“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
Christopher Hastings is a comics creator experienced in many different facets of the industry, from working with Marvel to web comics to self-publishing his own trade paperback. Oh, and he also does podcasting and improv comedy. How would he define himself, though? In his words: “I’d say I’m a writer/artist with more of a focus on writing than drawing. But I’ve got a degree in Cartooning from SVA, and I still draw weekly web comics, and I share art duties on a graphic novel I’m currently working on with Branson Reese. Long answer for a simple question!”
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Writer/Artist
Your home base: Brooklyn, NY
Current project titles:
How To Read Comics The Marvel Way (Marvel)
Quantum & Woody (Valiant)
Rude Tales of Magic podcast
Webcomics on patreon.com/mcninja
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Why comics for you? Of all the artforms to ply one’s trade in, what’s the attraction of this one?
Christopher Hastings: That’s a big question, but I think it boils down to being able to create a visual story with a lot of control and a small budget. It’s a lot easier to make a comic than a movie. Honestly, it’s why I’m attracted to stage comedy, too. It’s very easy to put up a little sketch show or play if you don’t mind minimal sets and costumes.
KS: Fanbase Press launched the #StoriesMatter initiative this year to highlight the impact that stories can have on their audience. Do you remember a particular comic story that really wowed you as a younger reader?
CH: I remember [Grant] Morisson and [Howard] Porter’s JLA really blew me away. I think that started when I was 13. I didn’t have a local comic shop growing up, so I had to rely on the word from Wizard Magazine and really carefully consider which comics I had direct mail subscriptions to. I think that was the one subscription I kept all through high school and maybe even my first year of college — at which point I think I let the subscription expire because I had moved to NYC and had like three comic shops by my dorm to pick from at that point.
KS: What’s the first “real” comic-related artistic project you remember creating? Something that felt like a serious project for you at the time — whatever age that was and whether anyone else ever saw it.
CH: I went to art school to learn how to make comics, so it would have been then. I drew all the time up until then, but I don’t know why it never occurred to me to draw comics before that. I think I must have just felt like “I’ll save that for when I’m an adult” or some weird mental block. Throughout my time in the cartooning program at the School of Visual Arts, I drew several comic pages a week. At first, we were given scripts to draw from, and then we got a little looser. The first story that felt like it was “mine” was a 22-page story I did at the end of my sophomore year about aliens that kidnapped human children to fill their armies. Was it great? Nope! Good practice, though.
KS: How did your first pro comics work come about? Was that part of a larger artistic career path?
CH: I think I technically became a professional comics person once I was able to quit my day job, because I was making more money from my webcomic, Dr. McNinja. I decided to start doing Dr. McNinja online when I realized that nobody else was going to publish it. At the time, I think my ambitions were to just get people to read [it] and to make a living. It’s not too different from my ambitions now. I would still like to survive and for people to read what I make.
KS: Do you remember when you first held a physical comic with your work in it?
CH: Haha, hell yeah! I self-published the first Dr. McNinja trade collection, and I think it cost me a little over $2,000 on a pretty small print run. I remember when I actually got to touch the comic, I was surprised by the texture of the paper stock for the cover. When I talked to the printer, I had no idea what any of the actual paper stock descriptions actually meant, and apparently I had chosen an unusual one.
KS: Do you have a set daily (or nightly) work routine? Or does it vary wildly depending on projects?
CH: Sure do! I write all morning, and then I spend the afternoon on emails and chores. I start cooking dinner around 5, and then it’s chill time. And like I said, the weekends are for any drawing I have to do. That is typically a combination of drawing a weekly comic strip I put online either on Patreon or Instagram or Twitter or some combo of all three, and doing layouts, backgrounds, and lettering on my graphic novel, Draculagate.
KS: What’s the Dr. Hastings go-to beverage for work time?
CH: Over the course of the day, it usually goes one coffee, one Diet Coke, one green tea.
KS: Now that you’ve both written and drawn comics, what’s something you’ve learned about the collaborative process that maybe you didn’t fully realize beforehand?
CH: My first Marvel job was writing Fear Itself: Deadpool with the now sadly deceased Bong Dazo. Bong was crazy talented, and I was very excited to get a much more skilled artist to illustrate something I’d written, instead of me having to do it. But I was also expecting pages to turn out exactly how I saw them in my head, like when I draw my own stuff, and I had to learn about what it means to actually collaborate with your artist. Sometimes, they want to do something different than what you write, and you know what? They’re usually right and you’re usually wrong. It took Bong ignoring my obnoxious notes for me to learn that.
