20 Questions Tuesday: 191 - Ethan Nicolle

It is a wonderful day when one of my requests for “doing a 20 Questions Tuesday” is actually accepted by someone I have never met in real life or online.  Today’s 20 Questions Tuesday is one of those days.  I sent out a pitiful email to Ethan Nicolle, the co-creator of the online comic Axe Cop and the creator of the online comic Bearmageddon.  If you have not read either of these comics, you should.  They are delightful.  Axe Cop is drawn by him and written by his younger brother (he was 5 when he started writing it), and is the best insight into the inner workings of a 5 / 6 year old, that has ever graced our world.  It is delightfully tangential.  Bearmageddon is his camp horror comic about bears going on rampages… think Piranha 3-D with laboratory tested and augmented bears, kind of like Deep Blue Sea on land.

His is an extremely talented artist.  His style is an exaggerated stylistic drawing that is very well grounded in reality.  Basically, his lines are fun and fun to look at.  Ethan has graciously agreed to answer 20 Questions here and let’s stop wasting his time and yours.  without further ado… onto the questions:

I am a map nerd and have my MA in geography, as well as loving a good story.  I was born in Oklahoma, moved to and grew up in Alabama, went to college in Kent, Ohio and then settled down in Columbus, Ohio.  Question 1:  What is your geographic story?

Born in Okanogan, WA… at some point lived in Canada somewhere when I was really young. My earliest memories are in Watkins, Colorado, living in a trailer park.  We then lived in a house in Bennett, Colorado.  From there we moved to Coquille, OR.  After that I lived around Coos County until i was 25 mainly in Empire and Lakeside (these are all very small towns) then in Coos Bay.  After that I moved to Vancouver, WA (just over the river from Portland, OR) then I lived in a van with the rock band I was in for a few months, then I lived in rat infested basement for a month in Portland, then I moved to Oregon City and lived in an attic over a garage until I moved down to Hollywood because I managed to get a show optioned at Cartoon Network.  I lived in Sylmar when I moved here and I now live in Glendale.

That is a whole bunch of the Pacific Northwest.  Question 2: Is there any place in particular that you consider to be “home” more than others?  For example, I spent most of my life growing up just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, but I truly and completely consider Columbus, Ohio my “Home.”

I usually say I am from Coos Bay.  I lived in and around that area the bulk of my life, from age 8 to 25.  It’s where most of my memories are from and it made me appreciate small town life.

Whence I was unemployed for a year and a half, I applied for a job in the Coos Bay area… I had a wonderful phone interview, and then did not hear anything after that… Anyhooo… So, since you are doing some stuff for Cartoon Network, is it as awesome as those commercials from the early 2000’s say it is?  Do you see Magilla Gorilla and Thundarr hanging out with Auggie Doggie and Doggie Daddy?  I bet that is awesome…  Hanna Barbera characters are awesome.

Question 3: What Hanna Barbera cartoon character would you love to hang out with?

I really only got to Cartoon Network for meetings from time to time.  I have not worked on a series there yet, I have only had some optioned.  But no, I have never seen actual living cartoon characters walking amongst the humans.  I think you have to have proper clearance.  As for what ones I might hang out with?  I think Magilla Gorilla and I would get along, though I would really like to hang out with, Hong Kong Phooey and Captain Caveman all together and just trade life stories.

Magilla Gorila, Hong Kong Phooey, and Captain Caveman? THAT’S a dinner party!

For those not “in the know” (myself included), and please correct me if I am wrong… “Optioned” means that a network/production company has purchase the rights to produce a show concept that you created. This, sadly, does not mean that the concept will make it all the way to our TV sets, but without being optioned, an idea cannot ever be on TV. —-The more you know

So for this exquisite dinner party where the definitive conversation of humanity’s future will be discussed by you, a talking gorilla in pink pants with suspenders, the number one super-guy, and a furry dude with a cape and a club, do you end the conversation with cake or pie?

Question 4: What’s you particular favorite, cake or pie?

Yes, an option is the network giving you a small amount of money for them to develop your idea for a small period of time (a year or two). After that time is up, if they don’t buy the rights they remain yours.  

