Interview with Multiplex’s Gordon McAlpin
There are a great number of web comics these days, but few have managed to stick around for any great length of time. One comic that has managed to achieve this is Multiplex, which celebrated its tenth anniversary earlier this month. Multiplex follows the lives of a group of late teens/early twenty-somethings working in a movie theatre just outside of Chicago. The cast includes Jason, the resident angry movie snob, Kurt, Jason’s best friend and a prankster with questionable movie taste, Melissa, Kurt’s loving but long-suffering girlfriend, Becky, the sweet girl next door science geek and Franklin, a gamer a tech-whiz who has a way with the ladies. Movie jokes and personal drama make for an enjoyable and sometimes very relevant look at early adulthood and the movie theatre industry.
I sat down with series creator Gordon McAlpin earlier this week for a chat about all things Multiplex, and how it feels after ten years.
Okay, let's get the most obvious question out of the way; how did Multiplex start?
This is a more complicated question than most people think…
So, before Multiplex, I did a comic strip for a website called Bookslut. It was called Stripped Books [www.strippedbooks.com], and for that, I would go to a book related event and shoot photos and record it and turn that into a comic strip.
At some point, I decided to take Stripped Books onto its own site, but because the strips varied in length, I wanted something to post there more regularly that I could just crank out much more quickly — a back-up feature.
And so I dusted off the old idea I'd had but never got anywhere with to do a Flash cartoon about a bunch of kids that work at a movie theatre, and I turned that into the back-up. And that was Multiplex, of course.
As it turns out, I had completely forgotten that my friend Kurt had originally suggested I do a comic strip about a movie theatre years before, but… these things happen. He is the basis for Kurt Bollinger in the comic, so that was like my way of thanking him for the idea.
Is there anyone or anything else from real life that's ended up in the comic?
Sort of. Melissa is VERY loosely based on Kurt's then-girlfriend. Norma is inspired by — but has absolutely nothing to do with — a former boss of mine whom I hated. And then I turned her into one of my favourite characters. A few other characters were named after or designed to look like readers, because of various Kickstarter rewards and things like that.
I guess some of the really early jokes were pulled from real-life things that happened at movie theatres that I either witnessed or was told about, too. But in more recent years, the overriding story in the comic has taken over.
Oh, and of course the comics where Kurt and Jason just talk about movies are basically pulled from real life sometimes. I keep my eye on movie websites' comment boards to get a feel for what "the people" think of various movies.
How does it feel reaching Multiplex's 10th Anniversary?
It was on Friday! It felt pretty great!
I don't think I've ever done anything for ten years, except own my cat Punk. He's like my un-credited assistant.
I used to say that my goal in life was to have one book of comics — all mine — on my shelf. (I wanted to keep it manageable, I guess.) But now I have two print books that I'm really proud of, and a third one is funding on Kickstarter — and, of course, there are hundreds more online that haven't been collected yet.
What has your experience with crowd-funding like Kickstarter been like?
Well, my first book, Multiplex: Enjoy Your Show, was funded back in 2009, when Kickstarter was still an invite-only beta. I was the first web cartoonist to use it. But being the first one to do it meant I was also the first one to make a lot of mistakes with it. I underestimated how long it would take to produce the book, underestimated shipping, and so even though I went over my goal, I ended up spending a lot of my own money on the book and going into a bit of debt as a result.
But Book One has since nearly sold out (I have less than a case left), so it's long since paid that off.
So was the second book kickstarter a lot easier to manage as a result?
Oh yeah. Book Two was a much better experience. I asked for more money because I had a better idea of how much everything was going to cost, I raised even more money with a much shorter funding period (and much less stress promoting it)… Yeah, it went much more smoothly.
And Book Three is moving along pretty well right now, although it's a long way from funding, and I unfortunately needed to ask for even more money, because printing costs have shot up in the last couple of years.
Have you ever felt surprised by Multiplex over the years, and what has the biggest challenge been?
