“The superhero genre is a cavern almost completely excavated of anything of value. It is very difficult to discern any glimmers of gold left in the dark. So much of the material, with its parameters of good against evil, superpowers, ritualised combat, and fetished costumes, has been sifted through and sorted to such an extent that comic book readers, including your reviewer, has turned away to other genres for veins of originality.
It is this context which makes Supermom: Expecting Trouble #1 such an interesting find.”
Gordon McLean, award-winning Scottish comic book writer of the well-received Supermom: Expecting Trouble and sadly unfinished horror project, Dark Tidings, is still missing. He has been missing from his loved ones since December 17, and was last seen on video, as reported in January by John Freeman at DownTheTubes on December 18, 2019. Gordon’s disappearance has been covered in various British news outlets and is verifiable.
On that day, Gordon McLean was also “seen” online, as the author of a scheduled promotional piece on comics and entertainment tabloid, Bleeding Cool. This article introduced Supermom to prospective readers and stood as a statement from McLean about his intentions and inspirations. It informs us that he wished to glorify his main character and her motherhood as an expression of gratitude toward his own mother, who at that time was recently deceased. It recounts how McLean used a bequest from his uncle, also recently deceased but in life always supportive of his comic book writing, to pay the artist for the comic. The comic was due to be published that day by Action Lab.
According to Stuart Kane, owner of two Big Dog Books shops and friend of Gordon McLean, Supermom was not released on December 18, 2019. He says on Twitter that Action Lab “[…] decided that the book didn’t have enough preorders and had shelved it, but never told Gordon.” His thread indicates that Gordon went missing on the day the first issue was to be released, implying a connection. The missing persons case remains unsolved at this time.
I decided to test the allegations in Kane’s thread in order to examine Action Lab’s conduct as a publisher and Supermom as its casualty.
1: Did Supermom: Expecting Trouble achieve its print release?
Bleeding Cool reports Supermom as having been published on the day McLean’s promotional piece ran on their site, quote: “On the 16th of December, Mclean wrote a piece for Bleeding Cool highlighting his new comic book, which we ran on the 18th of December, the same day that the comic was published by Action Lab Entertainment.” However, they provide no evidence (why would they?) and can reasonably be assumed to be making an assumption.
Checking the Action Lab website, monthly solicitations for issues one to five are locatable, listing release dates from December to April, supporting the idea that the book should have come out and that non-release was anomalous: why continue to solicit a whole miniseries if it’s already cancelled from month one?
This perplexing tweet says you can pre-order issue #1 with an alternate cover… in February 2020, well after the print issue was supposed to be out and a month before the digital issue hit Comixology. Comixology does not offer a variant cover for its digital issue one. There are several more tweets from Action Lab in early February encouraging people to order their favoured cover of issue one with a Diamond code originally in use in October 2019, when issue one was in its scheduled pre-order phase.
Having consulted with Kane, a retailer, on what the reuse of an October order number would mean in February, he said, “Usually if something is re-advertised like that then the original Previews code is discontinued to make sure that orders aren’t split or lost with people using the wrong code. Variant covers always have a different code so that’s not unusual in itself, but to have the old code on while pushing a new one is very strange. At best it shows a lack of coordination and planning, and [at] worst it’s outright unprofessionalism and a total lack of care for their own books.”
Every issue of Supermom: Expecting Trouble was released simultaneously, digitally, on Comixology, on March 11, 2020. That’s the month that the fourth of the five issues should have been released in print—telling us that it’s very likely the digital release replaced the print one entirely. On this platform, incidentally, every issue is rated four out of five stars. The digital collection, rated five stars, was released on Comixology on the 25th of March 2020.
On Forbidden Planet’s website, the first four individual issues of Supermom are listed as “Discontinued”—as an Action Lab book, it’s unlikely to be a sellout property, suggesting that stock is unavailable there because stock never existed. However, issue 5 is listed as only “Currently unavailable,” with a “Subscribe and save” option that appears to be automatically added to the most recent book in a series’ number. A back-issue price is offered for #5 from the series page but is not functional when followed.
This Diamond sales sheet, which lists a softcover and its price in pounds, features a ship date of the 25th of May 2020.