I think I would order cake.  I like chocolate cake.  I’m pretty much a cliche of a fat guy.  Also I could make a joke once my face is covered in cake and say “cap-tain CAAAAAKE MAN!” which I’m sure would get a laugh out of Captain Cave Man.

You would be amazed at how opinionated people are about the Cake v Pie question.  As I said to another person I am currently in the middle of a 20 Questions Tuesday interview, people who choose pie, really like pie, but the people who choose cake would skin a kitten and sell family members for cake.  

I draw a bit.  And after a protracted hiatus (I am slowly but surely creeping back into after almost getting a minor in studio art in college, oh so long ago) I am finally trying to get some solid hours of pencil on page.  I knew when I was about 5 or 6, when I drew a fighter jet and was able to put a pilot and his seat in the little tiny cockpit, that drawing was something that meant a whole bunch to me.  Question 5:  When did you know that drawing was going to be a major part of your life? Was there a particular moment you can point to?

That really happened before I was cognizant.  My guess is at some point in my mother’s womb I scraped a drawing of a poop joke into my mother’s uterus wall and began laughing (gurgled laughing obviously) and that is probably when I came to that realization.  My mom says as soon as I could hold a piece of chalk I was on board.  When I got into preschool I had already been drawing constantly for a year or two, so I was drawing at an eight year old level (according to the teacher anyway).  I think that being better at something than other people perpetuates your investment in it, and since art is something I could always excel at, I always honed it and worked to get even better.  I actually feel like my learning has slowed down as I have been doing a lot of comics, because now I am so busy churning out books that I am not taking the time to focus my discipline in uncharted areas.  I learn new things here and there, but the real key to getting better is deliberately practicing elements of your craft you have not yet mastered.

Even though pushing yourself in new directions is the best way to stretch yourself, continued exercise and repetition is also a way to grow.  You may be selling yourself a bit short on the amount of growth that you have gone through.  I have noticed a growth in your story telling ability in the sequential art as you do more and more pages, but enough of the fanboi-ness here.  

So drawing for me is a wonderful exercise, but I have a question of motivation for you.  When I am inspired to draw, I can bang some lines out and feel really confident in the finished product. My question to you, my Question 6: is, how do you get yourself to draw when you are completely uninspired?  How do you motivate yourself to put the pencil to paper when you just don’t “feel it?”

I think it is important to have a general skepticism of doing anything based solely on feelings.  Feelings exist as indicators to add spice to live, but they are not good guides for decision making.  If you want to be a good artist, you need to practice drawing.  If you can only draw well when you feel like it, you are not ever going to be a professional.  A professional can perform their craft in demand, as needed.

When I was in a rock band I realized I could not write music on demand.  I to an extent I could get myself to work on writing more often, but I could  not churn out songs anywhere near the rate I could churn out comics pages.  Perhaps I could have with more practice, but I had reached a point where I could pump out comics at a much higher rate, and I got do it regardless of mood.  That is when I decided music is my hobby and comics was my career goal.  I think if your art is fully dependent on your mood, you are setting yourself up for failure to try to make that your job.  Make it your hobby, you will enjoy it more.

Though it is true there are times when you simply lack inspiration.  There are a few things I do to remedy things.  One is to always be working on a few projects, that way if one gets tiresome, you have something else to work on that feels fresher.  I also have a shelf full of books of art that really inspires me.  Look through Simon Bisley’s book of images from the Bible, a book of photos from the animal kingdom, or some books of art from various films (some of my favorites: District 9, Rango, Peter Jackson’s King Kong).  Also, artist’s sketchbooks can inspire you.  You also may just need a break.  Take a half hour and do something else, then try again.  Whatever you do, don’t just lay around waiting until you are in the mood.  You will do your best work when that mood strikes, but you must be able to generate good work even without it.

Awesome… I have asked that question of a bunch of different people, and the answers have been all over the place, but the gist of everyone’s response is to push past the ennui and just do some drawing… I know of some musicians that actually sit down and write some trite unimaginative schlock when they are uninspired, and that sometimes this exercise will get rid of the cobwebs and kick start the creative process.  Anyway… Back to the questions…

When I was a young-un I fell in love with John Byrne’s run on Captain America, and Captain America became “my comic book hero.” I can even remember (and I have stated it before in other 20 Questions I have done) the exact issue that drew me in… Question 7: Was there a particular character or, even more specifically, a particular issue of a book that really just let you know that comic books were THE thing for you?

