TopatoCo Q&A with Christopher Hastings
In our new regular series — the Masters of Internet Question-Answery — TopatoCo will bring you top-notch information, shocking confessions, inside insight, and probably lasting shame straight from the mouths of our favorite internet creator-types. Today we meet Christopher Hastings, writer and penciller of the comic book The Adventures of Dr. McNinja. Since it first impacted terra internetta in 2005, Hastings has shepherded his Hippocratic creation through three book collections, over a dozen long-form stories, and innumerable explosions. A graduate of New York’s School of Visual Arts, he makes his home in Brooklyn, sharing his personal space with fiancée Carly Monardo — a fellow SVA grad whose paintings grace Dr. McNinja posters, book covers, and other TopatoCo products.
Let’s start at the beginning! What was the genesis of Dr. McNinja?
I came up with Dr. McNinja when I was studying Cartooning at SVA. It was originally just an internet handle for myself that I came up with mashing words together. After the name was created, I started thinking about what someone with that name might look and act like. And then I thought about what sort of world would support a character like that in a way that made sense. And it just grew and grew from there. I did the first comic for a summer class between my junior and senior year, excited that I could so a fun comic since I’d spent the last year on my very serious “junior thesis” project. I started doing the comic regularly as a webcomic about a year after that.
Is there a moment in the good doctor’s adventures that’s a particular fan favorite?
I think what currently stands as the fan favorite moment is when Dr. McNinja confronts Dracula at Dracula’s moon base, and then Dr. McNinja’s unique escape from the moon. I don’t want to say exactly what it is, because it’s one of my favorite moments too, and I think it’s so much better left a surprise if someone doesn’t know it’s coming.
So, in a world where a doctor who is also a ninja fights Dracula on the moon, is it a challenge to continually surprise the reader?
Yes! It is absolutely a challenge to continually surprise the reader in a way that isn’t cheap. I can’t try to pressure myself to try and keep doing more over the top wacky stuff, because it will just get cheap. I just try to write fun and satisfying stories, and hopefully the way I write Dr. McNinja, the insane stuff will happen naturally, because that’s just the way the comic wants to be.
And yet it’s very consistent! One thing about Dr. McNinja comics are they’re accessible: the title alone lets you know right away what you’re in for, and whether it’s something you might enjoy — and then the comic delivers on that promise.
Thank you! One of the lessons I learned in art school is that many successful comic characters have this sort of “holy trinity” in their name, appearance, and how they act. For example, The Shadow. He’s all covered up in cloaks, and he has these bright eyes hiding in the darkness he wraps himself up in. And, he is a very “shady” sort of character. He operates in the darkness, in a very mysterious way. It all syncs up. Dr. McNinja is very similar, though I certainly won’t say that I planned it. It’s just fortuitous, I think. Letting your audience know exactly what they’re getting into as soon as you can is really important in entertainment.
There’s a great clip of Bernie Mac performing at Def Comedy Jam. And he comes out in really weird clothes, dancing out to the comedy DJ (what?!) and he grabs the mic and just says to the crowd “I ain’t scared of you muthafuckas!” and it totally just sets the audience up to be on board with him for the rest of his very high energy set. Another good example is Star Wars. I mean, it’s just CALLED “Star Wars” for a start, and that’s pretty much what’s going on! And then you’ve got the classic opening of the outclassed rebel ship being tailed by the massive dark and scary Empire one. You know exactly what’s up immediately.
And so with The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, people hear that, and they often have a sort of laugh at just the title, and I’m really proud that when they go forward, the comic delivers on what the title “promises.” It’s the adventures of a doctor who is also a ninja!
What is Raptor Bandit Industries?
Raptor Bandit Industries is sort of an overall brand for my t-shirt designs, prints, and Dr. McNinja books. It came about because I used to just design t-shirts that were somehow related to Dr. McNinja. But as time went on, there became less and less of a connection to the comic, and now I just design whatever t-shirts I want. So I didn’t want to call them “Dr. McNinja shirts” anymore. Raptor Bandit Industries seems to fit the aesthetic pretty well. It’s named after some characters from an early Dr. McNinja comic.
Is it important to keep the Raptor Bandit merchandise in the same tone as Dr. McNinja, or is the advantage of an umbrella label that it allows you to branch out and try different sorts of things?
A lot of my stuff is in the same tone as Dr. McNinja anyway, but one of the advantages of selling through TopatoCo is that it allows me to reach people who don’t necessarily read my comic. For example, my newest shirt (above) is sort of a riff on Dune and the board game Settlers of Catan. A joke that caters VERY specifically to fans of both of those would be even more limited if I was only selling it to just Dr. McNinja fans too.
Can you talk a little about WWBD?
Pretty early on in Dr. McNinja, I set up this recurring joke that he is Batman-obsessed. And at one point, he has to solve a mystery, and he says “What would Batman do?” and then he goes on to crash into a random warehouse and beat up some thuggish looking guys, because that’s what Batman would do, right?
And then I thought it would be funny to do a WWBD shirt much like the well known WWJD merchandise. So I designed that up with a trademark-free version of Batman’s symbol. And then I put it on sale, and it sold like mad, and I quit my day job and was happy forever.
With something like shirts, how important is it to design for a general audience? Or do people prefer in-jokes?
