course, but have recently entered the book market and are represented by Atlas Books, so you’ll see our trades popping up in bookstores, too. Digitally, we’re at both ComicsPlus and comiXology, as well as various other digital outlets. We also consider Kickstarter as a way to reach fans in the US and foreign countries we may not have reached otherwise.

How will you give your Kickstarter backers an experience that’s different from simply buying the books in a comics shop?

Dwonch: First, we would encourage our readers to support their local comic shops and preorder the books from them if possible. But if you’re looking for something a little extra, we have a lot of awesome and unique premiums for different levels of support for our Kickstarter.

Martin: In addition to offering unique versions of the books — single issues with special, Kickstarter-only cover art and Kickstarter-only added pages, and graphic novels with exclusive creator-signed tip-in sheets — we’re also offering many unique-to-Kickstarter extras. Every print book also comes with a Kickstarter exclusive fold-out poster, and special advance PDF versions of the books will be delivered only to Kickstarter supporters, prior to the worldwide releases of all the books. Additionally, the poster image is available as a full limited run print, and there are some other one-of-a-kind opportunities, including original artwork we’re making available only for Kickstarter supporters. We truly have worked hard to utilize all that Kickstarter can provide in this regard, above and beyond the direct market versions of these books that will become available elsewhere when the books are released generally later.

From an outsider’s point of view (mine), it looks like Action Lab came out of nowhere and started strong with a real hit in “Princeless.” I know that overnight successes often have a long backstory,so how did Action Lab start out?

Dwonch: For a company so entrenched in the all-ages market, it was an oddly adult beginning. The original conversation that resulted in the idea to form Action Lab took place at the hotel bar at Heroes Con in 2010. The five board members, all comic creators and self-publishers, had a very open, honest talk about the state of our work, our views on the industry, and our plans for the future, and decided we were stronger together than as individuals. So we joined forces, and Action Lab was born. I met Jeremy Whitley, the writer/creator of “Princeless,” at that same show. We exchanged books at the end of the show and months later, I read the original version of “Princeless.” By that time, Action Lab was a going concern,. We were already working on “Fracture,” and I thought a retooled “Princeless” would be a great follow-up. I reached out to Jeremy, and for “Princeless” and Action Lab, the rest is history, as they say. Since that first night at the hotel bar in Charlotte, we’ve been working long and hard to give great books and great creators a chance for success in today’s market.

What issues do you face as a small publisher?

Dwonch: I think two of our biggest issues are funding and support. We have seen some success, and with that comes growth; with growth comes larger production costs, greater marketing expense and new challenges we never imagined in 2010. Shipping, logistics, cash flow, convention planning, file management and workflows for pre-press production — all the stuff that comes with making the leap from a small independent outfit with one or two books to a solid, enduring, and known publisher with a full library of titles. I think we’re standing on the same cliff that every growing publisher has at one time or another. We believe we’re putting out great work. I really believe it’s some of the best being published today, but without retailer and fan support, all our effort is for naught. We honestly do this for the love of the craft, and we want to make sure we can provide a home for people who share our passion for comics in the future.

You financed your first comic, “Fracture,” with Kickstarter. What did you learn from that experience, and what are you doing differently as a result?

Dwonch: We actually launched our entire company off that first Kickstarter! That initial $4,000 for “Fracture” allowed us to produce the book and get it into the Direct Market, which in turn led to our ability to do more books and ended up being the seeds for a year’s worth of books, including “Fracture,” “Princeless,” “Double Jumpers,” “Monsters Are Just Like Us,” “Exo-1,” “Space-Time Condo,” “Snowed In” and “Jack Hammer.” I know it sounds like I’m blowing smoke, but it’s true. We’re looking to do the same with our new imprint and that’s why we’re once again asking for the support of comic fans through Kickstarter.

Dave, I was intrigued to see that you are one of the backers of this Kickstarter. Why are you backing it — shouldn’t you be the one collecting the money?

Dwonch: The long answer is that I will always put my money where my mouth is and I believe in what we are doing. I’ve even commissioned some of the reward artwork out of my own pocket. The short answer is I wanted a T-shirt with that awesome logo!