MyComicShop.com lists the publication date for the trade as June 2020, the trade collection as out of stock, and has not updated their page for it to reflect a finalised cover. Supposition: A print run of volume one was offered to retailers from March for shipping in May and release in June, but rescinded for unknown reasons.
There’s a listing for a “Paperback” collection of Supermon: Expecting Trouble collecting issues 1-5 on Amazon.co.uk and .com with a release date of 21st July 2020. However, the “paperback” purchase option is absent and only the Kindle release is purchasable from this product page.
Running a Google search for “Supermom Expecting trouble publication date” retrieves the following banner result, referring to “volume 1”—a collected edition—from sources unknown:
There are no copies of Supermom: Expecting Trouble available on eBay, though four other comics with some variation of “Supermom” in their title do appear.
Conclusion: probably not. We cannot find evidence that it did.
Subsequent to the completion of this research, I was contacted by Kane who made the following statement:
“I knew it wasn’t coming out because it wasn’t on my Diamond invoice. I had confirmed the [P]reviews order for it as usual, and checked it in the FOCs. When the invoice came through on the Tuesday morning though there was [no] listing for the book. I called Diamond who said that they hadn’t received shipment of it from Action Lab, but at that time [Wednesday December 18th 2019] had no more information. I called Gordon to ask him what was going on as he was doing promo for it that [d]ay and left a message but never spoke to him. There was no contact from him for a few days and then as it got closer to Christmas his family began to phone around looking for him.
“It was well into January before we knew for sure that he had found out the book wasn’t being published, this was confirmed to me by the police but I have no more proof than that. It seems I was the first to tell him it wasn’t on the invoices though and he contacted Action Lab from there.
“Again, a lot of this later info came to me by way of the Police officers on his case so I can’t corroborate it beyond that, but I have no reason to doubt them.”
2: Did Action Lab do sufficient promotion for this comic? Did Gordon McLean put in the effort to market it?
Gordon McLean’s digital outreach is evident. His public pitch PDF is still downloadable and his website is comprehensive—the ten-page preview is still accessible. Here’s one example of his forum outreach. Here’s another. Here’s a third. His tweets were regular and informative. His involvement in writers’ groups achieved goodwill and enjoyment of his stories. He wrote for Bleeding Cool, which a lot of comics industry people read, about why his comic would be enjoyable and some emotive reasons for supporting it.
Action Lab’s website features an article extremely similar to the one McLean produced for Bleeding Cool, published two months earlier. The bulk of the piece is a first-person testimonial from McLean. This writing also includes the fact that McLean used his dead uncle’s money to pay the line artist for this book, so apparently, they aren’t ashamed of that aspect of their business plan.
Action Lab put out some tweets telling their followers to pre-order Supermom: Expecting Trouble during the months a Diamond distribution ordering period would cover for a December to April monthly release schedule. In October, they tweeted about pre-ordering issue one six times. In November, they tweeted sixteen times, telling followers to pre-order issue two and issue three. In early December, they tweeted three times, telling followers to pre-order issue three. Following December 9th, they did not mention Supermom until February, when, as mentioned above, they resumed their promotion for variant covers of issue one. In February 2020 they tweeted a link to this positive review. After February the 10th, there’s a tweet break until March the 5th, advertising the Comixology digital release (which, as stated, does not include variant covers).
From the beginning of the period that Action Lab was tweeting about Supermom in earnest and it was available to buy and read, McLean had been missing for three and a half months.
Until the middle of April, there was a fairly steady promotion of Supermom: Expecting Trouble as a digital comic. Since the middle of April 2020, Action Lab has not tweeted about Supermom: Expecting Trouble—and neither has anyone else, except for one happy reader who wants to see it made into a cartoon.
One of the few retweets they did was this one, which loops in McLean’s abandoned Twitter handle.
The WWAC editors’ inbox archive contains few emails from September to December 2019, but it does retain evidence of Action Lab outreach for the series Going to the Chapel and Spencer and Locke. Supermom: Expecting Trouble does not feature.
Conclusion: Uncertain and hard to verify. In the absence of a copy of their contract, what counts as “sufficient” is up to you.
