Christopher Hastings On ‘The Adventures of Dr. McNinja: Timefist’ [Interview]
Christopher Hastings' The Adventures of Dr. McNinja isn't just one of the best webcomics going, it's also one of my favorite comics, period. As a result, I'm pretty excited about Dark Horse's release of Timefist this December. Collecting the story of Dr. McNinja's ill-fated experiment with cloning and a journey to a dystopian future ruled by dinosaurs in spaceships, Timefist represents the biggest Dr. McNinja story yet -- and considering that previous volumes involved Doc battling Dracula on the Moon, that's saying something.
To find out more about the story, I spoke to Hastings about the new collection, the reaction he's gotten from his hometown and the vein of pessimism that was surprising even to Hastings himself.ComicsAlliance: I assume from the title, Timefist, that this one's going to have "Space Savers," "Futures Trading" and the Axe Cop crossover?
Christopher Hastings: That's right, it's also going to have "Army of One," the story about all the Dr. McNinja clones.
CA: So this is kind of the science fiction volume?
CH: I guess! I'm not sure how much science is in it, but there's definitely fiction.
CA: Well, in your previous volumes, that first big series of arcs was that zombie story, and then you moved directly into the '80s action movie homage with Franz Rayner, collected in Surgical Strike.
CH: Yeah, I guess this would be the "go to the future and have an alien" sort, and there's the cloning stuff, too. So yeah, sure. A vague science fiction theme is probably setting this one apart from the previous volumes.
CA: Is that something you always wanted to do with the book? Jump around between different genres like that?
CH: Nope. You're only making me realize this right now.
CA: I'm really surprised. In a book about this Doctor/Ninja, the action movie stuff seemed to follow completely logically, and it's not that the other stuff doesn't follow from what you're doing, because you've created this world of super-heroes and zombies and cyborgs. But it does seem like a fun aspect, that you can decide you want to do a time travel story and go out into space.
CH: Yeah. I do like doing pretty much anything I feel like, and a lot of the fun is having the challenge of "this all makes sense within this one world." It can't all just be random.
CA: How do you approach that? Are there rules to the Dr. McNinja universe?
CH: Not a lot. The main thing that keeps it all together is that everything has a consequence within the story, and the characters don't know that they're in a comic, so they don't act like it. I think sticking to those two things is what keeps everything from getting too wacky-random while still letting it be a fun book full of random weird stuff.
CA: Another thing about the stories in Timefist: you get a little dark.
CA: By Dr. McNinja standards, I mean. There are very tense moments with Doc and King Radical in the future, and Dr. McNinja's family thinks he's dead at the end of it.
CH: That's precisely what I'm talking about. It'd be really funny to have a story where talking dinosaurs fly around on jetpacks in the future, but then what happens is that there's a rebellion and people are dying! It's sort of taking a funny idea and taking it to its logical conclusion. Well, what I think of as a logical conclusion. People suicide-bombing in a giant dinosaur's stomach and that being a sad moment.
CA: Right, because that is definitely the logical conclusion to a dystopian future controlled by dinosaurs.
CH: Totally. Nevermind that one of those people has a moustache that he's cut out of his mask. It's still like "Aw, this guy. This is sad."
CA: I'm curious as to whether this reflects your personal philosophy: The Dr. McNinja universe has a very pessimistic view of the future. You have this element of the story where Chuck Goodrich comes back in time to fix the past, but something else always goes wrong and creates another timeline that needs him to come back and fix it.
CH: [Laughs] Like you said, this one guy comes back from the future because zombies have taken over. When he comes back, he fixes it, zombies don't take over, but something else that's terrible happens. Then there's another version of him that comes back and fixes it and then something else happens. In this story, yes, sentient dinosaurs have taken over the world and this guy comes back to the past to try to prevent it, and I kind of thought that was the end of it. Like, we've covered all of the terrible things. Now the future can just be mediocre or maybe even good.
CA: The best you can hope for is mediocre, maybe good?
CH: Maybe good! Who knows? At least it's not terrible!
CA: People are not being herded into camps by dinosaurs. That's the happiest outcome you can imagine.
CH: [Laughs] Man, you're really making me face some issues I had not considered. I am unprepared for this.
CA: On the subject of Chuck Goodrich, one of the things that I didn't realize until I was having a conversation with your editor at Dark Horse, Rachel Edidin, was that there's a real Chuck Goodrich who really works at NASA.
CH: Yeah. He's not an astronaut, and I don't think he's a time traveler, but I think he does something where he makes models of star systems or something like that. He takes information and turns it into something visual. This could be completely wrong, I didn't get a chance to look it up before you asked, but yeah, I tried to get in touch with him and haven't heard back.
CA: What would you say to him?
CH: Oh, I said "Hey, this is a really weird coincidence, but I'm a comic writer and I have this character named Chuck Goodrich who is an astronaut, but he's also a time traveler. I swear I had no idea that you existed, it's a really weird coincidence. How would you like the introduction to my book? The fans would really enjoy it." I never heard anything. Who knows? He could've thought I was a creep, it could've been an old email address, or anything in between.
I'm happy to know he exists, that even our reality has a Chuck Goodrich.
CA: [Laughs] So that we can all hope for mediocre as well.
CH: Or maybe he's failed and we'll find out what's going to go wrong.
