By Kevin Agot
Ethan Nicolle is a young, creative genius on the rise. I was first introduced to his work with his inaugural darkly-clothed graphic novel about insect-alien possession, The Weevil. However, Ethan’s true colors shine with his wildly-comedic, second original graphic novel, Chumble Spuzz: Kill the Devil from Slave Labor Graphics. I recently did a review of this book in my column which you can easily find by checking out The Whirling Spinner Rack. Chumble Spuzz is one of the funnest and funniest books I’ve read in some time. Ethan was kind enough to take time out for this interview.
Kevin Agot, CCdC: Please explain what your new graphic novel, Chumble Spuzz is all about.
Ethan Nicolle: Chumble Spuzz is about two friends named Gunther and Klem who win a pig at a carnival. The pig happens to be possessed by Satan. Gunther, having never heard of Satan finds out about him for the first time and decides that someone really ought to kill the guy because he sounds like a real douche bag. They round up some friends, including the foul-mouthed monkey preacher Reverend Mofo, and their gun toting compadres General Woodchuck and Kernel Corn Nut. The book also includes a second story called Salmonella, which includes an origin story for Cookie and the tale of a chicken who really wants cookies from a blood drive, but they won’t let him in because of Salmonella.
CCdC: Your first graphic novel was The Weevil, a darkly, serious themed book about possession and control in a world inhabited by creepy, otherworldly bug-beings. Chumble Spuzz is a light-hearted, ridiculously, crazy, mad romp from earth to hell and back to save a pig. Is there a reason for exploring such wild, thematic extremes in your storytelling?
EN: Well, I think I bit off more than I could chew with The Weevil. I just didn’t know what I was going for. I wanted to write this exciting, action packed, yet meaningful story, and while I sort of did that, it was messy. It was a total learning experience. I put so much work into The Weevil, when I got done I wanted to have some fun. Oddly enough, I had started writing Chumble Spuzz at the same time as the The Weevil. I wanted The Weevil to be a graphic novel, and Chumble Spuzz to be a flash cartoon. After I finished the Weevil I had about 3 to 4 minutes of animation done on my Chumble Spuzz cartoon and I decided to do a Chumble Spuzz comic also. The animation was taking too damn long, and I wanted to get this thing out into people’s hands, and comics seemed like a good route to go. The goal with the Weevil was to make a super detailed, well written graphic novel. With Chumble Spuzz, the goal was to just really to just pump the thing out, and I drew the 80 paged Kill the Devil in less than 3 months, then added Salmonella later.
The simple answer is this… outlandish humor has always come naturally to me, and I am better at cartooning than traditional illustration. So with the Weevil I was trying to do something I wasn’t polished enough to pull off — Chumble Spuzz was just natural for me.
CCdC: Who were your inspirations for writing and art when you were a “little creator” growing up? (Doesn’t have to be only from comics…)
EN: I started out loving animation and I used to study the crap out of the animation book by Preston Blair, among others. I drew mass amounts of flip books. The old Ninja Turtle comics that Archie put out got me started into comics. I went from those into the Mirage TMNT comics which were a nice gateway drug into a life-long love for black and white independent comics. Those books introduced me to a number of artists because back then they had new artists drawing every issue on Mirage. In high school I loved a comic called Cyber Frog by Ethan Van Sciver, and also Creed by Trent Kaniuga. Ren and Stimpy, if it isn’t obvious, also had a large impact on my as a child. I also loved checking out the Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side books from the library.
CCdC: Given the wildly imaginative concepts of your last two books, where do you draw from your current creative inspirations?
EN: That’s hard one. With the Weevil, I literally wrote down a bunch of things I’d wanted to put into a story. I had things like praying mantis, insect hell beasts, Crazy Burt, the gas station, and Syd the Salamander… then I sort of turned that all into a story, with the help of my friend Will Thompson, who, at the time, knew a bit more about story structure then I did. With Chumble Spuzz I did tons of brainstorming. But as for where it all comes from, that’s really hard to say. I get asked that all the time, and I have no good answer. We all get ideas in life, who knows where we get them? I know my influences in comics — especially weirder stuff like Milk and Cheese, Johny the Homicidal maniac, and Ren and Stimpy definitely helped.
