Inside the Webcomic Studio with Gordon McAlpin

Gordon McAlpin is the creator of Multiplex, a webcomic about the movies and the staff at a movie theater.  We interviewed Gordon in 2006 but I thought it was a good time to catch up again.  McAlpin is closing in on the 300th episode of Multiplex.  He also blogs about movies at Movie Makeout and co-hosts the movie podcast The Triple Feature.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I grew up mostly in Peoria, Illinois; I lived there from 3rd grade 'til I was 25 (in 2001), when I moved up to Chicago. I've bounced around from company to company, mostly freelancing for places for a few months here, a year or so there. And a few years ago, I started a little comic strip called Multiplex.


Hey I was born in Illinois!  But that's about it actually.  I really grew up in California.  Are there a lot of cartoonists in Chicago?  Do you run into webcomic creators there?

I almost never "run into" any other cartoonists. I suppose I've said "hi" to Alex Kujawa (F.A.R.T.S.) and Spike (duh) at Wizard World Chicago once or twice; I've met Neil Brideau (Sock Monster) once or twice… a couple of others, but mostly just on the interweb.

It does seem like there are a lot of cartoonists in Chicago, both web-based and none, but I don't have a sense of a Chicago cartoonists community, really. I keep meaning to invite all the cartoonists I'm even vaguely acquainted with out for a drink sometime to help remedy that, but… I'm kind of bad at planning anything.


Do you have another job besides working on comics?

I do; I'm a "freelance digital artist." For the past year I've been at a full-time freelance gig with an educational publishing company, doing page layout, print production, some illustration. I do a bit of freelance photo retouching and print production on the side, as well.


What's a typical day for you like recently?

My Multiplex work week runs from Sunday to Thursday, so while I do have a fairly specific regimen, I don't really have a "typical" day:

On Sunday, I wake up and get to work on the strip as soon as I can muster up the motivation (sometimes after a movie), and I work on it until it's done. It takes me between six and eight hours for a normal length strip, and more for the longer, more complicated ones, of course. Sometimes I have a pretty good idea of what I'm going to do; other times I only know I'm going to do a strip about a particular movie, or something. On the nerve-wracking days that I really don't have an idea, I'll scour the Internet for movie news or movie theater-related stuff, or even read through the archives to see what I haven't touched on lately.

On weekdays, I roll out of bed and try to get to work about half an hour late and work on the strip as much as I can when I'm there. At work, I can only find time to do the more business or promotional stuff: ad revenue monitoring, ad campaign maintenance, e-mail interviews… that sort of thing. I'm pretty lucky to have a flexible freelance job right now, where I can do this stuff, but the computer there kind of sucks, so working on the actual strip is annoying. Also, it's hard to just stop what I'm doing at a moment's notice if I'm working on the strip.

After work on Monday, I'll try to fit in a new release if I can, go home, work on the Thursday strip a little, and gear up for the Triple Feature at 9PM Central. On Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, I work on the Thursday strip until it's done.

Thursday evenings, Friday and Saturday are my days off, although I'm often watching a movie on at least one of those nights, but I try not to think about strip ideas then. I try to find some time for my girlfriend in there, too.


Give me the 30 second "convention pitch" for your comic.

Multiplex is a unique blend of real-world movie commentary, teen drama, and stupid movie jokes — like South Park meets The Office, in a movie theater.

I dunno. I'm not very good at the convention pitch.


It's a bit of an acquired skill to "pitch" anything I guess.  That's not a bad one although I don't think South Park and The Office are the first things that come to mind for me to describe Multiplex.  It's not quite as farcical as South Park and it's less painfully embarrassing to watch than The Office.  Maybe given the movie focus of Multiplex I should have asked you to describe what the movie poster for Multiplex would look like?

If I were to design a Multiplex movie poster (and I've been meaning to, actually), I would make it the most gloriously cliché poster ever. Floating heads, Trajan, the whole works.


How has the strip evolved over time?

