You know who never gets writer's block? Five-year-olds. Probably the only reason they aren't all prolific novelists is they don't have the patience or know-how to do the typing.
Lucky for 5-year-old Malachai Nicolle, he's got his 29-year-old comic illustrator brother, Ethan, to sketch his imaginings. Malachai is 8 now, but when he was 5, he created Axe Cop, an ax-wielding, dinosaur-killing champion of awesomeness who, thanks to
Ethan's illustrations and guidance, now stars in six comic books and soon will have his own late-night animated TV show on Fox.
In December 2009, L.A.-based Ethan was frustrated with his efforts to break into the comic book industry. He had written and illustrated a critically acclaimed comic, Chumble Spuzz, but still had to work two day jobs to support himself, both of which laid him off right before Christmas. He was looking forward to spending a quiet holiday with his family in Washington, bonding with his brothers and sisters, and starting fresh in the New Year.
Then one afternoon, while Ethan and Malachai were messing around with some toys, Axe Cop was born. “What we played together that first day is pretty much what happens in the first episode, with the dinosaurs and the blood and everything,” Ethan recalls. “As soon as he said the word Axe Cop, I got an image of the character, and as we played I just kept thinking, 'This would be SO funny!'”
Ethan stayed up late that night sketching out Axe Cop's first adventure. The family loved it. He was sure they were all biased, as family members tend to be, toward the creations of their own, but he put the first comic up online and BAM. It went viral. By January, he and Malachai had enough comics to launch the Axe Cop website. Their fan base grew and they added Ask Axe Cop, where readers can ask Axe Cop questions that he answers through a short comic strip, and Axe Cop Presents, where other characters Malachai creates come to life.
Here's a video of Ethan and Malachai's writing process:
By December 2011, Dark Horse Comics had published a collection of the original Axe Cop comics and Ethan was able to support himself as a comic book artist for the first time. In 2011, Dark Horse asked Ethan if he thought they could manage a 75-page, three-issue miniseries. Ethan figured they probably could.
He used some of the book advance to go up to Washington and brainstorm Axe Cop with Malachai, one hour each day. “One day we pretend to be good guys, the other day bad guys,” explains Ethan. “It's all playtime. Malachai has to be having fun to write. We play with toys, paint them and use them to be certain characters.”
When I ask how Ethan remembers the events of their playtime and translates then into a longer narrative, Ethan explains, “I record with a video camera or I take notes. Sometimes I'll write down brainstorms in front of him, like, 'Well, if this does that, what are the possible things that could happen?' A lot of times he gives me different outcomes and I choose my favorite.”
Early on in the process, Nick Weidenfeld, the head of program development at Adult Swim, approached the brothers about turning Axe Cop into a TV show. For various reasons, Adult Swim ended up passing, as did Cartoon Network. When Weidenfeld moved to Fox to spearhead its new late-night block of animated programming, called “ADHD,” however, he remembered Axe Cop, and this time the deal stuck. Ethan quickly found himself in a TV writers room brainstorming Axe Cop adventures with some of the top creators in animated television. Whenever they hit a pothole, however, they'd call Malachai.
“During one session we were trying to figure out how to put more conflict into an interaction between Telescope Gun Cop and Axe Cop at the fruit stand,” Ethan says. “So we called Malachai and he just went off for about 20 to 30 minutes telling us this giant fight. By the time he was done, all the people in surrounding offices had come out to listen and crowded around the table. You could hear him running around the room jumping on his bed. Then he suddenly goes, 'That's it. I'm done.' And suddenly everyone started clapping.”
Another reason 5-year-olds usually don't get book deals is that the subjects that appeal to them often don't appeal to anyone else. But at conventions, Ethan and Malachai are approached by fans of all ages. Many are fathers and sons, and the dads are as enthusiastic about Axe Cop as the kids are. “I think we're coming out of that Generation X period of trying to make superheroes dark and realistic,” reflects Ethan. “Like Batman. We have to know why and how everything happened. Axe Cop kinda says none of that's important. We just want to have fun, and I think people have been kind of hungry for that.”
Malachai doesn't seem like he's about to slow down the fun anytime soon. “I really want to make an Axe Cop video game,” he says excitedly on the phone. “Maybe like Axe Cop Mindcraft, or an Axe Cop puzzle where you have certain missions or you have to build towers for defense. Or you have a capsule to throw stuff! Or…”