Monthly Archives January 2012

Interview: Jessica Chobot of G4 and IGN – Part 1

jessica chobot of g4 and ign

Few have mastered the art of smart-meets-fun tech and videogame reporting like Jessica Chobot. After a tongue-in-cheek photo of Chobot licking a Sony PSP went viral in 2005, she caught the attention of gaming site IGN, known for its authoritative reviews but less for its video content. That would change, as Chobot – an anime, videogame and tech nerd of the highest degree – became a writer and on-air host for the site, shepherding The Daily Fix, IGN Strategize and Weekly ‘Wood to high popularity. Transitioning to videogame/tech TV channel G4 last year, Chobot has emerged as one of the station’s rising stars, bringing her wry sense of humor and genuine enthusiasm to programs like Proving Ground as well as on-the-street reporting. Fresh from CES, Chobot recently spoke with Flightpath about her early days at IGN, the evolution of her in-front-of-the-camera style, and why a refrigerator was one of the highlights of CES.

Flightpath: When you started at IGN, I remember as a fan, it seemed like they threw you right into the fire doing hosting and event coverage and writing.

Jessica Chobot: The writing part wasn’t so bad. Looking back on it now, I realize that I was not nearly as good as I thought I was at the time. I’m kind of ashamed of what I wrote, actually. [Laughs] But you know, you always have to start somewhere. And that’s actually what I really wanted to do, was to be a writer/games reviewer for the site. However, I was only kind of doing it as a freelancer, and strictly for a paid section of our site, IGN Insider. So it was a pretty light gig, but I was still doing that out of Michigan at the time. And I wanted a full-time job at IGN. So, I told them what my goals were and that if they ever had any openings to call me, and they finally did. The opening though, was to do game reviews for cell phone games. And at the time, smartphones hadn’t come out yet. They weren’t really on the horizon any time soon.

Flightpath: So these were like the Pong versions of today’s mobile games.

Jessica Chobot: Oh, very, very basic games like Snake and things of that nature. Any game that went above and beyond just that, it was a worthy effort but they were never very good. And I didn’t like them, and I didn’t want to do that. Those were not games that I wanted to review, so I went ahead and said no thank you, and then hung up with them and realized, “Oh God, that was a huge mistake. I probably should have just said, ‘I’ll take it,’ and get over there – get over there being go to California – and work my way through the ranks.” So I called them back about 30 minutes later after the first phone call and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about it and I’d love to revisit this conversation, because it sounds like a great opportunity.” And they were like, “Sorry, it’s gone,” and then basically hung up on me.

And then for a week I was just crushed, because I thought I’d pissed away my opportunity to get out of Michigan and to do something within the videogame world. About a week later, a different person from IGN called me and said, “Hey, we’re looking to start doing videos and we need a host. Would you be interested?” I absolutely hated being on camera. I’m used to it now – I still get nervous now, but I know what to expect and how to control it. But at the time, I’d never done anything even remotely like hosting or being on camera and trying to make it sound natural and all that stuff. But I just kinda said, “Yeah,” just to get my foot in the door, and I wasn’t going to make the same mistake that I did with the first offer. So I accepted the position, moved out to California, and just did the whole sink-or-swim thing, and managed to swim pretty decently. If you look back at the stuff when I first started, I have a really thick mid-Western accent, you can tell that I’m really nervous, and it was very amateur hour. But it was good, because it was amateur hour for IGN too. They’d never had a video team before, and so over the next four to five years, we grew and learned how to do all of that stuff together. So yeah, it was one of those trial by fire moments, and it worked out. [Laughs] I got really lucky.

Flightpath: And as that took off, was it hard to enjoy games like you used to, as you got more and more entrenched in the industry?

Jessica Chobot: Yes and no. Yes, in the fact that there’s so much coming out all the time, and there’s so much news coming out all the time. I feel currently too, that I go through stages where I feel overwhelmed and want nothing to do with games. But at the end of the day, that is what I love. I love this job, I love videogames, I love the people that work within the industry; I love everything about it. I always come back to sitting down and playing and really getting invested in it. The one thing I have learned though, is that to keep myself from getting burnt out as often, I only try and play the games that I really, really like.  I’ll play a little bit of everything, but I really focus on the types of games that speak to me as a gamer, and that helps to keep me from feeling like it’s just this never-ending beat down of titles.  So it actually worked out to my advantage – getting a job as host at IGN – because if I was to be an editor, I would have to play everything all the way through, no matter what. And so now I have to know what’s going on, but I get a little bit more freedom to be able to focus on the things that I like.

Flightpath: After you became a host, you eventually developed this style of being very funny but also informative, and that’s carried over to what you’re doing with G4. Is that something you wanted to achieve or did it just come naturally?

Jessica Chobot: You know, I think practice makes perfect, so in that sense, it was something I wanted to achieve. I would watch all of my shows and see the things I didn’t like and try to fix them while I was doing it. But also, I’m kind of a big goofball. That part comes naturally. I have no problem making fun of myself, and I have no problem making fun of others, and I have no problem having them making fun of me! And I actually find that that is the best way to approach it, because at the end of the day, this industry is fun. It’s all about fun. You can get philosophical about it – it makes billions of dollars, blah blah blah. You can talk about all the dry stuff, but at its core, it’s about playing games. And for me, I find that having a sense of humor and approaching things with a serious eye but a light-hearted attitude is the best way to make it entertaining for myself and for others.

jessica chobot

Flightpath: You just covered CES for G4. What was the coolest thing you saw?

Jessica Chobot: That’s tough. I really liked the Toshiba glasses-free 3D [television]. They’ve got it set up where it’s finally starting to make sense to try and have it as your own personal home entertainment. Basically, what they’ve done is made it so that up to six people can sit in a room and watch 3D. Granted, those six are still locked in a fixed position so that the 3D is best for them. But if you wanted to watch 3D with a group of friends, you can.

That’s really cool, but the thing that really struck a chord with me is that they have a camera built into the frame of the TV that has facial-recognition [technology]. So if you want to watch 3D just by yourself, you flick a little switch, the camera locks on to your face and tracks you around the room. So you can see 3D no matter where on the couch you are, [and] you’re no longer stuck in that one spot, without glasses. To me, that is really finally going down that road where I see it as something I would want to pick up.