Multiplex started off being mostly a straight-forward humor strip. I hate the term "gag strip," at least for Multiplex, because it's not one. It makes my eyes roll when I read a Multiplex review and the reviewer talks about the "gags."

As the series progressed and the characters became better defined, I started doing less movie-centered jokes and more character-centered ones — and also more movie commentary. Even though the characters are fictional and the opinions are not (necessarily) my own, all of the opinions about movies in the strip come from somewhere: a synthesis of opinions I've read in forums, reviews, or out in the real world. I'm not trying to push any opinions, contrary to some peoples' assumptions, just to find some humor or insight in the characters' discussion of it.

The scope of the series has broadened a bit: it isn't just about specific movies, but also how we talk about movies, how we experience movies, and why we love (and hate) them.

The art's gotten more detailed, as well, and just generally improved as I get the hang of the drawing style, build up the library of characters and backgrounds, etc.


Do you have a favorite strip or storyline from the comic?  Which ones do fans seem to bring up the most?

My favorite storyline — and one of the most popular storylines — was the one where Brian got fired. Since Jason wasn't working at the Multiplex at the time, I finally got the chance to develop the rest of the cast a little more. Multiplex was always supposed to be more of an ensemble strip, but Jason ended up hogging the spotlight all the time, because he's the easiest for me to write.

I remember when I was working my way up to that strip, there was a lot I needed to set up, so that the pieces would fall into place. I had one or two complaints in the forum that the strip wasn't as fun anymore, and I just shrugged it off, because I knew that Brian's big reveal would really get people — even though I'd actually teased that perhaps Brian was smarter than he seemed many months before.


Are there any of your characters you're really fond of?  Any that are particularly difficult to use?

I'm really fond of all of the major characters, but especially Jason, Becky and Angie. They've made for some really good exchanges, and the strips that have come out of them have been pretty challenging: as a former Christian, it's difficult to write Angie in a way that is rational and still very much Christian. But I think her popularity indicates I'm doing something right.

Even though I haven't used James much yet, he is one of my favorites, as well, because I've had to do so much research just to build up his back-story, and for when I eventually get around to doing more flashbacks to when he was an usher at the Regal Theater. He's definitely a long-term character, unlike some of the younger staff kids who will come and go, and he'll play a crucial role in the larger story.


C'mon, what about the insolent blogger?  How can you not be fond of that guy?

Hahaha, you love him. Yeah, I like him, too. I keep meaning to bring him back to make fun of bloggers more.… which would be a little ironic now, because I took the Movie Make-out name for my own movie news blog.


Do you have any long term goals or ambition for the future of the comic?

I do have a long term goal for Multiplex: to end it.

There are several larger, themes in the strip, some of which have been introduced already, some haven't, and some I haven't even thought up yet, I'm sure.

All of the major characters — Kurt, Jason, Melissa, Becky and Franklin — have long-term character arcs, and I know (in a general sense) where all of them will end up. When all of those pieces fall into place, I'll cap off the series and end it. I don't really know when that will be; it could be seven years from now, or fifteen, but it's definitely a long, long ways off.

Outside of Multiplex, I'd like to get back to writing and drawing non-fiction comics, like I did with Stripped Books. I think I can leave the combat zones to Joe Sacco, but I really enjoy doing non-fiction comics. The non-fiction elements in Multiplex probably make that obvious.


Well how long can you imagine yourself creating Multiplex for then?  Do you have a sense of when it'll be time to wrap it up?

I want to just let the story develop organically; I'll know when it feels right to start wrapping things up. Jason's still basically a kid right now — he turns 22 on November 7 — and he's got a lot to learn and do before I can end his storyline the way I want it to.

But I could go on doing Multiplex forever in some form. As long as Hollywood exists, I've got plenty of material to work with, right?  I'd love to do an animated version where things stay locked in time, with Jason and Kurt in the red vests for all eternity.


Any plans for a print collection?