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles definitely had a huge impact on me.  I distinctly remember picking up #13 of the Archie Series from 711 when I was a little kid and loving it.  I would practice drawing every image in the comic.  I recently found this back issue at Kevin Eastman’s gallery that was at Meltdown Comics for a while.  It really took me back.  You can see my influences all over those pages… the randomness, the mish mash of characters, the style.  Here is the cover of it:

Other comics that had a big impact were Calvin & Hobbes and the Far Side.  As I got older, the Maxx, Cyberfrog, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Squee all had a good sized impact, but I attribute a large amount of my influence to the Turtles, both the Archie series and the Mirage comics.

Great!  I just listened to a podcast (the Dork Forest with Jackie Kashian Ep 95) where Eastman chatted about starting out… It was delightful.  Question 8: Have you had the opportunity (especially since the success of the Axe Cop #1 published by Dark Horse) to meet any of your comic book industry heroes? and as a pre-follow-up question to that, Who are your comic book industry heroes?

Yes I have had the opportunity to meet and befriend many of my comic industry heroes.  It started with Doug TenNapel, who really became my Master Splinter in the industry and eventually my best friend.  Once I released Chumble Spuzz on SLG, Jhonen Vasquez became a friend and very supportive of my work.  Kevin Eastman has also been one of the nicest guys in comics to me and has taken time to give me lots of advice.  Those three guys represent a large influence on me when it comes to comics.  I have met a lot of other creators since. Countless.  And it is crazy when I meet someone like Erik Larson or Rob Liefeld who I used to read about in Wizard Magazine when I was in high school and they have heard of my work.  It’s somewhat surreal.  I think my favorite connection to be made with geek culture out of Axe Cop was the Mystery Science Theater 3000/RiffTraxx guys.  I’m only a geek for a few things, and MST3K is one of them.  Those guys are genuinely good dudes and Mike Nelson has become a trusted friend.  The coolest thing about meeting your heroes is finding out they are actually heroic.  This rarely happens, but when it does, you find a person in your life that makes reality feel bigger and your aspirations grow but also become more attainable.  Good heroes who are truly good people don’t just do good work, they cause people around them grow in their own potential as people.  I am really thankful to have seemed to have found a lot of these kinds of heroes.

That is pretty awesomely surprising that the some of the people you considered your heroes were actually heroic.  That, from what I have heard, is very rare indeed.  It is even rarer to meet a hero and befriend that hero.  That is pretty great stuff there.  

A bit more technical and traditional here, but… Question 9: What is your drawing process like? Are you still producing traditionally, or have you made the switch to digital?  If you are primarily digital, do you still follow a traditional process (e.g. thumbs, roughs, finished pencils, inks) or something radically different, and what tools do you use?

I started working all digital back when I made Chumble Spuzz for SLG.  At the time, I was just going to do it on that project because I was not trying to do real detailed artwork, I just wanted it to look like an animated cartoon in panels.  But I was surprised to see how detailed I could go with digital, and how no one could ever tell if my work was digital or not.  It was so efficient that I couldn’t go back.  I do work traditionally using digital though, I still layout my pencils and everything and my process is fairly similar, it is just more convenient and efficient.  I don’t thumbnail so much as I just do a really rough pencil of each page, then before I ink I do a more defined pencil where needed.  Because editing is so much easier in digital, the thumbnail process can be morphed into the penciling process, at least that’s how I do it.  Lately on both Bearmageddon and Axe Cop I have done some ink and brush work then scanned it in and worked it into the finished digital art, so sometimes I still use real ink, but rarely.