3. Did Supermom: Expecting Trouble deserve to be allowed to sink—does it look reasonable for Action Lab to have neglected publicising or publishing this completed comic?
Having a finished miniseries to play with is a great position for a publisher to be in. There will be no production delays from the creative team—everything is ready.
This review gives it a ten out of ten. The review quoted at the start of this report is comparably positive. The one linked in the preceding paragraph, likewise. The only numbered review pulled on ComicBookRoundup has since been deleted, but gave it a strong seven. Reading the preview pages, it’s clear why positive reviews were forthcoming. Publisher’s Weekly gave it a lower ball, but certainly no panning.
Artist Caio Oliveira has 14.5k followers on twitter. He tweets in Portuguese, suggesting a large secondary market available for the book.
Conclusion: I see no reason why this book should be underserved in marketing, or its creator left unsupported. It appears to be a successful digital book and something Action Lab had to extend little support in producing.
4. Did Action Lab support the creation of this comic in any way?
No. Writer Gordon McLean paid Caio Oliveira, the artist, for his work. Oliveira, speaking to me via Messenger, confirmed that he took a low page rate of $50 due to his knowledge of McLean’s low budget and his own belief in the project. Oliveira has not heard from Action Lab nor received payment from them following the successful release of Supermom: Expecting Trouble on the digital platform Comixology.
5. Why would Action Lab receive any ire for being the publisher of someone who went missing?
Action Lab have built up a great deal of professional ire with a reputation as the publishers of people who do not own their creations, cannot leave Action Lab with their creations, have to spend their own money to achieve publication via Action Lab, and receive sub-standard professional interactions and administration from Action Lab. These may well explain why the publisher’s association with a man’s disappearance shortly before his family celebrated Christmas would enrage a creative community.
Let’s look at some of those allegations, from reputable creatives speaking on Twitter in the first few days of September:
Doug Wood, a comic writer who, as a disabled creative, is already underserved by the scene, began:
“I think we need call out @ActionLab.
Bad contracts, soliciting books they never deliver on, not paying and ghosting on communications is not acceptable for a publisher distributed through Diamond.
If you have been affected don’t let them win respond below so everyone can see.”
Doug Wood wrote (well-reviewed) Leap M with Action Lab, published in August 2020.
Jarred Luján, who wrote (well-reviewed) Crash & Troy with them, published this summer, replied:
“Four release dates and no book. Keep getting given excuses but we know of plenty others whose books haven’t released. Wouldn’t let us walk with a book they have failed to do anything with after 9 months.”
The day prior, Luján had tweeted “The reason people like the shady folks at Action Lab succeed at their grift is that everyone is afraid of saying something because we all know it could damage our long term career in comics if we are labelled as ‘difficult.’ I don’t give a shit tho.” (Editor’s note: Luján has since heard back from Action Labs and been given a dollar amount needed to buy back the rights to his series.)
It’s my opinion that this is incorrect: plenty of people have said plenty of things about Action Lab that were negative and accurate. I believe the reason that they continue to get away with their approach to the business of comics is that they aren’t big enough for those people saying those things to have echoed widely enough: they have benefitted from being a small publisher who seems like a great foothold, who new creators will think “nobody talks too much about.” It’s just that every time someone starts a wave of kerfuffle about it, more people have had their noses honked on than had previously. So every wave is bigger and bigger, until eventually, the Lab begins to leak.
Jeremy Whitley, writer of the surprisingly—for Action Lab—popular (and well-reviewed) Princeless and Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess, chimed in unexpectedly:
“Let me be transparent with all of y’all, I’ve been through this exact problem as have other folks. Others were able to get out, unfortunately the long tail of Princeless has made it impossible for me. But tweeting at them isn’t gonna do anything. Look when they last tweeted.”
Whitley offered an Action Lab email for complaints by creators’ followers, but later rescinded that address and replaced it with another, apparently having been in contact with an Action Lab administrator:
“Let’s try again. He gave me the wrong email: I have been asked to pass on that any creator with an outstanding Action Lab book that they have issues with including publishing and payment should email the following email to get those issues addressed: email@example.com”
Over the years, Whitley has been becoming more transparent over his issues with Action Lab. In June of 2020, he said, “I know there is a perception from some folks that Princeless is massively successful. I can assure you that under Action Lab not only has it not paid the bills, but I haven’t gotten a paycheck that I didn’t have to chase down off them in years.” That same day, he elaborated:
“Looking through #ComicsPaidMe I can’t continue in good conscience without saying this:
Action Lab contracted with people to work on Raven: Pirate Princess for me. Action Lab then told them that they wouldn’t be paid until books were released.
