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An Interview with Tom Brazelton

Theater Hopper by Tom Brazelton is a webcomic sort of, but not entirely about Tom, his wife Cami and their friends. The creator, Tom Brazelton (as opposed to his four-color alter ego) is coming up on six years of the webcomic.  Neither fatherhood nor the Star Wars prequels have stopped the man from making fun at and with the movies.  Over the last couple of months I interviewed Tom about the webcomic, his third print collection and other necessary pop culture topics.

I did a little math and it looks to me like Theater Hopper will be 8 years old in August of this year -- is that right?  Are you still enjoying working on it as much as when you started?

Actually, you're a little ahead of things. Theater Hopper will be 6 years old on August 2. But that's pretty close to 8 years!

Do I still enjoy working on it? Certainly. I like the challenge. I like pushing myself to create. I've been working on Theater Hopper longer than I've held some jobs, so there must be something attractive about it.

Actually, I think I'm enjoying it more than when I first started. I had to hussle a great deal to get the word out about Theater Hopper when I first started. These days, I know who my core supporters are and it's great to know that I've established myself to a degree.  That's not to imply that I'm resting on my laurels. I'm still trying to reach new audiences every day. But there's a little less of that "will anyone care?" anxiety that there was in the salad days.

 

I'm double-checking your archives page now and yes, apparently, I can't add!  It's interesting to hear your thoughts on why you keep working at the comic.  I think a lot of creators online in the early days stuck with one strip in part because newspaper comic strips were their ideal but I see more and more now probably as many creators diversify their output as stick with one project.  Do you have any separation between your enjoyment of making Theater Hopper and making comics?  Do you you see yourself more as a comics creator as an interest in movies or as a movie fan who likes to make comics?

Branching off from your initial observation, I was never under any illusion that Theater Hopper would find its way to print - although that *DID* happen for about a year when it was published in a local alternative weekly.  When I started out, it was with the full understanding that "this is a hobby and if other people jive on it, cool." I've never nursed the "Us Vs. Them" mentality some in the webcomic field seem to possess when it comes to print cartoonists because I never aspired to be one. 

Additionally, I certainly see value in diversifying your portfolio. Tackling new projects reflects that you're a thinking person and seek challenges outside of the conventional. I've often floated the idea of doing a second comic, but I never pull the trigger because I'm short enough on time as it is. And, frankly, I love what I'm doing with Theater Hopper. I want to make it the best it can possibly be. That said, I don't feel tethered to Theater Hopper in the sense that "it's either this or nothing!" If Theater Hopper ended for any reason, I doubt I would stay away from webcomics for long. It's compulsory. I love the outlet of creating and I love the community. I would hate to lose some of the relationships I've established among fans and creators alike.

So maybe that makes me a comic creator first - although I would be remiss to categorize myself that way. I think if you had asked me that question 6 years ago, I would say I was a movie fan first, because I certainly didn't know what I was doing with the comics. But now with a little experience under my belt, I feel confident that I could take my skills into another arena if it came to that.

 

You've had some big changes in your personal life over the life of the comic -- most recently with the birth of your first child Henry last year.  What's it like having a one year old in the house?  Is he helping you come up with ideas for the comic yet? :)

It's a great thrill being a father and, luckily, Henry is a really great kid. Funny, adorable and has no problem sleeping through the night. So that's left me some free time in the evenings to work on the comics. Henry's recently learned to walk and running soon followed, so I feel like I'm on my feet a lot following after him, making sure he doesn't run into things or trip over himself. But otherwise, he's a joy to be around. I look forward to coming home from work every day to be with him.

He hasn't been contributing ideas to the comic just yet. But that's largely due to his taste in movie right now. It's a bit... shall I say infantile?

 

I've never been quite sure how autobiographical you mean Theater Hopper to be.  It does feature a main character named Tom with a wife named Cami and a beagle named Truman.  How much of your actual family do you try to work into the comic?

