Tuesday, July 23, 2013

An Interview with Ethan Nicolle, the Co-Creator of Axe Cop and Bearmaggedon

Ethan Nicolle (Left) and his young brother/the writer of Axe Cop, Malachai
If you know anything about webcomics, you have probably heard of the Internet sensation known as Axe Cop.  Created by Ethan Nicolle and his young brother Malachai one Christmas night, Axe Cop is a brilliant adventure into the mind of a young boy and the heroic and sometimes sociopathic hero known only as Axe Cop, as he cuts bad guys' heads off.  The comic's childish and zany humor has garnered praise and millions of hits, making it once of the most well known webcomics.  So much so that it has even become a television show on Fox's Animation Domination HD block.  The show features Nick Offerman of Parks and Recreation, Patton Oswalt, and other comedy stars.  But, unknown to most "Axe Cop" fans, Nicolle is also the writer and artist for another comic named "Bearmaggeddon, " which tells the tale of a young man and his friends fighting for their lives in a apocalyptic situation full of mutated bears.  In this interview, I ask Mr. Nicolle about the origins and workings of Axe Cop, his thoughts on Bearmaggedon, and the Axe Cop television show.

Axe Cop
Riding dinosaurs is a regular occurrence for Axe Cop.
For the uninformed, can you let us in on how the comic started?
I was playing with my little brother, Malachai one Christmas and he said he wanted to play "Axe Cop", which was his way of turning a toy fireman axe into a tool for fighting bad guys instead of fires.  It was one of those moments where a cartoon character instantly appeared in my head, and even though Malachai was not intentionally inventing a character, everything we did during that play time inspired me to draw a one-page comic and post it online for friends.  During that visit I did 4 or 5 comics with Axe Cop in them and the stories kept building on each other.  I eventually made an Axe Cop web site as my way of "practicing" web comics and unexpectedly the comic went viral.

How do you write a comic with Malachai?  How do you keep track of all of his thoughts, the characters he creates, and make it coherent?
I really let him go nuts and I ask him a TON of questions.  Sometimes I get him to give me multiple possible outcomes and plotlines and I pick the ones that fit together the best. I take notes, record video, record phone calls and just build up material. I make sure all the content is from him, but it is heavily organized and presented by me.  It is a very natural and fun way of creative partnering that is a great exercise in creativity for both of us.  He creates entire worlds verbally then I have to take all the crazy things he has said and create it visually, and figure out how best to tell the story.  

I'd vote for him.
Has Malachai’s story telling prowess improved as Axe Cop has gone on?  Has he become more in-tune with drama and narrative structure, or does he still seem as free form and fantastical as ever?
Yes, he has gotten a better understanding of why it is so helpful to a story to have a bad guy in it who is really powerful and has a motivation for evil.  It used to be a lot harder for me to get those kinds of things out of him because he really didn't understand why he would ever want bad guys to be any sort of threat if he had any say in things.  But he has even been writing stories lately where Axe Cop almost loses, but then he wins.  He has grown to appreciate incorporating a journey and a struggle, I think because he has seen that those are the things that make stories interesting through the process of creating Axe Cop with me.  He also has gotten a taste for plot twists.  He likes to surprise the audience by saying "but really it was...!!!"

Have you ever had to change the story because Malachai created something you found you couldn’t draw, like a character that had too much detail to properly convey?
No, like I said, I do not write the story down verbatim from his mouth.  I take lots of notes, ask lots of questions over a period of weeks or months and then I form a story out of all the material I get.  So I do edit, but I make sure all my raw material is from Malachai.  So I have never changed his story, but I have come to a place in the story where I feel like he could do better, so I will call him and see if I can get him to go another direction and usually that is no problem for him.  Unlike most adult writers, he is excited to reinvent his ideas rather than offended when someone suggests he could come up with something more original.  He truly loves the process and doesn't live for the final product.  For him, the best part is making stuff up.  I think for adults the part we focus on is releasing the creation into a finished product and selling it.  Malachai isn't distracted by those thoughts (or pressure to sell) as much.  That pressure is on me because I create the finished product, but he gets to write free of it and I think that is one of the great things about our partnership.

