Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover: The Action Lab Conundrum
Middle school cookie dealers, hockey stick wielding magical girl vigilantes, princesses who don’t need saving, a space demon slaying comic retailer, and a time travelling chef who cooks prehistoric creatures. Action Lab is making comics you should be reading… so why aren’t you?
The “Action Lab Conundrum,” as I call it, is one I’ve become more or less obsessed with since I started a part time job in a London comic shop. After years as a fan, I finally had my dream day job to support my writing career.
One quiet day, I picked up Mia Goodwin’s outstanding Tomboy. The book follows a teenager who, after losing a close friend, undertakes a magical girl transformation into a totally badass vigilante. It became one of my favourite books, and I quickly read the first volume of Princeless, also drawn by Goodwin. Which, soon after its release, became Action Lab’s most critically successful book; nominated for two Eisner awards and winning all three of the Glyphs it was nominated for.
Princeless is a kids’ (or all-ages) comic, and another massively progressive concept for comics. Goodwin (later replaced by artist Emily Martin) and Jeremy Whitley tell the story of Adrienne, a princess with no time for gender stereotypes or other people’s expectations. On her 16th birthday, locked in a tower, Adrienne decides she’s going to save herself. Princeless gained Action Lab international attention and acclaim, as it rightly should have.
A couple of years later, creators James F. Wright and Jackie Crofts were kickstarting a project for an incredible book which would become another standout Action Lab title: Nutmeg. Breaking Bad with teen girls and baking, instead of old men and crystal meth? Yes, please. The first issue debuted at Action Lab in 2015 to critical acclaim, and fan love.
For over five years, whilst other publishers have been playing catch up, Action Lab has been actively publishing and championing books by female creators and creators of colour. So with a diverse roster of creators, a focus on female led books, and wonderful storytelling and art, why are Action Lab not at the forefront of what many are calling “The New Golden Age of Comics?”
This is where the interesting dichotomy between Action Lab and their mature imprint Action Lab:Danger Zone (which, in fact, publishes the wonderful Tomboy) comes in. Action Lab is predominantly an all ages publisher, putting out some of the most exciting and creatively diverse books out there. In my opinion, Danger Zone is doing the same thing with great, exciting, intelligent, progressive, female led books like Tomboy, Holy F*ck, and Vampblade. Holy F*ck subverts gender roles and action movie tropes at every turn, with a take-no-prisoners female lead and a queer male romance at the center of their story. In Vampblade, our protagonist—a female comic retailer—turns into a living metatext on “bad girl” comics after she accidentally invokes the spirit of a 90s cult character.
Even with great books like these, there’s one thing that Action Lab:Danger Zone is widely known for: their notorious “Risque” covers.
Now a few years ago I suffered a comic book burnout that left me reading nothing but over-thumbed Love and Rockets trades and whatever comics my friends were making at the time. A lifetime of being a woman in comics fandom had taken its toll. Though I would still visit my favourite shops and read webcomics, traditional modern comic books had lost me. Discovering the wave of mainstream progressive books such as Ms Marvel, Young Avengers, and the like gave me a way back into comics. I quickly found that there was an entirely new movement of creators at the forefront actively trying to change the landscape of the industry. It was beautiful.
The changing shape of the comics market has everything to do with the “Action Lab Conundrum”. It’s all about how publishers make comics for new readers who’ve never been interested in or seen comics as a safe space. Or more likely for long time fans who’ve never felt represented in the thing that they love so much, all whilst still appealing to what has long been seen (incorrectly) as the default audience for comics: Men. Now there are many more layers to lack of representation and wide appeal than a gender binary divide, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll stick with that description. Sadly, the very basic and damaging answer to that seems to be: Sexy women.
