Wide World of Webcomics: Ethan & Malachai Nicolle's AXE-COP
Wide World of Webcomics: AXE-COP
One of my major gaps is webcomics. In the past, I’ve talked to some webcomics creators for Newsarama, such as Nicholas Gurewitch, Scott Kurtz, and Scott Sava. And I’m friends with many local creators of the North Carolina Webcomics Coffee Clatch.
But mostly, I felt out of the loop when it came to webcomics, which have become a bigger and bigger part of the comics industry – there’s plenty of fans out there who read many strips every day without having ever picked up a comic book. I read plenty of books already, and most of the material I encountered seemed like it was just parodies of video games and RPGs, which aren’t really my bag. But I knew there was a ton of great material out there, if I just looked for i.
So I decided to jump in headfirst by checking many of the best webcomics out there, which I found through reputation and through recommendations. The result was a series of interviews that will run on Newsarama over the next few weeks, and is still growing. That’s right, it’s Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics!
(I like alliteration. Sue me.)
For our first week, here’s the creators we’ll be speaking with, along with their strips:
Part 1: Ethan and Malachai Nicolle, Axe Cop (www.axecop.com)
Part 2: Lucy Knisley, Stop Paying Attention (www.lucyknisley.com)
Part 3: Daniel Lieske, The Wormworld Saga (www.wormworldsaga.com)
Part 4: Ryan North, Dinosaur Comics/Machine of Death (www.qwantz.com)
That’s just the start – soon we’ll also reveal the next five creators we’ll be talking with, including a variety of veteran webcomics creators, hot newcomers, and even some creators who have moved from hardcopy books to online. We’ll talk about both their work and the challenges of making it online, including the role that the digital format might play in the future of the comic book medium.
For our first interview, I went with a unique pair of creators who hit it big in webcomics this past year. Ethan Nicolle was already an Eisner-nominated cartoonist for his graphic novel series Chumble Spuzz from Slave Labor Graphics. But the 29-year-old cartoonist’s career didn’t really take off until he started talking with his five-year-old brother Malachai.
The result was Axe Cop, a comic declared the “Best Thing Ever” by…well, this site. It’s about a cop. With an axe. Who has a pet dinosaur. And a partner with a flute. And…well, it’s a little kid’s insane ideas brought to gorgeous life, with plenty of action, humor and craziness.
Axe Cop has already earned a massive following, and celebrates its first anniversary this week with a big party at LA’s Meltdown Comics (for more information, click here. The character’s teamed up with fellow cult webcomics hero Dr. McNinja, and has made the leap to hard copy format from Dark Horse Comics with a trade paperback collection out now, and a new miniseries, Axe Cop: Bad Guy Earth out in March.
Over the holidays, we had a chance to talk with the Nicolle brothers while they were visiting for Christmas. Using video chat, we had the rare opportunity to talk with the now 30-year-old artist and his now six-year-old brother in the same place. Minus several minutes that involved playing with webcam effects, here are the very strange results of our conversation.
Newsarama: Hey Malachai! We’re doing a big thing on Axe Cop for Newsarama!
Malachai Nicolle: Hel-lo!
Nrama: Did you get anything good for Christmas?
Malachai: I got an Xbox!
Ethan Nicolle: What did you get with it?
Malachai: A Kinect game!
Ethan: He loves Scott Pilgrim and Castle Crashers, so…
Malachai: [singing] Chicken Little had a farm, e-i-e-i-o…
Nrama: ...um, so you have the Axe Cop collection out, and you’ve got the miniseries. That’s got to be very exciting for you.
Ethan: Yep, the book just came out! We just did our first signing in Portland.
Nrama: What was it like doing the signing?
Ethan: It was good! They underestimated how many books we’d sell, so they sold out of books in the first hour. Malachai was signing his brains out.
Malachai: [singing] Goo-goo-ga-ga-goo-goo-goo, e-i-e-i-o…
Nrama: This will prove to be a very interesting transcribing experience.
Malachai, what was it like meeting all those fans? I bet you feel all famous now!
Malachai: ROOAAARRR! Bye!
Ethan: It might help if you asked him about something besides Axe Cop. He doesn’t actually like talking about it that much.
Nrama: Hmm. Who’s your favorite superhero, Malachai? Do you think Axe Cop could beat Batman?
Malachai: [after a moment] Yes.
Ethan: Batman’s pretty strong, though. He’s got a lot of weapons. But Axe Cop’s kind of indestructible.
Nrama: Could Axe Cop beat Wolverine? That’d be harder, because I don’t know if Axe Cop’s axe is made of stronger stuff than Wolverine’s claws. Is it, Malachai?