If Kickstarter didn’t exist, would you be able to do this?

Dwonch: Make comics? Sure. I think it’s pretty clear that we all love making them, and I don’t think any of us will ever stop. Like I said, we launched an entire line of books in 2011 from a Kickstarter. Would we have been able to start Action Lab, expand our line as quickly as we did, and give the world “Princeless” without that first Kickstarter support? I’m not so sure.

What will you do if the Kickstarter fails to raise the money you need?

Martin: We’re committed to these books, and these creators. As long as the fans support them via comic book shops and pre-orders, they’ll continue to come out. They may come out more slowly and with more targeted marketing, but we will publish them. That being said, we believe strongly that Danger Zone, and its full line-up has a much better chance of overall success with some initial crowd-funding support — but it doesn’t go away without it. The simple truth of the direct market is, it’s really tough for any new title to find its place, and tools like Kickstarter can increase the odds of quality works getting in front of the wider audience they deserve. We don’t feel we can ignore the potential new and growing avenue for distribution that Kickstarter represents.

Conversely, what will you do with the extra money if you raise more than your goal?

Martin: All of the funds raised by the Kickstarter will be applied directly to each participating book’s bottom line, regardless of the final amount raised. All of the Danger Zone creators who are working with us for this Kickstarter project will see their books receive proportionate percentages of the funding received, as determined by the premium selections, book by book. The more successful the Kickstarter is, the more successful the line and all of its creators will be. We feel it truly is a win-win scenario.

With that said, I’d just like to ask your readers to take a few minutes to look over the Kickstarter, and all of the books that are part of the line. It’s a diverse line-up of styles and genres, all with exciting and engaging content that most anyone could find and enjoy. If you see something you like, you can sign up for some of the unique items on the Kickstarter, or let your comic shop retailers know to order you the books as they come out in the direct market starting next month!

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about Danger Zone, and please keep your eyes peeled for these amazing books!

In my last Kickstand column, I editorialized in favor of using Kickstarter funds to pay creators, and I’m happy to say that three of this week’s picks involve some sort of direct compensation to creators.

Off*Beat Vols 1-2, Chromatic Press Editions

What’s the big idea? This Kickstarter will fund new editions of the first two volumes of Jen Lee Quick’s original English language (OEL) manga “Off*Beat.” Quick is currently working on the third and final volume, which will be serialized in a new digital magazine, “Sparkler,” before going to print.

Moving force: Chromatic Press, founded by a quartet of manga and anime professionals: Lianne Sentar, Rebecca Scobie, Jill Astley, and former Tokyopop editor Lillian Diaz-Pryzybl. I spoke to them about their new initiative in February.

Selling point: “Off*Beat” mixes light yaoi drama with a bit of Harriet the Spy: Teenager Tory is the sort of kid who likes to observe the world around him — and take notes. When a new neighbor moves in nearby, he takes perhaps too much of an interest, but something odd does seem to be going on. Quick’s art is manga-lite, clear and easily readable, and she beautifully delineates the characters and the setting.

Premiums: An invisible hug for a buck, wallpaper for $5… The first comic tier is $12, which gets you the e-book editions of the first two volumes, and the cost of the pair in print is $35. The Chromatic folks are up-front about the fact that this Kickstarter is for pre-orders; Kickstarter backers won’t get special editions, but they will get the books ahead of everyone else. Plus there are bookmarks, posters, the usual assortment, and subscriptions to”Sparkler.” For aspiring creators, a critique of your work by Diaz-Pryzbyl is a bargain at $275.

This caught my eye: “After/if we clear our financial goal of $7,000, any additional funds we raise (minus Kickstarter fees and retail value of awarded rewards, etc.) will be split, with half going right back into the launch of Sparkler Monthly, and the other half going into a bonus check for Jen Lee Quick herself. So your extra dollars are literally going into more Off*Beat, not the pockets of any editors running away to the beaches of Aruba!” I heartily approve of paying the creator, especially to create the next book in the series. That’s better than a personalized bookplate!

Goal: $7,000.

Deadline: May 3.

