Al Schroeder talks with Gordon McAlpin, the creator of the webcomic Multiplex about movies, webcomics, and what’s playing at the theatres in heaven and hell. The webcomic Multiplex follows the employees at a movie theater with wit and style, and is a hit with webcomic and movie fans alike.
Tell us something about yourself that we don’t know. (I don’t think love of movies counts.)
I’m kind of stuck thinking about movies, for some reason, so I’ll say this: the first movie I remember specifically asking my dad to take me to was Chariots of Fire. I also begged him to take me to Gandhi. I loved them both.
So what attracts you about doing this as a webcomic, and what do you see as a drawback as doing this as a webcomic? Why did you decide to do this as a webcomic?
Why I started doing it as a webcomic isn’t particularly awe-inspiring. I had first started developing Multiplex as an animated short a number of years ago, but that didn’t go anywhere for a variety of reasons, and so I just kind of shelved the idea. When I left Bookslut and set up Stripped Books at its own website, I’d decided I wanted some way of updating the content more regularly than once every two or three months, which was about how quickly I could do them at that point, and so I dusted off the Multiplex idea, since I knew I could do a vector-drawn strip once a week or so, pretty easily, and then it just took off from there. And eventually, I spun off Multiplex onto its own site anyway, leaving Stripped Books all alone again.
What I love most about doing Multiplex specifically is how open the premise is. It’s about the staff of a movie theater, right, so I can do workplace humor, I can toss in a bit of relationship stuff (and there’s been a bit already, though you have to pay close attention to pick up on it), I can do movie parodies, and even a little real-world movie commentary or criticism, if I feel like it.
More generally, I think the flexibility you’ve got with doing a webcomics and the immediacy are, to me, the best things about doing a webcomic. I really like that I can pick up on a bit of movie news, do a strip, and put it online while the news is still fresh, which I’ve done a couple of times. You can’t do that in print. I can also vary the length of each strip as I see fit. If a strip needs to be twelve panels, it is. If it works best as a single-panel, it is one. I can’t really think of any major drawbacks to doing a webcomic, but there are a bunch of minor ones. Promoting the strip takes as much time as actually doing it, and it gets expensive, sometimes. Getting to stumble across every single negative thing anybody ever posts about your work kind of sucks.
Your art reminds me a little of Scary-Go-Round, but with its own look. Who are your influences?
I get the Scary-Go-Round comparison a lot, but it’s funny, because I was completely ignorant of any other webcomics when I started doing Multiplex, so it wasn’t an influence at all, at first. I like Scary-Go-Round, though, so it’s kind of become an influence after the fact. Chris Bishop’s HER! was more of an influence, also after I’d started the strip. I picked up a few stylistic things from him, like using a darker shade to separate two identically colored objects rather than stupidly trying to do something with gradients. That was one of the first changes I’d made to the initial style, and I think it improved the strip a lot, once I’d gotten the hang of it.
South Park is probably the single biggest influence, as well as any number of Flash animated cartoons. I basically create Multiplex like an un-animated short film, like a much more detailed version of South Park: I use stock backgrounds ("playsets," as I call them) and a library of characters and props to speed up the drawing, and I modify the arms and faces so the panels don’t all look exactly the same.
Another early influence, when I was first working on it as an animated short, was René Laloux’s cut paper animation, including Fantastic Planet and Light Years, which are both gorgeous. The influence there is less about what the strip looks like but how I put the shapes together and move them around to make them work as a character. Sort of an "under the hood" influence.
There are a lot of editorial illustrators who work with vector art. It’s a pretty popular style with women’s magazines, for some reason, probably because it’s got such a bright, crisp aesthetic. Any time I see figurative vector art, I try to pick it apart and figure out how they did various things, in order to apply it to my own digital illustration work at some point.
Other than obviously having worked in a movie theater at one time, what are your writing/humor influences?
Actually, I’ve never worked at a movie theater, but people assume that a lot. I guess that’s good. It tells me I’m pretty close to the mark.
My friend Kurt was an assistant manager at one in Peoria when I lived there, and I was working out of my house for some crappy company, and I kept really late hours. I would end up dropping by the theater late in the evening, mooching free movies off of him and such. In between movies or while I was waiting for him to get off of work so we could hang out, I’d talk with the other people who worked there, or whatever. At some point, Kurt apparently suggested I do a comic strip about a movie theater, too, although I totally dismissed it at the time and then forgot about it.
I have a lot of first-hand experience with the customer service and menial bullshit side of the strip from various restaurant jobs during college, particularly a coffee shop I worked at, but the specifics to the movie theater biz, that’s all from research, or from readers. The Multiplex forums have a private area for movie theater employees to talk amongst themselves, and I’ve gotten ideas from that, too, although I avoid doing anything the same way I read about it.
It’s hard to say who my writing and humor influences are. They’d be pretty much every hilarious friend I’ve ever had and every single writer, comedian, cartoonist or filmmaker whose work I’ve ever loved, really. I just internalize it all. When I write Multiplex, I generally start with an idea and just hash it out, like having a conversation with myself, and then I revise it over and over.