I've pretty much gone on record saying that Theater Hopper is semi-autobiographical. It stars a version of my wife and myself as well as my friend Jared. He's based on a real person. Our real-life 6 year-old beagle Truman makes appearances from time to time. In terms of exactly how autobiographical it's meant to be... well, certainly some of our conversations are exaggerated for comedic effect. But some of the exchanges I've had with my wife, for example, I've posted verbatim. We have a great time talking about movies and celebrity culture.

 

ComixTalk interviewed you before back in 2006.  One of things you mentioned was working for your college radio station - we've got that in common, I worked on air for KCPR when I went to Cal Poly.  Do you keep up with new music?  What kinds of stuff are you listening to these days?

I try to keep up with new music but it's difficult without that constant exposure I used to have. I don't really like listening to radio these days. We have a metal station in Des Moines that I was forced to listen to when I was driving my wife's car for a few days and I swear it was frozen somewhere in the middle of the 1990's. Monster Magnet, early Guns N' Roses... it was depressing.

But the Internet is great for finding new music. I'll often ask for suggestions in my LiveJournal. What's at the top of someone's iTunes play count or whatever. There's a much greater opportunity for dialogue online. "Why do you like this band? What about this song changed your life? What's a tune you could listen to over and over without getting tired of it?" That's the kind of stuff that inspires me to discover new sounds. I'm not really interested in what the media has to say about what's popular anymore. Considering American Idol is the country's most popular karoke contest, it's clear that we've been led down a dark path culturally.

In terms of what I've been listening to lately... actually, I've been listening to a lot of comedy albums. Greg Proops, Jim Gaffigan... that kind of stuff. Musically? Spoon, PJ Harvey, The Mars Volta. I've been really looking forward to the new Death Cab For Cutie album not to mention The Ruts and The Frames.

 

Okay what's your favorite movie for 2008 so far?

Hands down it's been Iron Man. Anyone that's been reading Theater Hopper over the last two years knows I've been eagerly anticipating it. I think Iron Man made the scene at the exact right time. After that, it has to be Wall-E. It's a classic just waiting to happen. People will be watching that film for years and years.

The first 4 months in 2008 have been an extremely dour affair. Nothing much to get excited about - except for Cloverfield, which really sucked me in with it's online conspiracy campaign. Forgetting Sarah Marshall also hit the right notes for me. A much more satisfying romantic comedy than, say, Definitely, Maybe - which wallowed a little too much in the unlikable aspects of its characters. Since then, it seems like comic book movies have been really hitting it out of the park. I really enjoyed Hellboy II The Golden Army, Wanted bashed me over the head with an awesome stick and thought that The Incredible Hulk had it's moments. Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was alright, but was overall a "WTF?" experience for me.

 

What movie still to come are you most anticipating?

The Dark Knight is at the top of my list - although I won't have to wait long since, as of this writing, it comes out tomorrow!
I think Step Brothers looks hilarious and I'm down for anything involving Will Ferrell. I think John C. Reily has found a new voice as a comedic actor and it's been a thrill to watch.

Pinapple Express looks good simply because we haven't had a really good stoner movie in a long, long time and I think Seth Rogen is one of the most interesting comedic voices to emerge in the last 10 years. I loved him on Undeclaired and I think it's a thrill to watch a total schlub ascend the Hollywood ladder like he has.

I'll see Star Wars: The Clone Wars even though I'm not expecting much from it. Tropic Thunder looks wickedly subversive and funny. After that, you get into Fall and some of the more earnest offerings. Maybe Nick and Norah's Ultimate Playlist, but I haven't heard much about it yet.

 

Let's see if I can make you jealous - I just got a VUDU box.  Instant movies!  Now I just gotta go get an HDTV... :(  What's your home theater set-up?

You're talking to the guy who hasn't even bothered to get a NetFlix account, so you're not really making me jealous with the VUDU box. I feel like I'm a little behind the times when it comes to digital media. Vudu, AppleTV, Slingo... I'm peripherally aware of them, but I don't feel like it's time for me to make an investment in anything yet. It's still kind of "wild West" out there, you know?