You know, when you start a strip online, you always think, "Hey, it'd be great to become the next … I dunno, insert popular web comic here." But then when you actually start getting readers you're also kind of surprised when you hit those big milestones: the first time you have over a thousand readers in a day, or five thousand readers in a day, or you get some huge spike for some totally random comic that you thought was kind of dumb.
Those are pretty happy surprises. I'm thrilled that I have as many readers as I do, even if Multiplex isn't one of the biggest web comics out there by any stretch of the imagination.
The challenges of doing web comics, or at web comics like Multiplex, relate to readership, too.
In the early days, I worked really hard to promote it, and I think that paid off, but as Multiplex started evolving away from its early gag strip-y roots and into a more character- and story-based comic, I found it harder and harder to pull in new readers. I think the books have helped with that, and going to conventions, too, although those are REALLY expensive ways to promote a free web comic, you know? I wouldn't really recommend them as promotional strategies alone.
Staying motivated is sometimes a challenge. There have been weeks where my life was in… disarray, let's say. And the desire to sit down and try to be funny or dramatic twice a week was pretty low. But you either force yourself to do it, or you don't. I've always tried to be very strict about my update schedule, because if I fall of the wagon, I know it'll be hard to get back on it again.
I'm in grad school right now, and there have been a few times where my workload was too much and I had to push an update, but I still tried to be good about it. Not sticking to your schedule is the best way to start bleeding readers.
With the characters, are there any you've felt particularly close to, and have they changed much from when you first created them?
Well, it's no secret that Jason is loosely based on myself. He's an exaggerated version of me when I was much younger and had a chip on my shoulder. He's mellowed out… slightly… over the course of the strip. One of the main themes of the comic is kind of that: be less of a dick.
Kurt, not so much. He's a pretty static character.
So I feel pretty close to Jason.
And I felt pretty fond of Norma by the time she left the series, too, which is funny because that former boss of mine that I based her on was an awful human being.
I mean I try to make the characters feel familiar. Early on, that meant playing into stereotypes (and then subverting them, sometimes). More recently, I don't do that quite as much, because the story is focusing more and more on Kurt and Jason as managers, so the new characters tend to be these… "red shirts," as I call them. Disposable.
Have any other smaller or minor characters developed into something more than what you had planned?
A few, yeah. Angie was kind of just a background character at first, and I think she just kept popping up and insinuated herself into the main characters' lives more.
But again, more recently, there are fewer surprises. Since… year four or five, maybe, Multiplex has been mapped out — loosely — but there's not a lot of room for new characters to become large parts of the comic.
At this point, where the surprises come for me isn't what happens but how it happens.
Well, like the zombie movie storyline.
I knew "the gang" was going to make a movie, but I didn't realize how that was going to play into the themes of Jason growing up (a little) until I was already in the storyline. And so this idea that he's sort of becoming a better leader/manager by directing this movie was something that snuck up on me.
Jason and Becky getting together snuck up on me, too. I was actually going to drag that "will they/won't they?" stuff out for another year, but then when I was in that storyline I realized that it was the right time to do it. Because, again, one of the reasons I kept them apart for so long was that Jason didn't deserve her yet, you know? He was a jerk.
But when that arc was winding down, it felt right.
I had to think "wait, should I stick to the original outline or go with my gut, here?" And my gut always wins. For better or for worse.
Do you have a favourite moment or strip? Or is ten years worth of comics just too many to pick one?
I have a lot of favourite moments.
Honestly, the zombie movie arc is the one arc that I can read through and actually enjoy it as a reader. The "big reveal" in that arc, which I won't give away here, is one of my favourites. But of course some people hated that. Whatever.
The "Multiplex Carol" arc [where Jason is visited by the “Ghosts” of Girlfriends Past, Present and Future] is another favourite of mine, because it's so stupid.
The dumbest moments in the strip tend to be my favourite.
