[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at Hell Yeah '80s Marvel!]
After spending a few reviews discussing comiXology and how the Internet has affected comics, I feel like I’ve left webcomics in the lurch. The webcomic spectrum is as vast as the print comic spectrum, from one-panel gag cartoons to multi-chapter epics. I don’t read as many of the more complex webcomics as I’d like to for the sole reason that I keep forgetting to check up on them when the pace slows.
So naturally, after all of this ruminating, I decided to go out and buy the first volume of webcomic Axe Cop in print. To paraphrase Homer Simpson in The Simpsons Movie, “I can’t believe you’re paying to get something you see on the Internet for free!” However, there’s one excellent reason to buy the printed version of Axe Cop: it contains numerous annotations from artist Ethan Nicolle explaining the thought process behind the comic. Considering the process by which the book is made, this can be very enlightening.
Axe Cop is the creation of brothers Ethan Nicolle and his much, much younger brother Malachai, who was five years old when he began “writing” the comic. It’s a journal, essentially, of Malachai’s playtime ideas and fantasies. In the introduction to the “Moon Warriors” arc, Ethan explains that the two create stories while playing together, whether in person or over the phone; as a result, many of the characters come in pairs or are brothers themselves. As Malachai grows up, you can see how different hobbies and life events change his view of the world, often to hilarious effect. For instance, God and Satan start appearing just as he would have started Sunday School, while later episodes take a distinct scatological bent as he discovers poop humor.
Many of the characters are influenced by the creators’ own likes and dislikes. The range of references is incredibly broad due to the generation gap between the brothers (Ethan is old enough to be Malachai’s father). The “Ten-Ben Matanga,” for instance, comes from Malachai’s love of Ben 10. At the same time, the Moon Warriors resemble the main characters of Double Dragon, one of Ethan’s favorite games. There’s some interesting subtext when it comes to how the comic treats women: namely, there are barely any. The women who do appear are mostly mothers or babies, with the main exception being The Best Fairy Ever. As the book goes on, you can also detect an interesting baby subtext; while Ethan doesn’t mention it, I wonder if Malachai gained a baby sister during Axe Cop’s inception.
The book alternates between longer chapters and shorter “Ask Axe Cop” half-page or one-page gags. According to Ethan, the continuity between the two types of strip isn’t entirely solid, but characters do migrate from one to the other. The “Ask Axe Cop” strips are amongst the funniest parts, with my personal favorite being Axe Cop’s “Prayer for the Sharks.” You can watch Axe Cop’s descent into madness throughout these strips. While the main stories feature him as a fairly straightforward protagonist, the “Ask Axe Cop” stories paint him as utterly psychotic, albeit with a softer side when it comes to killing mermaids.
For me, however, what really sells it is the art. Nicolle’s black and white artwork is really beautifully done; Dark Horse’s printing process granted the pages a wonderful crispness. Ethan also uses the art to playfully make fun of the stories he’s been forced to draw, with characters pointing out inconsistencies or plot holes away from the narrator’s interference. The apex of the artwork comes during the “Ultimate Battle” arc, in which the main story alternates with the near-wordless tale of Baby Man tracking down dinner ingredients. It plays out like a Die Hard film (according to Ethan, this was intentional), with elements like a man in a baby suit and eggs with legs portrayed with grim seriousness. If you’re curious, the brothers did in fact put up one strip written by Ethan and drawn by Malachai, with somewhat messy results.
When I first heard about Axe Cop, I thought it might be a gimmick, and that Ethan Nicolle was just making up the part about Malachai writing it to get better press. But there’s a certain bizarre logic that separates Axe Cop from surreal and absurd humor created by adults. For instance, I personally dislike Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job because it feels like it’s lazily written by stoners and for stoners. In contrast, plot elements in Axe Cop -- like that getting splashed with swordfish blood gives you a swordfish head -- make a certain kind of sense, if you consider that a kindergartener came up with it.
Since the comic’s introduction a few years ago, Axe Cop has gone from an online quirk into a fully-merchandized brand. With full-color original mini-series from Dark Horse, two animated adaptations, and even a Munchkin expansion (which I’ve played -- it’s hysterical), Ethan mentions numerous times in the trade his concern that Malachai’s creativity might get exhausted too quickly, but I hope the series goes on as long as it possibly can. After a long, painful week, I need some good absurdism.