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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!