Inside the world of your average movie theatre, what’s going on behind the scenes could be as interesting as what’s happening on the big screen.
In the long-running webcomic Multiplex, cartoonist Gordon McAlpin documents the lives and loves of a group of movie theatre employees as they bicker, argue, get along, get it on and yes, watch movies too. After five years of twice-weekly strips, Multiplex is making its way to print with a collection of the earliest strips called Multiplex: Enjoy the Show. Using a deliberately clean style that is halfway between Chris Ware and Southpark, Multiplex has grown a sizeable online fan base and McAlpin is looking to take the next step.
Several years back Newsarama spoke with McAlpin about the series, and now we return for a follow-up as this first print collection hits stores.
Newsarama: So Gordon, what made you decide to bring Multiplex to print?
Gordon McAlpin: It's probably unusual for a guy who does an online comic to say this, but I don't really like to read comics online. Don't get me wrong: I love online comics, because they've provided avenues for all sorts of great cartoonists to get their work "out there," especially for those cartoonists whose stuff doesn't fit neatly into the two or three genres that comics publishers actually support.
I tend to just read enough of a webcomic to decide if I want to buy their books and then wait for the trades. If you care about how the art looks, webcomics simply don't look as good as print yet. Until the iPad gets a retina display, print books will continue to have over four times the detail than digital comics.
I've also worked in printing and publishing for most of my adult life, because I love print. I love the weight to books, the design, the texture of the paper, and especially the higher quality reproduction of the art. There's a sense of permanence to book format comics, too, which I don't even get from magazine-format comics, nevermind digital comics. If I really love a comic, whether I read it first online or in floppies, I'll buy the book. So another reason for making a book was that I wanted one.
Another factor is that since Multiplex is a character-driven comic, it's not as conducive to just random websurfing like your typical gag strip or plot-driven comic, and its 500+ strip archive is a bit intimidating even to readers who like longer-form webcomics. So Multiplex: Enjoy Your Show, I think, will make it easier for people to get into the series — and hopefully continue reading online or in their RSS feed, or wherever.
It's also worth mentioning that a $20 trade paperback generates a lot more revenue than an ad-supported webcomic site.
Nrama: Has your viewing of movies or talking to friends about them become more studied since you might be turning it into fodder for an episode of Multiplex?
McAlpin: Some movies, yes. I've always been fairly analytical about movies, though. I wrote movie reviews for Gapers Block long before I started Multiplex, for instance. Of course, these days, my thoughts while watching a movie are a little more skewed to "what can I make fun of about this movie," not just "what is there worth saying about this movie?"
Doing Multiplex definitely gets me to watch a lot more big, dumb Hollywood movies than I ordinarily would. Summers are a busy time for me. Well, maybe not this summer. This summer wasn't so great, movie-wise.
Nrama: In addition to collecting the first Multiplex strips you’re also including 40 pages of new material, including a 12-page prequel covering the hype surrounding the then-new Star Wars movie Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. First off, what led you to doing the new material?
McAlpin: When I started the strip, I didn't pay any attention to how long the strips were, or how they would get broken down into a page-friendly format for a print collection. If I wanted to do a 16-panel comic, I did it. After my readers started asking me about a print book, I started exploring how I could reformat Multiplex to fit that format, and the only way to do it was to break up the longer strips into multiple pages. Doing that occasionally left me with empty space on the page, and I felt the only sensible way to use that empty space was to add new material.
At the same time, I broke down the archives into chapters. I decided to release the chapters as eBooks to help generate a little revenue before the book, so after choosing a good starting and stopping point for each chapter, I just add in however much extra content I need to get the chapter up to a suitable page count — either 32 or 36 pages.
In some cases, I used the extra strips to talk about movies I didn't get to the first time around (like Serenity or Crank), and in other cases, I used it to flesh out the characters a little more. Multiplex was weekly when it started, and the strip is set more or less in real time, I had to skip over a lot of smaller story details, sometimes.
So the print book collects the first five eBooks and all the bonus comics in those. Since all that was previously available, I wanted to do another self-contained story exclusive to the book as an extra incentive to buy the book, sort of like Calvin & Hobbes did with the longer stories Essential and Authoritative collections. That way, if people have already read the eBooks, they still get to read new comics when they buy the print book. And that was the Star Wars prequel story.
Nrama: The send-off you gave to Star Wars, Episode III was great. Is this something you’d been holding off inside you for some time?
McAlpin: Oh yeah. I'm a big Star Wars nerd, but since I started Multiplex in July 2005 — two months after Episode III was released, I missed my chance to do a strip about a real Star Wars movie forever, so doing a "prequel" for this book on opening night of Episode III was my only chance. I just wish the Star Wars story was longer than 12 pages!
As much as I enjoy the Clone Wars cartoon, the "movie" was nothing more than three episodes smooshed together and should have stayed that way. It doesn't count. Some cynics might argue whether any of the prequels count, either, but I like Episode III.