Ethan: Yeah, Wolverine has a metal skeleton, so how could Axe Cop beat Wolverine?
Nrama: Have we stumped you?
Malachai: I’m thinking. [after a moment)]I’ve got to show you something. [holds up a card reading “12”]
Nrama: Okay, that’s…12.
Ethan: What’s that mean?
Malachai: That’s my answer. He’s going to do 12 fire-burning attacks. Wexter’s (Axe Cop’s bad-guy-eating pet T-Rex with robot machine-gun arms) going to attack him 12 times with his fire-breathing.
Ethan: And that’s stronger than Adamantium? That’s the stuff Wolverine’s skeleton is made of so he can’t die.
Malachai: He can’t die by fire?
Nrama: But I think he’d really, really hurt a lot.
Ethan: Yeah, he’d be really hurt. Wait, can he get burned to death?
Nrama: Well, there was Uncanny X-Men #142, where a Sentinel robot burned off all his flesh and he couldn’t re-grow it and…I really shouldn’t be saying this in front of a six-year-old, should I?
Ethan: Eh, you’ve read Axe Cop.
Nrama: You’re right. The youth of America have been exposed to so much darkness that they’re immune to it.
Ethan: Well, Malachai doesn’t think darkly. Soon as I draw this stuff, it gets some darkness. For example, these film students made a short of the first Axe Cop, and they used real blood and…
Malachai: RRRAAARRRGH! [giggles]
Ethan: …stop that. And Malachai didn’t like it! He thought it was gross, he shut his eyes.
Nrama: Well, it’s different when it’s cartoons, right Malachai?
Ethan: Yeah, we were watching Road Runner today at breakfast and laughing at Wile E. Coyote, weren’t we?
Malachai: I’m an old maaaannnn. [giggles]
Nrama: What are your favorite cartoons ever?
Ethan: We love The Iron Giant. We watched it just last night.
Malachai: WHOOOSH! I like Fred!
Ethan: …who’s Fred?
Malachai: [as a robot] I-am-going-to-destroy-you.
Nrama: What’s it like getting to do a big Axe Cop story where you’ve got lots and lots of pages, like Bad Guy Earth?
Ethan: That’s something that became possible once Axe Cop became more than just something I did to goof off. I found I could stretch the stories a bit.
For Bad Guy Earth, I actually came here for like a month and worked on the story with Malachai for about 30 days. I just tried to keep all the playtimes…
Malachai: I got something to show you! [holds up large item]
Ethan: It’s his Toy Story art set.
Nrama: Wow! Do you use that to help Ethan make Axe Cop, Malachai?
Malachai: No, I just got it for Christmas.
Ethan: [laughs] Today, we actually did a comic where I wrote and he drew and he hated drawing, so he stopped early.
Malachai: It was about the Moon Warriors, so Fire Slicer got eaten by a bear, and that’s the end.
Ethan: I was trying to have it go on longer and have them actually fight the bear, but he just decided to end it right there, so that’s the end.
Nrama: Well, bears like to eat people, so I understand that.
Malachai: They like to eat people with fire swords!
Ethan: He decided it wasn’t just a bear, it was the god of all bears, so it was a pretty big bear.
Nrama: That is a big bear!
Malachai: The biggest bear in the universe!
Nrama: Who would win a fight between the biggest bear in the universe and the biggest Tyrannosaurus Rex in the universe?
Malachai: [instantly] T-Rex!
Nrama: I’m glad we were able to settle that.
Malachai: T-Rex are really dangerous.
Ethan: But they have little tiny arms.
Malachai: [gnashing, growling sounds, then runs off]
Ethan: Okay, he says he’s done. He wants to play video games now.
Malachai: That’s all! Answer is never, never, never, never, never!
Nrama: Um, what was the question?
Ethan: You’ll never know.
Later I talked to Ethan Nicolle solo about his upcoming hard-copy miniseries Axe Cop: Bad Guy Earth at Dark Horse Comics, his first year of online success, and the challenge of creating a book with his little brother.
Nrama: Ethan, tell us of the storyline of Bad Guy Earth
Ethan: Well, without giving away too much... Bad Guy Earth is the story of two evil Psychic Brothers who create a bad guy machine and want to turn the entire earth into Bad Guy Earth. They have a gun that shoots portals to other times, dimensions and planets too, so they are able to basically make anything they want into a bad guy, including the US military.
Axe Cop is earth's only hope and it is the toughest fight he has ever fought. This is the first story where Malachai has written bad guys from the perspective of a bad guy, so the Bad Guys are about as indestructible as Axe Cop is.
