[Welcome to The One-Shot, a new ongoing series of profiles of top newsmakers at various comics companies. This month, we look at the people behind up-and-coming publisher Action Lab.]
On a recent Thursday, Kevin Freeman had his office door shut as he answered questions about Action Lab Entertainment. While he is president of the young comics company, now in its fourth year, he’s also a professor and serves as chair of the political science and public administration department at University of North Carolina Pembroke. Dr. Freeman, you might call him, is teaching and working with faculty by day, and managing book projects and distribution through Diamond Comics Distributors – during his free time and on the weekends. As evidenced by the company’s recent success and future plans, it’s an impressive balancing act.
“I’m really just the guy who tries to coordinate everything and make sure we’re running as a well-oiled machine,” he said, taking a call with PW. “I also have a four-year-old that I have to manage as well.”
With Freeman at the helm, Action Lab Entertainment publishes a mix of all-ages and adult comics, the latter of which are stamped with the Action Line: Danger Zone seal of approval. The company was launched in 2010 by a group of independent creators looking for a change in the industry. Writer Shawn Pryor was president, and the company’s first mark of success was a Kickstarter campaign for the superheroic series Fracture, created by Shawn Gabborin, Chad Cicconi and Dave Dwonch, whose campaign surpassed its $3,600 goal in January 2011. In 2012, the company’s now-flagship title Princeless, about a young princess tired of waiting to be rescued, saw two Eisner nominations – for “Best Single Issue” and “Best Publication for Kids ages 8-12.”
Flash forward to today. Freeman is president, and creator Jason Martin serves as president of the Action Lab: Danger Zone imprint, which publishes such mature stories as The Final Plague, Zombie Tramp and Martin’s own Night of the 80’s Undead. Though they share a title, Martin’s role is a bit different than Freeman’s. “I’m really the Danger Zone jack of all trades, overseeing production, creative direction, editing, and shaping of the line … the bulk of which is wrangling deadlines, creators, and content,” Martin said, calling from Portland. “And lots and lots of email.
“There are times my creative demands usurp my day to day company tasks, but primarily, the Danger Zone work takes up the bulk of my time,” Martin added. “It’s a bit of a balancing act! And I’d very much like to carve out more time to get back to drawing some of my own stuff too.”
Before Martin and Freeman led the company, Freeman spent seven years as managing editor of the all-ages comics publisher Ape Entertainment, later joining Action Lab as managing editor. Shifting his focus, Pryor is now vice president of digital media management, with Gabborin, Cicconi and Dwonch working as editorial and creative executives. Colleen Boyd heads up submissions, and well-known creator Jamal Igle, who releases his Molly Danger series through Action Lab, and Kelly Dale serve co-directors of marketing. Location-wise, the company’s key staff spans the country – from New York to California. Dropbox, for file sharing, and reliable Internet connections are essential to production.
“We have two meeting a week on Skype, and we try to compartmentalize those meetings,” Freeman said. “We have a creators meetings, where we talk about new submissions; and we have a digital meeting, which helps us determine which books are coming out and when. Once a month, we have a meeting with everyone at the same time to talk about the state of the company and directions we’re going in.”
This year, Action Lab is moving in the direction of releasing eight to 10 issues a month, with digital downloads at 99 cents via Comixology, My Digital Comics, Drive Thru Comics and its own site. Freeman doesn’t want the company to grow too big too quickly, lest it stretch itself too thin. He also doesn’t want many book delays, something the company tries to combat with a production policy. “Creators are creators. Editors are editors, and sometimes it’s difficult to get everyone on the same page. You have to be flexible with scheduling. One of the things we do to try to correct is that is, when we agree to publish a miniseries, we want the entire series to be in before we solicit (for distribution). In the event that a project is running late, really the only people who know are us. That creates a little bit of regularity for the retailers. That was a valuable lesson I learned at Ape.”
One company-wide goal at Action Lab, Freeman and Martin agreed, is to get more connected with retailers in 2014. Freeman says Igle is stepping up PR initiatives, while Dale is making contact with retailers and sending out packets of books.
“We’re seeing slow and steady growth in our numbers,” Freeman reflected of the company’s sales performance. “When you’re a publisher that doesn’t have an established track record, getting your foot in the door and collecting market shares is very hard. You have to work very diligently at the beginning to advertise and market so retailers and reviewers can see firsthand what quality you can put out. We’re struggling with that, but we’re making progress.”
That progress might include more releases from established creators. Igle is continuing Molly Danger, and Ray Height, known for his work through Marvel Comics, is set to release his Midnight Tiger series, another Kickstarter success, through Action Lab in May. Meanwhile, Martin says Danger Zone is stepping up its production schedule.
“We published 9 series last year, and have just as many planned through the first half of this year,” Martin says. “So it’s taking what we learned and building on that. While Action Lab is still essentially fighting for market share, the quality of our titles across the board is rock solid, and we have lots of budding efforts and developments to leverage and make strides with going forward.”