There’s An Ending I’ve Been Telegraphing For A While: Christopher Hastings On Choosing To End ‘The Adventures Of Dr. McNinja’
To say that The Adventures of Dr. McNinja is one of my favorite webcomics is putting it mildly. It's one of my favorite comics ever, period, and for almost ten years it's been delivering over-the-top action and comedy to readers three times a week. Now, though, that's coming to an end. With Monday's strip, writer/artist Christopher Hastings and colorist Anthony Clark followed up the print release of Dr. McNinja Vol. 3 from Dark Horse by officially starting "The End," the final story of the doctor who is also a ninja, and his increasingly bizarre supporting cast.
To find out more, I spoke to Hastings about the decision to end the comic, why he's doing it now, and who will survive the experience.
ComicsAlliance: I'm sure you'll be asked a lot, but why? Why decide to end Dr. McNinja now, after ten years?
Christopher Hastings: Well, a while ago --- I'm not even sure how many years, but it may have been five years ago --- I decided that I should pick a time to quit so that I'd know it was coming and I wouldn't burn out. The main point was that I didn't want to burn out, and I knew that by arbitrarily picking a date in the future, I could then have a bit of control over having a nice, satisfying story arc instead of having to suddenly slam on the brakes and, I don't know, throw in some epic, out-of-nowhere crap, where nothing made sense story-wise.
It turned out I was right to do so. I picked the right time, I'm definitely kind of starting to get tired of this, but thankfully, I have enough cool material that I've already outlined and that I'm excited to share with the world that the burnout isn't happening.
CA: Was it around the time when you started introducing the elements of King Radical that would go back and form the foundation of how this world works, and why it should not exist?
CH: I made the decision to end the comic before that, yes. I believe you're referring to the idea that, in the multiverse of stories, there's Dr. McNinja's universe, there's King Radical's Radical Universe, and then there's an unnamed mundane universe on the other side, and Doc's is kind of caught in between them.
It's how Dr. McNinja's world exists as this place where there's a lot of normal things that happen, and also really weird things can happen, too.
That certainly played into it, but I think that when I got to that point, I was getting more concerned with justifying things. A big part of this comic has been that crazy things happen, but they must have consequences, otherwise it's just random nonsense. That was the point where I really needed a universal level of explaining. This is partially why it feels like a good time to be ending things, because I am starting to get tied down by some continuity that I'm forcing myself to stick to.
CA: I say this as someone who loves Dr. McNinja, but it does feel like a comic that you went into without ever expecting to justify anything. People's abs turn into jet-packs.
CH: It's true, it was pretty wild abandon there at the start, but I think that was just my taste. I kind of stumbled into some old rules of comedy, it turns out, just by how I thought things should be for my own taste. It's the old "if this is true, what else is true?" I thought I came up with that, and it turns out that I definitely didn't. The idea that if something is true, then what else must be true is a key philosophy of comedy, and I stuck to it really hard for a long time. It's felt great for this whole time, but there's a point where only so many things can be true, and introducing new weird things just doesn't work in that world.
CA: Was there anything you put in where you felt like you were really pushing it? The core idea is that there's a doctor who is also a ninja, and the first step away from that is that his receptionist is a gorilla and his sidekick is a little boy with a full mustache who rides a dinosaur. From there, you get monsters, birdosauruses, the President and her amazing jacket, and it all just spirals from there.
CH: Yeah. I got to the point where I felt like the cool President, Funkhouser, was one of the less ridiculous choices, because I built this world where that woman must be the president. There's no room for any other president.
There were definitely points where I felt like I was pushing it. In particular, I remember at the time, when I did the third official webcomic story, "There Is A Raptor In My Office," that was a real turning point for the audience. I remember getting emails from people like, "No, this is too weird, and I'm out. Your old stuff was better." Even my little brother was like, "Uh, that one was not your best work. A little too crazy." That was the one with the jetpack abs.
CA: And then that's where you decided, "Well now I'm gonna do a time travel story with dinosaurs, and that'll show you all!"
CH: Well, you know, that was later down the road. [Laughs] But that's another example of the comic allowing it to live out what makes sense to me. I definitely didn't start it thinking that it was going to be a universe that was so strongly tied to this one time-traveler, continually coming back again and again, but it's become the driving force, the Chuck Goodrich character. That was all based off of one joke that I decided was true: "Oh, this mayor made a zombie defense system because he's from the future," and then following that thread as far as it could go.