CCdC: I noticed that you are credited for the music in your Chumble Spuzz YouTube vid. Are you part of a band?
EN: Yeah I played bass and sang in a band called Lunaractive. You can check out the MySpace page at www.myspace.com/lunaractive. We broke up at the end of last summer, but had been going for 7 years before that. For me, it was time to move on, and pick a pursuit. Comics just seems more "me" then being in a band. I love creating music, and I love singing, but I really got tired of performing. I’m just not a rock star type. I’m much happier hiding in a cave and making stuff.
CCdC: There are a number of musicians who have added writing comic books to their repertoire. Gerard Way has had good success with The Umbrella Academy and another band (who’s name I can’t remember are also entering the fray). Is there a connection between writing music and comic books?
EN: I don’t know… I would say that I am a comic guy first, and a musician second. That’s one reason I quit the band, I realized it was a hobby and not a career goal. From what I know of musicians I’ve met on the road I’d say it’s not normal. But finding anyone who writes or draws comics isn’t normal — it’s very abnormal. I would say, however, that an artist is an artist, and when you have a knack for a kind of art, you can usually cross over into other art forms much more easily than someone who isn’t like that. Most artistic people I know are not one-track artists. They always have a variety of orifices they poop their ideas out of… be it painting or music or sculpture.
CCdC: What books from today’s market do you consider “modern classics” that you read and reread?
EN: Creature Tech by Doug TenNapel is, to me, one of the best graphic novels out there. Sin City probably goes without saying. I love going back and reading through Calvin and Hobbes strips from time to time. Eric Powell’s Goon books are amazing, especially artistically. Stray Bullets by David Lapham is also one of those books I like to go back and reread sometimes.
CCdC: Didn’t you start off self-publishing, “The Weevil”? How did you end up with the gig at Slave Labor Graphics?
EN: Sort of. My friend was starting a small press company called Bad Karma Productions and he published the Weevil. In fact that’s the only place it’s available now is at their website. He was going to publish Chumble Spuzz too, if no one else would. I showed it to SLG at Emerald City Con in Seattle and they seemed to really like it. I got an email a few days later saying they wanted to publish the book and make a stuffed toy of my pig character.
“Outlandish humor has always come naturally to me, and I am better at cartooning than traditional illustration.”
CCdC: If I remember correctly, you drew inspiration for The Weevil from your brother. I noticed that you incorporate your friends in Chumble Spuzz. It must be cool working in friends and family in your books.
EN: Actually, the main character in The Weevil is my friend Brandon Sause. I used his look, and then ended up using his name too. He was in Lunaractive with me, and also played guitar on that Chumble Spuzz song. In Chumble Spuzz, the character General Woodchuck is a character my younger brother Isaiah created, and we also created Kernel Corn Nut together. Isaiah is actually helping write the next Chumble Spuzz book too.
CCdC: Will we see more of Gunther and Klem in Chumble Spuzz? If so, in what medium? Comic books or animation?
EN: Yeah, for now they remain the stars of the book, though I would like to do some other stories in the future starring Reverend Mofo, and maybe a General Woodchuck/Kernel Corn Nut story.
CCdC: In my opinion, your humor is greatly reminiscent of one of the funniest comics I’ve ever read growing up, The Adventures of Ralph Snart by th now-defunct, Now Comics. It had a similar aggressive “no-holds” barred humor that you seem to approach with your humor. However, comedic timing seems to be more challenging in the print/comic book medium than say, watching a stand up comic perform on stage because the creator isn’t in control of the timing of the jokes…there are too many variables that can come into play that can potentially ruin the timing. For example, when a comedian tells a story leading up to the punchline, he’s in in control. However, when we’re reading Chumble Spuzz, the reader could take a bathroom break, answer a phone call, go on vacation and pick up right where they left off. Do you consider these elements or distractions when putting your humor to page or is it something that comes naturally? If so, are there any techniques you use to compensate for these variables which may affect humor…or am I just over-analyzing and making a big hoo-hah about nothing?
