Interview with Theater Hopper’s Tom Brazelton

Theater Hopper has been entertaining us for years with its autobiographical yet satirical look at the lives of movegoers — and the movies that obsess them.  Comixpedia talked with creator Tom Brazelton about movies, webcomics, and the fans of both.

Tell us something about yourself.  Of course, since you and your wife and friends are already in the strip, we already know a little.  Tell us something most of us don't know about you.

It's weird. Even though Theater Hopper is semi-autobiographical, I don't really regard that as the main conveyance for my readers to get to know me. Most of the sharing I do either in the blog or in my forum community. Really, my life is an open book. So it's difficult for me to share something that most people don't already know.

I suppose something I don't talk about too often is my vast CD collection and interest in music. I have about 1,500 CDs – many of them I picked up when I was both the Operations Manager of my college radio station as well as music reviewer for my college newspaper. I wrote freelance concert reviews for The Des Moines Register for a while and also taught myself to play electric bass purchasing the guitar with money earned from selling the trombone I played in junior high.

I would say my passion for music is equal to my passion for movies. But, y'know – I didn't want to horn in on the territory Mitch Clem or Jeph Jaques staked for themselves! ;-D


So why put this out as a webcomic? When did you first get the urge to do so?

This kind of ties back into the music thing – but before I started Theater Hopper, I had created a site called "Des Moines Music Online", that covered my local music scene for about a year to a year and a half. I started the site essentially to teach myself web design since my background was in print and there were no classes in web when I was in school.

The site did pretty well and gathered a pretty loyal readership that considered me an authority. I even put out a compilation record! But eventually it got too big for me and I couldn't draw anyone else into it, so I had to close the doors.

Looking for my next web project to continue advancing my design skills, I turned to web comics. I think I was reading The Offical Playstation Magazine at the time and saw Penny Arcade strips being run in the Mailbox area. I went to the site from there and it was all downhill after that.

Reading Penny Arcade introduced me to PvP and so on. But I think it was about the time that I finished reading the PvP archives, I thought to myself "Here are these guys producing comics and they're no different than me. They work day jobs. They live in apartments. They have wives. Why can I do this?"

Of course, since then, those guys switched over to doing their comics full-time and I still work a 9 to 5, but that was the impetus.

Webcomics were the perfect way to blend my interest in storytelling, illustration and web design. Since I thought most comics needed a theme, I went with what I knew best – movies – and Theater Hopper was born.


The art's fun but the coloring is excellent. Who influences your art?

Thanks for the compliments on the coloring! Seriously – I think that's the first time anyone has pointed it out to me! It's something that I've been trying to improve in the last year, so I appreciate it.

Who influences me? Probably comic book artists influence me most. I've been reading comics since I was 8 years old. I fell out of the scene while I was in college, but fell back into it a few years ago.  I also used to really be into syndicated comics, but I don't read them much anymore. The politics of it infuriates me too much. I think it's high time comics like Dennis the Menace and Blondie made way for new talent. 

Don't know if there's one person I could cite that is a direct influence. I'd like to say Bill Waterson because so many people point to him. And while I enjoy his work a great deal, I'll never fool myself into thinking that I'm as good of an illustrator as he is. So I don't aspire to that. I just admire it from afar.

Berkely Breathed was probably a more direct influnce in terms of his humor. Just so dry but bizarre at the same time. He was another guy I looked at and said "Well, if he could do it…"

I suppose if there was any syndicated cartoonist I most emulate, it would probably be Bill Amend. It's not really intentional, but I think we kind of have similar styles with the heavy outlines and such.


Are you influenced by other writers or just comments made before, during, and after movies you've watched?

I spoke to Berkely Breathead above. His sense of humor was always something I enjoyed.  Beyond that, I don't know that I pay much attention to specific writers. Truthfully, I think it's probably the weakest part of Theater Hopper. I think I can conceptualize well – Robotic Ben Affleck duplicates, for example. But I tend to go real wordy on the dialogue and that doesn't always work best with a four panel strip. It's been a hard lesson for me to learn how to edit myself and parse ideas down.

I suppose to that end it should be no surprise that I enjoy writers like Mamet, Sorkin, Whedon or Allen.  Overall, however – I think I just like reading or listening to any good storyteller. Whether it's some big-shot playwrite or a good friend who has captured my attention. I think being a good writer is about assimilating all of those stories and editing things out to the point where you can retell it in your own voice – and I'm still working on that.


 Inside Man ParodyWhat do you prefer, comics or movies?  What do you have a more extensive collection of — movies or comics?

I have a larger collection of comics. Probably around 2,000. We're talking comic books, right? My movie collection is somewhere around 200. In terms of what I prefer – it's all subjective. I enjoy different facets of pop culture for different reasons.

I tend to view my appreciation of these diversions more holistically. I enjoy all of pop culture, even the stuff that infuriates me like celebrity worship and fashion. I don't get it, but that doesn't make it any worse than the mountain of Simpsons merchandise I worship too.

I wished I owned more DVDs, but I'm kind of starting to view it as a disposible technology. Especially when you consider the studios releasing multiple versions of the same movie with maybe one or two extra bits of content just to make a quick buck. I don't like being taken advantage like that, so I tend to be a lot more picky about the movies I own.

