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.”
Flightpath: 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]
Flightpath: 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!