Nrama: Putting up a website is one thing, but designing, printing and funding a book seems much bigger. Can you talk to us about that experience?
McAlpin: I actually find the web stuff much harder (if far less expensive). I'm lucky enough that my older brother Lawrence is a programmer; he does things like program the dynamic parts of my website and the Multiplex iPhone app for me.
As I mentioned earlier, I make my living as a freelance print production artist, and I've designed books in the past, so that part of it was nothing to me. I live in Illustrator and InDesign. I knew about paper stocks and signatures and all that already. The only difference was that I was much more invested in this book, in every way.
The only technical hurdle was figuring out how to convert the RGB artwork to CMYK for print without change the colors too much. But that was more time-consuming than hard, really. Some of those early strips, I really had no clue how to draw a comic strip in Illustrator in a way that would be easy to prepare for print, so wrestling with those old files was… painful. Book 2 will go much, much smoother, from a technical perspective.
As for funding, Multiplex isn't huge, but it has a good-sized readership, so it generates a bit of ad revenue, so I could afford the print run on my own. But what I couldn't do was afford to take several months off from doing any freelance work in order to finish the book. Then I heard about Kickstarter in August or so of 2009. It's a "crowd-funding" website, where people post an idea for a project and offer rewards to people for supporting the project, and it seemed like a great way to try to raise money to finish the book. It's fairly well-known in comics circles now, but I'm pretty sure I was the first webcartoonist to use it to fund a project.
Through Kickstarter, people were able to basically pre-order the book a year before it came out, read the bonus comics from the book as I completed them, get hand-drawn sketches, t-shirts, and that sort of thing, all to raise money for the book and pay for my living expenses while I was finishing the book. I set my goal at $7,500, which seemed like a reasonable minimum to enable me to print up a full color, oversized, 200-something page book.
The key to Kickstarter is that if a project doesn't make its goal, nobody gets charged, and I wouldn't get a penny. And that was great, because I wasn't really sure if people would get behind the project, and if I only raised, say, $3,000, I still wouldn't be able to take the time off to finish the book. So in a way, I was also using it to see if there was any real interest in a Multiplex book, and I raised about $5,000 more than my goal. So… yeah, you could say the answer was "YES."
The most painful lesson I learned was to be as pessimistic as possible when creating a budget and a schedule. I ran a couple of months behind schedule on creating all the new material, which necessitated switching from a Chinese printing company to a somewhat more expensive American printing company in order to not totally blow my target of Fall 2010.
But I'm very happy with the finished product, it was picked up by Small Press United (a division of IPG) for distribution, and through them, it will be finding its way to comics shops and bookstores everywhere in the near future, so I think it's all been worth it.
Nrama: In addition to doing the Multiplex twice a week, you also sneak off for a side blog called “Deleted Scenes” where you have some traditionally drawn comics in the Multiplex world. What can you tell us about those?
McAlpin: Deleted Scenes is kind of just another home for me to talk about movies. It grew out of me wanting to do a movie review blog on the Multiplex website and then realizing that it would be a good place to post sketches, site news, and other comics, too.
So far, the hand-drawn Multiplex comics in Deleted Scenes have all been for backers in the Kickstarter project. At the highest reward level, people got a single-page hand-drawn comic based around a theme of their choice. Some of them were personal, but mostly they were Multiplex comics: some people just gave me a vague idea to run with, one guy basically wrote the whole strip. It was a fun exercise. Since Multiplex is almost entirely drawn in Illustrator, I don't get to sling ink as often as I like to.
I enjoy the idea of doing non-continuity stories with the Multiplex kids, where I can break all the rules of (sort-of) realism that I adhere to in the regular strip, and I like playing around with other illustration styles, so I'm sure I'll post more comics there in the future.
Nrama: Speaking of the future, What have you got lined up next for Multiplex?
McAlpin: Well, in the immediate future, I'm focusing on promoting Multiplex: Enjoy Your Show as much as I possibly can. I'll be hitting Emerald City in the spring, and a few smaller cons and stores appearances. Beyond that, hopefully the next five eBooks and then Book 2! It's a question again of how quickly I can get all the bonus material done.
And in terms of present-day Multiplex continuity, we're in what will be Book 5. Jason will continue to get more and more interested in classic movie theaters. The kids are all in their early twenties now and continuing to get older. They're getting to the point where they have to decide if they're seriously going to work at a movie theater for the rest of their life or not. And in one long-time character's case, within the next year, that answer will be "no."
The ones that stay are going to settle into being supervisors and, of course, they'll need new staff kids to supervise, so the stories set at the movie theater will begin to take on a new dynamic. But, of course, there will always be Kurt and Jason talking about movies. Jason kind of steals the spotlight a lot, but the exchanges between Kurt and Jason are the heart of the strip.
With any luck, Multiplex: Enjoy Your Show will do sell enough to let me jump into Book 2 sooner rather than later, but I guess we'll see.