Always, always. I'm working on Volume One with hopes of finding a publisher, but I'll self-publish if I can't find one. I'm very slow about working on the new material for it, so it's not really that far along, I'm sorry to say.

I want to add a little more detail to the character-based stuff and touch on movies I missed the first time around. Since Multiplex is set more or less in real time, back when the strip was only updating weekly, there was a lot I missed or had to sell short, so there's a lot to add in this first book.

It would really help if I could quit the day job and just work on comics full-time, but so far, that's just not an option.


How do you go about promoting your work?  What seems to be most effective at pulling in new readers?

By far the most effective way I've found to promote Multiplex is Project Wonderful. Set up a campaign for an 117×30 ad with a useful tag to weed out sites that wouldn't be relevant, keep the pay rate low and spend as much as you can afford. I recycle almost every cent of ad revenue I get from Project Wonderful back into advertising through Project Wonderful.

If you monitor PW in tandem with Google Analytics, you can get a good sense of which sites are really effective for YOUR strip to advertise on: high new reader percentages and high average pageviews are arguably even more important than numbers of visitors. The best-performing sites at that ad size are good candidates to target with specific bids in their larger ad boxes, if they have any.

On top of Project Wonderful, I've advertised at a few non-webcomic-related sites. They're never as cost-effective as PW, and sometimes they're an outright waste of money. But, when successful, advertising outside of Project Wonderful brings in sky-high new reader percentages, which balances things out somewhat. (I've found that on PW, a good new reader percentage is around 30%; outside PW, it's around 90%.)


I would think that a webcomic with a strong non-comics hook like Multiplex does with its focus on movies would have lots of opportunities to advertise in movie-related venues.  Have you been able to hook new readers who otherwise don't read comics because of the movie angle?

I don't really know! I get the impression that some of the movie theater employees (and ex-employees) who read Multiplex don't read many — if any — other comics, but I'm not really sure the movie angle is a big draw on its own.

If comments I've seen at various non-webcomics-centric sites have been any indication, Multiplex is a tough sell to people who don't read any comics, because it's not a gag strip. Hell, it's a tough sell to some avid comics readers, because the humor isn't gag-based, or whatever.

Any collectives you're working with? If so can you tell us about what kinds of things does the collective do and how does it benefit everyone in it?

Not at the moment, no. I love all the Boxcar Comics guys, and my involvement with Boxcar brought in hundreds of new, regular readers and helped contribute to Multiplex's "presence" in the webcomics scene (if you can call it that) for a long time, but I just felt that it was kind of stagnant for a long time and decided to go my own way.

Of course, I still co-host the Triple Feature with Tom and Joe, who were Boxcar mates of mine. I suppose you can call that a mini-collective of movie webcomics, but it's really just the podcast.


What conventions are your favorites to exhibit at?  What advice do you have for others just starting to show their work at conventions?

I've only ever gone to Wizard World Chicago, and since I've never had much of anything to sell, I've mostly just popped in and glommed a few feet off of Tom for a day or so.

As far as advice: stand up when you're not drawing sketches, and hand out free shit, if at all possible — a postcard, a mini-comic, whatever. Most people will walk by and just kind of wave their hand, but it's a way to engage people who would otherwise just walk by and not even look at you, and they might check out your strip when they get home.


Do you have a favorite convention story?

I was out drinking with the Boxcar guys in 2006, I think, and Mitch Clem was getting a little tipsy. They had all seen how I drew by hand for the first time earlier that day, when we were doing some jam comics, and Mitch said something like, "I like Multiplex but if you can draw like that, why are you messing around with that computer shit?!"

He totally denies this ever happened, but I thought it was hilarious. I can see how traditional cartoonists don't really "get" the vector art thing, but I enjoy working in the style every bit as much as I do slinging ink. It's just that Multiplex got popular, and that's the style I was using for it.


Do your fans bring you cool things at shows?

It hasn't happened yet, alas.

Dear fans: I like alcohol.


