I almost didn’t make Axe Cop. Axe Cop wasn’t like any other character I had ever come up with. I hadn’t planned him out, written a story, drawn out concepts, spent months or years dreaming of “making it big” with this great idea. I wasn’t trying to come up with a design that could sell toys or be a cool t-shirt. I just drew him. First panel, first episode, I just drew a cop with an axe.
It wasn’t until around the fourth installment I started to realize this was more than a one-off gag. This was a character who was fascinating and was taking on a life of its own. Other characters I had decided ahead of time who they were. Axe Cop told me who he was. Obviously, having Malachai as his mouthpiece had a lot to do with that, but there’s something to letting your character live its own life rather than trying to force it down a certain path.
I’ve told versions of this story many times now, but here it is with a little more of my own mental process thrown in. I was visiting my family for Christmas. I had gone on this trip with it in my head that I would not work on comics. Just relax.
I needed to relax because for the last two years I had worked on two different graphic novel scripts, doing concept art galore, obsessing, trashing scripts, rewriting, pulling my hair out, hitting dead ends, banging my head against walls made by messy plots and bad ideas. I was still trying to come up with a follow up to Chumble Spuzz, my first set of completely unhinged books I did for SLG (don’t take my word for it, just ask Invader ZIM creator Jhonen Vasquez, he oughta know a thing or two about unhinged cartoons). People who read Chumble Spuzz usually realize that completely bizarre thoughts are a staple of the Nicolle family. (sidenote, If you join my Patreon page you get both Chumble Spuzz books in PDF format for free) I was trying to write something a little more thought out for my next work. Something that could feasibly be made into something else, like a movie. I had it drilled into my head that I had to make something that could sell as a film. I couldn’t waste my time making silly comics.
I was reading screenwriting books like mad. This is what people who live in southern California do. Go to any coffee shop or downtown hangout and there are at least a few desperate looking souls reading one of the major books on screenwriting.For me, it felt like storytelling was this insane puzzle and I believed many times I was just not wired to understand it. Either that, or I was just doomed to always over-complicate my stories to a point that they would never be finished. My plotlines always became big Celtic knots of various philosophical thoughts, set pieces and moments I was in love with that never found an ending.
It was when I read the screenwriting book Save the Cat that it started to come together for me. But still, the first year I was in California I was writing a comic about a crime fighting rock band I finally shelved when it had gotten too convoluted and I‘d come up with another idea I got really excited about called Bearmageddon. I wrote two completely different versions of Bearmageddon and hated them both, did lots of concept art, and almost trashed it after my second year. I ended up spending the money to go to a Save the Cat weekend seminar and got help with it directly from the author himself, Blake Snyder.Tragically, Blake died about a week later. By some strange roll of the dice I happened to be in the last seminar he ever taught. (you can read about that in a guest blog I eventually did on the STC website)
This kickstarted my book. I told Blake what I wanted the book to be and he told me it was the craziest thing anyone had brought into his class, but he also helped me narrow down what it was. He helped me find the story I was trying to tell, and write out my beats for that story over that weekend. When I went home, I actually had something!
So I went to work on the third complete rewrite with a whole new cast of characters, whole new setting and world. It was that December, the one that would change my life. I had gone to the home of my good friend—and in many ways mentor—Doug TenNapel to smoke pipes, have a beer and discuss our current projects. This is what we did on a regular basis. We sat on his back patio with pipes or cigars, hashing out our current stories. Except Doug always had something new, and had always recently sold one of his ideas to some big film studio and brought home six or seven figures, while I was always hung up on the same stupid plotline. “It’s close enough. Set a date, start drawing it,” Doug said. He was right. It being the middle of December, January 1st was my logical starting date. So it was decided. I would begin drawing Bearmageddon on January 1st of the next year.
About a week later I set off for my family’s home in rural Washington. As I mentioned, I had decided my brain needed a break from comics, from the constant obsession with story lines. I needed to put it down and relax then hit it full bore on the 1st.
My brother, Malachai, had grown up so much. He was now five and was spouting off words like crazy. He loved just making stuff up on the spot, pretending, imagining without any concern for logic or plot structure. It’s so easy now for me to see how he was exactly what I needed at that point in my life. He constantly wanted to play. Play ball, play video games, play hide and go seek. Then he asked me if I would play Axe Cop.