I have no problem with sexy women. I love them. I enjoy cheesecake, erotica, and a high number of generally saucy comics—like, as mentioned, Vampblade. Where I begin to take issue is when companies use female sexuality as nothing more than a marketing tool. This is where Action Lab: Danger Zone’s risque covers seem to fall, primarily used on the imprint’s two most popular creator owned books, Zombie Tramp and Vampblade. The covers are essentially pin-ups that always feature some kind of “explicit” content, usually bare breasts with nipples. Whether or not a breast should be explicit is a question with a very simple answer: NO. But these covers define them that way. Of course it’s interesting to look back on the controversy around the Saga breastfeeding cover, and the absolute acceptance of monthly comics with sexy naked teenage girl boobs on them; Action Lab didn’t create this problem. It perpetuates it.
The prevalence and notoriety of these covers means that there are large numbers of readers who will never pick up an Action Lab book, as the definition between the two imprints isn’t widely recognised. Even if it were, these covers mean many will miss the amazing books that Danger Zone are actually putting out. One of the most interesting factors of the problem is that for the most part these variant covers aren’t even representative of the interiors of the books. So though these books may sell relatively well within a certain market, they are missing out on a whole audience of people who might otherwise buy the books for their content, rather than for a questionable gimmick.
In my opinion the best example of this wasted opportunity is Vampblade, a spin off from one of Action Lab: Danger Zone’s biggest selling books, Zombie Tramp. Zombie Tramp is a convention hit which quickly became Danger Zone’s flagship title. Vampblade is actually a fantastic, satirical, meta commentary on 90s cheesecake, which also happens to be super sexy and mad gory. It follows a sarcastic Lying Cat t-shirt wearing comics retailer who accidentally gets possessed by the spirit of a 90s cheesecake heroine called Vampblade. As a woman who grew up trying to convince herself Witchblade was good, this book heavily appealed to me. Yet I didn’t actually read it until the Vampblade Vol 1 collection was released—as the covers consistently put me off.
It wasn’t always that way. I used to pick up any comic book I could just because I loved the medium. Lack of representation wasn’t something that occurred to me often, while growing up white, as obviously there was a constant flow of characters with whom I shared whiteness, even if they weren’t the same gender as me. But by the time I was 12, I had begun to venture away from books with, coincidentally, relatively diverse rosters of characters such as the X-Men and Love and Rockets. That’s when I started to realise there was a representation problem in comics and comic book fandom.
After years of erasure it finally feels like there’s a general acceptance of women making up almost half of comic readership. With this in mind I think Action Lab: Danger Zone is missing a trick by not marketing their books to people other than a regressive, archetypal idea of men. I’m in no way saying that all these mature titles will be for everyone. But there’s something so archaic and disingenuous about assuming the only people who can appreciate female sexuality are men. With this way of thinking, Action Lab is actually doing itself, its creators, and its potential fans a disservice.
I still haven’t come up with a way to resolve this conundrum, which in recent days has become all the more complex. Working as a retailer, you often meet creators in store for signings or just visiting whilst they’re in town. Sometimes you’ll make friends with them, and sometimes you’ll even end up collaborating. Which is how I’ve come [after turning in the first draft of this piece at WWAC —Ed.] to write backups for an upcoming Action Lab: Danger Zone book, from the creators of Holy F*ck. This is obviously a huge and exciting opportunity for me as a writer, and even as a fan. I love Nick and Daniel’s stories, and it will be my first work on a (non self) published comic.
After all of my thoughts and interest in Action Lab as a reader and a retailer, I now have a chance to see how things work from the inside, and maybe even change them. We already have a planned variant scheme that subverts the “Risque” cover trend. Not only am I getting to finally create comics but I’m doing it in an actively changing industry. Creators are finally starting to represent their readership, and there’s a constant challenge to the status quo of what comics are and who they are for.
Yet the Action Lab Conundrum still persists, and in a way it’s a perfect microcosm of the current state of comics. The desperate pull of the old proven method of marketing to an exclusive base of readers versus the exciting yet seemingly risky potential of embracing an emerging and inclusive readership. But the big question is: Can a modern comic book company survive whilst catering to both audiences without risking either?