When you create a comic, how do you appproach it? Do you start with the words and then think about the scene that should go with it or do you start with more of purely visual approach or none of the above?

Once in a while, I will get a visual idea and construct a script building around that, but usually I have an idea of what needs to happen in a strip (even if it's just as simple as "this needs to happen"), and I'll open up a template file — which is basically a grid of empty panels — and start laying down dialogue (and text descriptions of any key actions), to get the pacing down and the amount of words about right.

Working this way lets me revise the dialogue until the very end (and sometimes even after it's been posted); I've sometimes made pretty drastic changes to the strip at the eleventh hour, even. It's a nice luxury to have as a writer.


What tools do you use to make comics?  Can you give us a brief walkthrough of your process?

I draw Multiplex in Illustrator, mostly. I've been incorporating hand-drawn sequences into Multiplex recently, too, though.

On the vector sequences, as I said, I open a template file and figure out the script, then I pull existing backgrounds from my library and paste in character models from reference files, basically building up an animatic. I'll draw anything new that I need to fill out the rest of the panels. Once that's all in place, I just start fine-tuning the characters' poses and facial expressions until they work for the script.

Mostly, I draw the vector stuff with a mouse and the Pen tool, because it's more precise — although I sometimes use the tablet to roughly sketch out difficult poses or gestures using the Brush tool. I've been doing that more and more lately, and I think it's improved the characters' body language.

For hand-drawn comics, I do things not much differently than anybody else: I draw thumbnails, lightbox them onto bristol paper, sketch them out with Colerase pencils, ink with some combination of brush or pen and ink, and sometimes markers… Scan it, Photoshop for clean-up, retouching, and color… etc.

As far as software goes, I use Illustrator and Photoshop CS3 (and I'm looking forward to CS4), and I use the Illustrator plug-in Phantasm Designer to help me push color around, and for a few other things. It's an indispensible addition to Illustrator for me.


Did you do your own website?  What software are you using on it?

I built the early versions of my websites with Dreamweaver (with some help from Photoshop and Illustrator to create the images), but after a year and a half or so, the archives outgrew that approach, so I hired Jerry Stephens to code a custom, dynamic version of the same design for me, with a back-end for easily updating the strip. Since then, I've had my brother Lawrence program a lot of new things into the site, like making the Cast pages dynamic, as well.

To maintain the site now, I mostly use Coda to update the non-dynamic pages like the About Me page, the Extras page. It's a really beautifully done all-in-one site programming and maintenance tool.


How would you describe your relationship with your fans?  Do you engage in a lot of online interaction with your readers?

When people e-mail me, I'm happy to write back. I use Twitter a bit and Facebook sometimes (although not as much since Scrabulous went away), but I'm at the Multiplex forum a lot. I do most of my interaction with readers there.

My forum regulars are pretty great. There's a handful of really enthusiastic fans who seem to be waiting around at midnight whenever a strip is due, and they're great proofreaders. If something doesn't quite read the way I've meant, or I have a grammatical error anywhere, they let me know, and — if I agree with them, of course — I can fix it before "the masses" see it the next day.


Do you read other comics?  What are you reading online or in print?

Of course! I read Theater Hopper and Joe Loves Crappy Movies, of course; Voids; Kate Beaton's stuff; Diesel Sweeties; Octopus Pie; Girls with Slingshots; PvP; Johnny Crossbones; Beaver & Steve and Perry Bible Fellowship when they're updating…

In print comics, my taste leans towards indie comics, but most of those cartoonists come out with a book a year, so unless I've read something recent, I forget about them. Some favorites are Joe Sacco, David B., Larry Gonick's Cartoon Histories, Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti, Seth, Jason Lutes, and Eric Shanower.

As far as mainstream comics go, I follow creators, not characters, and usually writers more than artists — Ed Brubaker, Robert Kirkman, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar and Warren Ellis, for instance. I'll buy just about anything drawn by J.G. Jones, Bryan Hitch, and a few other mainstream artists, though.


