Steve Morris wants to know "What's so funny about funny books?" So each week in Killing Jokes he'll be examining humor in comics, from titles that are meant to be funny to jokes inserted in otherwise completely serious books.
Axe Cop is one of the most singularly brilliant ideas to hit comics over the past fifty years. Let’s not get this wrong. At no point are you to pause, look away from your screen and think to yourself/call a friend and say “Hey, is Axe Cop NOT a singularly brilliant idea?” Because it is sheer genius. The comic was conceptualised by artist Ethan Nicolle, who – while joining in imaginary games with his younger brother Malachai – realised that the stories his brother invented using simple toys like an axe or police badge were actually perfectly suited for comic-books. He sat down with his brother and a collection of different toys, from stuffed animals to action figures and fancy dress and watched as Malachi made up crazy stories, which kept going and going through shocking reveals and character switch-arounds. Instead of a story which had to be linear, Malachai could at any moment kill off a character and replace him with another or turn a human into a dinosaur or do anything he wanted.
That creative freedom is what gets people interested in comics in the first place. Instead of spending millions of dollars on CGI effects and paying Jessica Alba to look vaguely glassy-eyed, comic-book creators only need their imagination and pencils to create outlandish, crazy scenes and stories. And yet many of them refuse to do so. If you look at the most popular stories of all time –- Watchmen, for example –- you notice that instead of creators using comics to create wonderful nonsense, the majority of the industry actually seems dead set on recreating gritty reality for people to dwell in. Comics can be whatever people want them to be, and yet hardly ANYONE ever decides that comics should be about biker unicorns that hunt down leprechauns for sport (note to Editor –- please hire artist to draw the aforementioned scene, I think I’ve just hit narrative gold).
Axe Cop isn’t scared to be crazy. The easily bored mind of a five-year old is perfectly suited for a comic-book series, or at the very least a webcomic series, because there’s always something new to add on. Even when the evil has been vanquished by the eponymous hatchet-wielding officer, Malachai can just say “AND THEN SOME EVIL DOLPHINS SHOW UP” and then, well, some evil dolphins have to show up. As long as Malachai can keep thinking of new things, Ethan can keep the stories ticking along at a quick pace. This is where the humour of the series lies – the pacing. When it’s kept tight, the jokes flow quicker and harder. But here’s something: Ethan and Malachai are experimental with their approach, taking ideas from their gaming sessions and transporting them into short comics, long comics, short pieces that address the reader, and fake ‘Q&A’ segments. I really admire Ethan’s creativity for how many different approaches he’s willing to take towards a joke or two. Yet it gives us a chance to see how pacing in a story can affect the humor.
The first Axe Cop trade is made up of one-page stories and three/four panel strips. Short, deft content, basically of the style you can expect from webcomics anywhere. Achewood and Hark, A Vagrant don’t tend to use more than eight panels for a story, while other webcomics like Three Word Phrase tighten things even more. Axe Cop initially starts out in a similar fashion, which means Malachai’s shift in story or character hit the reader within seconds and throw them out of sync for a moment. That’s the moment where the joke strikes best, and the reader can then shake their head free of the silliness before reading the next strip. If the series were concerned with developing characters, like Achewood is, then you could understand the need for longer, more decompressed storytelling. But Axe Cop doesn’t have proper characters, and compression is vital in keeping the energy of the series going.
The second Axe Cop trade tries something else. It’s a long-form story, originally published as three full comics and compiled together into a single long-running narrative. And it’s kinda interesting to see how the punch of Ethan’s editing is lost when the story has to last a specific amount of time. Previously Ethan could take Malachai’s impassioned acting and turn it into a story as long as the joke; if the punchline is Axe Cop killing something, Ethan can fix it into a three-panel story and tightly compress all the components of the joke. The more he forces into a strip, the tighter and more tense the false sense of perspective becomes. One of the recurring jokes in the series is that the narrator is essentially Malachai, who bluntly observes everything that happened, no matter how ridiculous it is. And the more characters and plot twists Malachai has to narrate upon, the funnier his faux-serious direction sounds.
But with Axe Cop forced to last a specific number of pages, and a greater number of pages, that hyper-intense storytelling slows down and the jokes become less frequent. It’s a case of Lost syndrome really. The writers for that show started off with no idea what their story was going to be (and they didn’t, you guys. They didn’t.) but as soon as they did start to put things into place? The network told them that the series would last an indefinite period of time. As a result, the writers had to mix plot developments with interminable filler/Kate storylines, which diluted the core content. Bad Guy Earth is rather similar. After becoming aware that he had about seventy pages to fill, Ethan was faced with the job of taking his short-term, high content stories and turning them into long-term, high content stories. And I’m not saying he doesn’t manage to turn the concept and work it into this extended narrative.
Take a look at how the jokes play out though. The very first page is a sequence with Axe Cop drinking from a cup. It’s then made apparent that this cup is actually a sentient being called Mr. Cup, whose brains were the liquid. By drinking from the cup, Axe Cop has caused Mr. Cup to become brain-dead.
This surreal twist, which usually would happen in three panels, now takes a page and a half to conclude. The joke still works, but because it has now been stretched, the punch has faded and weakened. This tends to be the case throughout the story. It’s an interesting case to look at: Malachai’s ideas are still really funny and Ethan’s pencilling is, if anything, even better than before and yet the jokes don’t hit home as hard. When you’re next looking at a short comic strip, think about how you’d take it and extend it for another twenty-two pages. It is REALLY difficult. And that’s because structure is all-important. Garfield cartoons don’t work if they last anything more than a couple of panels. It’s how they were designed to work. The immediacy has to be replaced with something else, and then a different style of structuring and layout has to be put into place.
Likewise, take Spider-Man and put him into a self-contained, three-panel story. Almost always, it’s going to feel like you’re selling the character out. Over the course of a three-panel strip, readers need a certain amount of intensity to wring the jokes out and grab a reaction from the reader. Over the course of a seventy-page storyline, Axe Cop simply wasn’t structured to have that same power. It’s another reason why comics are so singularly fascinating as a medium: even the slightest changes can radically impact upon the story.
Steve Morris is the head and indeed only writer for Comics Vanguard, the internet’s 139th most-favourite comic-book website. You can find him on Twitter at @stevewmorris, where he unleashes might on a regular basis. His favourite Marvel character is Darkstar, while his favourite DC character is, also, Darkstar. I'm on Team X-Men, you guys.