I still *see* a lot of movies – in the theater and on TV. It's constant. And I have a pretty good memory when it comes to all things pop culture, so a collection in that respect isn't something I need to hang my hat on.


So what are your top ten movies of all time?

That's a hard question to answer because the movies change all the time.  Truthfully, it probably takes more careful consideration than I have time to spend. Films rotate in and out of the list. You bring up one movie, it reminds you of another and things extrapolate from there.

I can tell you there are a few lynchpin films that never leave the list. Both Citizen Kane and Vertigo I think are essential not only as character studies, but for technical accomplishment and the fact that they were even made at all considering the climate of the era each film emerged from. Those films only get better and better for me – especially when you learn more about the personal lives of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. They show so much of themselves in those movies without the audience ever realizing it.

Of course, for every self-important film snob choice, I like to switch things up with dumb comedies.  Airplane! for example has to be one of the dumbest movies ever made, but it speaks directly to my id and is infinitely quotable.  I tend to enjoy comedies that are quotable like that. The first two Naked Gun movies and even Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy I find immensely entertaining.

I feel like I'm exposing my underbelly on that one because there are a lot of Will Ferrell haters out there. But that's okay. I can't apologise for it. I just think the guy is really funny.

Like, do you notice that the stories that Bill Cosby tells aren't funny, it's just the way he tells them? Same thing with Ferrell. It's just the way he pronounces words that just hits me between the eyes.

Totally off the subject of comedy, I have to briefly state that I think The Incredibles  is probably one of the best animated films of all time. Not just for the technical achievement of 3D animation – but the story is probably one of the sharpest and well thought out in children's entertainment.


So, what's the worst movie so far of 2006?

There's so many to choose from. Usually there's a real down period after the awards season. January and February are typically the studio's dumping grounds. But I'd say that streak has extended well into April. You can tell because more and more studios aren't letting reviewers see advanced screenings. They're rather take their chances with no promotion than absorb a bad review. What does that tell you about the state of Hollywood?

Personally, the films that have turned me off so far this year would be unnecessary sequels like Big Momma's House 2.  Seriously – was anyone asking for this movie, or is it just another paycheck for Martin Lawrence?  

A movie like Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector was just pointless. Endless  remakes like The Shaggy Dog or When A Stranger Calls.  Horror movies like Stay Alive  or Final Destination 3.  Ugh – I'm sick of it.

Still, looking back, there have been a lot of really good movies so far this year. Lots of great documentaries, which I think is refreshing.  People get it when they're being sold to. I think audiences are looking for something a little more real, so it's nice that these kind of small films are getting more prominence.


So, is the saving grace of this job that, if you see a bad movie, you think, "At least this will be good fodder for Theater Hopper?" How has the strip influenced your movie watching habits?

Truth be told, after almost four years covering movies, my patience for bad movies is really low. Every once in a while, I'll see one that I know is just flat-out terrible to kind of cleanse the pallete a little bit. Help me appreciate what is good. But I feel like I stay ahead of the curve enough that I don't waste my time on bad movies anymore.

Maybe that's a bad thing. Maybe with all the research I do for the comic, I spoil the experience for myself. But, then again, "The Mona Lisa" is one of the world's most famous paintings. It's been mimicked and parodied time and time again. But the intrinsic quality of the piece endours because it's just that good.

I think good art can rise above expecations and still manage to captivate.  That's what I tend to look for more these days.

That said, I'm still seeing X-Men 3!



Would you like to make a movie? If so, of what?

I don't think I would have the patience to direct anything, but I wouldn't mind sitting in with a team of writers to try and come up with scenarios for some kind of comedy.

Like I was saying about Airplane! – one of the dumbest movies ever made. But you can just picture those guys sitting around bouncing ideas off of each other seeing who can top the other. That sounds like a lot of fun to me.

I don't know that I have anything that is insightful enough to say to direct a film from the ground up. I think I would rather be a part of a collaborative process. I would get a bigger kick out of having a quote that was repeated over and over rather than to have a director credit up on screen.


I know you have a new book out. Any other plans?

The book is pretty much all I'm focusing on for the time being. I'm in a tough spot because I don't have the money up front to pay for a full order. So I'm really pulling as many strings as I can to get people to pre-order and help me front the cost. It sucks because there is nothing I would like more than to have the book ready for them to ship out when they order it. But the fact of the matter is printing is expensive if you go the commercial printer route and you just have to suck it up and deal with it.

My hope is after I have the books ordered, I can take them on tour with me to a couple of comic book conventions. Iowa's Icon convention, Wizard World Chicago and the Minneapolis FallCon are all on my hit-list because they're within driving distance. It's been a real pleasure to see webcomics grab more of a foot hold in this environment because there's really no place else for us to go!

Beyond that, I think there's an opportunity for a crossover pretty soon. I don't want to say with whom because I don't want to spoil it – but we've been in talks. Nothing fancy. Just something to span a week or so. But I'm really looking forward to it. Like I said, it dips back into that collaborative thing I'm working toward. So I like the possibilities.

But really – the first book is the focus. If I can get that off the ground, it's going to make it that much easier to do a follow up. With any luck, I can have "Year Two" out in time for the holidays. Keep your fingers crossed and thanks to everyone so far for their support.


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