Updated: Oct 27, 2021
Perhaps the saddest part of previous reporting of the business dealings between Action Lab and Gordon McLean was our discovery that McLean had funded the book’s creation himself.
With no financial input from Action Lab, McLean financed Supermom: Expecting Trouble by writing it on spec and paying his creative partner on the project, penciller and inker Caio Oliveira, a severely reduced page rate. Speaking to us on Facebook Messenger, Oliveira said, “He used to pay me 50 [US dollars]/page [which] is a very low page rate and he knew it and promised me to raise it in future projects. I didn't mind and agreed, because I really liked that comic.” We also spoke to the book’s colourist (Fahriza Kamaputra) and letterer (Frank Cvetkovic), both via email, where they shared their rates: $45/page for colours, and $10/page for letters on issues one and two, then $15/page on issues three to five.
The money for this rate—which, estimated from the page numbers listed on Comixology, would have amounted to $13,175—came from a bequest after the death of McLean’s supportive uncle David. This was covered in McLean’s his own words on Action Lab’s website, which, though now unavailable, can be seen in screenshots below and is cached on Google. Much of this information was reused for McLean’s promotional post on Bleeding Cool on the day of Supermom’s non-release, as referenced in our initial report.
It has been confirmed through direct contact with these people that neither Kamaputra, Cvetkovic nor Oliveira have been contacted by Action Lab at any time, and have received no money from Action Lab either before or since the digital release of Supermom. These creators also confirmed that Gordon McLean paid them himself, a sum which, again, we estimated to be $13,175, during the creation of Supermom: Expecting Trouble. This book is now wholly managed and financially owned by Action Lab.
Among others, we emailed Action Lab the following questions, and received the following answers (formatted as received):
NAPIER: Did Supermom: Expecting Trouble achieve its print release in December 2019? Did it ever? Why or why not?
ACTION LAB: No, it was held out of respect for the creator by a request made to Action Lab and has never been released.
NAPIER: Did Action Lab communicate this to Gordon McLean at any time? If so, when?
ACTION LAB: No, as the book was held and not released in print after his disappearance. The only communication with Mr. McLean was approximately two weeks prior to his disappearance that the release date was changing. This was all shared with the police.
Further comment has been sought (September 10th), but not yet received.
These answers provide some insight. Firstly, they identify the poor communication skills employed by Action Lab. Their answers are contradictory and vague, and demand to be parsed rather than simply read. Their first answer implies that the print release of Supermom was initially held out of respect to the creator (McLean). But their second answer appears to contradict that notion, as it says that there was communication between Action Lab and McLean two weeks prior to his solicited release date (18th December 2019), and that this contact was about the release date changing—something McLean would not be able to initiate or affect. As we had learnt from contact with other Action Lab creators, discussed later in this article, a changed release date was not unique to McLean’s experience.
Action Lab’s first answer above also allows for confusion over whether any copy of Supermom has ever been released—which is easy to dispel: all five issues and a compiled edition are available for digital purchase on Comixology. They mean that no print copy has ever been released—but they don’t say this effectively. We have pressed for detail regarding the sensitivity of releasing a digital edition over a print one, and received no clarification. When asked how Supermom: Expecting Trouble is performing as a digital property, Action Lab replied “We are not permitted to release this information.” As we were contacting the inbox offered for communication by Action Lab owner Brian Seaton (via ex-Action Lab shareholder Jeremy Whitley), who grants that permission is unclear.
Presumably, the request not to print referred to by Action Lab above came several months after McLean’s disappearance, in Spring of 2020, after Action Lab has already resolicited Supermom: Expecting Trouble issue one (February) and a Supermom: Expecting Trouble collection (for release date May; probably also solicited in February) for print, in Previews.
To follow up on McLean's story, and allegations by other Action Lab creators that they were also similarly mistreated by the company, we spoke to Louis Southard, writer and creator of Villains Seeking Hero and Midnight Western Theatre. The former of these titles was originally contracted for publication with Action Lab, and Southard explained to us how the events that followed echoed McLean's own publishing horror story—which we emphasise:
was the investment of over $13,000 in a book, which
was pulled from its release schedule two weeks before its solicited debut, which
Is a week after pre-orders on that book would have closed, after
apparently minimal marketing effort by the publisher, whose
supportive retail stockists were not informed of that cancellation by his publisher, and
which is now in his absence sold and controlled by a publisher that receives revenue from a book in which
they have invested less than either its contracted creator or its hired creatives.