KS: Speaking of working with Marvel, how did you and Gwenpool first cross paths?
CH: Marvel editor Jordan White called me up and told me about how Marvel made all these variant covers that imagined if Gwen Stacy was the hero of each book, much like how she became Spider-Gwen when crossed with Spider-Man. [Her] character design by Chris Bachalo was so popular with fan artists and cosplayers, Marvel decided to make her a “real” character. And Jordan gave me the twist: Gwenpool was to have nothing to do with Gwen Stacy or Deadpool, and it was my job to figure out how to make that work. Also she had to debut in the back of Howard the Duck. See, at the time, Fox had the movie rights to Deadpool, and Sony had the movie rights to Gwen Stacy, and Marvel wanted to avoid giving either company free new IP. And that meant no connections to either character, and she had to debut in the book of a Marvel Entertainment-owned character. And I personally wanted to avoid doing something that would dilute Spider-Gwen, which I think is still fantastic.
KS: Other than the basic foundation, you were working with something of a blank slate.
CH: I thought about how I could take a character with that name, and that outfit, and honor the “promises” that came from both. I thought I’d have her use guns and swords and be a mercenary like Deadpool, but I’d have her be an amateur. And I thought I could have her break the fourth wall like Deadpool, but it would be because she was a comics fan transported in from the real world. I decided her whole thing would be about playing with comic tropes and thinking she knew how to manipulate them, but the comics universe would always be fighting against that, trying to prove her wrong. And then it’s just about how she becomes a pain in Howard the Duck’s ass with that attitude. After that, there was the Gwenpool Holiday Special, and with the proof that a book with her name and image on it could sell, Marvel greenlit the Gwenpool ongoing series. It was at that point that I met Heather Antos, and she and Jordan and I all sat down to work out more of Gwen’s story arc, and Jordan and Heather got Gurihiru on board, who were so, so crucial to Gwenpool’s appeal and success.
KS: You’re also involved in the upcoming miniseries, How to Read Comics the Marvel Way. To take meta approach here, why were you good casting for this book?
CH: It was made quite clear to me that I was hired to write this book because of the comics meta work that I introduced to Gwenpool, and because as a comics artist myself, I have a little more flexibility with working with the artists on the book, and understanding of how all of the mechanics of comics work together. I was also asked to make the story not only educational, but fun and entertaining in its own right, and again, I think that ability was shown with how we were able to take all this meta stuff in Gwenpool and juggle it with a comedic tone that had some heart too.
KS: Aside from comics, you exercise your creativity in the world of sketch comedy. Do you see any similarities in the creative muscles used?
CH: Improv was pretty similar to how I was webcomicking, because when I was doing Dr. McNinja, I was pretty much making it up as I went along the whole time. I never wrote more than a couple pages ahead of what I had drawn. And as for sketch, I brought a lot of my instinct for visuals in, versus other sketch writers who often tend to just rely on dialogue. When I directed a sketch team, I used a lot of stuff I picked up from comics in how I built a sketch show, how I’d put together the stage picture. You want the eye to move across a comics page, and I’d do the same thing in a sketch show. I’d set one scene in a spotlight to the right of the stage, and then the next sketch would be anchored on the left with different lighting. It creates a subconscious visual interest that keeps the audience from getting bored. And just like comics is a fairly compressed medium, I would be ruthless with getting my writers to cut down their sketches to their tightest, shortest, most polished versions. The shows never dragged, they moved fast, the audience never had a chance to get bored.
KS: What’s a particular moment of pride or joy that stands out from your comics career thus far?
CH: I still can’t believe I got to write an original Wet Hot American Summer graphic novel. A hugely important movie for me, and I think the comic with those characters is one of the funniest things I’ve ever worked on.
KS: Finally, tell us about what you’re working on now and what we should look forward to in 2020.
CH: I took on Quantum & Woody with a real focus on episodic, single-issue comics, and the last issue [#4, now available] reveals how we’ve actually been secretly telling a larger story across the previous three. It’s totally changed how I write comics, and I sure do hope we have an industry again soon so I can do it some more.
Beyond that, I’m having a good time writing a novel that I’m about two-thirds of the way done. There’s no way that’s coming out in 2020, but I’ve really enjoyed working on it right now while comics are sleeping.
[Author’s Note: Following completion of the interview, a July 15 release date was announced for the first issue of How to Read Comics the Marvel Way.]