Did you read comics as a kid?  Which ones?  What are your influences from comics today?

Oh yeah. I read any newspaper comic that didn't look like Rex Morgan, MD, even if I hated it. My favorite comic strip since I've been alive is Calvin & Hobbes, although the early Peanuts are absolutely brilliant, as well, and Little Nemo in Slumberland is fantastic.

I read a lot of super-hero stuff starting with Crisis on Infinite Earth. That lead me into Blue Beetle (RIP, Ted Kord), Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League, the George Pérez Wonder Woman relaunch… I was pretty much super-heroes only until high school, when Jim, the curmudgeonly chain-smoking clerk at ACME Comics in Peoria, Illinois, started pushing me towards more mature titles like Sandman, V for Vendetta, and such. I still read a lot of superhero books, like the Valiant titles, until they fired Jim Shooter, when it all went to hell.

I sold off all my Valiants for a couple thousand in store credit, and that — and occasionally helping out at the store — basically financed my comics habit for the next few years. I could read anything and everything that looked good, so my tastes broadened considerably.


Other non-comic influences on your art and writing?

My digital art is influenced by the whole school of vector artists. Any time I see really nice vector art, I pore over it to see if there are any tricks I can borrow to help Multiplex look better. It's definitely a lot better looking than the earliest strips, but it's a tough style to work in. It's very limiting, in some ways.

Visually, Multiplex is influenced by film, TV and animation more than comics. I do the layouts like movies, with the exception of making room for the word balloons; the panels are in a 4:3 aspect ratio like TV because of that. Multiplex is supposed to evoke movies more than comics.

I lean towards very strong, visual directors. If I were to direct a movie, it would probably look like a cross between Wes Anderson and Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu has a photographer's eye and almost never moves his camera; Multiplex is heavily influenced by that. That lends itself to the "cut and paste" accusations I get from people who don't look closely at the character's expressions — but really, if it's two people talking, there's no reason the camera needs to move all over the place.

Writing-wise, I'm more influenced by film and TV than anything else, too. While I have a few novelists I like, I prefer my fiction in comics and film. When I read books, they tend to be non-fiction: science, religion… lately, the only reading I've done (other than news) has been research for James, trying to figure out how to work the ideas I want into the strip: about the movie theater industry in the 1950s, the history of Bronzeville and the Regal Theatre, and so on.


What is it about comics that leads you to pour your creative impulses into that form as opposed to writing or some other art form?

I love comics as a medium. I love film every bit as much, really — I really just love visual storytelling — but as a creator, comics are much easier to get in the ground floor on, because you can go it alone, and you can be relatively prolific with almost no "budget" to speak of. Especially webcomics.

I love to draw and write, so what better outlet is there than comics?


Do you have any thoughts on what makes comics comics as opposed to animation?  For 99% of comics and animation its easy to say this is one and that's the other but sometimes when people try to explain the differences they can't agree on where the line is or what is essential to each one.

I think where people get hung up is the idea that something needs to be one or the other. Comics and animation are techniques, and you can use more than one technique within a single work.

Comics creates the illusion of sequence or motion or whatever by juxtaposing images in space; animation creates more or less the same thing by juxtaposing them in time. I'm sure a bunch of people would say those are horrifying oversimplifications, and they'd be right.

Meredith Gran has done a couple of comics that had animation in them (the sparkly butt strip and the recent one where Will, I think it was, was beating some guy up at the Ren Faire). But I would say that they're comics, not animation, because they were primarily comics and only a tiny bit animation.

On the other hand, the Watchmen "Motion Comics" are closer to half-assed animation than comics.


Any other creative endeavors you're working on?

I only have one other project going right now, and I don't want to say too much about it, because we may never even complete it, let alone sell it, but I'm writing a screenplay right now with a friend of mine. It's very early still, but it's shaping up pretty well so far. I will say this: it's not set anywhere near a multiplex.

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.