When it comes to the internet, there’s plenty to complain about, but one thing we can all agree on is that web comics are pretty great. Of the many, many web comics out there, one of the most consistently amazing is The Adventures of Dr McNinja, created by writer and artist Christopher Hastings.
For the last 10 years now, Chris has been writing and drawing the outlandish escapades of a ninjitsu master/qualified medical professional and his colourful gallery of family, friends and enemies. The series has proven incredibly popular, so much so that it’s transcended its digital roots and is now collected in hard copy format by Dark Horse Comics.
Chris is also something of a success himself, nabbing scripting duties on the ongoing Adventure Time series for KaBoom Comics, as well as working on Marvel Comics featuring well-known characters such as Deadpool and Loki. I’d like to thank Chris for taking the time out of his very busy schedule to take part in this Q&A, and encourage you to visit his website for updates and to check out his books on comixology.com.
The Adventures of Dr McNinja started life as college assignment and is now one of the longest-running and well-loved webcomics around. What first spurred you on to do a webcomic?
I went to the School of Visual Arts and was nearing the end of completing my degree in Cartooning. Everyone was getting prepped to start the awful post college life of submitting portfolios to publishers, praying for a comic pencilling job we probably wouldn’t get, at least not for several years.
I had realised I was not a good enough artist for that kind of work, and I was getting more excited about writing as well, particularly comedy. I started Dr. McNinja in college, and decided to try to get a series with one of the smaller publishers. I submitted it around at some point the summer after I graduated, and then I waited for a response. And waited.
And then ultimately decided I was tired of waiting for someone else’s approval to make a comic. I was a fan of a few web comics, and realised I could just self publish on the web. The plan was just to release it there, and see if it caught any kind of buzz or traction somehow along the way.
Did you ever think it was something that would end up a commercial success, let alone function as a springboard to a professional comics career?
That was the hope! Comics is pretty much the life I wanted. I will say I was very surprised at the massive readership it cultivated so quickly. It was a good time for starting that kind of web comic. There wasn’t much else like it at the time.
Can you take us through your process for scripting a story and creating the artwork? What does a typical week working on Dr McNinja involve?
Well, it all starts with random brainstorming. I’ll daydream, and think of things, and write down notes, and sometimes connections get made, and a story starts to happen. Then I’ll put down a rough outline of what I want the next story to look like. That honestly doesn’t take up too much time.
After that, with the web comic, I like to combine a bit of planning ahead with a bit of making it up as I go along. So I write the scripts about a week in advance. Usually one day a week I’ll sit down and plot out scenes, then break them down into pages, and panels. Sometimes I’ll write the dialogue. Often I write the dialogue after the page is drawn! I almost do my own “Marvel method” of plotting but with myself.
It usually takes me about 3-4 hours to draw a page. I do it in Manga Studio, usually listening to a podcast. After it’s drawn, it goes off to Anthony Clark and he colours it… usually astonishingly fast. After that, it gets lettered, resized for web and uploaded! I’ll do three-four pages a week.
A real joy of the series is watching you evolve as a writer and artist in the 10 years since it kicked off – do you still look back fondly on the early story arcs, now that you distribute a highly polished web series?
That’s very nice to hear, thank you! I still feel very good about the stories. The artwork is crude, but I think a lot of the jokes totally hold up. And I was still a pretty good visual storyteller back then, which helps in little invisible ways. And thank you for thinking it’s currently highly polished. Honestly I’ve always thought I was an artist that “would be good enough” to get my stories out without having to bother hiring another artist.
Dr McNinja was first published in simple pen-and-ink format, then in high contrast black and white, before ultimately transitioning to full-colour. Outside of the obvious, what have colourists Carly Monardo and Anthony Clark brought to the series that it previously lacked?
Carly didn’t colour the comic for a very long time, but she did a lot with using colour to help mood and emotion. Besides yes, the obvious attractiveness upgrade, Anthony does awesome special effects that just wouldn’t look as good done by me with the inks.
Changing focus a little – one of the things that really defines Dr McNinja is its continuity-based approach to comedy, the idea that all the crazy characters and concepts introduced over the last decade still form a cohesive whole. What was it about this approach that appealed to you?