And have delayed them for a year.”
In January of that year, he had hinted at that problem—the one Kane alleged for Supermom: Expecting Trouble—the non-publication of completed and solicited books.
“Volume 9 of Raven is already finished as well, though considering Action Lab’s somewhat erratic release schedule, I can’s say for sure when it will be out until a week or two before hand. Right now it’s scheduled for comic shops in late March, soooo hopefully then at the latest[.]”
More tweets from Whitley regarding Action Lab can be read at your leisure.
Chris Fenoglio and Chris Northrop spoke about going unpaid as colourists:
“I did colors for a book they were trying to license (NFL Action Zone). It was early in my career, so I didn’t mimd [mind] the low pay so long as I had a foot in the door. When I finished, I tried to chat with the editor about paying me, and he [completely] ghosted me.” —Fenoglio
“They owe me for colors for 3 issues of Zombie Tramp. Completely ghosted me. DURRING [sic] THE HEIGHT OF THE PANDEMIC. Never paid me for them. I took a job at a real book publisher. Living my best life now. @ActionLab where is my money?” —Northrop (Editor’s note: This does not appear to be related to the now-settled lawsuit between Action Lab and Dan Mendoza, which was settled this year.)
Tom Rogers offered a mathematical explanation of how his professional dealing with Action Lab has left him sore:
“Regarding Action Lab Comics
On Herald: Lovecraft & Tesla, I have drawn (pencils/inks) a total of 264 interior pages, 15 covers (and colored 7 pages + 1 cover)
Over the span of its entire publication, I have been paid $4972.73 for the aforementioned art.
If you want to average that out, this means I made an average of $17.82/page (lumping in the covers but not including the color work.) How did this happen, you may ask? Well, for the first 3 volumes, we were working on a royalties-only basis. (NEVER doing this again.) So for the first 3 freaking books, I made only $1372.73
For the fourth book, after voicing our unhappiness, we were able to finally get page rates (with less of the royalty percentage as a trade-off.) My page rate was $50/interior page, $75/cover. So I made $3600 on the last volume.
I should also mention that all of these payments were hugely delayed and communication from our editors was a rarity. For volume 4, I thought I could get paid after completing my work, but I was told that I had to wait until the book came out so Action could recoup its cost. Long story short, for Volume 4, I had to wait until January of 2020 to get fully paid for work I’d completed by August 2018.
Way back in July of 2015, I DID see a lawyer (a good one, recommended by the Helioscope guys) to see if there was a way to get out of our contract and get the rights back. Unfortunately, due to the way the contract is worded, a legal battle might be necessary to escape. We decided as a team that a legal battle would be too costly.”
Boo Rudetoons has a story with similar allegations:
“I drew a bunch of covers for them and then they stopped paying. I had to expose this publically on social media and threaten to sue them for what they contractually owed me to get them to pay up. I don’t know how people like them don’t get smacked by some artists.”
Louis Southard’s story is tinged pinker by his youth at the time:
“I was 19 when I signed up with ALE to publish my comic book “Villains Seeking Hero”.
It remains my greatest regret in my career thus far to watch that company turn a project I loved into a book dead on arrival.”
John J. Peréz spoke about his project, ARCHON:
“I paid for the first issue myself incurring about 5-6k of debt. With interest it ballooned to almost 10k. We thought sales would at least supplement costs, but it never materialized. Sheets explaining income mysteriously vanish with every new accountant. It’s shady as all hell.” (Editor’s note: Perez received a buyback price for Archon two days after tweeting.)
He shares own his theory as to why these practices continue and this company remains:
“Which brings me to my final point: how they keep getting away with this. The answer is… all of us.
