GORDON McALPIN, Webcomics - Interview

This week, we get to chat with webcomic creator Gordon McAlpin.

Gordon McAlpin

Gordon McAlpin

Gordon McAlpin lives in Minneapolis with his cat Punk. In his twenties, he watched over a dozen movies a week. Gordon has written movie reviews, co-hosted a movie podcast, and edited a movie news blog, but now he just writes and draws Multiplex. While he has never worked at a movie theater, he has had several equally terrible jobs. From 2004–2006, Gordon created Stripped Books, a series of non-fiction strips covering book- and comics-related events in comics form. Multiplex began in July, 2005, and is Gordon’s first on-going comic strip.

The cast of Multiplex

The cast of Multiplex

ANTHONY: So let’s start out with the basics: Multiplex has been running continuously since 2005. Tell us about the comic’s origins. How did you decide on this situation and these characters?

GORDON: My buddy Kurt Bollinger first suggested that I do a comic strip about a movie theater. We both love to talk about how I basically thought it was a stupid idea at first, but the truth is, I just didn’t know how to approach the idea. I was thinking in terms of newspaper comics, the 22 (or so) page magazine comic, and long-form graphic novels, none of which I thought were really well-suited to the premise. Once I’d learned about webcomics, I started toying with the idea again, because I realized you could keep the strip extremely timely by setting the strip in real time and referring to actual movies.

In the intervening years, I did also manage to forget that Kurt first suggested I do a comic about a movie theater, but I named a character after him, and stole some aspects of his personality for the character, so it’s all good. There’s a ton of stuff with Kurt that’s totally made up, though, and a ton of stuff in the real life Kurt that I’ve used for other characters, especially Whitey. Along the same lines, Jason is sort of loosely based on me, but he isn’t just a mouthpiece for me. People assume that, especially once they realize we’re both half-Filipino and sarcastic and hate everything, but he’s more an exaggerated 21-year-old me than me now.

The supporting characters tend to arise from a theme or idea I want to play with — Gretchen, for instance, is kind of a commentary on tabloid journalism (comparing it with gossipy high school bullshit); Allen and Norma are two of many types of managers; Lydia started off as me just wanting Jason to find someone even snobbier than him and see how he reacts to it. Obviously, if I’m doing my job as a writer correctly, these aren’t completely obvious.

A: The cast has grown over the years, but the story still centers on Jason, Kurt, Melissa and Becky. How would you describe the dynamic between them? And how, if at all, has that dynamic changed over the years?

G: I don’t know that their dynamic has changed very much at the core of things. Jason and Kurt are still basically in love with each other, Kurt and Melissa are definitely in love with each other. Melissa kind of thinks “Jason is annoying but I guess if Kurt’s his friend then whatever as long as he doesn’t ever talk to my sister.” Those two, I think, have had their ups and downs, but they’re starting to get each other a little more.

And, of course, Becky and Jason are Becky and Jason.

A: Everyone grows up and moves on eventually. Do you foresee Multiplex continuing without “the core four?” Or does the story end when they leave the Multiplex 10 for other jobs? And speaking of the story’s end: is there a plan for how Multiplex wraps up, and specific character arcs that you’re following step-by-step, or are you just letting the story go where it will, throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks?

G: Multiplex is about Jason, Kurt, Melissa, Becky, and Franklin. Mostly Jason and Kurt, though, and really mostly Jason. But those five are the Big Five to me. Becky, Melissa, and Franklin all get shafted for screen time, I know, but I try. The Big Five will always be in Multiplex, whether or not they’re still working at the Multiplex 10; I know where each of the Big Five is headed with their lives, although not necessarily exactly how it will play out. There will be a definite ending to the series, though, and I think I’ll keep any more details than that to myself for a while longer…

I’ve already laid some of the groundwork for the various ends to each character’s arc (as you would expect, being half-way through the story), so you could probably make some good guesses, anyway.

