Ethan Nicolle struck an unlikely hit with Axe Cop, a webcomic based on the rambling stories told by his then 5-year-old brother Malachai that became an Internet sensation. Comic sites that normally wouldn’t report on webcomics made an exception for Axe Cop; it took home a couple of awards in 2011 (and Eagle Award and a Shel Dorf Award, both in the webcomic category). Fox began airing an adaptation Axe Cop in 2013 as part of its light-night animation block, with Parks & Recreation‘s Nick Offerman voicing the title character. There was a nagging sense, however, that some day Ethan was going to move on to something else, the novelty would wear off, and Malachai would probably get tired of it.
And thus, Bearmageddon, with its totally metal logo, which features an octopus bear and a bat bear. Initially, it looks like it could be yet another webcomic in the Axe Cop vein, dealing with random humor. But then … think about it: This is no Night of the Lepus situation where the world is overtaken by giant bunny rabbits. If the world were really swarmed by bears, it would be pretty flippin’ terrifying.
Josh Morely is a total loser with a rotten job and loser, pot-smoking friends; his veteran dad kicks him out of the house. Perhaps the only thing that’s going great in his life is the relationship he has with his young brother.
One day, Josh goes on a camping trip after his activist friend is inspired by a nature documentary, and they’re tricked into chaining themselves to trees as part of an anti-logging protest. While Josh is a little upset at first, his anger dissipates when he realizes he’s going to be chained next to the attractive Andrea. They soon discover an important life lesson: While chaining yourself to a tree is an effective way to stop loggers, it’s also not where you want to be when bears attack. Nicolle seems to take glee illustrating gory bloodshed, something that came off as comical in Axe Cop but here seems more gruesome. There’s intestines, rib cages, blood and viscera strewn everywhere from man and beast alike. It’s pretty awesome.
It looks like it’s curtains for our heroes until smooth mammajamma Dickinson appears on the scene with a familiar Nicolle-verse weapon: a big, honking ax — one that’s so heavy Josh has trouble lifting it. Truly a Mjolnir-type situation. Dickenson is a survivalist, who’s been fighting these bears and their different mutant variants for a while now. In some ways, he has become more animal than man, but he has developed a code of honor that compels him to protect his new acquaintances.
They make their way back to the city, where thousands of bears have taken over. Bearmageddon plays like a zombie apocalypse. Friends are torn apart both by differing ethics and by the claws of the ursine menace. Society regresses; gender roles begin to be enforced as Dickinson insists the boys train to fight. They barricade themselves in a house, preparing to entrench themselves while searching for any signs that their relatives survived.
Bears themselves are worrisome enough, but, as the header suggests, there are species that come with a variety of accessories. While some of it looks silly, it’s clear Nicolle puts a lot of thought into it. For example, one bear has the skin flaps of a flying squirrel, and attacks the protagonists by gliding to the roof of their van and punching through the metal. Later, though, the group escapes by jumping off a bridge and into the river below. A flying-squirrel bear watches, but doesn’t follow them. Why? As someone observes, his extra skin would fill with water, and he’d drown. Pretty clever, I thought.
Bearmageddon can be surprisingly tense, and it’s never a given that any of the characters are going to survive. There’s a great moment where Dickinson and the green-haired Gogs are running to the house to escape a rampaging horde. When they quickly barricade themselves in, the bears disappear. There’s a strong uneasiness. What’s going on? Dickinson doesn’t even know.
Bears, man. They’re godless killing machines.