Nrama: Could you tell us about some of the new characters/creatures we'll meet in Bad Guy Earth?
Ethan: There are so many... but most of it is iconic stuff little boys think are awesome. Wrestlers, lions, army men, ghosts, dinosaurs, time travel, trucks, aliens...it's all there.
I have often compared it to Narnia with copious amounts of ADD and no allegory whatsoever. Imagine C.S. Lewis hit his head really hard, then had half his brain removed and grafted with the brain of Michael Bay. It's epic, imaginary and gratuitous. It's a blast.
Nrama: Do you worry your brother will become corrupted by venturing into the psyches of the dark and twisted?
Ethan: Nah, if he delves into dangerous territory I will talk to him about the concepts just as any good big brother should. I won't let him just start gutting an imaginary nun without saying something about it.
He generally has to pretend the bad guys are under a curse and that is why they are doing evil things. He doesn't get why people would want to do evil, so he has to make up reasons. It ends up being a lot less about the reasons and more about whose team he is on. If he is on Team Good, he kills Team Bad and vice versa.
Nrama: The strip has really taken off in the past year. What has that experience been like?
Ethan: It has been undeniably exciting, especially getting attention from people in the industry I have great respect for, has been very surreal, but I tend to take everything in stride. I try to apply the saying "this too shall pass" to everything, not just the bad things.
I always assume the success of Axe Cop will end soon just because no matter what the truth is, I am better off in that reality. With that opinion I have tried not to bask in it much, and just seize the opportunities it has afforded me as much as I can.
It was in that spirit that I cranked out enough material to produce the 144-page trade paperback that just came out. It's been a very productive year and a very exciting one. The Axe Cop website hasn't even been up for a year yet.
Nrama: What's been the most interesting/exciting/weird reaction you've had to the strip?
Ethan: The comic fan base as a whole is pretty interesting. They are super faithful, which is great, but they also take ownership of your comic the moment they decide they like it. They suddenly decide what the character would and would not do and they scold you, the creator, when you get it wrong. Anything that does not meet their expectations, they take very personally.
There are the typical people who see the violence and think Malachai is warped or uniquely violent. I think those people are generally in denial, or have never encountered a young boy. I remember playing My Little Pony with the neighbor girl when I was five, and I would make them toss each other off of cliffs and stomp on each other's heads.
The reaction that weirds me out the most are the people who blatantly reject Axe Cop because they full on admit they hate kids. There is not much I can do for them.
There are also people who think it is fake, or that I add a lot to Malachai's ideas, and don't take credit. There are people who tear apart the logic and act like they have really accomplished some high act of literary criticism by showing how they can point out the flawed logic in the ideas of a child.
But mostly people just love it, because most people get it, and they love it way more than I ever expected anyone would, so to me that is both the weirdest and best reaction.
Nrama: You were telling me a bit about how constructing this story was different, in terms of the extended amount of time you spent with Malachai – could you elaborate on your process?
Ethan: Dark Horse was interested in having us do a miniseries when they became our publisher. At first, I was a little scared of the idea of committing to 70 or so pages of story, but as I worked with Malachai, I began to realize that as long as I'm letting him enjoy himself, the stories just keep coming. I embraced the idea and decided to spend a month with him in person writing the story, since most Axe Cop stories are written over the phone.
So I tried to strategize, I took lots of notes and we did a lot of hands-on types of things to really fill that month with creativity. We got in car fake chases, we ran around the living room with toy guns, we painted costumes on dollar store action figures...we just went crazy.
I took notes the whole time and tried to guide it with questions so the story had a beginning, middle and end. I went home and edited it all into one big somewhat coherent tale. It turned out to be crazy epic.
Nrama: Is there anything Malachai has come up with that you just couldn't draw, for whatever reason?
Ethan: Not that I can think of. There are times where he will describe something that just makes no sense. It makes sense to him in some way, but I just can't figure it out.
Other times what I come up with based on his words is not what he envisioned at all. He will tell me I got it all wrong, but then explain what he meant and it makes no sense. There are definitely obstacles in communicating.
Nrama: What's the most challenging thing about coming up with storylines based on his ideas?
Ethan: The biggest challenge really is simply getting him into story mode. For every hour of story-creating time, I think we spend five or six just playing and doing things that have nothing to do with Axe Cop.
Most Axe Cop fans are much more excited to talk about Axe Cop than Malachai is. He loves it, but he loves a lot of things, and his attention span remains torn in all those directions, and that is the biggest obstacle for me to deal with as a guy probably is a little too focused on getting the next story done at all times.