A: The Multiplex has boasted a very diverse supporting cast over the years as other employees and managers have come and gone. Is there any character you were surprised took on a larger role in the story than you’d originally intended? Or, vice versa, a character you thought would be important who ended up relegated to the background?

G: Every time I introduce a new character, I start to feel bad that they never get any screen time. The worst of these was a character named Letizia, who I never even introduced. I mentioned her in one of Gretchen’s Multiplex Examiner articles, but she never actually appeared. I finally had one of the managers mention he was about to fire her for never showing up for her shifts as a joke.

I was surprised at how much Angie kept coming back for a while. Her and Jason dating was never supposed to be more than a few dates. If I remember correctly, I planned their relationship to last from the release of Expelled, the Ben Stein Creationist screed, until the release of Religulous, the Bill Maher atheism screed. At some point, the two movies’ release dates were a few weeks apart. I started the arc, and then I noticed that Religulous got pushed forward by about six months. I ultimately decided to stick with the original plan and leave them together for a few months longer.

Mr. Harris (the security guard) should have been a little more prominent, but he kind of fell into the background more because of the logistics of doing a strip in real time. I simply couldn’t take the break to tell the story of young James at the Regal Theater without interrupting the main story for too long. I hope to add that into the Book 4 print collection as a bonus story, but how well I can do that will depend on whether or not I can convince the Chicago Blue Museum to let me see the blueprints to the theater.

A: As a writer, of course, I’m curious about your plotting and scripting method. Do you write out a full script first, and then craft the art to match? Or do you come up with a rough idea, pencil it out, and then craft the dialogue?

G: Honestly, it varies depending on the comic strip. I’ve done both. I think I’m more likely to just start writing out dialogue and breaking down panels (without any actual scribbles to go in them) than anything else. Sometimes, I sit down knowing what needs to happen and in what order and I’ll just go straight to breakdowns and write the dialogue later. In any case, I’m constantly revising dialogue until a strip is posted — and sometimes for a while after it’s posted.

I have an outline file to keep me reminded of where the various themes and arcs in the strip should be progressing in any given chapter. I work out of an InDesign file with the current chapter of the comic. In that file, I’m basically blocking out (on a strip by strip level) and breaking down the chapter in shorter 4–8 page arcs, with approximate dates for when the strip will post and what movies have just been released.

My workflow changes pretty regularly, though: it wasn’t until the beginning of Book 5 that I started even thinking about Multiplex in terms of chapters. Books 1 – 4 were broken into chapters after the fact, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve been adding new material in the collections — so I could flesh out the events in various chapters and make them feel more intentionally constructed when you read them in the collected editions.

A: What tools do you use for the art? Is it hand-drawn first and then scanned in and completed on the computer?

G: I draw Multiplex almost entirely in Adobe Illustrator, a vector illustration program. I use a graphics tablet for any rough thumbnails I need to do, but if a panel is just two people talking to each other in a room, I often don’t bother with any thumbs first and just go get any existing vector reference I need to get crackin’. When I have movie posters shown in perspective in the backgrounds, sometimes I’ll need to use Photoshop to distort the images, because Illustrator’s capabilities there are… limited, at best.

When I do hand-drawn sequences in Multiplex, I pencil digitally with Manga Studio and then print the page out onto Bristol board (in 10% cyan) to ink by hand. So those, I’ll scan in and touch up and color or tone in Photoshop with my tablet.

A: After a successful Kickstarter project in December 2009, you were able to bring Multiplex to print form with Multiplex: Enjoy Your Show. What was the most difficult part of making the change from web to print?

G: Distribution, definitely. I’ve worked in printing and publishing for over a decade, so getting the book together and to the printer was easy — time consuming, of course, but easy. I do that stuff for a living, and this book was for me — so I was happy to work on it. But once the book was printed, getting it out there was (and continues to be) a lot of work.

I’m signed up with Small Press United (a division of IPG), which specializes in distribution of new publishers like myself, and through them, I’m available through Amazon and (via Ingram and Baker & Taylor) at bookstores nationwide. It took us several months to convince Diamond to give the book a chance, unfortunately. Hopefully whenever the second book comes out, Diamond will be on board from day one, and I’ll see stronger sales to comics shops out of it.