The only thing I'm looking forward to at this point is the cost of BlueRay players coming down in price. By Christmas, I hope to see some more competitive options.  Right now my home theater setup is fairly standard a 5-disc Sony DVD player with Dolby 6.1 surround playing on a 32" Sony Bravia LCD. It's HD-ready. Just waiting to make the switch at this point.


No Netflix even?  That service actually is really super convenient.  Once you've got kids your time and disposable income goes way down and I found having 2 or 3 DVDs from Netflix around made it a lot easier to see movies in the little bits of downtime you get.

Okay before we move off of movies themselves what do you think about the world of CGI effects movies swim in these days.  I'm old enough to remember being a kid blown away by the first Star Wars and even Clash Of the Titans.  Now with a movie like Speed Racer it just shows there's almost nothing you can't create for the screen.  Are you still impressed by effects when done well or have you reached a point where "nothing's shocking" anymore and the effects are just like film, words and actors - tools to tell a good story.

My sister-in-law has Netflix and we just bum movies off from her. We're total mooches. I think my wife is coming around to it, though. We might sign up for it in the near future.

For the most part, I appreciate the artistry behind CGI. It's complicated stuff these guys are doing and I think sometimes their art gets sacrificed at the alter of commerce. Most of the time their work hardly serves to advance the plot or the characters. So, to that end, I get disapointed when movies become just another fantastic explosion after the other.  I'm a big fan of practical effects because I feel like there is more on the line. It's pretty rare these days for films to do location shooting and rarer still that they'll take a risk with a shot the can only do in one take. I think that's why critics and fans have been responding so well to movies like The Dark Knight and Hellboy II. The Dark Knight for it's use of stunt men and restrictions on CGI and Hellboy II for its extensive puppetry and complicated costumes.
Hellboy II could have easily spit out a bunch of weirdo CGI characters to fill the background of some of their scenes, but it wouldn't have meant anything. Sometimes there is more wonder to be had in a guy wearing a suit. I mean, would Predator have been more impressive if the alien were an effect? Probably not. You have to learn to showcase things appropriately. 

 

You, Gordon and Joe have become sort of the trinity of movie comics for me, but are there any other movie-themed comics out there that you are a fan of?

I feel kind of like a jerk saying so... but no.

I don't know why, but it seems like there haven't really been any sustainable movie comics in the field of webcomics except for Theater Hopper, Multiplex and Joe Loves Crappy Movies. That could be my own bias talking, but the other movie comics that I've stumbled across through the years either update inconsistently or fizzle out after a few years. I don't get it. One would assume that you would have an inexhaustible pool of ideas to pull from. I really don't understand why genre comics outside of gaming have failed to grab a foothold. Music-related comics seem to do okay, but why not movies? Think about all of the magazine and television shows dedicated to talking about movies.

Then again, maybe that's the problem. Maybe people think they already receive enough of this information through other media outlets. But you'd think there would be a wider audience interested in seeing that information pushed through a filter that speaks more directly to ground-level appreciation.

 

Theater Hopper has always been pretty focused on movies but also has a regular cast of characters and while not exactly an ongoing plot, it does have some recurring "bits".  Do you ever think about shifting the focus of the strip more to the characters and an ongoing plot or are you still having too much fun zinging the latest movies?

I think about it all the time. This is an especially timely question because I am currently putting together a copy of my third collection aptly titled Theater Hopper - Year Three.

During Year Three, it undertook two massive storylines that introduced the first wholly fictional characters to Theater Hopper - Jimmy and Charlie. Both of those storylines were very well received because they showed a dimension to the characters that made the audience invest in them as creations. They weren't simply avatars for my out-there opinions about films and demonstrated I could stretch beyond gag-a-day joke writing.

When I wrote those storylines, I was convinced that the only way Theater Hopper was ever going to make any traction is if I tried to become the next Questionable Content. Jeph does a really great job drawing you into the world his characters inhabit. Their problems become your problems and you want to see them succeed. For a while, I flirted with the idea that Theater Hopper should be the same way.