Nrama: What's the hardest thing about handling Malachai's interactions with fans – you know, watching what email he gets, or how people act around him in person, etc.?
Ethan: He doesn't get email except when I forward it or if my dad reads him comments off the website. We have only done one public appearance so far, which is something I was worried about, but people have been really respectful. Though it is weird to see people treat Malachai like he is Grant Morrison or something, but I guess that comes with the territory.
Nrama: What do you feel the advantage is over doing a webcomic as opposed to print, and conversely, what advantages do you feel print has?
Ethan: Originally my decision to do web comics was simply a realization that publishing comics is not worth it, unless you are Alan Moore or Robert Kirkman or someone with a big name and a big following. I was a nobody this industry, even with an Eisner nom that doesn't mean a thing for sales.
The thing is, comics are niche, and indy comics are super niche. You print an indy comic and put it on the shelf and a handful of very daring people might peak at it. If you go through a publisher, you will not make much, if any money. They simply can't afford to give up much of the profit on the books.
It makes sense... I don't know how Indy comic publishers like SLG do it. It's a rough industry and there is just not a lot of money to go around on the low end.
My buddy Doug TenNapel sells a lot more books than me and the money he makes on those sales generally equal less than what a teenager would make after a year of flipping burgers. Also, you get one month or so of promotion when your book hits the shelf, then the industry is silent about it. No more interviews, no more reviews...they have moved on.
But if your comic is online, it is alive...it is growing and it is new every time you update it. It is not hiding on the Indy rack at a comic shop, it is online for people who may never step into a comic shop to see.
I figured I was not making any money selling books, why worry about the money? I wanted my work to get seen. So I decided I wanted to try doing web comics. I am sure glad I did.
Nrama: What print/webcomics are you currently reading?
Ethan: I typically am not an avid comic reader, but I faithfully read The Walking Dead every time a new trade comes out, and I love TenNapel graphic novels.
I just got an iPad for myself this Christmas, so I decided to try out the comics apps and started reading Kirkman's The Astounding Wolf-Man and Invincible. I also read a few issues of Chew from Image. I have enjoyed these, and will probably buy the trades.
As for webcomics, I don't read many... admittedly I don't like reading comics online much, and a lot of popular webcomics are wrapped up in video game references, and I am not a gamer. I love Dr. McNinja and Perry Bible Fellowship though.
Nrama: What's been the absolute coolest thing you've gotten to draw for your strip?
Ethan: Some of the art in Bad Guy Earth is the craziest stuff I have ever drawn. I have drawn entire armies of creatures out of my brother's crazy head. It has been a lot of fun, and a big stretch of my own imagination.
Nrama: How long do you see Axe Cop running?
Ethan: I am guessing until puberty hits, but I try to treat every day like it will end soon. I try to remind myself that this project is going to be the wink of an eye in terms of the lives we live together, and I want to make sure it is a fond memory because it will be over before any of us realize it.
Is it possible Axe Cop could continue as Malachai grows up beyond the childhood years? Yeah, but highly unlikely. I'm not going to bet on it, but I'll keep creating with him as long as it remains fun.
Nrama: How goes your side project Bearmageddon?
Ethan: It's been sitting collecting dust ever since the Axe Cop bomb went off, but it is my goal to start making time for it once I have completed Bad Guy Earth, which is over 2/3 done.
Nrama: What else is on your plate?
Ethan: Well income from Axe Cop is unpredictable and typically modest, so I have been trying to do other odd jobs I get offered down in Hollywood like character design, storyboarding etc.
Other than that, I always have a few ideas rolling around in my head... I have been putting a lot of thought into doing a children's series.
Nrama: Aside from Dr. McNinja, what other webcomics would you like to cross over with?
Ethan: I'm embarrassed to admit I don't have a very broad knowledge of webcomics. I was not into them when I made Axe Cop, I dove in blind. Ever since, I have been so busy I have not had time to read many.
My respect for webcomics has grown a lot, but my knowledge of them is not extensive. I have made some friends in the industry, but have not had a lot of time to actually read their work. I have to say Dr. McNinja was my first choice, so now that that is out of the way, I'm not sure.
I've talked to Ryan North about doing a crossover involving Wexter, but so far we have not been able to connect on it. I'm open to any ideas!
Read Axe Cop online now, pick up the trade, or check out Bad Guy Earth from Dark Horse Comics in March!
Next at Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, we head in an opposite direction from the absurd action of Axe Cop to talk with Lucy Knisley of Stop Paying Attention! Be there!