I find that I still have to at least start out traditional and then clean clean clean in the digital space.  Even for the fantasy maps I make, I always start with pencil on paper.  I, however, would drop this process like yesterday’s fish if I had a Cintiq… I would need to have piles of forgotten money laying around in the house prior to that being an issue.  Other people I have chatted with that work primarily in the digital space often blend together the thumbnail to pencil step

Question 10: My wife wants to know this, If you have a wife do you ignore her, and if you don’t have a wife would you ignore her if you did?… I am not sure what the wife is getting at…

haha is she really asking me this or was this one for you?  I don’t have a wife.  But obviously if I had one I hope I would not ignore her.  I have an awesome girlfriend and I definitely pay a lot of attention to her, which is one reason I have gotten behind schedule recently.  I could see myself going into periods of recluse during marriage when I am deep into a project, but hopefully I will try to combat those tendencies.

As far as the motivation for this question, it is a little of column A and a little of column B.  My wife was waiting on me to comment and then ask you a question so we could get Archer started up on Netflix… She was a bit impatient last night, and her question was all in good fun.  It does raise a more interesting specter though.  The issue of creative immersion.  When doing creative work it is sometimes necessary and at other times unintentionally unavoidable to descend into a near catatonic creative space.

Question 11: How often, when you are working, do you look up and notice it is 3 hours later than you thought it was?

That doesn’t happen to me a lot.  Only if I am REALLY into a project, but in general it has become a daily grind and my internal clock is always pretty well aware of what time it is.  All the Facebook and email distractions, as well as text messages and other things break my day up too.  Sometimes I think I should lock myself into a silent chamber to get more work done, but I don’t really want to become an albino comic artist cave man.

I kind of want to see a comic book about an albino artist cave man… it could be super meta… I know that if I get into the trees of a project, I can seriously lose time working on details.

So my mother-in-law has a family mantra that has stuck with me as a mantra to live by.  That particular mantra is, “Don’t let the fuckers get you down.”  I am planning on creating a family crest with that inscribed as the motto…

Question 12: Do you have any mottos, creeds, credos, adages, or mantras that are either family sayings or that particularly speak to you?

I’m an avid reader of G.K. Chesterton and his general theme of trying to see the world for how wondrous it really is rather than glossing over it and making everything small is something I really try to apply to my life. One quote is “It can be maintained that the evil of pride consists in being out of proportion to the universe.”. He says this right after telling a story about a boy who wishes he’s  a giant and he becomes bored with the world because it looks like just another toy.  His friend wishes to be a Pygmy and he never runs out of wonders even though he never leaves the tiny garden in front of the house.  We have a tendency to overlook the beauties and the robustness of life.  I really try to see the world through a microscope rather than a telescope, which is another Chesterton analogy.

Here we are at the seminal Question 13… the number 13 always makes me think of superstitions and rituals.  Prior to soccer games in high school and fencing bouts in college, I used to have a very distinct method/ritual to get ready.  Now I find myself doing some very regimented processes online to get ready to artistic things. Question 13: So are there any superstitions or rituals that you adhere to?

Well I am an active Christian so by some people’s definition I am insanely superstitious.  I practice the age old ritual of studying the bible, praying for the people in my life and that I would continually become a better man every morning at breakfast.  I think it is very important to pray to God daily and thank Him for as many things as I can think of, because I believe in the superstition of gratitude and treat it like a ritual.  Actually I honestly believe in God.  I also ritualistically sit down with good friends, smoke a pipe, drink a little whiskey and talk about life, God and politics.  I also participate in the ritual of communion.  I think without these things I would be a much more hollow person.  I know this question is geared more towards something like wearing the same pair of underwear the entire time I am working on a graphic novel, but no I don’t have any of those rituals.  I tend toward the traditions and rituals that have stood the test of time, the ones every generation says are old and tired and yet they stand firm with every passing fashion. 

It is interesting that you seem to be a devoutly Christian person (something I knew about you prior to starting this 20 Questions), yet are able to recognize that much of the trappings of Christianity that you ascribe to can seem like superstition and ritual for people who do not believe as you.  That makes it seem like your faith is one that has been investigated and internally questioned. Which, honestly, is all that I truly ask of people who are religious.  The people who infuriate me are the dogmatic unquestioning practitioners… the ones who spout off tired dogma without having once truly contemplated the meaning of their faith.  That being said, when I truly sat down and questioned my faith, faith did not win.