Southard was 19 years old when his project was bought for publication by Action Lab, in 2019. Like McLean, he funded its creation himself, relying on financial support from family and friends and receiving no advance from Action Lab. Having sold the printing rights to the publisher, Southard expected to see the book published in print. It was not. In correspondence with us, he put his 2020 delayed release dates down to industry shakeup during the pandemic. But, based on other creators' negative experiences, that may not be the case.
McLean’s case, for example, happened in late 2019. David Pepose’s miniseries Going to the Chapel was supposed to finish with a printed issue four on the same date (December 18th, 2019), and didn’t. According to this tweet, Pepose was told in the second week of January 2020 that a medical emergency within Action Lab delayed the printing of his book, despite its files having been complete and, having examined Action Lab’s publishing schedule as it is offered to its creators, almost certainly uploaded to the company’s submissions Dropbox, since May 2019:
Going to the Chapel’s final issue was solicited for December 2019; its first was released in September 2019. This means that the team would have been obliged to have turned in their files four months prior to September—in May. Going to the Chapel is a four-issue mini, meaning, according to the Creators Handbook (pictured above) it would have had to be complete at that point in time (May 2019) for Action Lab to accept and solicit it. So, what happened? Was it Covid that time? This is nigh-impossible, considering the timeline of Covid discovery and spread. Though the virus was discovered thanks to the efforts of doctors in Wuhan, China, and Action Lab’s printing was at least partially taking place in that same nine-and-a-half million square kilometre country by 2019, the odds of Action Lab’s printers being among the forty-one patients discovered between the first of December 2019 and the first of January 2021 are extremely low. They are even lower when one considers that print runs for December releases would, by industry standard, have been completed at least one month prior to their solicited date. Covid would have had to have been actively disabling Action Lab’s specific printers in early November 2019 (weeks before its initial discovery) in order to disrupt December 19th release dates.
While we had contacted Seaton and Action Lab for comment, in a statement to Bleeding Cool published on September 3rd, Seaton said “When the world shut down in March of 2020, we had no idea what was happening. I had been on medical leave since November 2019 and officially resigned from my position of CEO/Publisher of Action Lab in February 2020 for personal health reasons,” making it likely that Seaton’s ill health was the medical emergency that disrupted matters for, at least, Going to the Chapel. However, it was only on the 30th of June 2020 that Lizzy Seaton sent an internal communication to Action Lab creators and staff informing them that Bryan Seaton had decided to “semi-retire” and surrender his roles as CEO/Publisher of Action Lab, though (unstated in the email in question) he retained his Board membership. In this same email she informed relevant parties that Shawn Pryor had also left his Action Lab position on February 1st, 2020. Pryor confirmed this via direct message.
So, perhaps Bryan Seaton, who was serving Action Lab as a founding board member, a Publisher and a CEO at the time, was brought low by ill health in November 2019, and was unable to inform his company’s creators, and was unable to find substitute workers to fill the roles he absented, and that is why Action Lab has experienced print-publishing troubles since that time despite creators delivering their self-funded files well on time. But why isn’t this referred to when Action Lab is approached on the matter? Why isn’t a request for information on the release of a book met with “Unfortunately, due to illness within the company’s management, things were not running well at this time and the book was delayed”? Those questions aside: can it account for the beginning of Action Lab’s problems?
Public archive comments show that Action Lab has been a shambles for a long, long time. “Printing problems” and non-publication of solicited books, as well as trouble with paying creators and creatives (here marking a difference between IP-contracting “creators” who should expect to see royalties eventually and work-for-hire “creatives” who should be paid for work upon delivery) were present throughout 2019 (Raven Pirate Princess), as well as in 2017 (Cougar & Cub), 2016 (Princeless; Raven Pirate Princess), 2015 (Holy F*ck), 2014 (Holy F*ck), and even at least once in 2012, when the situation—a creator having to communicate with his audience that a publisher has been delayed in moving pages from a printer to a binder—is so outlandish that the printing expert we conferred with described the situation as either Action Lab cutting corners or having been misled themselves. Nick Marino’s experience, linked above, is that Action Lab created trade paperbacks by binding together pages printed for single-issue runs, rather than compiling a print file for that collection itself.