What do you think draws people to Axe Cop?  Is it the beautiful art, or the pure zaniness of it?
I think people are fascinated with the idea of going so in depth with a kid's imagination, and not holding him back or forcing him to tell stories we want him to tell that are nicer or sweeter.  I let him write stuff I know he will probably regret later because I know it will be fascinating to see how he makes Axe Cop change his mind on things.  It makes Axe Cop not so one-dimensional and it makes Axe Cop develop as the stories go on.  Axe Cop grows up in his own way with Malachai.  Most of the time people will let a kid tell a story for a short period of time and it will be cute and quick.  With Axe Cop we go in depth, I put real effort into the art and the designs.  I try to imagine and present the world as epic and crazy as it might be in Malachai's mind.  I think people are fascinated by that, and I think they are fascinated with how often Malachai creates Tropes and plot devices common in most adult-written action stories without even realizing it.

A common mistake.
How do you and Malachai deal with the fame of creating a culture sensation like Axe Cop?
Axe Cop is still relatively small.  It is pretty rare that anyone recognizes us on the streets.  It has happened to me a handful of times, because I live near Hollywood and Axe Cop is more known out here where pop culture is a big deal.  Malachai lives in a small rural town, so right now he doesn't get a lot of strangers who are aware of him or his work.   It will be interesting to see how that is effected by the TV series release, which will push Axe Cop into a much more mainstream position.  At conventions we are known, but it is isolated and it doesn't feel like normal life.  It feels like a special time, then we go back to the real world.

What inspired your artistic style?  It’s quite unique, but did you base your art style on any cartoonist in particular?
I grew up on SLG comics, Ninja Turtles, Calvin & Hobbes, Doug TenNapel, Ethan Van Sciver, the Far Side... I had a good mix of influences and luckily I never latched onto one style but combined a lot of my favorites into something I think is fairly unique.  I think I have a lot of love for more realistic/detailed art like that of Jim Lee, and also the more cartoony animated looking art like Doug TenNapel, so I combine the two.  The most obvious example is in my other web comic, Bearmageddon, where the bears look real but the humans look like cartoons.  This is done in Axe Cop too.  Some of the characters look cartoony, some look realistic.  I don't really know why I do this, I just like it and sometimes it just feels right.

Where do you think the comic will go from here?  Do you think it will eventually end when Malachai can’t come up with stories like he used to?  Will you find someone else to come up with Axe Cop’s adventures?
I have some ideas but for now we are playing it by ear.  I think that if the TV show affords opportunities for more Axe Cop adventures to be created without Malachai and I directly involved, it would be interesting to see Axe Cop done by another young kid, maybe even one written by a girl.  I think that Malachai and I will write Axe Cop off and on for the rest of our lives.  That is my best guess anyway, I have no idea what he will want.  I think that the Axe Cop created by Malachai and I will go through a lot of changes and growth and stuff, and I think that would be fun to watch, but I think it would also be fun to involve other kids at some point who are around 5 years old to keep the spirit of Axe Cop alive.  So maybe have a couple different Axe Cop series going, one that continues on as Malachai grows, and maybe a couple others by other kids and adults, or maybe even written by adults in the spirit of Axe Cop.  People think that couldn't be done, but I think there is enough Axe Cop material our there now that a world has been set up and there is enough out there to create a profile of what the Axe Cop chaacter is like.  Malachai and I are not incredibly possessive of our creation, we like seeing other people's take on it.  I do think you would have to find the right artists and kids for the job, which would take some searching.
The man who will fix the economy by chopping its head off.

I've had nightmares like this.
Where did the idea for Bearmaggedon come from?
My friends and I had a couple different inside jokes about bears attacking a town and this guy named Dickinson Killdeer who is this bad ass mountain man.  Then one day the title "Bearmageddon" hit me and I started playing with combining these ideas into a story.  I worked on various scripts for the story for over half a year until I settled on the one I am now drawing.

