Ethan Nicolle is the creator of the hit web comic and print series Axe Cop, which he creates with his 7 year-old brother Malachai. Published so far into three volumes and a miniseries by Dark Horse Comics, Axe Cop has won multiple comic industry awards for web comic of the year, and has received widespread critical acclaim from several media outlets including Entertainment Weekly, CNN, NPR, Wired, Maxim, and MTV. Ethan Nicolle was also nominated for an Eisner Award for his previous graphic novel series Chumble Spuzz, published by SLG Comics. Ethan currently is publishing more Axe Cop along with his new web comic series Bearmageddon, which already has a fan base of nearly 50,000 readers. He has also had multiple animated TV series optioned and has worked with Cartoon Network and Disney TV.
Three years ago I moved to Hollywood from Oregon City after I got my first animated TV show optioned by Cartoon Network. I originally came from a small town on the Oregon Coast called Coos Bay and was one of those kids who knew from before he was potty trained exactly what he wanted to do with his life. I wanted to tell stories by drawing cartoons.
When I came to Hollywood, I met with Pete, my new manager at the Gotham Group who had represented me in my deal with Cartoon Network. I sat in his office and he asked me what else I had to pitch. I had come to town knowing full well that even though I’d had a TV series optioned, chances were still slim it would get me anywhere, but the doors were now open. I was still making my living mainly on monotonous Flash animation jobs, making just enough to get by, and spending all the spare time I could afford drawing comics. I struggled to explain the few ideas I had but I promised him they were really cool. He grabbed a bookmark and wrote something on it, then set it in front of me. On it, it said “Save the Cat.”
“Get that book,” he told me. I had never heard of it. I have always been the kind of guy who tries to recognize when someone who knows what they are talking about gives me advice, I should take it. I had made it this far in my career largely on following the advice of my hero turned best friend Doug TenNapel, creator of Earthworm Jim. He’d pumped out 10 graphic novels, created multiple animated series and video games, and sold five films based on his books. So I took the advice and got the book.
I had been through some of the well-known books on writing but for the most part they seemed to pretzel my stories into insane Celtic knots of confusion. It always felt like when writers tried to explain storytelling to me, they were not trying to help me out so much as they were using the opportunity to floss their knowledge of Hollywood screenwriter lingo, name dropping famous storytelling gurus and going into tangents on esoteric, theoretical concepts, but never even attempting to boil things down and just bluntly attempt to explain what a story really is.
When I read Save the Cat!®, I was amazed. Here was a screenwriting book for a simple dude like me. Blake Snyder, though brilliant in his own right, had not made the book about his own brilliance. He had made a book that scraped away the nuance and explained, in very simple but inspiring terms, what a story really is. For the first time in my life, the idea of a story was beginning to make some sense to me.
I have heard people accuse Blake of being too “Paint by Numbers” in his approach, but that is what I loved about him. Unlike the guy in an obvious emo band who, when asked what genre of music he plays, says “we really can’t be categorized,” Blake was just fine with stripping away the BS and admitting that no matter how deep a story is, all good stories follow the same basic path. He did not try to dress up his theories with pretentious rhetoric so that he would be regarded as a brilliant theorist. I have no doubt he could have done that, but instead he chose to humble himself before something he saw as bigger than all of us: Story. He believed that story is real, it is something that exists, is true, and is not just memes and ideas buzzing around at random, but when done right would sing to the heart of mankind for all time. Unlocking it was the most exciting thing in the universe to him and he happily paid it forward.
I had been working on a graphic novel that really was my idea for what I thought would be the most insane, fun movie ever made. I called it Bearmageddon. It was a rare moment when I had come up with a title that instantly made a person interested in the story, but the problem was, I kept changing the story. I tried all sorts of different ideas. I used the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet over and over, note cards, half-finished scripts. I had one that took place in the future, one that was about a Dad and his son, one that was about a hunter… with every varied draft it became another mess.