We spoke to James Wright, co-creator of Nutmeg, about his 2015 experience of this trend. Wright and his co-creator Jackie Crofts had successfully Kickstarted and published issue one alone, and had subsequently signed a contract with Action Lab to republish that issue and continue the series. He said the troubles he and Crofts had with Action Lab began on a specific date in that year:
“The first big concern arose on March 18, 2015, one week or so before the release date of issue #1. Jackie [Crofts] went to her local shop to check about doing a signing for the next week, only to find that the book was not in fact coming out that day. [...] We were also worried because soon after was Emerald City Comicon in Seattle. We had planned to take 200 copies of that first issue with us to the show—our very first time exhibiting there—and were excited about the opportunity. My first thought was that this was a mixup at Diamond, not ALE, and sent a frantic email to the publisher with my concerns and hopes that they could address it. They ended up rushing a print order, [meaning this was not a Diamond problem, as Diamond does not print, only distributes,] and were able to get the books shipped to our hotel in Seattle for ECCC, but had Jackie not gone to her shop on that Wednesday, we would have gone to a major show with nothing at all to show/sell.
"Over the years, release dates would move and shift without any seeming rhyme or reason. For the longest time, we thought it was just us, but talking to other creators [...] it became clear that it was a company thing, not a creator thing."
Verifying the exact dates for us, Wright found the email he'd sent following Crofts’ discovery. Below is a timeline of events.
Autumn 2013: Crofts and Wright complete their first issue of Nutmeg.
February 8th 2015: Wright inquires with Action Lab about getting books in time for Emerald City Comicon.
February 20th 2015: Wright inquires again after no response.
February 25th 2015: Wright receives an email from Action Lab reading "Last I looked at the schedule, Nutmeg #1 was slated to be in stores on March 25th. If that date is still good [only Action Lab would know if this date were still good], then we should be able to get you your books in time for Emerald City."
Problem Week One, Wednesday: Crofts discovers from a retailer that her book is not coming out next week. Retailers who ordered the book have already noticed that Nutmeg is not on their Diamond invoice, informing them that Diamond has not distributed the book to them. Wright and Crofts email Action Lab, assuming that Diamond have mistakenly left their book unshipped.
Problem Week One, Friday: Last day to order Nutmeg.
Problem Week Two, Wednesday: The book is due to come out! Action Lab’s re-release of this issue was solicited for release on this day. Crofts is due to sign books in store.
Problem Week Two, Friday: Emerald City Comicon begins. Wright and Crofts are due to table. They have paid for their allotted space, and for their attendance fees. They plan to have 200 issues of Nutmeg to sell.
Sometimes, bad luck might befall a publisher. A print run might be delayed; an invoice may be overlooked; a contributor may dislike the terms they agreed to. But Action Lab’s problems have been so various, so constant and so present that bad luck cannot cover it all. Their misfortunes regularly create difficulties for their creators, reducing their capacity to “pay Action Lab back” (cover their project debt and begin receiving royalties), and begin to repay their own sunk costs, and after that make a profit. Its creators have had to bear this. Why? Because many of their contracts are inescapable, so long as Action Lab publishes in any format within a year of contracted delivery of files.
When Covid shut down the US comics system in March 2020, Action Lab changed its strategy with Southard’s book. Instead of his solicited June 2020 print release, April 2020 saw a digital release on Comixology. This was not what Southard had signed with Action Lab for. He said to us, “I was told that the book was put on indefinite hiatus with no guarantee of physical publication,” and that led him to approach Action Lab with a request for the return of his IP.