You seem to do a fantastic job of creating the tense nature of an apocalypse movie, even making the various bear creatures to be an absolutely terrifying presence.  How do you keep this atmosphere present in the comic?  Was this inspired by any movies or books?
I appreciate that, because I really am trying to do that with this story and it feels good when people affirm that I am pulling it off.  I did study some of my favorite films that create good tense moments like that.  I really liked the tension in Spielberg's War of the Worlds, so I took detailed notes and wrote a whole outline of the film on note cards so I could understand how he built his tension and raised the stakes.  I did the same with Shawn of the DeadJurassic Park and Attack the Block.  These are all movies that involve a take over by creatures and follow average people through that apocalypse.  That is the kind of story I wanted Bearmageddon to be. I wanted it to be a little more comedic than a Spielberg film, but still have that tension.

If bears weren't terrifying enough, just add some tentacles. 
This comic is written by yourself, and you had to come up with characters’ appearances, personalities, and arcs all by yourself.  Did you find this to be harder than working with Malachai?
Writing the script was hard because I am trying to tell a story that has some meaning to it.  But with Bearmageddon I never have to rely on Malachai for content, so in that way it is a lot easier.  Sometimes Malachai is just not up for creating and I can't force him to work on ideas.  He has gotten much better at jumping into creative mode which is a skill I think he will cherish as he grows up, because I know a lot of adults who do not have it.  Also, sometimes I will have to talk to Malachai for hours to get a small amount of useful material for the comic.  I like the freedom and the ownership I have with Bearmageddon.  It is 100% mine and I do not have to work with anyone else or give anyone else credit (except the great coloring of course).

How planned was the comic?  Do you have a set arc for everyone, or are you playing this one as it comes?
Sort of both.  I wrote a full 120+ page script, but it was rough.  I had set a deadline for when I was going to start drawing the comic and decided however far along the script was, I would just start drawing it on that date so that I did not linger in writing mode.  I have changed a lot from the script, especially dialog-wise.  There are entire scenes I have cut and added in the process of making the comic.  For instance the entire scene currently being posted online right now was not in the script, but as I created the comic I realized it was needed, and the scene I did have before was not needed.  I do have an end in mind, but I am going to take as long as it needs to take to get there.  This will definitely be an epic, because we are not even halfway through the story yet.
This is one of the reasons I don't go to concerts.

Axe Cop TV Show
The show's official logo
How did the idea for Axe Cop, the TV show, come about?  Did you approach Fox, or did they contact you?
They contacted me.  More specifically, they hired Nick Weidenfeld to run their ADHD block on Saturday nights, and Nick had been a big Axe Cop fan for a while.  He had wanted to bring it to Adult Swim when he was there but it didn't work out.  He had been waiting to get his hands on Axe Cop for a while, he is very passionate about it.

How much say did you have in the development in the show?  Did you retain creative control, or did the studio take over casting and animation style?
I had a lot of involvement on pretty much the whole first season of (6) episodes.  I had some involvement in the writing on other episodes written in anticipation of more being ordered, but there are also a number I did not have much involvement in.  I haven't been real involved in casting, but I will make recommendations and a lot of the guys who loved Axe Cop before the show deal were people I wanted to see make it onto the show, and they did (Offerman, Serafinowicz, Marino).  I get to make comments and notes on the designs, and most of the time my comments are "wow that looks amazing" because the artists on the show are wizards.

Did you work with the main voice actors of the show?  Can you tell us what people like Nick Offerman and Patton Oswalt were like?
I did get to sit in on some voice recording sessions and that was fun.  One thing I have realized in meeting and working with a lot of these talented comedians is that their personality really is their character.  Nick Offerman plays himself, he is a jovial man's man.  Patton Oswalt really is a somewhat hyper fast paced, talkative guy.  Jonathan Banks looks you deep in the eyes and talks to you real tough, like he does when he is a hit man in Breaking Bad.  I haven't had a bad experience with any of the voice talent.  Ken Marino, Peter Serafinowicz and Nick Offerman were already all Axe Cop fans lined up and excited to be a part of whatever Axe Cop became, so I had met and spoke with them before the TV show deal was made.  It's exciting to see all this talent on the show who is there because they are in love with the content. I think a lot of comedians have to act and tell jokes on shows that they don't always find funny.  I think one of the really special things about the Axe Cop show is how much people involved really love it, from the board artists to the actors. 


Nicolle's Personal Website: http://ethannicolle.com
Axe Cop Website: http://axecop.com
Bearmaggedon Website: http://bearmageddon.com
Nicolle's Twitter: https://twitter.com/enicolle

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