I liked a lot of the TVs. [Laughs] Samsung has a Super OLED smart TV. They didn’t give us a time for when it was getting released or cost. But it’s super super sharp, super beautiful. The colors are amazing. And because it’s a smart TV, it has facial recognition, voice recognition, and it also tracks your movement. So you really truly do not ever have to hold or screw around with a remote. You can do everything through voice or through gesture. They said that the facial recognition is good enough that if you select a group of preferences – let’s say you watch a lot of X-Play – if you sit down in the room and turn on the TV, it will recognize that it’s you sitting there and will pull that up as one of your preferences. So to me, that’s pretty outstanding.

Flightpath: Unless you live with your twin. Then, it could be a problem.

Jessica Chobot: Yeah, I forgot to ask if they’ve tested it with twins or not. [Laughs] I didn’t do that. But that’s very sharp. I should do that next time.

So the TVs really impressed me, and this also was the first year I covered a home appliance. LG has this fridge called the Blast Chiller, and it can perfectly cool a can of soda or any kind of 12 ounce beverage in five minutes. It does two cans in eight minutes and it does a bottle of wine in eight minutes. They did a demo there, and it really is perfect.

Flightpath: I was wondering about the refrigerator. Because when I saw that, I was like, “I don’t know if this is the best thing or the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. I can’t figure it out.”

Jessica Chobot: I mean, I don’t know how often you would use it. I think the bottle of wine thing, that would make sense to me. I don’t know how often I would use it for a soda, because you know, I go shopping and instinctively put my soda in the fridge. I guess if you want one right off the bat, that would work. But then by the time you go to your second or third soda, it’s fine. [Laughs]

Flightpath: It’s also like, it’s just soda. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Jessica Chobot: Yeah. [Laughs] It’s good to go.

Flightpath: And what was the dumbest thing you saw?

Jessica Chobot: We actually didn’t waste our time covering the dumbest thing. I pretty much was shuttled from one spot to another spot as far as what we were going to cover, so I didn’t really have a lot of exploration. But I’m sure there’s plenty of dumb things out there. From previous CES’s past that I attended through IGN, I remember there being a lot of really unnecessary Nintendo Wii third party controller attachments.

Flightpath: Like a tennis racket shell that does nothing.

Jessica Chobot: Yes, like tennis rackets or boxing gloves or golf clubs. Just dumb stuff that maybe if you have a kid you could justify it that way, but I can’t imagine that anybody cared about those things.

Flightpath: I think my parents might have bought them all.

Jessica Chobot: Oh, gosh! The tennis rackets too? No! That’s a shame.

Flightpath: I was not going to ask you any PSP-lick questions, because I know you’re probably sick of that.

Jessica Chobot: [Laughs]

Flightpath: But my boss said to me, “I was watching G4 last night and saw Jessica Chobot at CES. And there were a bunch of guys standing around her, chanting for her to lick the PS Vita.” He was confused because he has no idea about the origin of it. I just think it’s funny, because now there’s been enough distance where people like my boss might see references to the PSP thing, but not know where it comes from. Now it’s this whole other thing of, “Why is this happening?”

Jessica Chobot: Yeah. It’s been a long time since that first happened. That’s weird, I’ve never thought about it from the perspective of people that might just find out about me now, and are like, “What is the deal?” It’s just an inside joke for those that have followed me for the last five or six years.

It’s kind of like my hit ’80s single at this point. It is what it is, and it’s gonna both follow me and potentially haunt me for the rest of my days. [Laughs] And that’s fine. At the end of the day, it’s a meme. I think it’s kinda awesome.

Be sure to come back on Thursday for part 2 of our interview with Jessica Chobot!

Mobile App Review: The Vinyl District – iPhone & Android

The Vinyl District logo

Welcome to the latest installment of Flightpath’s running series of mobile app reviews, where we explore all different kinds of apps, both paid and free. Today we’re looking at an app designed for those who still prefer to buy their music on wax and support local shops.

The App: The Vinyl District

The Platform: iPhone and Android

How Much: Free

The Deal: I’ve talked a lot here in the past about my love of music and vinyl. Even as I stopped listening to CDs the way I used to, I never completely jumped on the MP3 bandwagon because I always valued having a collection. When I realized how much I missed record shopping and just enjoying music at home, I started listening to vinyl. I quickly fell in love with everything about it – the art, the sound, and the shopping. But that’s all getting harder to do as record stores continue to disappear. Thus, I was thrilled when I came across The Vinyl District, a record store locator app.

The Vinyl District app screenshot

Features: The Vinyl District has a simple interface highlighting its main features: a blog, a list of nearby record stores based on your current location, and social interactivity. Click over to the second navigation screen, and there’s a record fair locator, contact form and profile options.

The Vinyl District app blog posts

What We Think/Like: Excellent. The Vinyl District is meant for one thing – to point you in the direction of nearby record stores – and it accomplishes that with aplomb. The design is clean, making for easy navigation and use. In seconds, you do indeed have a list of the closest record stores to your current location. Click on one from the list, and you can view its location on a map, get directions and read reviews on Yelp. All the other content – a smart blog designed specifically for mobile devices, the social component and the awesome record fair listings – is just gravy.

The Vinyl District app record stores list

What’s Missing: For what I wanted from this app, not much. I’d be hesitant to suggest additions, because the app has a straightforward mission and the fact that it doesn’t bother with any superfluous features is a positive. If anything, some customization would be nice – being able to favorite a store, receive updates if nearby shops are running sales or having an in-store appearance, etc. But otherwise, it’s not missing much.

Overall: If you love records and you don’t want to see record stores disappear, this app is a worthy download. It may introduce you to stores you didn’t know existed, and maybe you’ll (re)discover the fun of finding that Holy Grail of an album you’ve been hunting for years.

Grade: A

Pinterest for Brands and Marketers: Opportunity Awaits

If you have an interest in marketing to women online, then you have an interest in Pinterest.