[Editor's Note: We have updated this paragraph to more accurately represent what happened with regard to the adaptation, as well as the contractual ownership of the IP rights. ML – 10/27/2021] Unfortunately, the Action Lab contract does not allow for this. As per its unamended template, if Action Lab releases a book in any format within one year of a creator delivering the contracted book files, Action Lab is granted perpetual and exclusive rights to the control of that IP, in all formats. The only way for Action Lab to lose perpetual and exclusive rights to publication of that comic book is to subsequently leave it unpublished in any format for one whole year—meaning that so long as it’s available digitally, it cannot be retrieved by its creator. Should Action Lab cease publishing a book for a year and lose the comic book rights to that IP, they retain perpetual and exclusive rights to the IP in other venues where it has been licensed out, for example, in adaptation, merch, and so on. We have heard from one creative team who were directly told by a prospective business partner that their IP was delayed significantly for adaptation because Action Lab’s involvement was considered prohibitive, and Action Lab’s involvement is unchallengeable.
Even though Southard, or any creator, may sign with Action Lab because they believe or are even assured their book will see print, their contract, left unamended, does not guarantee them a print run.
We quote here from the unamended 2018-2020 Action Lab contract (screenshot below) offered to creators prior to negotiations:
"The term of this license is perpetual, so long as Publisher offers the Work for sale in either printed or digital form within 1 year of the signing of this Agreement and the provision of the completed work (including all final comic pages in the format specified by Publisher) by Creators, and continues to offer the Work for sale to the public in either printed or digital form, and continues to make any payments due to the Creators in accord with this agreement.. If Publisher fails to offer the Work for sale to the public within 1 year of the provision of the completed work by Creators, or if at any point after offering the Work for sale to the public, ceases to do so for a period of 1 year, this Agreement and the license granted hereunder will lapse, and all rights will revert to the Creators. [sic]"
We have heard from Wright that he and Crofts did not have the financial security to get a lawyer to look over the contract, or suggest amendments, before they signed it. Other creators have also expressed that they signed this unamended version, or shared copies that feature amendments which failed to fully protect their rights and interests. We will be providing a close reading of this contract in order to exhibit why a hopeful creator would be easily misled by its language.
Southard wished to terminate his contract and retrieve his comic following the non-appearance of physical media and unreliable communication. Action Lab did not feel that this was contractually necessary. If Southard’s contract was unamended, the April digital release, per the paragraph above, entitled Action Lab to ownership in perpetuity—assuming that the contract was not breached otherwise. Currently, creators are considering Action Lab in breach of contract across the board, as several creators involved have expressed publicly and to us specifically that, prior to the September publicity, no financial records have been shared with creators since the third quarter of 2020. We have seen screenshots to support this claim, along with updates which appear to show that Action Lab has been filling in the missing information during September 2021, from a creator who prefers to remain anonymous (the screenshots contain identifying information). Action Lab has not responded to a request for comment. We have seen communication between Nick Marino and Bryan Seaton in which Marino informs Seaton of his opinion that his contract has been breached. Seaton replies “As I have stated, no breach occurred and your contract remains in full force and effect.”
After several months of perseverance by Southard, in October 2020 Action Lab offered him the option of paying an amount, disclosed to us as multiple thousands of dollars, to Seaton, in order to retrieve his intellectual property and copyright. In October 2020, Southard took this option, now being offered to many more Action Lab creators. As Villains Seeking Hero was not printed by Action Lab, and as confirmed to us Southard and his team received no advance, Action Lab cannot be seen to have invested monetarily in the project and yet through their exclusive and perpetual contracting of Southard they gained the sum of this termination fee. They have profited from Southard and his team, and their book. They have profited from work that other people paid for. They have profited from work that the 19- to 20-year-old leading creator was, at least at that point, still out-of-pocket for.
Now, because of his youth, because of his personal backstory—having chosen comics as a post-high school career journey, doing so in the wake of the loss of his father—this is an easily sentimentally condemnable thing. But this would not have been acceptable if they did it to the otherwise luckiest man in the world—and no company that will treat any business partner this way will be able to choose only to deal with the healthy, the robust, the rich, the experienced or the invulnerable. If they proceed in business in this way, they will encounter and damage those who will suffer fiercely for it.
Southard is still in comics—he has even subsequently self-published 18 issues of Villains Seeking Hero on Gumroad. We have identified one creator who is not; Jeremy Whitley put the spotlight on another who had almost given up.