Dracula: Son of the Dragon

What’s the big idea? This will the first volume of a four-volume historical/fantasy comics series chronicling how Vlad the Impaler went from bloodthirsty prince to blood-sucking vampire.

Moving force: Writer Mark Sable, whose oeuvre includes work for Marvel and DC as well as several creator-owned comics, including “Graveyard of Empires” (Image) and “Unthinkable” (BOOM! Studios). The artist for the project is Salgood Sam (Max Douglas).

Selling point: They had me at “Salgood Sam.” The art samples are amazing. But I think what will tip the balance for many people is the variety of choices, from digital to black-and-white ashcan to severely limited collector’s edition.

Premiums: This Kickstarter offers backers a variety of reading experiences at different reward levels. The $15 reward includes a subscription to Salgood Sam’s digital magazine, RevolveR, which will carry this story along with several other serials. For $26, there’s a black-and-white ashcan of the whole 60-page first volume, plus 30 pages of additional material; the ashcan is a Kickstarter exclusive. For $40, you get a first-run printing of the color edition, which will be a paperback. The creators get into the speculator/collector space at the $75 level with a limited-edition leatherette edition (plus a digital edition so you don’t have to degrade the book by actually reading it), and for the extreme collector, there is a $300 leather-bound edition, limited to just ten copies, with a calfskin cut-out cover. Two of these have sold so far. Sable and Sam will also write you into the comic, critique your work, and create works based on your ideas at different levels.

This caught my eye: “These first editions of Dracula: Son of the Dragon will be self-published by Salgood Sam’s, using local artisans for the hand-made limited editions, and CreateSpace/Amazon for the trade-paperbacks.” Local artisans! Also, a portion of the proceeds will go directly to Sam to pay him for his art.

Goal: $14,000.

Deadline: April 17.


What’s the big idea? A 100-page, black and white graphic novel about a firefighter who must come back from a serious injury.

Moving force: Mario Candelaria, a Brooklyn-born writer and comedian, and Karl Slominski, who studied at the Joe Kubert School.

Selling point: Firefighters are just naturally interesting, because they are ordinary (non-superpowered) humans who face extreme danger on the job, and Slominski’s art, while a bit heavy on the blacks, has a dynamic feel to it that really brings across the sense of danger in a fire.

Premiums: $10 for a digital copy of the book, $25 for a print edition. There’s also a Kickstarter-exclusive poster, original art, and your likeness in the book — the standard array. And for $350, Candelaria will take you to dinner and the Comedy Cellar during New York Comic Con.

This caught my eye: Part of the money will go toward a professional comics editor, which seems like an excellent idea for a self-published book. An editor can help make a story stronger and also catch small errors, like the usage error (“eminent” instead of “imminent”) that I spotted in the sample pages. They also plan to hire a PR firm to promote the comic.

Goal: $5,500.

Deadline: April 27.

Bingo Baby

What’s the big idea? A 72-page, full color graphic novel created by young artists and writers, using a “story game” to develop characters and dialogue collaboratively. It’s not really clear what the story is about, but it’s set in a small town and seems involves five adults and a baby. And bingo.

Moving force: Jason Lutes, adjunct professor of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. The five creators are all recent graduates.

Selling point: I could say “the opportunity to support young creators,” but from the looks of the sample page, this is no charity case. The story is original, the art looks great, and the price is right. There’s a T-shirt, too, and the top pledge of $100 gets you a piece of original art by Lutes as well. All the premium levels are named after bingo calls.

Premiums: A digital copy is $3, digital plus print copy is $25. For $30 they throw in a copy of the rulebook to the game they used to create the story.

This caught my eye: “Please note that we are not saying that a story created through this sort of collaboration is inherently better than one created by a single person, but our experience has shown us that it is clearly different, in cool and unexpected ways.” Lutes has formed a group called “penny lantern” to pursue collaborative comics. It’s also worth noting that Lutes, the five creators, the game maker and penny lantern will share in the proceeds after all costs are paid: “We believe that cartoonists who create good work should be compensated for that work; if you agree, please consider kicking in an extra buck or two!”

Goal: $7,000.

Deadline: April 27.

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