Pinterest is a site that allows users to create and share “pinboards”. Pinboards are photo collages of images users find around the web or create themselves all focused around a certain theme. Users typically create multiple pinboards which are shared with their Pinterest followers. Users can comment on photos within pinboards and also “repin” photos to their own pinboards.

Visits to Pinterest surpassed Google+ and MySpace in the week ending 1/21/2012 making it the 7th most popular social networking site, though Pinterest is invite-only.

Source: Hitwise US

The site has grown organically as users are allowed to send invites to friends and family. There is also a months long waiting list on Pinterest for people who do not have a friend with an available invite.

One indicator of Pinterest’s popularity is their Facebook page. Pinterest created the Facebook page, but never posted any content. Instead the Facebook community has used the Pinterest Facebook wall as a place to post pleas for Pinterest invites which are fulfilled by other Facebook users. Without a single post from Pinterest, the Facebook page has garnered over 680,000 likes.

Pinterest has been embraced by women. According to Hitwise Pinterest users are 58% female and has a large representation of users who live in states that don’t usually lead the way in early adoption of social networking platforms like Utah, Idaho and Alabama.

Source: Experian Hitwise

Pinterest has gained a following among women ages 25-44 around topics of food, DIY, fashion and crafts. This is the elusive “household decision maker” demographic, the consumers who brands are working hard to connect with on Facebook, Twitter and through blogger outreach.

Marketers are always trying to reach consumers in the moment when their intent to purchase forms. This is what Pinterest does best, allowing people to create photo collage boards of their aspirations and intentions such as products they want to buy or recipes they would like to cook. However, there are very few brands using Pinterest to market their products.

One of the earliest brands on Pinterest was Nordstrom who has created seasonal wishlist boards and trends boards. Nordstrom has over 7,000 followers on Pinterest. Lands’ End Canvas has also jumped on Pinterest. During the holiday season, they created one of the first brand sponsored Pinterest contests called “Pin It to Win It”. Lands’ End posted rules and put out the call for entries on their Facebook page for fans to create boards of their products and then submit the link to their board via email.

Pinterest has a list of guidelines called “Pin Etiquette” that requests users not use Pinterest purely as a tool for self-promotion. However, there are no specific guidelines for the use of Pinterest by brands. This is a great opportunity for brands to experiment and find what resonates with this audience without the restrictions they find on more established social networking sites like Facebook.

In addition to creating a contest or Pinterest account on behalf of a brand, there is another way to encourage users to share brand messaging and products on Pinterest. The “Pin It” Pinterest button can be added to a brand’s website to encourage sharing of product images on Pinterest. Instructions for doing so can be found here on the Pinterest site.

Pinterest is the site to watch in 2012, it will be interesting to see if the site’s traffic continues to grow and how brands use the site for to promote products and messaging.

Interview: Ethan Nicolle, Co-Creator of Axe Cop – Part 2

Ethan and Malachai Nicolle

In the conclusion of our two-part interview (in case you missed part 1, you can find it here) with comic book artist and writer Ethan Nicolle, co-creator of Axe Cop and creator of Bearmageddon, we discuss his younger brother’s inevitable growing up and what that means for Axe Cop, why playtime isn’t much fun to talk about, and how Bearmageddon – an awesome mashup of B-movie horror, comic book action and smart comedy – still has heartfelt, real-life sentiment.

Flightpath: You mentioned in the commentary during the first Axe Cop trade paperback that at a certain point, Malachai is going to reach an age where he’s a little more conscious of the comic and he’s going to change, like all kids do. Do you think Axe Cop will continue through that, or do you see it coming to an end when the innocent way it’s created can no longer be?

Ethan Nicolle: Yeah, I don’t know. I think one fun aspect of Axe Cop has been that Malachai is constantly changing. Every time I talk to him to come up with new stories, he’s on a whole different kick. He’s grown up a bit more, he’s thinking about different things, his mind is rapidly developing. So I mean, even Axe Cop today is not the same Axe Cop he was two years ago when we created him. [Laughs] It’s fascinating to see Axe Cop mature.

I’m just kind of wide open to whatever. We probably will take a break here and there, and we’ve kind of been taking a break. I’m working on Axe Cop material I got from him back in April, I got a bunch of material for a new miniseries and stuff. So we talk on the phone maybe once or twice a month, and that’s about all we do together on it right now. It’s all me drawing all the stuff that we got.

Yeah, so I don’t know what comes next. We’ll feel it out. At some point we’ll go, “You know, this is kind of tired. So we should give it a rest or shut the door.”

Ask Axe Cop #2Flightpath: The Internet can sometimes be an ugly place in terms of comments and people trolling. There’s a lot of positivity around Axe Cop, but I’m sure you get the occasional jerk. I’m guessing you can take it, but do you shield Malachai from that?

Ethan Nicolle: He hardly ever even reads comments. He doesn’t even get why people want to sit there and talk about it. Once an episode is done, he’s done and on to the next thing. A lot of people want to interview him, and he doesn’t say much when they interview him, because he doesn’t understand why you want to sit there and talk about it when you’re done.

He just sees it as playtime. So if you play with a kid, and then two days later you go, “Let’s talk about playtime the other day. What made you think about that? How’d you come up with that?” It’s like, “What? Why don’t we just keep playing? Why do we have to talk about it?” [Laughs] I don’t think that’s even on his radar right now.

There’s an occasional curmudgeon on the Internet that freaks out and writes a blog about how stupid Axe Cop is and how he hates kids, and the guy just usually looks so ridiculous. He just looks so miserable – the person that writes it is always a guy – he just looks so angry, you kind of feel sorry for him. And usually there’s always a big reaction from people defending Axe Cop, which is great, but not required. So I mean, it happens every once in awhile, but I’ve actually been impressed. I don’t know if we’ve had any trolls on axecop.com. I don’t think we really have. There’s been a couple of people who’ve used bad language and I just deleted the comment. But other than that, people have been really respectful and I’ve been really impressed.

Flightpath: As it’s gotten more successful, I’m guessing a whole other set of responsibilities have come your way – merchandising and marketing.