The depth of your answers has been rather delightful, and I have to say rather unexpected considering most of the work you have out there for people to look at is full of absurdity and whimsy.  Question 14: Do you feel that your current work is, overall, an accurate portrayal of who you are as a person? as an artist?  If not, why do you think there is a discrepancy.

Thanks I appreciate that.  I find any person who dogmatically clings to a set of ideas without questioning them obnoxious, and there are plenty of those in every camp, including the non religious.  As for my work… I think my work so far only represents one part of me, it is the part I find easiest to express: humor.  One work I have done I feel misrepresents me, that was my involvement in Jesus Christ: In the Name of the Gun.  I ended up apologizing for it.  My humor, being a strength, can also be a weakness, and I disagree with modern culture who claims that in comedy, nothing is sacred.  When people say that, they usually don’t really mean it.  What they really mean is nothing average Americans hold sacred is sacred.  There are plenty of topics they would never joke about.  I put humor on a pedestal with that project and I do wish I hadn’t done it.  I do hope to branch out and do some other types of stories as I get better at writing.  I have mainly stayed where I am comfortable (humor) because I feel like this is still practice.  I don’t feel like I have really done my great project and become the creator I wanted to become.  Maybe I never will, but I’ll always work toward it. 

I think that constant striving to be better, the “Maybe I never will, but I’ll always work toward it” mentality is what eventually takes people from the realm of merely “good” to the heights of “great.”. I have no doubt that with the creativity you are showing with your online properties, great is in your future.  Enough fawning on my part.  Seriously, I feel kind of ill after that.  

Now to a more industry related topic, Question 15: How do you see the digital marketplace and digital distribution changing the medium of sequential art (“comic books” I think is starting to be a narrow name for how the stories are delivered, but I think will take on the colloquial name for the method, much like Band Aid or Xerox)?  I ask this because I know that much of your success is due to the creation of a compelling property primarily in the digital space.

I think it will change things, but I don’t know exactly how yet.  I think there is an uncertainty in all forms of entertainment right now because we are in this metamorphosis between offline entertainment like movies, books, CDs and comics to Internet-based entertainment.  I think all the mediums know that the Internet is changing the way things are done and I don’t think any of them have nailed it down yet.  It is changing so rapidly it seems hard to find a good solid way of doing things.  Right now it is clear to me that for comics to succeed they need an internet presence.  Big name comics may be ok just releasing a preview, but I think indie comics, if they are trying to seek an audience, are fooling if they don’t use the great tool that is the internet.  The net is a way to reach people on a massive scale from your home, it’s access we never had before and all the old gatekeepers like publishers and studios are in a frenzy trying to understand how to handle the loss of power.  I started doing web comics not because I liked web comics, but because I made comics and wanted people to read them.  I couldn’t think of a better way to accomplish that than to post them online.  I wasn’t going to make any money anyway.  I am about as confused as most people how to really monetize this kind of thing.  It feels like a big ongoing experiment.  I make money but it’s not great money and it feels like a very fickle income to base my life on.  What it has done is gotten my name out to other industries like film, TV and animation.  As far as will comic books become obsolete?  I am guessing that the paper book will become an antique some day.  As tools to view these things develop and as new generations don’t hold any sentimental value or nostalgia for physical paper books, I think there is a good chance they will become pretty rare.  I don’t say that in any other spirit but just being honest with trying to see things go as they usually do.  I love books and I love owning them, but if I grew up only reading books on a Kindle I think I would consider physical paper books a real hassle.  I feel like I could write you an entire essay on this topic, but we will leave it at that.

Well, I hope that the model solidifies soon such that you are able to live comfortably off of your online products, and that your other work in more traditional media becomes more like vanity projects.  That would be a wonderful thing.  I have been a part of a few interesting conversations on the “new media” models that encompass fledgling artists all the way to Internet success stories like Jonathan Coulton and statistical outliers like the Louis CK distribution model that just happened.  I too could probably go on for days about this topic, but seriously, I don’t think it would be the most captivating 20 Questions I could think of.

Question 16:  So what digital properties do you follow? Podcasts, Web-Comics, blogs, vlogs, vid-casts, etc..

