The Webcomic Overlook #155: Axe Cop
While it’s rare, there are times a webcomic becomes so popular that its fame eclipses any and all critical analysis. Around this time last year, Axe Cop was one such comic. The comic is famously written by a then 5-year-old kid, Malachai Nicolle, and illustrated by his older brother Ethan. Axe Cop went online in the waning days of the last decade (December of 2009). In the days that followed, it rocked the internet like a hurricane.
The initial reaction was overwhelmingly positive… sometimes, too positive. If you dared to mutter a bad thing about it, you incurred the wrath of rabid pro-Axe Cop fans, who — like a bunch of pre-teen girls reacting to Esperanza Spalding’s Grammy win — would label you as a bitter contrarian or a big meanie-head for picking on a sweet, innocent kid. (I should note that creator Ethan Nicolle was not one of them; from what I’ve seen, he’s far more receptive and accepting of criticism.)
But, as we all know, good times only last so long. Let’s face it, every single person who read Axe Cop thought, “Amusing, but no way this doesn’t get annoying after a while.” Eventually, the whole “playa hata” syndrome set in. Sentiment swung the other way a bit. People who liked Axe Cop were derided for being suckered into a cheap gimmick, and that the whole “child writer” thing was just a timid excuse for tiresome “random” jokes. So it goes.
I didn’t review Axe Cop back then… not because of the online hostility. I rarely review anything that’s less than a year old, and Axe Cop was two months old at that time. The only time I ever make exception is if there’s a pretty hefty archive in place (it wasn’t).
Waiting a year, by the way, works a little in my favor. Besides the furor dying down, Axe Cop has settled into a pattern of respectability. It scored a book deal with Dark Horse, a crossover with Dr. McNinja, and, more importantly, a mention in Rifftrax. Most of the initial emotions over Axe Cop have more or less died down, and webcomic readers, the fickle bunch that they are, have moved on to whatever new hotness is in store. (Not completely, though: compete.com tells me that Axe Cop still has a fairly healthy readership in the 51K’s.)
Of course, there’s a disadvantage to waiting this long, too. More than a year after its debut, does the world still need an Axe Cop?
Common knowledge says that campiness, especially as it relates to comics, is dead. Just look at Christopher Nolan’s popular Batman franchise. He has gone on record saying that “the world of Batman is that of grounded reality. [It] will be a recognizable, contemporary reality against which an extraordinary heroic figure arises.” This is far for the day-glo world of Schumacher, and very far from the “BIFF! POW!” world of the Adam West Batman. Comics have followed a similar pattern, scrubbing out elements of goofy cheesiness and replacing them with moments of grim reality. In The Ultimates, Mark Millar turned the Avengers into a team of tortured personalities with adult issues like wife-beating. X-Factor became a team of surly detectives, and X-Force a clandestine special ops squad. Under Ed Brubaker, Captain American became a Ludlum-esque spy thriller. Grant Morrison is typically the only guy playing around with concepts that are remotely campy… and most of the time these come off as tributes rather than gleeful comic book exaggerations free of self-consciousness.
So comic book campiness is dead. Or… is it? Merriam-Webster defines “campy” as “a style or mode of personal or creative expression that is absurdly exaggerated and often fuses elements of high and popular culture.” Do you know what fits this category? The whole “random” humor thing you find on the internet. You know: ninjas. Pirates. Robots. Zombies (the funny kind, not the Walking Dead kind.) While the goofiness of these memes are hard to find in print form, you will find an abundant supply of them in webcomics.
Of course, sometimes webcomic creators leaned on these kinds of jokes perhaps to mask either poor artistic skills, poor storytelling skills, or unfunny humor… but, hey, people eat this stuff up. Why put in any effort?
And then, one day, Axe Cop came along and shamed everyone who ever thought they were clever for making comics about pirates who were also zombie ninjas.
Let’s face it: most of these “random” comics were basically 20-year-olds acting like 6-year-olds, thus deriving a lot of the humor. But how do you stack up against a writer who actually is 6-years-old? Not too well, it seems. If you and I were to create a character with socks for arms who can throw boomerangs, then we’re trying to hard to be silly and “random.” But when a six-year-old kid creates “Sockarang,” it’s precious, delightful, and genuinely imaginative! Because the kid has no preconceived notion if it’s good or not, or if it’s an ironic statement or symbolic absurdity. To him, this is awesome, and thus, to us, it is awesome. And that’s a revelation.