Ethan Nicolle: That’s one of the tough things. I can only put so much time into that. I might be able to accomplish more if I could clone myself. One thing that’s definitely helped has been that I now have a licensing company, Surge Licensing. They did all the licensing on the Ninja Turtles originally, and they’re huge Axe Cop fans, they love it. They’ve gotten a few things off the ground – they got a Halloween costume made, some tee-shirt deals, and the big thing that we got recently was Munchkin Axe Cop from Steve Jackson Games. It was really successful, and they said it was one of their bestselling Munchkin games. That’s been awesome.

My online store is something that started out of necessity. I was dirt poor, I had no job when Axe Cop hit. I had had two jobs, and I had been laid off from both in the same week, about a month earlier. It’s really what made me able to dive into Axe Cop as a job, because even though it was getting tons of exposure, no one was paying anything for it.

Flightpath: Is there any chance we might see Axe Cop action figures at some point?

Ethan Nicolle: We’ve come close a couple of times. You’d think at the point we’ve gotten, that you’re gonna see something. There’s nothing for sure right now, but I just feel like there’s gotta be eventually. I mean, it’s an easy action figure, right? [Laughs]

Flightpath: Just take one of the old C.O.P.S. toys

Ethan Nicolle: Yeah, just take a C.O.P.S. toy, slap an axe in his hand. We’ve actually had fans make them, and one guy at Comic Con gave one to Malachai at our panel. He still has it and was playing with it at Christmas.

Flightpath: What have you found in terms of monetary support from people who read your comics online? I noticed you have a college fund for Malachai.

Ethan Nicolle: You know, I’d have to talk to my dad, because he gets all the money directly for Malachai on that. I could always check, but I just never do. I don’t think it’s a ton, but it’s a little bit of money here and there. On Bearmageddon I put up “donate and get a free wallpaper,” and I’ve actually been impressed. They have the option of $1, $5 or $10, and the majority have been $5 and $10 donations. That’s really impressed me. We’ve probably had around 50 donations, and most of them have not been $1. There’s a thankfulness that people have online. A certain group are very kind.

Flightpath: And what comes next for Axe Cop?

Ethan Nicolle: There’s a third volume of Axe Cop coming out – I think it’s at the end of February – so I’m looking forward to that. It’s another collection of the online stuff. And then the new Axe Cop miniseries, which I’m working on right now, starts coming out in July. It’s called Axe Cop: President of the World, and it’s funny because we didn’t plan it out, but it’s going to be during the election. [Laughs]

Flightpath: You also have Bearmageddon going right now, and I’m curious how you approach creating a webcomic like that, because it’s one continuous story and not standalone stories.

Ethan Nicolle: It’s actually a script that I wrote. So I wrote the entire story out in film script format, and then I’m doing chunks of pages at a time. I’m working on basically three projects right now. I’m working on Axe Cop the webcomic, then I’m working on the new Axe Cop print-exclusive series that’s a follow-up to Bad Guy Earth, the other one we did with Dark Horse. And then I’m also doing Bearmageddon. I’ll just do a group of pages from each one at a time, and try and keep ahead of all of them, as much as I can. [Laughs]

BearmageddonFlightpath: People should know that Bearmageddon is really not like Axe Cop. It shares certain sensibilities in that it’s funny and it’s violent, but it’s more an adult story.

Ethan Nicolle: Yeah, it’s not for kids. Malachai’s a little mad at me that I’m making a project he can’t read. [Laughs]

Flightpath: What are the plans for Bearmageddon? Will it be going for a long time? Will there be print versions as well?

Ethan Nicolle: It’ll go as long as it takes to tell the story. Depending on how long it is, I might release it in two volumes, or I’ll just release it in one. I haven’t even talked to a publisher at this point because it’s still so early. My guess is that it’s gonna be around 200 to 250 pages. So it’ll still be awhile, because I’m only doing two pages a week.

Flightpath: I noticed in a lot of your work, including Bearmageddon, that there’s a real blend of humor, action and gore. What’s that informed by? What did you enjoy as a kid growing up?

Ethan Nicolle: I grew up on Ninja Turtles and stuff like that, but I did get into independent comics. I was a big fan of SLG [Publishing]. I’ve always had a thing for cheesy movies – Mystery Science Theater, I got into really big-time when I was younger, and that was kind of my gateway drug in getting into really bad movies on my own. I love the really bad violent movies, that are just over-the-top crazy. Stuff like Dead Alive, that are so violent and could never happen in real life. That kind of thing is hilarious to me. I guess I’ve always liked the combination of action/comedy, and I like action/comedy/horror too, which is a genre that I don’t think has been done a whole bunch. Shaun of the Dead is probably the best example. Ghostbusters is good. I like being a little more light-hearted, but still getting to have monsters. Just all the stuff that I love in entertainment. I love action and I love monsters, and I like to laugh.

Flightpath: Not that I know you [Laughs], but there are some elements of Bearmageddon that seem like they could be autobiographical. Particularly the relationship between Joel and his little brother. They seem to have a very warm relationship.

Ethan Nicolle: Yeah, that, for sure. In fact, I think I even wrote a pretty heartfelt blog on Bearmageddon, on one of those pages where he’s talking to the little brother. I was always the oldest brother in my family. I have three brothers total, plus I have two little sisters. And my brothers always looked up to me, and they always treated me like I was a hero of some sort, even if I never deserved it. Before I was ever any sort of success, they treated me like I was already. So it’s special to me, and I see it more now. As I’ve grown up, I look back and go, “Man, I didn’t even appreciate it as a big brother when I was younger.”

Flightpath: Ken, the store manager of Wow Mart, is my favorite character. I just love his put-downs; he seems like he could be a Mr. Show character. Will he be making a return?

Ethan Nicolle: [Laughs] Yes. We will be returning to Wow Mart eventually.

Flightpath: It seems like things have worked out for you in that you’re getting to do webcomics, release a print version later, and also make original graphic novels.

Ethan Nicolle: Yeah, and I always have the book in mind when I make my comics. I’m always thinking ahead to the book. So even if I go, “You know what, this episode is going to be kind of a dud today. It’s not going to be very exciting for people to read this,” I’m thinking ahead to the book. Because that’s going to ultimately be the more important audience. You want it to work more in the book than you do one day on the website.