I'll admit at the time that some people would write and ask "What are you doing? How come you're not writing about movie X, Y or Z" and that kind of got to me. I feel like I reaped some benefits from telling a longer story, but I also felt I was sacrificing my identity a little bit by failing to write about movies.

I don't mean to speak on their behalf, but I think Jeph caught some flack for that because Questionable Content used to be more about music. Similarly, Scott Kurtz catches grief for subtly transitioning PvP away from gaming and more toward an office comedy. In the end, I didn't make the leap.

I try to mix it up from time to time, but I don't know if this long-term fence-straddling was the right thing to do or not. At least from a business perspective. Personally, I'm just happy to write the stuff that makes me laugh and others enjoy it, that's an added benefit. After all, the biggest advantage of the web is the ability to stay topical. So I do pride myself on that - staying in the moment and relevant.

 

Well the reason I asked is because Theater Hopper does seem to veer between story and movie-of-the-day.  Multiplex is clearly way over on the plot and character side of things and Joe Loves Crappy Movies, despite having strongly recognizable recurring characters, is really a review in comic form.  A very funny review but I can recall only one storyline that wasn't driven by the movies being reviewed.  As far as comparisons to other comics with a focus on a specific topic I think I'd pair Theater Hopper more with the approach of Penny Arcade or VG Cats than PvP or Questionable Content.

Because Theater Hopper dances between these approaches I don't think I'm as invested in the characters as much as some other strips I follow.  I guess I'd be curious if you've gotten that reaction from others?  Don't get me wrong --  I don't mean that I think Theater Hopper needs to change in one direction or another.

 I don't think anyone has stopped long enough to take that critical of an approach to it. I think if you appreciate the kind of relevant humor I provide (humor that I spice up with sometimes longer storylines) you're not going to lean back and say "You know, I'm maybe not as invested in the characters as I should be." You'd probably say "This is fine."  Anyone that's looking for a longer storyline will probably see pretty quickly that isn't what Theater Hopper is about and will move on. So I never really get to hear their impressions.
I think the problem is the semi-autobiographical stuff. I can't reveal TOO much about the characters that are based on real people because there's their privacy to consider. Similarly, I can't make things up about their background because readers will get confused and think that's reality.

I think that's why some of my readers are more invested in the characters that are completely fictional creations - Charlie and Jimmy. I can take them anywhere I want and make their lives twice as dramatic or over-the-top than I could with the "real" characters. But since they're in the supporting cast, you don't see that kind of opportunity to connect as often as you do in other strips.

 

BoxCar Comics.  What's going on with Boxcar these days?  Has it been officially resuscitated?  What's your role over there?

Boxcar is up and running again after some months of inactivty. Basically, our site crashed and after we brought it back online, we all kind of looked at each other and asked "What are we doing here?"

At the time, we were pretty much only good for a link exchange. We promoted each other's work on our respective sites, but that was about it. We decided either we needed to evolve or call it quits. So we set out a few simple goals for ourselves and have made strides meeting those goals. 

Right now, we've completed a group jam comic and put a group podcast under our belt. We're just about to release our second jam and podcast - which we're trying to do monthly. It's not much, but it's certainly more than we were doing before.

My role is to arrange the podcast. It's not too bad. Fortunately I've had some experience hosting The Triple Feature - the podcast I host with Gordon McAlpin from Multiplex and Joe Dunn from Joe Loves Crappy Movies.

I'm pleased with Boxcar's new direction. I don't think we'll ever get to a point where we adopt a business model, but I think we've justified our existence with our renewed investment. We've at least taken steps to define ourselves more. So that's a good feeling.


In terms of promoting the comic how does Boxcar help with that?  More generally, what kinds of things are you trying these days to get the word out about Theater Hopper?

Boxcar brings in steady traffic in the form of a link exchange between the other creators. Each of us publishes a widget that cycles through ads for our strips as well as promotes specific projects and news the group wants to promote.
In terms of promoting Theater Hopper, I've really had to scale back a lot of the advertising I've been doing, but I'm hoping to make a bigger push later in the year after I upload a newly designed look for the site using WordPress and ComicPress.