CA: How far into doing the story about Chuck building the zombie defense system did you realize "oh, I can use this again"?
CH: It was a while after. I know I decided it at some point, maybe a year or two before I actually acted on it, but I definitely didn't plan on doing anything with him for a while. I wanted to do all that Dracula stuff first.
CA: When did you announce that the book was going to end?
CH: I've been told that apparently the first time I said it publicly was in a Reddit Ask Me Anything that was two years ago. I think that was the first time that I decided to let people know about it, but I never said anything on my website. There was a point where any time I did an interview, I'd be like, "Oh yeah, it's ending in 2015." It turns out that it'll be more like 2016.
CA: What was the reaction then?
CH: Nothing extreme enough that I can remember. [Laughs] I think a general surprise, but I don't know. It feels more and more right as more and more adults tell me they've been reading Dr. McNinja since they were "a kid."
CA: What was the reaction today, when you put up the first part of "The End" with a post that said "hey, this is it."
CH: I felt so terrible, I was so concerned with working out the story that I forgot this was kind of a big deal and I should probably say something about it. I wrote that post right before I went to bed and I was like, "Let's just cover some key points and then I'll answer questions later." The reaction today has been rather big. I've been getting a lot of tweets and emails, but it's been incredibly nice. Everyone's acting like they're seeing their dying loved one in the hospital for the last time. They're not dying today, but they'll probably die after they go home, so they want to get those nice words in.
CA: That's a very depressing metaphor.
CH: Yeah, that was pretty cool. That was right off the dome! But yeah, I've gotten so many lovely, supportive messages.
CA: You've got the tenth anniversary coming up in October.
CH: October 1st.
CA: And that's forever in webcomic years.
CH: I know, right?
CA: It's been a constant, you doing three pages a week for ten years, it's one of the big, long-running webcomics.
CH: Yeah. It's real weird being on the other side of that journey. I literally started this comic as a homework assignment in college, and here we are, talking about Internet establishments.
CA: Was there ever a time doing the comic where you thought, "I cannot believe I am still doing this"? You said you didn't want to burn out, but was there ever... I don't know if "resentment" is the right word.
CH: Oh, absolutely, yeah. I started this comic really wholeheartedly in my early 20s. I think I came up with the character when I was 19 and I started drawing the webcomic when I was 21 or 22, and we're ten years down the road. I'm a man in my early 30s now, so my tastes have changed, and also, I've become very aware of the comic, what its brand is, and what's expected of it.
So, you know, I'll be doing a story and I'll be like, "Well, something ridiculous needs to happen here. Um, God, he punched a dinosaur last Wednesday, can't do that. Can I have... no, people jump through windows all the damn time, can't do that again, gotta save it for next month." I have had times where I've had to try to work at coming up with some ridiculous and appropriate set piece, and that becomes tiresome, when really, I have become mainly interested in a lot of cool plot twists and reveals. I'm excited about those, but I know that I have to do a certain amount of A to B until we get to C, and B is usually something along the lines of, you know, motorcycles exploding and stuff like that.
Sometimes, I might not have the time in the day to draw a decent motorcycle explosion. That's a problem, too.
CA: So is that where a story like "First Generation Ninja-American" comes from? It's very funny and ties into a lot of things we've seen, it sets up stuff that I imagine is going to be very relevant for the end, but it's also Doc watching his grandfather die in front of him!
CH: [Laughs] Yeah, I did make that character just to have people watch him die.
CA: And you made him the kindliest looking character that you could! He has a Santa Claus beard and a corncob pipe!
CH: That was a fun little exercise for me, to make a character so likable that his death would have as much meaning as possible, in a short amount of time. But yeah, I wanted to tell a story there. There was always this one-off joke that Dr. McNinja's name wasn't revealed because of "a wizard," so I thought, "Well, let's do that story. It'll be fun. Oh, and I've also referenced a dead grandfather, let's tell the story of how he dies, too." You want it to actually affect people, so you have to make a very likable grandfather and then kill him.
CA: Was there ever a time when you thought, "Okay, now that I've done all this silly stuff, I can really go dark with it, Dr. McNinja really needs to get serious!"