EN: Comic timing is very challenging in a comic book. That’s one reason I wanted this series to be animated. I think that the best way to work your timing in a comic book is to try to, in some ways, make your gags happen in as few panels as possible — one panel jokes are great, sort of like the Far Side, if you can fit them into the chronology of the story. If I need the person to get to the end of a page, I try to make each panel move quickly to the punchline, hoping that I’ll build enough tension to keep them reading. Then there’s jokes that are funny because they revisit something earlier in the book… like when the cows in hell get revenge on General Woodchuck and Kernel Corn Nut. In the end, I have to be honest and say I had no idea how my timing would be perceived, and if anyone would think this book was as funny as I did. When the reviews started coming in I breathed a big sigh of relief. I drew a lot of Far Side style gag cartoons growing up, for the school paper and such — but fitting my humor into a story format always felt like a scary task to take on. This is really my first actual attempt, and I’m really excited that people are responding so well.
“When I have to write dialog I can only do a few pages, and I’m beat. I can draw my ass off though.”
CCdC: Are there any characters in the comic book universe (Marvel, DC, Image, Indies) that you’d like to work on and why?
EN: Hmmm… I don’t know if I could do any superhero books very well, but if I were to do any, I’d do Batman because he’s the superhero I loved growing up. I really wasn’t into superheroes much, but loved him because he was just a bad ass. I’ve always wanted to do a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle story arc. It wouldn’t be all zany like Chumble Spuzz though. I love the turtles so much it’s almost gay. Other books I’ve thought I’d do if offered… the Tick, Howard the Duck… can’t think of much else. I’d do anything for the right price, I am a total whore like that. But if it’s up to me I like making up my own stuff.
CCdC: Other than the Archie line of comics and some indies, why do you think there aren’t too many humor-themed comics in today’s market? Humor has a strong presence in other media like TV’s, books or movies, why not comics?
EN: That’s a good point, and I’ve wondered the same thing… though i also have to be honest… are there really that many funny comic books? I mean, laugh out loud funny? Comparable to South Park or Family Guy? Not that I can think of. maybe a couple. My goal with this book was to make a laugh out loud comic, and for a lot of people it has been. Of course on a show like Family Guy you have multiple writers contributing, and for comedy like that it seems to almost be a necessity. Though some reviewers have said Chumble Spuzz is equal to or above that level of humor, I have to humbly not accept those kinds of compliments to my work, I know that comedy doesn’t come easy, especially after making this book I have a lot of respect for funny cartoons.
CCdC: In the comic book process as a whole, what comes easier for you? Coming up with ideas for a book that you believe will offer something different or actualizing these ideas on paper? Is it more difficult for you to plot and write or to pencil and ink?
EN: I have drawn my whole life, but I have only really tried to be a story writer for the last 4 or 5 years or so. It’s been a very grueling process. I have always had a knack for creative writing — but learning to organize and structure a story has been a real challenge, and still, writing is much harder for me then drawing. When I have to write dialog I can only do a few pages, and I’m beat. It wears me out. I can draw my ass off though… I can actually draw more pages then I can write some days. I’m just still learning. But, that said… I LOVE it, so it’s worth it. I love being the creator of my own entire project. It’s a lot to handle, but if you can do it it’s worth it to do a few bad books and build up the skills. I grow a ton each time I write and I’m excited to see where I go with it.
CCdC: Thus far you’ve tackled sci-fi/horror and humor genres with your last two books. Are there any other genres you hope to explore in the future?
EN: I have a few projects in mind that are gritty action stories… sort of American Ninja/Die Hard type stuff — but with a bit more humor. I also am working on an all-ages project. Sometime, when I feel more confident in my writing abilities I have a more serious story I want to tell about me and my Father. I’m working my way up to that one.
CCdC: What future creative projects do you have in store for us?
EN: Chumble Spuzz book 2 is almost done, and is scheduled for release in July 2008. It’s about a man who was raised by pigeons. I have to say the art went up a notch this book, and while the overall story is a different tone, I think people will like it. It’s some of the most ridiculous stuff I have ever drawn. Beyond that, I have a sort of grab bag of ideas in development. I have more comedy stuff, I have an all-ages project I’d like to get out there, and some more action kind of stuff. When this new book is out of the way we’ll see which project looks the most desirable.