That was one thought that I had when originally I decided to do webcomics. I went, “You know, there’s a good chance I could expand my audience by a bunch of people. But also there’s a good chance that a bunch of those people won’t buy the book even though they read it for free online. But just say like 10 percent of those people buy the book – it’s probably gonna be a pretty good deal.”

Interview: Ethan Nicolle, Co-Creator of Axe Cop – Part 1

Ethan and Malachai Nicolle

Axe Cop, Avocado Soldier and Uni-Baby. They don’t sound like the names of traditional comic book characters, but then, there’s nothing traditional about the bizarre-yet-brilliant webcomic in which they appear. Launched in 2010 to massive viral success, Axe Cop stars, true to its name, an axe-wielding police officer in adventures featuring vampire ninjas, a T-Rex with Gatling guns for arms, and a female Abraham Lincoln. It is crazy, hilarious stuff, making for one of the most original and downright fun comics in years – online or in print. And if it sounds like it comes from the mind of a child, that’s because it does: Axe Cop is written by 7-year-old Malachai Nicolle and illustrated by his older brother, the Eisner-nominated artist Ethan Nicolle, whose gifts for straight-faced humor, action and storytelling help make the comic so effective. In part one of our two-part interview with the elder Nicolle – also creator of the excellent new Bearmageddon horror/comedy webcomic – we discuss how Axe Cop came to be, how it quickly went viral, and the origins of some particularly strange story details.

Flightpath: I know you were doing creator-owned print comics like Chumble Spuzz before Axe Cop. What led from that to launching a webcomic with Axe Cop?

Ethan Nicolle: Well, I got into comics before the Internet was a big thing. I was in high school still, and the Internet hit when I was around 15 or 16. So, I always thought the way into comics was through a publisher. You gotta get them to print your book, and then they gotta sell it for you. I was always working towards that goal, and I finally accomplished it with SLG Publishing, with my book Chumble Spuzz. I realized that after all that work, they finally print your book and they put it back on a little shelf in the back corner of a comic book store, and very few people are willing to go back and spend the money to actually buy that book and check it out. And I started realizing that my goal wasn’t to make money off that bat like that, my goal was to build an audience; and if I just want people to read it, why not just put it on the Internet? I had planned to do my next book that way, which was Bearmageddon, but then I wasn’t sure how to go about doing a webcomic.

So I wanted to do a practice run first, and I had these Axe Cop comics that I created over Christmas with my brother. We were playing and Malachai wanted to play “Axe Cop,” because he had been given a toy fireman axe but wanted to fight bad guys. As we played, the first episode of Axe Cop happened and it was so funny, I drew it. I ended up drawing the first four episodes during that visit. We were like, “Well, we’ll just throw these up online and make kind of a quick website.” Just to test the functionality and see how people react to the way that we lay it out and everything.

I could never have foreseen the success. Basically, in about two days, it exploded and became my job overnight.

Flightpath: That’s amazing. You did have a lot of critical success though, with Chumble Spuzz. You were nominated for an Eisner.

Ethan Nicolle: Yeah, a little bit. I had an Eisner nomination, it got some great reviews. It’s just that hardly anybody actually read them. The people that did read them loved them, but that was the thing. I was going, “Man, people that actually read this love it. But I can’t get anybody to read it. They don’t want to spend 10 or 11 bucks on it.”

Axe Cop Episode 1Flightpath: So you had some Axe Cop stuff in the can that you did with your brother, and you decided to put it out there. Once you posted it online, you said it became a success in just a couple of days. Did you do anything to actively promote it, or did people somehow find it?

Ethan Nicolle: You know, I had a small amount of fans that followed me at that time from Chumble Spuzz, from the rock band I used to be in. So there was like a handful of fans that any time I posted something, they’d check it out and share it with their friends. We put all the sharing buttons on it, as you usually would do. StumbleUpon, Digg, a Facebook button, all those things. The best I could do, tracing back how it went viral, it was through sites like Reddit and Meta Filter and these sites where a lot of people go on and share stuff. It was just all over those websites, and it all happened kind of in one night. Entertainment Weekly [named it Site of the Day], that was a big one. It was just a really fast climb.

Flightpath: Did you log back in and check the visits? Were people emailing you? What was the signifier that something was going on?

Ethan Nicolle: Well, that night I was actually not even at my house [or] at my computer. I just had my phone, which was receiving emails, and emails started coming in like crazy. “Ask Axe Cop” questions just starting rolling in really fast, and I had my Twitter account set to notify me when a new person started following it, and I just started getting rapid amounts of Follow, Follow, Follow. [Laughs] It was just going crazy. And every time I checked my email, a bunch more emails would be in. It was just rapid fire emails all night. I fell asleep for like three hours that night, and when I woke up there were like another 100 emails in my inbox. It was crazy.

Flightpath: Going into your technique for creating Axe Cop – how exactly does it work with your brother? Do you sit down and guide him through story construction, or do you draw what he’s telling you, as he’s telling it to you?

Ethan Nicolle: There’s lots of different ways that we do it. It really comes down to playtime and kind of an interview. It’s almost like I’m a cop at a crime scene and I’m interviewing him because he’s a witness, and I’m trying to get all the details I can and piece it all together. [Laughs] He tells it to me out of order, and the story constantly changes here and there. So I find the pieces that fit.

The first few episodes, I credited him as “creator.” The first few episodes I never even planned on publishing, it was just something for the family. So I just decided to call him “writer” and me “artist.” But my bigger job beyond just drawing it really is piecing it together, especially as we’ve gotten into these bigger projects, where [there’s] a full-on big story. It’s the part of the project that’s, I don’t want to say a headache, but it’s a real struggle, you know? [Laughs]

Flightpath: Do you see his storytelling chops evolving as you do more and more of these?

Ethan Nicolle: Yeah, he gets the hang of certain things. Earlier on, I would have to try and explain, “For it to be a good story, we need something bad to happen, so that something good can happen and we can be happy.” So I’ll try and find out, “Do any good guys get killed? Does anything bad happen to the good guys?” One thing I just started doing was have us pretend to be bad guys, so that we’d actually start inflicting lots of damage on the good guys. So if I keep switching sides of Malachai, because a lot of it’s role playing, he’d give me what I wanted. It’s not that I want him to come up with a specific outcome of the story and repeat it back to me, but I just look at the story and go, “This needs a big fight here, it needs some kind of conflict.” Just a general idea. And I ask him questions until I have a full story, basically.