I like a lot of vulgar humor, but intelligent vulgar humor. Ivan Brunetti is a fairly recent influence, like in the past year or so. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are obvious influences — everything they’ve done, although I haven’t actually seen much of South Park since the second or third season. I don’t have cable, and I just haven’t gotten around to renting it. I listened to Eddie Murphy’s first comedy album constantly when I was a kid. That’s probably what happened to me.
I like a lot of dry humor. The Life of Brian is one of my favorite movies. Eddie Izzard is brilliant. I love both versions of The Office.
I think some of the sensibility behind the banter in the strip comes from old Hollywood comedies like The Apartment and Philadelphia Story. Kind of my take on that sort of thing. They’re so artificial in some ways — so unreal, that they’re almost hyperreal. The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore are huge influences on me, too, for similar reasons. I’ve dropped like twenty movies or names already, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.
So are all of your characters exaggerations of real people, or totally fictional, or somewhere between the two. (I bet the BLOGGER’s real….)
He’s so popular with people who have blogs, for some reason. I think it’s hilarious. Shouldn’t they be offended by him?
The Blogger is actually not real, although I guess he’s kind of inspired by a lot of crappy blogs I’ve seen, and a lot of Internet "critics," of which I am occasionally one. I think my reviews are pretty good, mostly, but man, there are a lot of people out there who think that stating an opinion is the same thing as explaining why they have an opinion.
Kurt is loosely based off of the real Kurt: the love of zombie movies, and just B-grade movies in general. Melissa (Kurt’s girlfriend) isn’t really anything like the real Melissa (the real Kurt’s girlfriend), but I nicked her hairstyle and her name. Anyone who knows me will tell you that Jason is me, and he kind of is. He’s more me at 19 than me now, though: a little more cynical, a little less open-minded.
Oh, and Brian — the stupid one — is sort of inspired by someone I knew, but I won’t say who.
In Heaven, there’s a theater with your name on it. What’s playing? Orson Welles’ original The Magnificent Ambersons, or something else? For that matter, what are they selling on the refreshment stand?
You nailed it. The first movie I’d want to see when I walked into heaven is Orson Welles’s lost version of The Magnificent Ambersons although it’s not a very uplifting movie.
But basically, this heavenly theater would be a never-ending festival of all my favorite directors and all the stuff I’ve never gotten around to seeing.
Anyway, they would be serving beer at the concessions stand in Heaven, and lots of it.
In Hell, there’s a theater with your name on it. What’s playing?
Lana’s Rain, all day, every day. Nobody knows it, because it’s just some low-budget Chicago-grown indie flick, but it is quite possibly the worst movie I have ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of movies. I wrote a review for it as a tryout for my stint as a film critic for Gapers Block (a Chicago-based group blog) and I described it as "every late-night cable movie you have seen in your whole life chucked into a blender, drank, and explosively shat down your throat."
They would only have Skittles at the concessions in Hell. Not because I don’t like them, but because I do… too much. I can’t stop eating them, and then they will make my teeth hurt.
Do you have a favorite strip? A favorite character?
I still get a kick out of the Harry Potter one, #23. That one gets linked to more than any other strip. I did sort of a follow-up to that just recently (in #56), actually.
My favorite character is probably Jason. He’s the easiest one for me to write, anyway, because he’s kind of a dick. I also like lapsing into the little lectures that he goes into now and then, because I can sneak in stuff like, well, the bit about The Magnificent Ambersons, for instance.
But Brian is pretty fun to write, too, just because he’s so incredibly stupid.
Who would have won the Oscars if you had picked them this year?
I can’t really say, since I didn’t see all of the nominees, but with Best Picture, I’d have liked for Good Night, and Good Luck to win. It was a superb movie in every possible way, and the story is absolutely relevant to the political nightmare America is stuck in right now. It’s rare that Hollywood produces even one political movie with any real substance to it, but last year, we got two great ones: Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana were probably my two favorite movies of last year.
What are your future plans, for Multiplex in particular and Stripped Books in general?
Well, Stripped Books is on a bit of a hiatus now. I want to do one more of them before the year is up, but I’m not really thinking about it yet.
For Multiplex, the strip is going to continue towards more character-based stories, and even some story arcs, although not in the strict sense. They’ll still be self-contained strips, just with a larger story behind some of them. #56 introduced a few parts of the main story I’ll be dancing around this summer. I kind of like the idea of not having the characters talk about their relationships constantly, and just showing them. A glance here and there does a better job of saying "this character has a crush on this character" than doing a whole strip where Jason gushes about how hot Sunny is, say. I want my characters to feel like actors, not anchors for word balloons.
Also — and I’m probably getting ahead of myself by saying this — I want to start working on a print version of the strip. I think I’d want to do partly reformatted stuff and partly original material. I want to give people who buy the print comic a reason to check it out online, and I want the people who read the strip to have a reason to buy the print version, without feeling like I’m ripping them off. Besides, magazines and websites are two very different beasts. It just seems appropriate to me to do content specifically for each format. But I don’t want any Multiplex fans to start holding their breath or anything; it’s a long ways off.