Beyond that, I try to hit the conventions that I can and also try to make my presence online felt around different forums and social media sites.

 

I understand that you have a new print collection of the comic coming out this year?  What's that titled and what content will it include?

In tradition with my other books, it'll simply be titled Year Three and I hope to have it out by the holiday season.  Originally I had planned to have it ready for Wizard World Chicago in June, but I would have ended up rushing it and it wouldn't have been as good.

The book will include all of the comics from 2005 to 2006 and each strip features original commentary not found on the site. I'll also be publishing the guest strips from that year as well as dozens of sketches that I produced. The book will also contain a glossary listing all of the films I made fun of that year and what page you can find them on so readers can find content more relevant to their interests faster. 

I'm really excited about Year Three. As I mentioned before, I think 2005 to 2006 was where the comic really started to come into it's own and it features some of the longer storylines I talked about. Fans are really going to like it.

Re: An Interview with Tom Brazelton

Agreed about Penny Arcade. It's so diversified, it's almost inescapible.

I see what you're saying about straight up parody day in and day out, though. It applies to any genre, really. Movies, games, whatever.

If your writing is 100% dependent on your audience having seen the same media you have, then you're limiting yourself right out of the gate. And - there are only so many jokes you can make about the most popular movies, games, whatever...

Re: An Interview with Tom Brazelton

Chris Cantrell's picture

No offense, Chris, but I've been doing Theater Hopper for 6 years. So far, so good.

None taken.  I guess I should clarify that I wasn't speaking directly to you about TH so much as to others who have tried the "movie strip" formula and fallen flat on their collective faces.

The main reason for TH's success (aside from the consistant updates) is that you have a mind for collecting and repackaging movie industry observations in a humorous way.  A lot of people don't have that abliity and that is why a lot of those movie strips "burn out".  Its not from a lack of material, its just that the artist doesn't know how to work with the material they're given.

Penny Arcade is kind of a weird beast.  The comic is still there, but they do so much more with the brand now that it's just a small part of a total package.

 

Haunted Pixel Studios www.hauntedpixelstudios.com

Re: An Interview with Tom Brazelton

Chris Cantrell's picture

"I don't get it. One would assume that you would have an inexhaustible pool of ideas to pull from."

The problem is, anyone can just take "hot movie release A" and insert it into a comic strip.  The real trick is to work the movie or reference into the strip but have it fit the universe the characters live in.  It gets really boring just seeing a character mention how a movie was great then make a snide remark or try to imitate something they saw which leads to crazy antics (although I admit my latest update is guilty of this).

With Please Rewind, I've always been afraid to lean too hard on movie references simply because I want the title to stand on its own when the jokes age beyond "instant recognition".  That's why I'll have a storyline featuring Batman hype craziness, but then I have another featuring the guys coaching a little league baseball team (an indirect throwback to Bad News Bears).

If you can't stretch your writing muscles beyond those pop-hit jokes, the strip is going to burn out really quick.

Haunted Pixel Studios www.hauntedpixelstudios.com

Re: An Interview with Tom Brazelton

Burn out?

No offense, Chris, but I've been doing Theater Hopper for 6 years. So far, so good.

I wouldn't mind expanding into larger character-driven story arcs. I've had success with those in the past. But I literally come up with this stuff on the fly. I'm not a great planner in terms of storytelling, so sometimes things drag out.

I think when I decide to switch things up a little bit, I'll go back to longer story arcs. But, for the time being, pop-hits are working for me.

Look at Penny Arcade. They make refernces to video games I've never even HEARD of and they're doing fine without the benefit of long-term continuity.

Re: An Interview with Tom Brazelton

Great interview here, Tom.  I really dig the stuff that you do with Theater Hopper (wouldn't have provided guest strips and bought all your merch if I felt otherwise), and I can't wait to see what else you have in store for the future!