Usually when I tell this story I say the next thing I did was make a comic with him. But no, it didn’t actually happen that fast. What DID happen fast was the mental image I got the moment Malachai combined the words “Axe” and “Cop”. The character was born in that moment, but he didn’t leave my brain and come out of my pen for another couple days.
In fact the first, second and possibly third time Malachai asked to play Axe Cop, it didn’t happen. I had the mental picture, but other stuff kept happening. Other family members wanted my attention, it was time to eat, or I was just too lazy to get up and try to keep up with my brother who was 24 years my junior and had the energy level of a highly caffeinated gibbon.
It was about the fourth time he brought it up that I said yes. I wasn’t doing anything else and I had no excuses. In my head, I was already hearing this little voice telling me “this is a comic. We could draw this as a comic,” and another one saying, “no, just have fun, play, don’t make comics.” And that’s why I needed this to happen. I had forgotten comics were more than just struggle and pressure and never succeeding. They were supposed to be fun.
Another part of the story I’ve mentioned many times is that Malachai was simply combining the idea of “playing cops” with a toy fireman axe he had. He didn’t have handcuffs or a toy gun, so he was making due with what was available. In his mind he wasn’t creating a character, just creating a slightly different kind of cop than a normal old gun and badge cop. I asked him what kind of cop I would be and he pulled out a toy flute (actually a plastic recorder). I expressed my dissatisfaction at being given a flute while he had an axe, and he switched weapons without the blink of an eye. He didn’t care.
The first episode of Axe Cop was born in that short play time. There were more details of course, but the gist of it is in that strip. You see how Malachai, who chose to be Flute Cop, made the whole story alter so that in the end, being flute cop was awesome and it didn’t matter who had the axe. It was awesome, and I had to draw it.
This hadn’t happened to me in a long time. Being blindsided by a concept I was so in love with I couldn’t resist drawing it. I sat down and drew the first Axe Cop comic in under an hour. It was quick and sloppy. That was OK. I wasn’t doing it for a TV network or to get published, I was doing it for Malachai and me, and for our family to enjoy.
I felt a strange guilt about it. I already felt so behind on my next book. Two years and I had nothing to show for it. If I was going to be drawing comics, I should be drawing Bearmageddon, working on my book, not goofing off with this silly little inside joke between my brother and I. Despite all those feelings, I couldn’t resist Axe Cop’s call. The next comic ended up being two pages long. The next one another two pages. The next another two. Then I drew Axe Cop #0 with Malachai after he had started to give me back story for some of this stuff. In three or four days I had drawn eight pages and they had not been a laborious slog. They were a blast!
I drew them at night, usually when everyone else was asleep, sitting at the kitchen table with my laptop and wacom tablet (I knew myself well enough to bring my drawing tablet even if I had told myself I was taking a break from comics. Plus I had freelance to work on.). I remember sitting at that table at 3 in the morning, drawing Axe Cop #4, laughing so hard it physically hurt. The idea of this sad couple who had lost their children to illness being given “two thousand million” children, then placed on a snow planet, given only shovels to make igloos to live in was so painfully hilarious to me that it made me do that squeaky-crying sort of laughter that can only happen when you’ve completely lost control of yourself.
I shared the comics on Facebook and my friends and family seemed to like them, but there was no indication from the response that I had something with the potential to go viral.
I went home excited to draw. In the next couple weeks I hammered out the first 30 or so pages of Bearmageddon. On the side, my friend Anthony and I were working on a web site for Axe Cop. Anthony and I had made all the incarnations of our band’s web sites during its tenure in the northwest. We also had briefly started a small website design business together. Our plan was ultimately to create a Bearmageddon web site, but I had a theory that the first thing you make of anything is going to be crap, so I wanted to make a dummy web site to work out all the kinks of web comics before we put together Bearmageddon. So we decided to create AxeCop.com first.
By the end of January we were ready to put the site up online and test it out.
Next time: Going Viral (I know I said that last week but I changed my mind)
Ethan Nicolle is the co-creator of Axe Cop, writer/artist of Bearmageddon, animation writer and maker of children’s books. www.EthanNicolle.com