Flightpath: There are a couple of recurring themes or motifs in Axe Cop, and I wanted to get your opinion on them and where they come from.

Ethan Nicolle: [Laughs] Okay.

Flightpath: I noticed there are lots of decapitations.

Ethan Nicolle: [Laughs] Yeah. If you think about kids playing with toy swords and just fighting each other, they’re fake fighting, swinging the swords, going, “I cut your leg off! I cut your arm off!” They’re not imagining that guys have blood shooting across the room. [Laughs] They’re not reveling in the gore. What makes Axe Cop funny to me is you take that kind of innocent look at [violence] – I wouldn’t even call it violence, in the context of what Malachai’s playing, because he’s not thinking violently –

Flightpath: It’s like Looney Tunes violence.

Ethan Nicolle: Yeah. And so you take that, you put it in the world of Axe Cop, you illustrate it out and you put that dead serious look on his face, and it’s comedy gold. [Laughs]

Flightpath: There’s another one, which is someone getting something on them, like blood from a dinosaur, or they eat something, and then they become that thing. Where does that come from?

Ethan Nicolle: [Laughs] I don’t know where he got that. All I know is, that [while writing the] original Axe Cop, that first episode, we were playing together and we’d just cut off some dinosaurs’ heads. I love horror movies, over-the-top gore Peter Jackson kind of stuff, and I was like, “Oh man, I just got blood all over me!” And then Malachai goes, “I got dinosaur blood all over me, too! I’m turning into a Dinosaur Soldier.” [Laughs] He decided right there that if you get something’s blood on you, you turn into it. And it just became a running thing.

Flightpath: It’s funny because it kind of established the rules of the Axe Cop universe, in a weird way.

Ethan Nicolle: Yeah, and it’s funny ’cause when we started playing together, he assigned me to be Axe Cop, and he was Dinosaur Soldier. And since for the story I needed Axe Cop to stay Axe Cop and not keep changing, it worked, because he gave me that control. So I keep Axe Cop as Axe Cop, and he kept transforming. [Laughs]

Ask Axe Cop #1Flightpath: You were talking before about how you wanted to break into comics, you got published, but you ended up going to the Web, where you could reach a lot more people. Do you think that’s the future, especially as the print industry changes? Will webcomics take up more and more of the comic book landscape?

Ethan Nicolle: Yeah, I think that the Internet is effecting all forms of media, for sure. I don’t foresee in my lifetime the printed book dying off completely. I think most people that have held a book are going to want to hold a book later on, but that’s because I’m ignorant of what technology may come down the road. There could be a device invented that’s a great replacement. They’ve got the Kindle now, but I don’t think that’s a great replacement for comics. The iPad is kind of cool, but I don’t feel like I own the book until I have it in paper form.

People are now used to getting to sample things more because of the Internet. They’re used to more interaction. They’re also ordering things online now more, so you’re getting less people walking into stores and flipping through pages to buy your book. Things are just changing, so you have to have an online presence. It just doesn’t make sense not to. I’m interested to see where it goes with comics and books myself.

Flightpath: If you had decided to self-publish Axe Cop in print, do you think it could have possibly reached the level of popularity that it has as a webcomic?

Ethan Nicolle: No. Number one, I don’t think I ever would have, unless I’d gotten a bunch more done. I’d only done four of them [when we launched it]. At the point that I had those four done, I was only thinking that every time I’d visit Malachai for a holiday, I’d do another couple of them with him. I wasn’t thinking that it was gonna be what I did all the time. [Laughs] And it wasn’t because I didn’t want to, I just didn’t think that was the reality. It was like, “I can’t spend all my time playing with my little brother and making these goofy comics. I gotta work.” [Laughs]

Be sure to come back this Thursday for part 2 of our interview with Ethan Nicolle!

Apple TV Samsung Partnership?

Apple Inc.
Image by marcopako  via Flickr

Is Apple building a TV with iTunes built in? The big brother to the Apple TV sidecar?
I found some evidence recently that points to a match made in heaven. If Apple and Samsung can put down the legal briefs and realize there is more money to be made as partners than as enemies.

I’m talking about the Samsung 8000 series TVs, their apps and an amazing new browser.
So why do I say this?

You would think I am writing this from CES, but I’m not. Who needs CES when you can walk into any Manhattan Best Buy, talk nicely to the staff and they will start giving you the remote to every TV in the joint and gladly spend time nerding out with you. My husband built a system for capturing user agent strings. So when I recently tested on of the 8000 series TVs I loaded a few favorite test sites.

One of the pages I loaded saved the user agent string for me. I was able to open up a database tool and see this: Mozilla/5.0 (SmartHub; SMART-TV; U; Linux/SmartTV) AppleWebKit/531.2+ (KHTML, like Gecko) WebBrowser/1.0 SmartTV Safari/531.2+

Sure webkit is open source, and Smart TV appears in the user agent string three times. (wonder who wants to or is trademarking Smart TV…Samsung cough), but after more research on the string, the browser it is listed as Safari. Big deal? I think so.

Apple could have Foxconn or any other of their supplier/manufacturers in China build the Apple TV, there have been reports that  Apple is looking at bids from Foxconn and others to build the Apple TV, but Samsung has been building TVs since 1972. This experience coupled with Apple’s high expectations from its devices requires that they partner with someone. It’s just as easy for Apple to private label the Apple TV or iTV with just a little bit of tweaking.

Who better than your arch rival especially given Apple penchant for drama and buzz creating big reveals.

Apple is in a new realm with electronics manufacturers when it comes to consumer devices that are not in its purview. Panasonic, Sony, Toshiba- all of these companies have worked together for years to standardize and partner on technology sharing. In this area, Apple is the new kid on the block- but the coolest one in the room and as reported by Mashable this morning they have a stack of cash higher than the Empire State building.
Apple may be suing Samsung over the Galaxy tablet, but Apple needs a hardware manufacturer in place that can make iTV cheap.

