Making Axe Cop #3: Going Viral

Going viral was one of the strangest and more surreal things I have ever experienced. The best way I can describe it is if you imagine yourself watching TV and the characters on the screen suddenly look at you and, not only acknowledge your existence, but think you are amazing. It creates a scary, strange feeling of both euphoria and disbelief. This can’t be real. This will end tomorrow. This is weird. What the heck is going on. Those are the thoughts that scamper through your head like hyped up chihuahuas at the dog park.

Twas the night of the State of the Union address. I was watching it at my friend, Doug’s house. That’s when I started getting crazy twitter alerts on my crummy little phone. The thing was going nuts. Every time I got mentioned or followed I got a ding, and the dings were dinging like crazy. It was like pop corn. It started slow, crescendoed, but never calmed down. I only had about 16 followers on the Axe Cop twitter, and suddenly they were skyrocketing.

My limited flip phone couldn’t really paint the picture for me of what had happened. I got home to my little rented bedroom with my day bed and got on my computer. My friend Anthony, who created with me (he really built it, I just provided the graphics) was on my instant messenger.

I was up all night that night. Twitter would give these little notifications when I did a search for the term “axe cop”. The words “12 new tweets,” “24 new tweets,” “16 new tweets” were popping up every few seconds. I’d click it and the list would expand. I couldn’t keep up. There was literally only four pages of Axe Cop online and they had seen more success then the 1,000 pages of comics I had drawn before them combined, and only in one evening.

The next morning was when Hollywood and the press started to contact me.

(I am posting samples of our conversation to give a picture of what it was like in real time, though I think we spoke on Skype that night and I don’t know how to retrieve messages that old on Skype.)


Entertainment Weekly making website of the day was one of the first big things to happen. Wired emailed me around that time too. They just kept coming. Comics Alliance, Mtv, CNN, it was nuts. In fact, it’s hard to even try to sort it out in my mind and type it all out. It’s like going on a crazy rollercoaster, then trying to describe the ride in detail after you have gotten off. What’s there to describe?  All I know is I was screaming and my face was flapping in the wind.


We were tracking down new links and posts to Axe Cop constantly. Google alerts were popping up like Viagra ads. Meanwhile the website wasn’t ready for this kind of traffic and it couldn’t handle it. We had this bizarre flash display for the comic that everyone hated. We were on one of those $15/year “unlimited bandwidth” plans. Apparently those don’t work for sites that get crazy traffic. All I know is after the site went into super tortoise mode for a while, it totally crashed and was gone for a full day or two in the midst of its biggest success. We lost all our stats during that time. I posted the comics to blogger just so people had somewhere to read them because requests were coming in like crazy. Our host said they couldn’t handle our traffic. We had to switch companies and pay for a dedicated server.

Did I mention I had around $116 in the bank at this time? Whatever I had, I didn’t have the money to pay for a dedicated server. $250/month. Before I had made a penny on Axe Cop’s success someone else was already getting paid. Anthony fronted me the money (he was smart and had a real job) and I immediately worked up a t-shirt design then posted it online for sale, even though it didn’t yet exist. Luckily people started ordering the shirts up and we had enough to pay for the server, to order shirts, ship them—and then some—in a day or two.

I don’t know why they did it, but Anthony and his wife Amy—who he had just married—took on the crazy task of running the online store. We agreed to a fee they would get per sale and they became my own little fulfillment company.


You can read the original blog from the first month of Axe Cop here.  The point of these posts I am sharing now is to paint a bigger picture of what was happening during those days. Stuff I couldn’t really talk about then.

I’m going to have to break this topic up into a couple more posts because so much happened. So, next time I’ll get more into what was happening with getting contacted by agents, journalists and all of that kind of stuff.


Making Axe Cop Chapter 2: The Day We Played Axe Cop

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 first.

By the end of January we were ready to put the site up online and test it out.

MySpace links?? This is old.

The first mock up I made in photoshop for the Axe Cop website.

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.

Making Axe Cop: Introduction

The Axe Cop Story in Detail

Creating Axe Cop was one of those things that sort of happened to me more than I made happen. It was a crazy whirlwind of an experience and now that it’s simmered down, Malachai is in Junior High and I’m a family man, I’ve looked back on the whole adventure with some fascination. So I decided I’d write a weekly chapter on the story of how Axe Cop happened. Most of you have heard the story of the Christmas visit when Malachai wanted to “play Axe Cop” with me. But I want to tell the whole story.

Why no new comics? For now, I’m not doing Axe Cop for a couple of reasons. First being financial. People aren’t buying them. I don’t resent this. I’ve been amazed from the beginning that Axe Cop became as popular as it did, and I get it, it’s a funny joke but not a series you want to invest yourself in for life. At least not most people.  It’s also the age Malachai is at, and the place I am at in life. Looking back, I never could have made Axe Cop if I had what I wanted in life.

I was 29 at the time and all I could think about was how lonely I was. I wanted a wife. A family. I hated being alone, and I was alone until I was 31. But if I had a family, Axe Cop never would have happened. I couldn’t have spent large amounts of time one-on-one with Malachai, traveling to visit him for entire months. Now that I have a family I see how hard it is to ever travel, and when you do travel, you are mostly wrangling kids. As much as I resented my singleness, it afforded me the ability to spend lots of one on one time with my little brother. Time I couldn’t spend these days unless I totally ignored my family for weeks at a time.

I also respect the art of not overstaying your welcome when you make a good thing. I wanted to make a good body of work while Malachai was still young, and we did that. I’m happy with what we made, and if there is never another page of Axe Cop made I’ll be satisfied. But I’m open to revisiting Axe Cop with Malachai from time to time. He has talked about finding the right kid to “pass the torch” to as well.

For now, Axe Cop is an awesome memory for both of us. We lived two states apart and thanks to that little webcomic, we got to spend way more time together than we ever would have without it. I don’t think many other brothers who are 24 years apart, living separate lives who get to see each other as much as we did when Axe Cop was on fire. So, since there’s no new material t post, I’m posting this.

I write this as an introduction. Next week I will start into the story from the days prior to creating Axe Cop and what led up to it. I asked myself if I would want to hear the story if it wasn’t me, and I think I would. I find “how we got to where we are” stories fascinating so why not share my own? Questions and input are welcome along the way. My plan is to post on Tuesdays, so stay tuned.

Also, if you would like to see the other things I have been working on, check out and consider joining me on Patreon.