Making Something out of Anything by Ethan Nicolle

Ethan Nicolle

I create a comic called Axe Cop with my 5 year old brother, Malachai. He "writes it" and I turn it into a readable comic book. It's a fun process and when Script Frenzy invited me to do a cameo article I figured this would be a good place to really talk about the process. One thing I want to make clear before I get into this is that I don't want to take away from the fact that my little brother has a brilliant mind. He is a hilarious kid and he never ceases to amaze me with the things he comes up with. That said, turning a 5 year old's ideas into something somewhat coherent is an art form all it's own and it's one I really have come to enjoy.

I think I could best classify it as a form of comedy writing vaguely similar to what the guys on Mystery Science Theater 3000 do. The creator is given something that is conventionally ignored (they use bad movies, I use the insane ramblings of a five year old) then it is up to us to sort of re-present it in a new and entertaining way. This is something we have to do all the time in writing. A good story is always comprised of some cliches, so consider this a lesson in making the best of something you're stuck with, even if it's 3 act structure or a moral premise.

Something I love to do when I visit my (much) younger siblings is what I call "squiggle drawings". They will draw squiggles in my sketch book and then I will try to turn these squiggles into imaginative creatures. The theory is that there is no wrong line, and I can make a fun piece of art out of anything I am given. Here are some of my favorite examples.








My approach to these drawings is the same as my approach to turning Malachai's stories into entertaining comics. I think these principles could be applied to any situation where you are trying to write or visualize something that seems to be generic or lacking. These are some of the things I think about:

  • Think of the most obvious thing, then don't do it: When I look at most of these squiggles, the most obvious thing almost always jumps out... usually it's a worm. Whatever it is, I skip that thought and try to find the next idea. Same with when Malachai gives me his story, I think of the most obvious way I could present it, then throw that in the trash. It is easy to fall in love with an idea because you thought of it, but often you thought of it because it was obvious. This is not a rule, only a wise practice. Sometimes you will find that the obvious choice was the best choice, so in that case do the obvious thing, but not in an obvious way.

  • Play with the order: In the drawings, before starting I find objects that look like different things and I try to decided on three main "pieces" before I start to draw. Usually I find some sort of head, some sort of body, and some sort of foot or fin. When Malachai give me his stories he tells them all out of order. He overlaps himself and will retell one part a different way the second time he tells it. So I look at what I have and I try to find my beginning, my middle and my end. Usually I also try to find the "punch line." I find what makes it a story and then I piece it back together

  • Give it flavor: Even if you go with the obvious choice, you must give it it's own flavor. Give it it's own little story. When Malachai gave me the character Uni-Man (a man who became so smart he grew a unicorn horn) I chose to make him a quiet, nerdy guy with a bow tie and curly mustache. I did not do the obvious thing and draw a super hero with a unicorn horn. In the snail drawing above, from the spiral line I was given a snail was the obvious choice, but I gave it it's own flavor. This snail is some giant alien snail from some other planet, and while we do not understand exactly what is happening, we know something is going on, and we have been given more than just a snail, we have been given something with it's own little story.

  • Treat it with respect: I think one of the things that draws people to the images above and to comics like Axe Cop is seeing an artist really treat with respect something someone would normally ignore. I did not just turn these squiggles into sloppy drawings... I went in and I made them into real pieces of art. Someone who does this kind of thing brilliantly is Dave Devrie's on his site, Monster Engine. The scribbles and banter of a child is something that an adult usually stands above like a giant. But when you make yourself a pygmy and stand beneath life's little things and look up, you often find yourself surrounded by a giant new world.

  • Have fun with it: Make this a high priority. The lesson I learned with Axe Cop is that, if it was fun for me to make, chances are it will be fun for others to read.

  • What you are starting out with may not be exciting or interesting, but don't let that deter you from embracing it and making it your own. There is wonder in all things, you just have to be willing to seek it. As my favorite author, G.K. Chesterton puts it "The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder."

    ETHAN NICOLLE is from a small town in Oregon, with no formal training
    in art, he first self published his own comics in high school. After
    working on obscure comic books like Creep and Puppet Terrors, and his
    own debut graphic novel the Weevil, Nicolle’s humor series Chumble
    Spuzz was picked up by Slave Labor Graphics (Johnny the Homicidal
    Maniac, Milk and Cheese). The series gave him the honor of special
    guest at the Alternative Press Expo in 2008, and was nominated for an
    Eisner Award for Best Humor Publication in 2009. Ethan Nicolle
    currently has an animated pilot optioned at Cartoon Network, and
    creates the acclaimed Web comic Axe Cop with his five year old brother
    Malachai.