Apple is making a big announcement at the Guggenheim next week, could it be a Samsung Apple partnership? Stranger things have happened. What do you think?

The Flightpath Roundtable: Facebook Timeline

Facebook Timeline Cover Photo

Welcome to the latest installment of The Flightpath Roundtable, where we gather various Flightpath employees for a discussion on the hottest topics in digital.

Today, we discuss Facebook’s latest change, Timeline. Unlike some of the minor cosmetic alterations Facebook has made over the years, Timeline significantly changes the look of one’s profile and the presentation of its information.

The participants in this discussion:
Dan Brooks, Digital Marketing Manager
John Lee, Director of Digital Marketing and Analytics
Wesley Martin, Interactive Designer
Cliff Medney, Chief Creative Strategist
Betsy Smith, Senior Social Media Strategist

Dan: Betsy, I thought we’d start with you. Maybe you can give an explanation of what Facebook Timeline is, for those who don’t know, and what you think about it.

Betsy: So, whereas Facebook used to have segregated content – your photos would be in one place, your status updates would be in another – now it’s all in one cohesive timeline that can go all the way back to your birth. Unless you’re a toddler or a preschooler, Facebook wasn’t around [early in your life]. And so, what Facebook would like everyone to do is to pull out their photos and upload them. Now the danger, I think, that people see, is that this is another way for Facebook to know absolutely everything there is to know about you. And I think that kinda freaks people out, but I think if you manage it correctly, it could be a really interesting tool.

Dan: Do you think it was a necessary change?

Betsy: Well, for one thing, Facebook has never been a particularly beautiful site. And Timeline is visually really interesting, and it is sort of like the voyeuristic fun part of Facebook. Like, going in and looking at somebody you haven’t talked to in 10 years. Now you can see who they married, and yeah, they divorced like you thought they would. [Laughs.] And all that fun stuff.

Dan: Wes, as a designer, what do you think of the look of it?

Wes: As a designer, I think it’s not very UI friendly. There’s a lot going on, and if you want to keep up with your friends’ stuff, it’s showing you too much at once. What I don’t like about it is there isn’t a filter for it. It would be cool if you could do a Timeline of just people’s images, but instead…

Dan: It’s everything.

Wes: Yeah, it’s everything. I’m not the biggest fan of the left-right-vertical view of Timeline. I would have preferred if they did horizontal and kept everything on one plain. [Demonstrates on computer.] So you see, they do this left-right thing. And I can’t tell what’s the order. Is the left the newest? Is the right the newest?

The photos is where Facebook grasped the older generation. And now I feel like it’s so hard to find [them] and find what’s important. I feel like they went so far, and then they pulled back. If you can narrow a Timeline just by photos, that’s the story itself.

Facebook Timeline Stories

John: I see what you’re getting at, Wes. You have to go through the Timeline to find stuff, as opposed to it filtering out.

I can’t really speak about the UI, but I think it’s a step in the right direction, visually. Just the way sites are, it seems that Facebook in the past forgot about the visual elements. Betsy, as you said, it was pretty boring before. But here, they’re trying to be a little more modular. They’re trying to break things up and organize the content, make it more easily scannable. Did they have to call it Timeline? I don’t think so, I think this is sort of like the new Facebook, or what’s it going to be.

The thing that I find interesting is the fact that they’re opening this up to the development community and allowing them to build apps. And I think it’s gonna be interesting to see what kind of cool apps are going to be available.

Betsy: And supposedly this is going to roll out for [brand] pages in September, so it’ll be interesting to see how they handle that.

John: Yeah, that was kind of the question I was thinking about. How do brands utilize this?

Betsy: Right. Do you want to go back a year and see when Red Bull changed its ingredients, or whatever they added to the Timeline?

John: Yeah, that could be really cool. I think there’s a lot of potential there.

Dan: One of the things that struck me was that when I converted my profile over to Timeline, is that there’s a demo/commercial that shows you what Timeline is. And it’s almost exactly the same as the Google’s “Sophie” commercial for Chrome. The tone is the same, and the content – taking you through someone’s life – is the same.

John: Well, they all kind of copy Apple’s emotional appeal. I mean, you never really think of Google as being an emotional company. I was surprised to see Google come out with a commercial like that.

Wes: What I do love about it is they’re staying true to their 2012 strategy campaign, which is, they’re bringing it back to the human. Because Facebook did get sort of taken over by corporations and businesses, and Timeline does bring it back to emotion. Facebook was originally made for people.

I just feel that it’s weird to continue to show everything. Because after a few months, no one’s going to care about people’s posts.

Dan: Unless you’re doing Facebook Stalking, which people tend to do. [Laughs.]

John: Like you, Dan. [Laughs.]

Wes: Posts become irrelevant after a day. After 10 minutes, posts can become irrelevant. From a user standpoint, I would love to see them filter it more by category as opposed to time. Everything’s in chronological order by the last month.

Dan: One of the reasons why I think Facebook became popular, I thought, was because it was so clean and streamlined compared to MySpace and Friendster. And now there’s a lot of stuff on there.

Betsy: I think people need to go in and clean up their Timelines. Because this can be an issue. People always say, “You have to be careful about what your employer might see!” You might have said something four years ago that – you went to a party and got trashed, or something – and because there were so many likes and comments, that’s gonna pop up on your Timeline. And so you have to go in and make sure that stuff isn’t there.

Facebook Timeline Apps

Dan: There was a Mashable article saying that Timeline is really like your resume now. Do you think there’s any truth to that?

Betsy: One of the political things about Facebook and Twitter is when you joined. Especially if you’re in [the digital] space, how long have you been on Facebook and Twitter, and do you want people to know that, is an issue. Also, you need to control whether or not people can tag you. That seems to me to be an issue for people who are not 23 years old. You’ve had a lot of past relationships, and when there’s a “dumped the loser” kind of post, and you’re tagged as the loser, do you want that in your Timeline for the whole world to see? But you can change in your privacy settings that you get the chance to preview any tags that are back in your Timeline.

Wes: It’s becoming a chore. Facebook is becoming a chore. It’s becoming too much to update.