When Malachai’s writing is paired with Ethan Nicolle’s art, is a potent and deadly combination… because the art in Axe Cop is fantastic. In fact, if Ethan’s art wasn’t any good — if he’d only known how to copy-and-paste the same template in Flash, or if he’d been barely proficient in MSPaint, or if it were Malachai Nicolle also doing the illustrations — then no one would be talking about Axe Cop. The very incongruity between the childish storytelling and the professional-grade art are what gives the comic much of its humor. The action scenes are faithful to what you’d find in superhero comics, and that makes them absurd. The scale and perspective in several scenes make the comic more thrilling, which is silly when you realize it’s about a giant egg named Eggy Eggy.
Ethan heightens the absurdity with clever panel layouts and a great sense of comic timing. There’s a nifty sequence where he introduces a new band of superheroes, and at the end, there’s “Army Chihuahua.” There’s just something about reading through the list of “macho names” (“Grey Diamond,” “Wolverman,” “Greystone”), and then panning down, seeing the name and the illustration of a stern-looking dog with a helmet, that gets to me. In another strip, he parses Malachai’s rambling story splendidly to give the final panel greater impact. Scenes just get more and more ludicrous until we settle on a fairly domestic image of Axe Cop, head on his desk, with the caption: “I’d get really bored.”
While Axe Cop is fun, it’s also pretty hard to beat after the first strip. The debut is strong, encapsulating everything great about the innocence and imagination of childhood. It’s “Kid’s Say the Darnedest Things: The Webcomic.” Still, there’s pretty much nowhere to go except downhill. Also, as in real life, it’s really hard to listen to a six-year-old telling stories for very long.
Kids are cute, after all, but their storytelling skills are for doo-doo. They are, after all, still learning. Thus, in Axe Cop, no plot development ever lasts too long and consequences are never lasting. Time does not exist; while a villain’s in the middle of a fight, the heroes can hop into a car, drive over to the weapons store, purchase some goods, and return to the fray with seconds to spare.
The mechanics of the comic world are uncomplicated, as if they were written by a child. (Which they were of course.) if you get blood on you or get bitten, you absorb the properties of the bleeder or biter no matter who you are. Axe Cop has no problem poisoning people, and, despite this underhanded tactic, he doesn’t see himself as a bad guy. And then there’s the whole preoccupation with babies and poop, the “What’s up with airline food?” of kid’s jokes.
Incidentally, Axe Cop includes some uncomfortable moments that you sorta excuse because, hey, it’s a kid writing it. He doesn’t know better. But still, there are some time I want to go, “Shouldn’t someone tell little Malachai that’s really inappropriate?”
Most of the joy comes from the unbridled enthusiasm Ethan shows when telling his stories. It’s hard not to smile when Axe Cop bellows, “Now it’s time to have the ultimate battle!” And the resulting sequence comes off like a kid emptying out his toybox and smashing every single action figure together in a wild battle royale. It’s like the opening sequence of Toy Story 3, only truer. Axe Cop, true to its title character’s name, is a comic with a whole lot of comical chopping and slicing and punching, but it’s nothing more serious than playtime. The toys, after all, will still be there after the battle is over, ready to be resurrected any time.
It does get tiring and repetitive, though, especially in long form. Which is why I think that the Ask Axe Cop feature is oftentimes better than the main story. Like Homestar Runner’s “Strong Bad E-mail,” Ask Axe Cop solicits readers for questions. Malachai answers them, and Ethan illustrates the results. The jokes are condensed and limited to one page, which is pretty much the optimal length anyone can typically stand to listen to a kid telling a story. It’s true: brevity is the soul of wit.
I can’t imagine Axe Cop going on much longer, by the way. Malachai turns 7 this year, which means he’s approaching that age when one starts becoming self-conscious. You can’t make a “Kid’s Say The Darnedest Things” when you’re no longer saying the darnedest things. Yet Axe Cop remains a very interesting and unique webcomic while it lasts: one that both throws current online trends into sharp relief and also lets us recapture the glory days of our unbridled imagination.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Posted on February 23, 2011, in 4 Stars, action webcomic, adventure webcomic, all ages webcomic, comedy webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Axe Cop. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.