I think that the world of Dr. McNinja maintaining an internal logic keeps things from just going totally bonkers and random. It would get old if everything was a joke and nothing had meaning. So when something happens, even for a gag, buddy that is real. It happened, it can’t be erased, and it has consequences. And that makes for such a fun way to develop plot.
This emphasis on continuity goes even deeper than simply taking a universe of absurdist concepts– like an evil motorbike/unicorn from a “radical” dimension – to its logical extreme. It’s also led to “Chekov’s Smoking Gun”-style gags, where seemingly through away lines have actually had major payoffs further down the line – how much of this is planned and how much just occurs to you later?
It’s a whole range. I’ll put things that I know will be useful setup, though I won’t know what the payoff will be. I’ll put things in I know exactly how to pay off, years down the road. And other stuff, and probably the best stuff, are the ones where I start to make connections and know I can make it work later and make it seem like I planned it out all along.
Several of these slow burn gags have also resulted in surprisingly emotional curveballs thrown at the reader, whether it’s the story of how Dr McNinja’s name was stolen by a wizard or the bit in “The End” where we finally see him say “Base” (possibly my favourite tragic-comic scene in the entire series). Is it hard to work these sorts of moments into what is ultimately a comedy-action romp?
No, it’s not too difficult. The characters are funny, but I treat them with respect, so I know how to make more sad or grounded moments with them as well as humorous ones. All those emotions come from the same place, character wise. Their desires, their fears, their hate. You can drive those core things in whatever direction you like.
You’ve created both a well-developed lead character and supporting cast – will it be hard to say goodbye to them all when the Dr McNinja ends later this year?
Oh, of course. I’m starting to feel burnt out on it (which makes me glad I planned on that happening, and made myself start ending the comic before that burn out set in) but this comic has basically been my job for my adult life, so it will be very strange to end it. I can’t quite predict how I’ll feel! I imagine 2 weeks into “retirement” I’ll already start writing out new ideas for it, and start being mad at myself for quitting.
Moving on to your non-web comics work, what was it like the day you were first approached by KaBoom to take over the Adventure Time comic?
Oh, I was thrilled! I love Adventure Time, and I loved the comic when it was being handled by the previous creative team. I immediately started re-watching the entire series, taking copious notes on my thoughts on the property and what I’d like to express about it.
What was their major difference between essentially running the show with your web series versus taking on a licensed property managed by a publisher?
Oh, it’s exactly what you’d think. I’m not allowed to do whatever what I want like I do with Dr. McNinja. It’s especially tricky in the giant shared Marvel Universe. I’ll pitch a story idea, and have to go through multiple versions before it’s approved, simply because it turns out that characters I’ll want to use will secretly be dead in a couple months, or are guest appearing in a more important arc in another book, etc. And Cartoon Network has some very specific rules on what we can and can’t do in Adventure Time, but we’re always testing the limits, hee hee.
Was there much of a learning curve moving from writing scripts to illustrate yourself to writing with a separate penciller in mind?
Yes! Big time. It’s hard to describe because it becomes sort of a new language you develop with your artists. It turned out I had gotten stuck into one that would only work with me, and not necessarily perfectly with other artists, and I had to “unlearn” it.
Now, when I’ve writing for a new artist, I use sort of a “base” style of script writing, and then as we work together more and more, I know how they’ll handle certain things and get a bit more specific to that artist. I write very differently for Ian McGinty on Adventure Time than I do with Gurihiru on Gwenpool for example.
More recently, you’ve penned a few Marvel titles – with the upcoming Vote Loki just the latest. What’s it like working for one of the “Big Two” publishers?
Oh, I love it! For one thing, they pay very well. That’s a rare treat for a working artist. And they get just the best artists to work with. It’s really awesome to see your story come to life in such a professional and beautiful way. And finally it’s just fun to play with Spider-Man and all those other toys!
Lastly, what advice would you give to someone thinking of making their own web comic?
The most important thing is just to write and draw on a regular schedule. If you want to make a comic, you need to do it every day. You might suck at first, but that’s the first step to not sucking.