Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 19: Dr. McNinja

Imagine a world where only the coolest, most exciting things happen. Benjamin Franklin lives on in the form of a clone that maintains all memories of the original. Banditos ride dinosaurs and threaten minivans on the highways. Dracula can attack just about anyone he wants by firing on them with his moon laser. And if you get sick, and there’s also someone trying to kill you for some reason, maybe you can solve both problems by going to see a doctor who is also a ninja.

This is the world you get to read about in The Adventures of Dr. McNinja.

Everything in Dr. McNinja runs on the logic of “If it’s awesome, it works.” The base technology level matches our own, and mostly the social and cultural norms are familiar, but behind every corner is something just mind-blowingly wonderful that doesn’t, and usually couldn’t, exist in our own reality.

Central to the comic is Dr. McNinja himself. He comes from a whole family of ninjas, hence the name. If you found yourself thinking, for a moment, that it’s pretty unusual for a person’s last name to match his profession, then you have something in common with this lady.

Note: Dr. McNinja is a narrative comic, though I hesitate to say that it is driven by the narrative, as the narrative serves more as a device for linking together awesome ideas, and those ideas are basically what drive the comic. The archive is divided into individual stories, and any given story should definitely be read in order. There’s also continuity between stories, and things that happen in one story are often pretty important to things that happen in another story, so it’s a good idea to start from the beginning and read your way through. I actually feel that the first story is not as good an introduction as the second story, though, so if you’re a little unsure about whether you really want to read this crazy comic about a ninja doctor, I’d start there. I’ll avoid discussing plot points in detail here, but some spoilers from early on are unavoidable in order to talk about the comic in its more recent form.

Dr. McNinja, it turns out, comes from a whole family of ninjas. Ninja families are hardly commonplace in this setting, but they’re just one more weird element in Dr. McNinja’s weird world. People who learn about the McNinjas might react with surprise, but it’s hardly the jaw-dropping revelation it would be in reality.

I mean, if you’ve met a wizard ghost who can shoot winged sharks at you… a family made up of a bunch of ninjas just isn’t going to be worth wasting your disbelief.

As a man who is not only a doctor but also a ninja, Dr. McNinja has two diametrically opposed forces battling inside him. Doctors do no harm, ninjas hardly to anything but harm. There are times when Dr. McNinja kills in order to treat a patient, and other times when he abandons his practice to pursue ninja-related interests. He’s a complicated figure, trying to cope with a lot of competing pressures and expectations.

One thing that stands out to me about this comic is that Dr. McNinja isn’t necessarily a sympathetic protagonist. He can be inconsiderate and self-possessed and I, as a reader, am not always on his side. Sure, for the most part he’s pretty cool… healing people, trying to right the occasional wrong with his ninja abilities… but his defining quality is not really his extraordinary medical expertise or his ninja training or even the combination of the two. Overall, he’s just a guy who really, really wants to be Batman.

I get my most annoyed with Dr. McNinja when he just goes along with harmful cultural notions instead of standing up against them. (I get pretty annoyed with real people when they do that, too.) For instance, Dr. McNinja’s father, Dan McNinja, is a pretty stereotypical “insensitive dad” type, disapproving of his son’s choices in life and holding to outdated and sexist concepts, and Dr. McNinja just accepts his dad’s offensive scorn.

Then again, I have trouble standing up to my dad in real life, so I guess I actually can sympathize here.

Lots of characters are caught up in these kinds of cultural precepts. Sexism pops up in multiple instances, and at one point Dr. McNinja’s brother, Sean Dark Smoke Puncher, responds to an accusation of reading a nerdy book by declaring “Books are gay!” If I heard a teenager say that I think I’d just start shouting at him about using “gay” as a derogatory term. In terms of the general narrative, these attitudes aren’t met with any apparent approval or disapproval. It’s just part of the world that these characters inhabit, the cultural lingo that they’re used to and which they use without thinking about it. For all that Dr. McNinja is a world of awesome, extraordinary things, it still comes with a lot of the unfortunate cultural baggage of our own world.

Actually, there’s an awful lot about Dr. McNinja that’s less than awesome. When crazy amazing things happen, there’s often a downside. This isn’t a comic full of explosions and battles that somehow leave no casualties; it’s a comic where you get to enjoy all the actiony goodness you can handle and then the characters meet people who lost loved ones and they get all indignant and self-righteous and you’re not really sure whose side you’re on, because on the one hand you did enjoy those fights and explosions, but on the other hand these people are kind of jerks for making all that stuff blow up.

The moral ambiguity isn’t necessarily resolved, the action and fun isn’t necessarily deconstructed, but the negative consequences are present and a little bit uncomfortable. This way, one can process the implications on one’s own, and can draw one’s own conclusions about the characters’ moral justifications. The world of Dr. McNinja is full of wonderful things, but there’s a balance to that, and it’s also a world that in some ways is very difficult.

Yes this kid is pretty young to have that mustache. It's a plot point.
What I love about Dr. McNinja is that I can’t seem to find a baseline. Every time I think I’ve got a hang of this world, that I understand how it works and I can’t be further surprised, it escalates in terms of ridiculousness, and I find myself caught off guard and laughing with glee at some new, exciting, wonderful thing to come out of the crazy imagination that comes up with this stuff. I don’t know that the crazy stuff in this comic gets crazier as it goes on, but it does get bigger, and it’s always new, always different from the crazy stuff that came before. And somehow, the internal logic of the comic’s world feels consistent. It all holds together, and while at times I wonder if all of this stuff was just made up on the fly as it was written, sometimes I wonder if everything that’s happened to date was planned right from the beginning.

The over-the-top intensity of these events is offset by the typically low-key dialogue. The sheer ridiculousness of whatever threat Dr. McNinja is facing will often completely contrast with the sheer ridiculousness of the characters’ reactions, and they way they express those reactions. The speech patterns are idiosyncratic, which puts me in mind of Bad Machinery, in which I also adore the idiosyncratic speech patterns, though the speech patterns in Dr. McNinja are entirely distinct from those in Bad Machinery.

So, if you want to escape from reality for a little while, I’d recommend visiting Dr. McNinja’s. It’s full of fun, excitement, danger, and stuff that your little imagination hasn’t begun to dream up, I promise. Even my most difficult-to-describe dreams don’t come close to the majesty and wonder of the stuff you’ll find in this comic. It’s truly exquisite, a work of intense beauty, and it never stops getting better.

Don’t you wish you lived in a world where this awesome lady was the President of the United States? Yeah, me too.

The Adventures of Dr. McNinja is written and drawn by Christopher Hastings. It is currently colored by Anthony Clark. In the past, it has been inked by Kent Archer and, for a while, was colored by Carly Monardo.

Trust me, this is one of the most fun things you could possibly read on the internet. Oh, and watch out for that mouseover text. It starts showing up in the third story.

Previous Entry: Unshelved
Next Entry: Cat and Girl


  1. Interesting take on the Doc. What would you have preferred his family have been like?

    1. While the McNinjas are definitely imperfect, I actually think the story works better for them being that way. An enlightened, socially conscious and morally responsible family of ninjas could make for an interesting story, but it would be a very different story than the one we have, and not necessarily for the better.

      I really don't think I'd change a thing.