I signed up for one of Blake’s workshops in Los Angeles. I was drawn to the idea of a small class, limited to 12 people, in a room with Blake Snyder. Financially, doing so was risky for me at the time because I was really not making very good money, but I really wanted to crack my story. What I didn’t realize when I got to the class was that I was supposed to have one of my stories there, ready to be beated out by that evening. My Bearmageddon concepts had all fallen flat. I had nothing but a title and a lot of defeat. So when Blake asked me what my idea was, I just told him in a really basic, messy way what I wanted it to be. After I stumbled over my words and told him about three different disjointed and incomplete ideas, a light seemed to go on in his head and he said, “Oh, it’s Shaun of the Dead with bears.” He was exactly right. A light went off in my head too.
I found Blake immediately inspiring. He truly loved what he did. He was the most excited person in that class, and I think he enjoyed it more than any of us… who all loved it. Not just a little, but a lot. Any doubt I’d had about the money I had spent to attend was gone about 10 minutes in. By the end of the day I had a whole new version of Bearmageddon with every beat filled in.
That night I bought Shaun of the Dead. I had seen it before, but I wanted to study its structure and pinpoint what Edgar Wright had done to fill each beat of the story. I wrote what happened in every scene so I could see the map of the film right there in front of me. I had done this weeks earlier with Speilberg’s War of the Worlds, which, though I didn’t like ending, I loved how the action built and wanted to get a feel for that structure for my own apocalyptic tale.
The next day (the second day of the two day workshop) I pitched my story to the class and Blake had me work on my story with Jose Silerio. The final part of that day, we all did final pitches. It was amazing to see how everyone’s ideas had transformed. I stood up in front of the class and gave my pitch, which was supposed to be (I think) 10 minutes but Blake warned me when I was about 5 minutes over the limit. I didn’t even have a story the day before, and now I couldn’t shut up about it. When I finished, Blake congratulated me on pitching the strangest story he had ever heard in a workshop, and let me know he thought it was great.
I excitedly dove into my story and cranked it out. I still struggled with it, being a novice, but finally I had an entire story and was just about ready to start drawing it.
A couple weeks after that workshop, a friend of mine who I had introduced to Save the Cat! emailed me and asked me if I had heard about Blake. He had provided a link, which I clicked, and saw the shocking news that he had passed away. It was so out of left field I was in total disbelief. I had just seen this guy, overflowing with more life than I had seen in most anyone, only weeks ago. I believe I attended the last workshop he ever taught. It’s hard to use the word luck in light of something so tragic, but if I had “waited until next time” there would not have been one.
I had set a goal to start drawing Bearmageddon and releasing it as a web comic at the start of the next year. But over that Christmas break I created a comic with my 5 year-old brother that unexpectedly rocketed me into success called Axe Cop. Bearmageddon took a back seat while a little comic I had made as a joke with my 24-years-younger sibling went viral and became my job, winning me multiple awards in the comics industry, putting me on the map in Hollywood, and scoring me a multiple book deal with Dark Horse Comics, the third largest publisher in the industry.
But I held on to Bearmageddon, and as I got the hang of Axe Cop, I got back to it and started to do both. Now, with an established audience, I had a head start. I launched the Bearmageddon website on August 3rd, 2011, and have been releasing two pages a week ever since while drawing Axe Cop comics for the web, print, and more. I have never been busier, and my life has never been so exciting.
I wish Blake could see the strangest story he’d ever heard come to life. And who knows? Maybe he can see it. I don’t know exactly how all that works. But the guy left a legacy behind and a real gift in the three Save the Cat! books. I was recently reading the latest installment, Save the Cat! Strikes Back and memories of Blake excitedly dancing around the room explaining all these ideas with the biggest grin on earth came back to me. Almost like Pete’s Dragon, Blake popped into my life and helped me out, then said goodbye. I know that he’s done that for a multitude of people. When Bearmageddon is done, I will be dedicating the book to him, and every story I write from this day forward will be thanks to the simple but rich advice he gave in his books and in his workshop.