Comics has fetishized the concept of being “published.” Editors, journalists, readers and even fellow creators obsess over that stupid trademarked publisher logo on a book cover. Action Lab knows that, and preys on starry-eyed new creators, acting like they have finally made it. Their contracts are garbage and once they have directed all Amazon and Comixology revenue to their bank account you will never hear from them again. They bet on apathy.”
Peréz also feels that Action Lab is contributing to dangers faced by his team within the industry:
“Recently I reached out to have them to request a digital credits change for two of our creators who now have different given names. I felt it both a respect and safety concern. They immediately ghosted me and referred me to some corporate email which they never check.”
Jules Rivera’s cunning contract avoidance method described on Twitter and then expanded upon in an email method might not work for man. She alleged:
“My experience with Action Lab is fairly tame compared to others I’ve heard. All they did to me was not pay me for a few small gigs I did for them back in 2012 for the Princeless Anthology and then sign me to a book contract that never went anywhere. I signed my contract for Misfortune High in 2015. I had asked for an advance to be put into the contract because I can’t make a book for free. Their words were “we don’t pay advances.” I had waited to see if after signing my book contract if any help would come from the publisher in terms of marketing. Help did not come. They didn’t even bother to poke me about any impending deadlines for the book. So of course the book didn’t happen. I can’t make a book for free. How could I finish a book on top of a pile of freelance deadlines I had to make just to pay the rent?
I hung my hopes on a company that I thought valued diversity and faces that looked like mine. I thought Action Lab wanted to sell all-ages books to children of color. That turned out to be a lie. Action Lab eventually became the publisher of zombie titties. Not exactly the place I could bring up my all-ages high school magic story. I watched for years as Action Lab ground through good creators only to stiff them or ask them to do exploitative amounts of work they never intended to compensate.”
Nick Marino’s thread is comprehensive and readable, and it begins like this:
“i published three comics with action lab from 2014-2017. it was a steady downward slide that went from tolerable to terrible.
action lab is awful at accounting, awful at communicating, and awful at printing/shipping on time.
i’ve never received a single penny from them.”
Let’s return to our questions.
- Did Supermom: Expecting Trouble achieve its print release?
- Did Action Lab do sufficient promotion for this comic? Did Gordon McLean put in the effort to market it?
- Did Supermom: Expecting Trouble deserve to be allowed to sink—does it look reasonable for Action Lab to have neglected publicising or publishing this completed comic?
- Did Action Lab support the creation of this comic in any way?
Whether or not you feel they’re sufficiently answered, let’s try a new set.
Having read the testimony of allegations from an array of creators ex-of and still-at Action Lab, should we assume that Supermom DID achieve its print release, either initially or at any point?
Can we assume that Action Lab supported its book or its creator? Can we assume Action Lab has the health of their contributing creatives in mind, in a way that is acceptable for our industry and our communities? Can we see the point of a publisher that does not support the creation, creators, or solicited release of their books in any way?
If we know that Action Lab contracts are inescapable in storied ways, that their contracts are demonstrably predatory, and that they have a history of not printing books and not informing hard-at-marketing creators of their non-delivery, can we believe and understand that a man who spent bereavement money on paying an artist for a book a publisher swallowed up might take a notable mental health hit? McLean was moving from independent, amateur comics creation to the professional level, being published by a company that runs solicits in Previews and ships via Diamond. Whether or not he was “an employee,” he was working to make them money—working for them. This was his workplace, and this is how he suffered in it.
Can we tolerate these conditions for the workers who create our medium?
As this report has been in editorial, several of the creators quoted above have been open about their contact with Action Lab over the latter’s surrendering of their creative rights and ownership. No tweets seen by myself have mentioned discussion over backpay, owed money, or anything more than Action Lab allowing the purchase of book inventory from themselves by the creatives who wish their rights to be surrendered to them—a repeat of years past, when Mike R. Martin’s leadership of disgruntled Action Lab creators was disintegrated as he was allowed to buy, per our source, an estimated $6500 worth of his own books from th epublisher and receive his rights as a bonus gift. Martin has been contacted for comment and did not respond by the time this piece was filed. Action Lab have been contacted for comment and have not responded as this report evolves.
We are in longer contact with several of the individual creators, and subsequent coverage may be expected.