A: You created a brand new “prequel” sequence for the print edition, revolving around the debut of Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith. What was that process like, getting permission from LucasFilm to use the still from the movie and the poster?

G: Most of the time, I don’t feel I need permission to use film stills, because I’m commenting on the film (or satirizing them) in the strip. But that movie still was really half the punchline to the Prequel story, and I knew that it was an unusually prominent and non-critical way, so I felt it was important to ask for permission. I licensed one still from Lucasfilm, and they also gave me permission to use the theatrical poster as “set dressing” — but not as a focal point in any panels, just in the backgrounds.

It was a very smooth process; as you would expect, they have a whole team that works on this stuff for people like me, so on their end, it was all business as usual. For my part, I tracked down their licensing department’s e-mail address and explained the whole idea of the story. They responded very quickly and asked me to send the relevant pages for approval (in their incomplete state), so I did so. We signed some contracts, I paid a licensing fee, they gave me a high-res file for the still, I added legal notices per their instructions, and eventually I sent them a few copies of the book for their records. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

A: Any idea on when we’ll get to see the next print volume? There’s still plenty of story not collected, after all. You have years to catch up on. And will future volumes feature print-edition-only material like the Prequel in Book One?

G: I’m working on it! I’m examining ways of financing a second book, but while the first book was profitable, it wasn’t profitable enough to allow me to jump straight into Book 2. I don’t make much from bookstore or comics shop sales; I just want them available in stores so I can introduce the comic to new readers, really.

Book Two will have a bunch of new material in it, as well. Nothing as big as the Prequel story, though, just shorter strips spread out throughout Chapters 6–10, like I did with Chapters 1–5. Some of that stuff will be in the eBook collections. Some may be exclusive to the print book. I’m still working on the Chapter 6 eBook, though, so the Book 2 print edition is a ways off, I’m afraid. But I’m working on it.

A: I’m going to tweak my usual final question just slightly, and split it in two: First, since Multiplex is all about the movies, what is your favorite movie and what would you say to convince someone who has never seen it that they should watch it?

G: My all-time favorite movie is The Apartment by Billy Wilder (co-written by I.A.L. Diamond), starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. It’s hilarious, dramatic (shockingly so, in a few parts), romantic without being schmaltzy, and sort of a coming of age for the main character — all stuff I love, all in one flick. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Shirley MacLaine was ridiculously cute in the film. I could watch it forever and never get sick of it.

A: Second, what is your favorite book, and what would you say to convince someone who has never read it that they should read it?

G: I don’t know how to begin comparing comic books against novels, so I’ll have to answer that twice:

Comics — Cages by Dave McKean. It’s a beautiful exploration of art and writing and music by one of the finest artists working today. He throws so much up in the air in the first several chapters that it’s all the more amazing when everything falls into place by the end. Or just about everything, at least. It’s a brilliant story, brilliantly told.

Novels — Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood is a Canadian poet and novelist with an exquisite writing voice. She’s my favorite novelist, in part because every one of her books has a few passages that make me stop and turn them over in my head for a while. And Cat’s Eye is my favorite of hers, because it has loads of such passages. I think Cat’s Eye struck a particularly strong chord with me, being about an artist who returns to her tremendously dull (to her) hometown of Toronto for a retrospective on her work and continually flashing back to her youth, especially her rather abusive “friendship” with a girl named Cordelia.

I guess I like books about artists…?

A: Thanks again for joining us, Gordon!

G: Thank you for having me!

You can find Jason, Kurt, Becky, Melissa, Franklin and the rest of the gang hanging at the Multiplex. You can follow Gordonhimself on Twitter, as well as Multiplex10. There is also a Multiplex Facebook page for you to Like! And you can still buy the print version of MULTIPLEX: ENJOY YOUR SHOW, which I highly recommend doing.