You got to do the "movie" portions of the zombie arc hand drawn, what was that like compared to the usual art?
I'd done hand-drawn bits before. The "Happy Kart" (video game) races in Book Three, the flashbacks to [security guard] James's time at the Regal… But definitely, that was the longest sequences of hand-drawn stuff by… over fifty pages, altogether, probably.
I started doing Multiplex as vector art with an eye for animating it. I stuck closely to that "un-animated cartoon" aesthetic for a long time, until I finally realized I should start making it more like… you know, a comic strip.
But that was the only reason it was drawn with Illustrator. I just like trying out different techniques. So other than the fact that hand-drawn comics are A LOT harder to completely rewrite after you've already started drawing and some other technical differences, it didn't seem that different to me.
Has doing Multiplex made you look at movies and movie theatres differently?
I wouldn't say it has changed how I look at movies at all. My love for movies is why I wanted to do Multiplex. But it definitely influenced my love of movie theaters, particularly classic movie theaters.
Jason's discovery of old movie theaters is kind of pulled from my life a little, too, and now I'm actually doing my thesis project on the Twin Cities movie theater industry in the late 1920s as a very indirect result of that kind of newfound interest.
The series has kind of developed into a kind of Empire Records for movie geeks, why do you think the fans have responded to it the way they have?
Oh, man. I don't know. I think you'd have to ask them.
I make Multiplex for me — hence the constant surprise that anybody besides me actually enjoys it.
I mean, there are a few different things going on it the comic: the movie jokes; the relationship stuff, which a lot of people read as soap opera, even if I wouldn't call it that.
I try to make the characters feel familiar, if not always relatable. I try to treat the characters fairly objectively. Like, there are plenty of readers who just hate Jason. And I'm totally fine with that. He's not the most "likeable" person. But we've all known people like him — or been like him on occasion.
What do you think will be your lasting memory of doing Multiplex, and do you have any plans for projects when the series is over?
Multiplex will always have a special place in my heart for being the first comic strip that I've done with an actual audience. I think that's the thing I'll hang onto most. It's just really rewarding knowing that other people are connecting with the stuff you're making.
As for when the series ends… yeah, I have a few plans. I'd like to do the rest of the print books, if they keep getting funded and keep selling well enough. We'll see!
I'd like to do sort of a spin-off project, which would be another hand-drawn "alternate universe" Multiplex story or two. So similar to the zombie movie, but in different movie or story genres. So, like, maybe a sci-fi story or a fantasy story. That'll probably depend on what movies are coming out around when I'm working on them, though.
I'd like to do more non-fiction comics.
But yeah, I don't know. I'm too focused on Multiplex right now to think too much about the other stuff I want to do.
If it were possible, would you step into your comic and visit the Multiplex 10?
Hahaha. That's a question I've definitely never been asked before.
Absolutely, I would. It would be the best movie theatre to see a movie at, because Jason would be a complete freak about the presentation.
I can't even begin to say how many times I've been to a movie and had to complain because the picture was too dark, or the focus was off. Digital cinema is supposedly this great thing — and it should be. But the big theatre chains have used it as an excuse to get rid of their projectionists, and so that means sometimes NONE of the employees are looking at the screens. It drives me crazy.
Come to think of it, I'm probably much more likely to complain about a poor presentation now than I was when I started Multiplex. That's one thing that's different. There was one major chain that I stopped going to after not paying for movies for three months because every single time there would be some issue, and I'd get free passes.
Big shout-out to the ShowPlace ICON in St. Louis Park, where I have never once had a single complaint about the film presentation.
What would you say to your characters?
The name of the movie I wanted to see, and that's it. They'd think I was some freak if I started to talk to them.
Thank you so much Gordon. Good luck with the third book funding and I can't wait to see what the rest of Multiplex has in store.
Thank you very much!
You can find the Multiplex archives at www.multiplex.com. Gordon’s Kickstarter for Multiplex: The Revenge is here