I think there’s room for both. I’ve heard that the less people that get a joke, the funnier it is. Hence the shirt I just talked about. I think that shirt will go over really great with someone’s small group of gaming buddies, while the rest of the world will look at it and say “huh?” But most of my t-shirt designing work is about turning a joke in Dr. McNinja into something that anybody can get. For example, there’s a moment in the comic where Dr. McNinja high-fives his gorilla receptionist Judy, and when it happens there’s an explosion behind them. I thought it was something that could work pretty well on a t-shirt, but I knew I had to swap out Dr. McNinja for something else. I went with a shark. So now it’s a shark high-fiving a gorilla in front of an explosion, and it says “Nice.” That’s all you have to know. There’s no story behind it, and I think most people know that. They can look at the shirt and appreciate it for what it is, a glorious moment of nature or something.
If McNinja were on the shirt, then it’s a doctor with a ninja mask? High fiving…a gorilla? And it’s nice? Why? Who are these people? Must be from some weird comic book.
As T-shirt sales have become a huge part of squeezing a career out of online entertainment, everyone and their dad’s got a T-shirt with their logo on it now. But not all of them sell. Are there universal rules of what makes a good T-shirt design? For this type of business (selling online, direct-to-consumer), anyway?
Well, people want a t-shirt that says something about themselves, what they think is funny, what they think is cool, etc. Some shirts even make more direct statements! A good example is Ryan North’s “Feelings are boring. Kissing is awesome.” shirt. Beyond that, I think a shirt has to make its statement quickly and efficiently with only the context of the shirt. Jeffrey Rowland’s “Loch Ness Monster Adventure Club” shirt is a good example there. All the info you need about the joke is there, and it reads very quickly.
How do you decide what’ll be a good design for your audience, in your store?
Well for a long time it was just “How about some animals doing something wacky.” And I’m trying just so dang hard to get away from that now. But in general I just try to think about stuff that’s awesome to me. Chainsaw nunchucks, scary video game characters, Mexican bandits riding dinosaurs, etc. It’s the same thing that drives my writing of the comic, but in a different context.
Why animals in particular?
God I have no idea. I wish I did.
You don’t know why you find animals funny, or you don’t know why people buy animal shirts?
Both! I imagine that people think they’re funny the same way that I do, otherwise they wouldn’t buy them, but seriously I have no clue why I’m so attracted to stuff like a dolphin holding a gun, or two guys fighting with crocodiles. But I think I’ve probably done enough, and I’m trying to figure out a new direction.
Everyone on the internet yearns for the day when they turn their strange hobby into an improbable career. How have you found the process of having your livelihood depend on designing and selling merchandise that people will want to buy?
Well, it’s been a lot of fun discovering that I can design some popular t-shirts, but I have a feeling I’m not going to be good at it forever as I get older, and my own fashion tastes diverge from the stuff that I’m designing. So I’ve enjoyed it so far, but I’m trying to get into making other things besides t-shirts so that when I’m not good at it any more I’ll have other things to sell that people will like.
I remember a few times it was really great to be absolutely terrified about what I was going to do about money, spend the weekend designing a t-shirt in fear, and then by the end of the next week feeling like everything was okay again because the t-shirt preorders went really well.
Diversification is always good, and it’s nice to think that audiences who’re on the same wavelength as you will age as you age. Now, you mentioned designing a T-shirt in fear: while there’s certainly craft involved with creating things like comics, people sometimes gloss over the business acumen it also requires to create a sustainable career. What are some deliberate BUSINESS MOVES you’ve made along the way?
Let’s see. I have two dudes who work on the comic with me [inker Kent Archer and colorist Anthony Clark], not only for their skill that I don’t have, but because they do jobs on the comic that would keep me from having the time to work on stuff that helps make me money. I’ve made comics that only appear in the Dr. McNinja books as an incentive for people to buy something that’s made up mostly of content that’s free online. I don’t ship my own stuff anymore! This lovely company handles that for me now, and that was the best business decision I’ve ever made. I think most of my big business decisions involved when it was a good idea to hire someone else to handle part of the business for me. Even the bonus comics in the books are done by somebody else.
But that’s really just an excuse to make Benito Cereno write comics for me, because I think he’s great.
Any missteps you’d care to share with us, business-wise or merchandise-wise? Experiences you’ve learned from?
Absolutely. Check out a couple of my failed t-shirt designs:
I think the only thing that can be learned from these failures is that people don’t want to buy something that is “too” random…and also ugly. People were just confused by these, and they aren’t very attractive. I still like the moon one though.
Can you talk about Warrior Plumbers? Were there challenges getting such a complex illustration to work as a limited-color screenprint?
Oh, yes! That was actually the hardest time I had making an illustration for limited-color screenprinting, and even then, there are more colors than are typically allowed by our printer. Probably the biggest thing I did to help myself out here was having Zip-A-Tone-style shading on it to allow for some depth. Because it’s just dots on the black screen. It helped keep me from having to do a couple different shades of green, because otherwise I’d have to. Also I had some tinkering to do to have a sort of orange-ish shade that worked as the human skin tone, brick, turtle flesh, AND fire.
Why stick with the limited palette for the print?
It just turned out that I liked the palette once it was done! I had versions with more colors on them, but the limited one just all works nicely with each other. So I figured I’d stick with it for the print. The only thing I changed was some color tinting I originally had that didn’t really look right with the shirt color and inks, but was able to be on the print just fine.
Any plans for different types of merchandise?
I’ve got some print/poster ideas I’m going to start working on. A Dr. McNinja action figure seems like something that surely must see the light of day someday. And I’ve been doing a lot more writing lately, so while I’d rather not reveal exactly what I’m writing, I’ll say that they’re projects I think Dr. McNinja fans will enjoy. In general I’m just trying to think in a broader sense what sort of stuff a Dr. McNinja person would like. It’s not too hard, because if anything, I’m a Dr. McNinja person.