CA: Have you ever heard from anyone from Cumberland, where the story takes place? It seems like it would be weird to have that as a very popular vision of the place you live.
CH: Yeah. My family still lives there, so something will happen like, somebody came over to fix my mom's computer and they looked over and noticed the Dr. McNinja fridge magnets. They were baffled at first. My mom said they were confused upon seeing it, because why does this lady who has no children have these magnets? Then they finally realized "Oh, Hastings, you must be Christopher Hastings' mom. I read Dr. McNinja!" Stuff like that happens all the time.
The other thing is, the Boy Scout National Jamboree happens every three or four years, and the group of kids that go from the Cumberland area, they had me design their patches. They decided that Dr. McNinja was the coolest thing about the area that they want to represent on their arm, and I'm happy to do that for them.
CA: I didn't realize you were really from Cumberland. I thought you were a born-and-raised New Yorker, and that it was your way of getting pop cultural revenge on other cities, since New York is always getting torn up in comics.
CH: That is an interesting theory. I'd love to keep this going to the point where an entire genre of sequels is, like, "The Smurfs Go To Cumberland" or "Home Alone 2: Lost In Cumberland!"
CA: Did Carly do the cover for Timefist?
CH: Yeah, Carly Monardo, my loving wife, who is making kissy faces at me right now, painted the cover.
CA: That's adorable. The cover is also adorable, but specifically the kissy faces while you do an interview.
CH: It was when I mentioned her name. It's not constant. I mean, it's frequent, but not constant.
CA: What is that process like? She used to color the strip as well before Anthony Clark took over, but does she just pop up one day with a cover design for you?
CH: No, we have a very back-and-forth, chatty process on figuring out what we want for our cover design. The previous covers are all sort of homages or parodies in some way to old movies, and then my very first book was an EC Comics kind of thing. So with Surgical Strike, the '80s action thing, we were like "let's pick out some common ground among some '80s action movies and we'll figure out how to mimic that style."
We kind of did a similar thing with what eventually became Timefist. We didn't have a title initially, but we knew we were going with time travel. We just looked up a bunch of time travel movies and were like "Oh! Timecop! We can call it Timefist!" So we found the poster for Timecop and it's got his head up there with a clock around it and some stuff at the bottom, so we're going with that.
CA: I think the fact that your creative process is that you look at a movie poster and replace a word with "fist" is the best recommendation for your comic.
CH: Well he's not a Timecop, Christopher. He's a Timefist. I just thought it was delightful.
CA: This is the second book that you've done with Dark Horse, and it's called "Dr. McNinja Volume 2" in their solicitations even though it's really, what, Volume 5?
CH: I believe the arrangement with the Dark Horse books is that it's a separate series, so the black and white books are referred to, I think, as Series One. So this is Series Two, Volume 2.
CA: Do you think there's any trouble with people jumping on the Dark Horse books? Obviously it's an easy comic to catch up on -- someone once asked me where they should start with Dr. McNinja because they knew I was a fan, and I just told them "it's all online, start at the beginning." But do you ever run into the problem of someone walking into the store and seeing the cover for Night Powers and jumping right into this weird, big world that you've created?
CH: There doesn't seem to have been any problem with Night Powers. It was the first color book and the first Dark Horse book, so it was the first book that had distribution into stores across the world. I had an idea whenever I started in color -- I didn't know I was going to get published by Dark Horse, but having it be in color would make it a natural jumping on point. A lot of people look at black and white comics and their eyes just glaze over. That first book, you don't need to know anything that happens beforehand, but that continuity is still there.
I will say that Timefist, however, calls back to a lot of earlier continuity. We've got a real healthy "Previously In Dr. McNinja" page at the start of this book.
CA: One of the other things this volume collects is the Axe Cop crossover. I'm curious to find out a little more about that experience. It's also available in the Axe Cop paperbacks, and in those, Ethan Nicolle's commentary indicates that Malachai [Axe Cop's then six year-old writer] may have been a little bossy, I thought.
CH: [Laughs] That's a funny way to put it. I don't think Malachai was bossy, necessarily. However, when getting the notes, Malacachai, I think, basically forgot Dr. McNinja was in the story at all after the first couple pages, so Axe Cop just does everything by himself. I interpreted that to say "let's say Dr. McNinja makes the magic potion, that seems more in line with his skills." I'm sure the omnipotent Axe Cop could handle it by himself, but let's take advantage of their different skills in this crossover.
CA: Was it a difficult process for you? You've worked with an inker and a colorist on the strip, but it's mostly been your show from the start.
CH: It felt very relaxed, working with Ethan. We don't really have monstrous egos, and we're happy just to sort of work on the comic to make it -- when I said we don't have monstrous egos, Carly just spit out her water, I'm assuming in reference to my own truthfully monstrous ego. But no, it was pretty laid back to work with Ethan.
I sort of just had a pitch for Malachai, with was something like "How about Dr. McNinja and Axe Cop team up to find out why pizzas are getting stolen, because there are monsters underneath the pizzeria?" And then Ethan did his thing with Malachai, where he gets him to tell him all sorts of story notes, and then he handed them to me and I turned them into the skeleton of the story and basically wrote the first five pages. And then he said "I have some ideas of how to do the rest of it," and so he wrote his side. I think it made for a perfectly pleasant experience.
CA: It's highly enjoyable, although I do like the idea of you getting script notes from a six year-old.
CH: [Laughs] Right?