I listen to audiobooks from Audible.com and watch Netflix pretty regularly.  I listen to some podcasts, mainly talk radio shows I like that are podcasted after they air.  I don’t really read any web comics regularly though I do check in on Kris Straubs Chainsaw Suit from time to time.  I like Dr. McNinja but I like reading it in book form.  I have a few comic reading apps on my iPad but I don’t use them much unless I want to sample a comic I have been hearing about.  I have been doing most of my book reading on a Kindle. 

I have stated on this here blog before that I listen to about 35 hours of podcasts per week.  It is a sickness and the name of the sickness is “Shitticus Jobasucks.” Seriously, it is a crappy job that takes very little metal engagement, but enough about me and my digital consumption.

Question 17: Is there an absolute worst job out there that you can think of?  The one I think of is Assistant Crack Whore or Understudy to Meth Head Number 1.

Well barring prostitution and slavery which I do not consider legitimate jobs, I think the most miserable job would be a job where you have to stay completely still, or do one very monotonous thing over and over again without getting to listen to a radio or talk to a co-worker.  I think that kind of work is degrading and I feel sorry for anyone who has to do it. 

Sadly, in many ways you just described my position… Very monotonous and with a cadre of co-workers who are, in many ways, duller than doorknobs… and hyperbole is the funniest form of humor ever… In effect, you do not envy me… just great…

Well, turn about is fair play… so Question 18: Anything you want to ask me?

What do you do for work?  And do your co-workers read your blog?  I bet they are more interesting than you give them credit for.  I bet if you literally worked alone in a room full of door knobs you’d begin to miss them.

For the record I work for the state of Ohio in the DOT’s geotechnical engineering department.  I am the geographic information systems specialist.  My job is to oversee all the historical bore hole locations being digitized and create the digital GIS files for the newly drilled bore holes.  My current coworkers, as far as I know, do not know of this blog, and, truthfully they are more interesting than doorknobs.  One of the gentlemen I work with is quite possibly the angriest man in the world, and he has reason for it… to a point.  That being said, my office has one door, no windows and is tucked around a corner such that if anyone doesn’t NEED to see me, they do not have to.  There was a 3 to 4 week period where my boss didn’t speak to me, just because there was not a reason to turn the corner and say something to me.  So, yes, it is technically more interesting than a doorknob storage room… but not by much.

Question 19: So, what are you taking away from these 20 Questions that you did not bring in?

This is a really long interview haha.  But I got to answer some questions I have never answered before and I think people who want to know more about what makes me tick will get enjoy it, if any of them are out there.

It is a long process, but I hope it was not arduous or burdensome.  The idea behind the 20 Questions is to really drill past some of the typical questions and smurf out how you tick.

The last question is vague and nebulous and wonderfully open ended…  Question 20: What’s next?

No it was cool, I had fun.  What’s next… well, there are things I can talk about and things I can’t.  The big thing that is very close is March 28th the third volume of Axe Cop will be released by Dark Horse Comics.  After that, in July we will begin to release the new miniseries titled Axe Cop: President of the World which is another three part series that continues where Bad Guy Earth left off.  I know the Steve Jackson wants to do a Munchkin Axe Cop expansion pack down the road so that will be cool.  I will also be attending conventions including Wonder Con this weekend and Emerald City Comic Con at the end of month (Malachai will also attend that one).  Outside of those things, there are things I would love to talk about that are pretty exciting but I just can’t mention them publicly yet.  Lots of potential awesomeness.  Thanks for the interview!

OK, seriously?  Seriously?  This was soooooo much fun for me, and you have been more than patient with me!  This has taken a bunch of your time and you have been absolutely wonderful throughout this entire experience.  Thanks so much for your generosity!  The Internet is an amazing place

To recap:
How frakkin cool was that?
I mean, Come ON!  That was bad. ass.!
The Plantar Faciitis is quite annoying
Annoying in a painful way
The 3 year old little girl is still awake
It is 10:53 pm right now
Ethan finished question 20 right under the wire!
Thanks so much!
I am looking into IA and UXD as a new potential path
Google it your damn selves
Tomorrow I get to go take pictures of holes in the ground…. from the inside
It is like a colonoscopy…. FOR THE EARTH!
I need to finish this up and get to bed
Good night all
Have a great weekend everybody