John: With the privacy settings, they make changes and they don’t necessarily notify you. The defaults aren’t always in your favor. But that’s been the thing with Facebook since the get-go.

Betsy: But now I think it’s so mainstream and something people almost need, that I think they’ll put up with it. You know, my mother, who’s on Facebook, is never gonna go in and curate her Timeline. It’s just all gonna be out there, and that’s gonna be the case for most people. And they might go in and add life events that, as a marketer, I might find very interesting. You know, that you have three children, and these are their ages, and that you’re divorced, and that you’re converted to a different religion, and that you had a major illness. There are all things you can add to your Timeline, which as marketers, is really interesting.

Dan: Wes was saying something interesting in that they’re bringing Facebook back to “human,” and not so much a corporate identity. Cliff, do you think they’re successful on those grounds? Or is it too early to tell?

Cliff: I think this is as much a marketing ploy as it is a human ploy, because brands are followers of the human condition. And clearly this human condition of 2011, 2012, is that it’s easier than ever to have a pictorial account of life. And I think they’re just on the front end of what companies want. They want more story selling through pictures and words.

Betsy: Marketers always want to capture people in that moment where they’re making a decision. “If we could just know their intent, we could leverage that into a sale.” Timeline is like a reverse look – what may determine your future actions may be what you’ve done in the past, so that’s interesting for marketers.

Facebook Timeline: Add Life Events and Marketers Could Thank You

Facebook Timeline was released last month as an invitation for all of us to share our whole lives (including pre-Facebook lives) on Facebook. What Facebook wants you to include in your Timeline isn’t restricted to your newborn picture.

When you click on a point in the past on your Timeline, you have a number of options many of which are familiar.  You can add a comment in the form of a status update to a point in your past, photo from your 1st grade class picnic or check into the dorm you lived in freshman year of college. These are all variations of the options that users are used to seeing when they create a normal present-day status update. However, there is one new option- “Life Event” that is very different than the rest.

Clicking the Life Event button brings up a list of events that are common to a lot of people’s life stories. Marking the day you had a baby, broke a bone, lost a loved one or changed your religious beliefs are just some of the options Facebook presents.

Social media is supposed to be about transparency and honesty. Although it seems people would be reluctant to share major illnesses they have had in the past, divorces long settled and weight gained or lost in reality this is what Facebook does best. In Timeline Facebook has created an even better space where we can feed the human need to connect and learn more about people we care about, though maybe not enough to actually call.

From a social media marketing point of view, “Life Event” could be a game changer.

Currently advertisers can target Facebook users for ads based on the basic information user’s provide as well as their likes and interests. If Facebook allows advertisers to display ads to users who have had certain life events, or even better- users who have had certain life events within a select time frame, this could be very exciting for brands.

Car insurance ads could be displayed to parents of children they had 16 years back on their timeline and orthopedic surgeons could target those who have broken a bone in the last few months.  Ads could be even more highly targeted, which means higher click-through rates for advertisers and more revenue for Facebook.

Facebook has yet to allow advertisers to target users based on their life events, however if they do look for even more relevant Facebook ads coming to your Facebook profile.

Inside the NHL’s Innovative Use of Social Media

NHL logo

After the 2004-05 lockout, NHL popularity dropped significantly: TV ratings were low, attendance was down. While many rule changes and innovations post-lockout – most notably, the fantastic Winter Classic outdoor game – have helped the league recover, it’s the use of social media that has taken that recovery to another level. With the rise of social, the NHL has been able to reach fans directly, and that direct contact was integral in repairing the damage from the lockout. But more than just using social media, they’re using it well.

The Rangers and Flyers just completed this season’s hugely successful Winter Classic, and much of its success is owed to the excitement and hype drummed up by the NHL’s social channels. To mark the occasion, I’m delving into the NHL’s superb use of social media to see how they do it.

Constant Updates. The NHL itself and its 30 teams are on Facebook and Twitter, and they all provide a steady stream of content through every channel. It’s a multi-pronged approach, where they supply news, marketing, or mask marketing as news, but it’s highly effective and does not stop during holidays or weekends. Whether promoting the build-up to the Winter Classic, giving score and penalty updates or celebrating Sidney Crosby’s return to the Penguins, the tweets and Facebook updates come often.

Quality Video Content. In addition to news or fun stuff, there’s also some pretty great exclusive video content being provided on Facebook and Twitter. The NHL is something of a master in online video, and the sharing of highlights is a big part of its social media identity. Beyond in-game highlights, the league offers content that would appeal to even non-fans, such as a very cool time-lapse video of this year’s Winter Classic rink, going from construction to game in just over a minute. And that’s content you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else.

Playful Tone. What’s most refreshing about both the league and team accounts is the positive and playful tone of its social media content. On January 3rd, with the New York Rangers holding the best record in the league, the team posted a screenshot of the standings to its Facebook profile, writing, “Who LIKES the look of this!!!” It’s fun, it’s celebratory, and it entices fans to engage.

Encouraging User Interaction, Physical and Digital. As a Rangers fan, I follow their social channels. During last year’s celebration of the team’s 85th anniversary, Twitter was a key component. Contests where users had to go to a surprise physical location to win autographed sticks or merchandise were all done with Twitter. It was handled so well that I even hopped on a subway to try and win something, and I never do this stuff.

In addition, the NHL created the LIKE/DISLIKE Facebook post, where users are challenged to Like something (a play, a game outcome, etc.) or explain why they don’t. It’s simple but effective, and can often spark some smart debate, and at the very least, gets people clicking.

They Respond and RT. Not all brands, even the smallest, take the time to answer tweets, and that’s a mistake. When a brand interacts with fans on Twitter, it’s a recognition that the customer exists and is valued. The brand hears them. So, when small companies don’t reply or acknowledge Twitter correspondence, it’s even more admirable for a major sport to do so. Imagine being a young fan and having your favorite team respond to your tweet? It would feel empowering and exciting. The NHL and its teams routinely retweet and answer questions, and their Twitter presences are more powerful as a result.

The NHL’s success with social shouldn’t be measured absolutely in number of Likes or in purely mathematical numbers, which are impressive anyway. But rather in the quality, human element it brings to social media. Marketers would be smart to watch and learn from them.