As their unamended contract stands, combined with information within the Action Lab handbook provided to all approved prospective creators, bar the rare-enough-to-advertise “company funded series,” an Action Lab creator or creative team is obliged to fund and complete the creation and covering of at least four issues of, at minimum, a 24-page issue containing 20 story pages, plus the cover of their trade collection, prior to the solicitation of their book. Once that work is delivered, Action Lab contractually claims ownership. At this point, as seen in these examples, poor communication, supply chain problems, unreliable solicitation dates and unforeseen contractual realities become the norm—the inescapable norm. Creators are investing real money and real time into books that they lose all control of. And then thousands more in trying to retrieve their IP. Action Lab are investing...what?
We are awaiting comment from Action Lab. In the meanwhile, here’s another question and response, sent on September 3rd 2021, received on September 9th 2021:
NAPIER: Does Action Lab feel it did sufficient promotion for [Supermom: Expecting Trouble]? Did Action Lab feel Gordon McLean put in the effort to market it?
ACTION LAB: Yes, Our marketing Director at the time worked directly with the creator to develop a marketing plan. Action Lab focuses on marketing to retailers prior to release. If the retailers don't carry the book no amount of public marketing will matter.
The implication, in tandem with the responses shared toward the start of this article, is that retailers did not order Supermom: Expecting Trouble in sufficient numbers to make printing on the initial release date financially viable. This further implies that Pepose’s problem (non-publication on December 19th 2019) and McLean’s problem (non-publication on December 19th 2019) were different ones, happening concurrently: Pepose’s book was delayed in print because of an illness, probably Seaton’s, and McLean’s was delayed because it was not widely ordered.
In truth, this is a baffling answer, for one vital reason: public marketing is what convinces retailers to carry books. That a publisher is arguing the opposite is not only perplexing, it’s frightening. Every comics reader knows the call to preorder, and the reasoning: that if the retailer doesn’t order enough, the publisher will stop backing a series. Publishers market to the public, because the public drives addition to the orders a retailer will take chances on. A publisher marketing only to the retailer relies on the retailer to then market the book directly to their customers, ensuring only a captive audience of regular visitors to the shop will see and sign up to buy that series. Every step of this chain of decisions is a reduction in potential orders.
Action Lab knows all of this. In fact, they mention it in their Creators’ Handbook in both 2014 and 2018. Here’s an excerpt from the more recent of the two [Nicole here is Nicole D’Andria, Marketing Director and Submissions Editor, whose tenure at Action Lab lasted from August 2015 to August 2020]:
This excerpt directly contradicts what Seaton told us. We have asked for clarification on Action Lab’s marketing for this book (September 10th), but Action Lab has yet to comment further. We contacted an array of comic shops over the world, asking them what sort of marketing outreach they have come to expect from Action Lab, and how Action Lab have pursued strong business relationships with them. At time of writing, only six (three British, three American) have replied. We asked what sort of direct marketing outreach and personal relationship building they’ve come to expect from Action Lab. They have all told us either that they received no marketing beyond Action Lab’s collective, template-based press release emails, for which creators write their own blurbs, or that they cannot remember receiving anything further. Stuart Kane, McLean’s friend, who no longer orders Action Lab but had done until McLean’s disappearance, and who had ordered Supermom: Expecting Trouble thanks to McLean’s own marketing efforts:
“They didn't. UK comic advertising pretty much comes solely via Previews magazine from Diamond or from websites like Bleeding Cool etc getting press briefs.
Small shops like mine don't get anything from publishers.”
In our investigation into the Action Lab contract, we noted the passage that contracts Action Lab to “reasonable efforts” in marketing their book. If Action Lab, when questioned, expresses different actions than those intentions asserted in their handbook, and if those intentions are reasoned where the actions are not, one wonders how that responsibility of “reasonable efforts” can be met.
Neither Seaton nor Action Lab have responded to any of our further questions, with dates of asking reaching back into August 2021.
There are many other stories Comic Book Yeti has heard that we have not yet been able to tell. We will continue to post updates as time, research, and journalistic integrity allows.
Additional reporting contributed by Matt Ligeti and Jimmy Gasparo. Additional editorial provided by Kat Overland and Christa Harader. Many thanks to all those consulted for information during the formation of this story.