CH: Even if I were to have that instinct, and I largely do think about stories in terms of dramatic beats instead of comedic moments when I'm plotting stuff out, I cannot help myself. I will put jokes in the entire process. When I wrote Longshot Saves the Marvel Universe, I really thought that was going to be my serious story, and it is not. I couldn't help it! It's riddled with jokes!
I really went into that thinking it would be this cool thing about all this alternate universe stuff and it'd be a real struggle for this guy, dealing with how his powers affect all the other people around him, and then, like, nope, it's Dr. Strange jokes and Deadpool gets defeated by his desire for tacos. Even if I wanted to go serious, I doubt I'd be able to fully commit.
CA: As someone who's been reading the strip for a pretty long time, there's a lot of stuff that feels like you've laid out so that you could come back to it later. There's a lot of stuff with Hortense, for example, that I think people are going to want to see resolved one way or another.
CH: Oh, that's good to know, because that was not part of the plan.
CA: So what can we expect?
CH: Well, I will say that Hortense is one of the characters that I need to have a nice finishing moment for, a nice final arc, along with several other characters, and I haven't quite figured that out. This current storyline is largely about a final showdown between Dr. McNinja and King Radical. Things might not end up so nice, but I also know that I do need to kind of have him go around and say goodbye to all of the NPCs, as though it were the end of Dragon Age, without it being the moment in the banquet hall when you say goodbye to all of your NPCs in Dragon Age. Every character needs to be treated with respect and have their own finish, so I am going to hit on that.
That's the main thing that has me unsure of how long this ending is going to take. If I were to just hit pure plot, this could all be wrapped up within, I don't know, four months? But I know that everybody needs to have their reaction, every character needs to have their moment, so it's probably closer to nine months.
CA: You could just deal with everyone like you did with Agent Bearclaw.
CH: Oh, some people, I will. Just like, "What's going on with Bearclaw? Oh, he's a skeleton?"
CA: "Oh, he's been dead for a while"
CH: Yeah, that's a series wrap for Bearclaw.
CA: Not to spoil anything, but do you plan on leaving it in a state where you could go back and do another story later, or are you intentionally going in being like "After this, I am done. I am never coming back to Dr. McNinja."
CH: I mean... He's got a clone, you know? [Laughs] He's got enough comic book logic that, sure, you could always come back, but I haven't really thought that far ahead. There's an ending I've been telegraphing for a while, and I'm gonna do it, and it certainly does mean the end of things pretty definitively. But it's a comic book, you can logic your way out of anything if you want to.
CA: If you end Dr. McNinja and then the next Monday, Old McNinja starts, I think you will be my favorite comic creator of all time.
CH: Oh God, that would be funny. I'd love to do that for the joke, but it'd be a long commitment.
CA: So what is next, then? You're writing and drawing a three-page-a-week webcomic, and that takes up a lot of time. Obviously, you're also the regular writer of Adventure Time, but what's next? Are you just taking a break?
CH: Yeah, that sounds nice. In preparation for ending the comic, I have been ramping up on other work, so yeah, I write Adventure Time now, I'm also writing dialogue and stuff for a couple of video games that have not announced my participation yet, so I can't say what they are. I'm working on a couple of new creator-owned books, but I'm not sure what form they'll take, one with my Adventure Time collaborator, Zach Sterling, and I'm working on another with Josiah Files, where I'm writing it and they're drawing. Hopefully it'll come into a nice fruition once Dr. McNinja is over.
Also, I'm coming to realize that I am really going to miss the immediacy of webcomics. There have been some comics where I have an idea for a page that fits in the story the day it needs to go up, and I can write it and draw it, and Anthony Clark can color it, and it can be posted that day. When I'm currently working in an environment where I'm writing up a pitch for the issue of Adventure Time that's coming out in January or something, months down the road, I'm thinking of these ideas and I don't even know when it's coming out, working so far in advance, I don't want to give up the immediacy of webcomics. I want to have some sort of site where I can do whatever comic I feel like, and I think there are some short stories that I might explore, and if one of them gets some kind of traction or an audience, I might go further with it. I just want to allow myself some freedom right now.
CA: Final question: Gordito, live or die?
CA: Aw c'mon, you've done enough to that poor kid!
CH: I will tell you, I have a great story idea to kill him in a great, wonderful and satisfying way, and my wife Carly has pretty much talked me out of it because she likes him so much. You can thank her for saving Gordito's life. Nobody else is safe, though.
Follow the final adventure of Dr. McNinja at DrMcNinja.com.