Dave Dwonch is a man of many hats. Fortunately for comics fans one of them has an image of a Labrador retriever wearing a jetpack. As the Creative Director for Action Lab Comics, Dave not only designed the logo, he’s written, drawn, inked, and lettered, growing the company from a single monthly book to publishing over 20. Dwonch currently inks Ehmm Theory, writes Vamplets, and edits several more books while simultaneously sorting through a wide array of submissions for new material to publish.
“I get as many as 20 submissions a week. What I am trying to decide is what among these has a chance at being successful, what artists and creators can I work with to make these books a success.” Diversity has been a hallmark of this small but nimble publisher whose books range from all-ages titles to adult-driven horror, including the recent acquisition of the Puppet Master license. Diversity is evident not only in the wide array of genres but in the protagonists and the creative teams behind them. (Dwonch is of Italian and Filipino-American background but feels race is not something he weighs as a publisher.)
“Race doesn’t factor into that decision. Take Nutmeg. When I selected Nutmeg I had no idea what James or Jackie looked like, all I knew was the book. I guess you could simply say I have good taste.” Nutmeg is a book he and the creators describe as “Betty and Veronica meets Breaking Bad.” In previews this month, it’s a teen-targeted book focused on two teenage girls.
Which is fitting as the book largely responsible for launching the company – only the second published by Action Lab – was Princeless, by Jeremy Whitley, which also starred two female protagonists and was in part made so that Whitley’s young daughter, who is biracial, could see herself reflected as a princess and as a comic book heroine. That face wasn’t lost on Dwonch: “When Princeless came to me I was like, this book has a great message. It was like nothing else that was being put out there…At that time we were starting Action Lab. It was literally the second book we put out there. It really was the book that launched a thousand ships. After that it became, Action Lab? What’s Action Lab? People had started to realize we were more than just a collection of books but that we published them. We really became the Princeless company.”
And with the success garnered in that first year many artists and writers came knocking on Dwonch’s door. Many were looking to reach the same wide audience that Princeless reached but that by and large is ignored by larger publishers: the elusive all-ages audience. “I think that is the most important thing as a publisher. It is to grow the audience. It is like anything else, as times change things grow out of favor. I think you have to be very clever about the way in which comics are distributed. Kids are smarter than you give them credit for. The truth is I am creative because I read comics as a kid. I am a writer because I read comics as a kid. So we are trying out delivery on iPads and on other platforms and we have a ton of all-ages books and they are all amazing. Planet Gigantic is amazing and we have got Vamplets, Princeless, Molly Danger. The trick is to grow your brand with your audience.”
Dwonch hopes that the return of Princeless to Action Lab’s monthly lineup of tiles with a fresh story and new artistic team will continue the work of keeping new readers engaged and that a new spinoff book will allow their heroines to grow with them. “We have people who started off with Princeless who are getting a bit older and the question is, how do you keep them interested in comics?” Raven, the character introduced in The Pirate Princess, will be much more directed at teen readers as opposed to younger readers. “Jeremy the author of Princeless is going to be able to have his cake and eat it too, and tell stories that he cannot really tell in [a] Princeless new volume, while maintaining the direction that he’s got with Adriane. For me as a creative director I am always looking for those titles that appeal to the teen-plus readers.”
Vamplets certainly falls in the same all-ages category as Princeless; with its reverse macabre spin on baby vampires it is one of the all-ages books that has built upon the audience of new readers and a surprisingly high-profile adult fanbase. As its Twitter background, Action Lab displays an image of Whoopi Goldberg holding a vamplet, and the book was featured on The View. “Whoopi is a huge fan of Vamplets. A huge fan of the toy line and now with the graphic novels as well. We were on The View last month and that has been really huge for us. We also have a number of announcements I cannot share right now but essentially Vamplets is going to be making its way into schools.”
Dwonch explained how he and Action Lab began working on Vamplets by seeking out creator Gail Middleton at a convention. “For people who aren’t in the Pony world they don’t know that Gail Middleton is one of the three holy trinity master designers of My Little Pony. She started out with the Ponies but she wanted to start her own creator-owned thing. In 2011 Action Lab went to Heroescon, my CFO dragged me over to their [the Vamplets] booth. It was this little tiny graveyard and there was a line around the whole display. We ended up taking Gail and her whole team to dinner. Literally by the end of dinner we had already struck a deal to work on the graphic novel series. Gail and I actually work on that together. She knows her world better than anyone, she gives me copious amounts of notes and then I script.”
The script for 2015 at Action Lab also includes expanding into less kid-friendly territory with the publication of the Puppet Master comic based upon the cult classic series of films by Blue Moon Studios. The creative team announced at SDCC last year includes Sean Gaborin who alongside Dwonch was a founder of Action Lab. Both Gaborin and Dwonch were impressed by the world-building in the Puppet Master films and have high expectations for the book. Comics fans seem to share that excitement for all of Action Lab in 2015, having placed the young company’s publishing lineup alongside the big publishers in comics in a recent poll on what companies comics lineup readers were grateful for. That sentiment was shared by Newsarama’s Aaron Duran who described 2015 as the year that Action Lab will enter the big leagues. If that proves true Dwonch will be the one drawing the Action Lab logo with a baseball bat in its mouth, swinging for the fences.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1939352541][amazon template=iframe image&asin=193935241X][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B008NNSCJ2]