Comic books have come to dominate movie theatres, and one webcomic about movie theatres has followed it -- and the entire movie industry -- for over a decade.
The long-running webcomic strip Multiplex celebrates it's 10 year anniversary this month, and creator Gordon McAlpin is ringing in the occasion with a Kickstarter funding a third print collection titled Multiplex: The Revenge. McAlpin, who previously ran Kickstarters for the first two print volumes, talks with Newsarama about this decade lauding and lampooning movies, any connections between the rise of movies about comic books and his webcomic about movies, and details of the new print volume.
Newsarama: Gordon, what's been the biggest surprise to you in doing Multiplex for ten years now?
Gordon McAlpin: Honestly, it all goes back to the fact that anybody reads it at all. I'd created Multiplex on a lark — as a back-up feature for a completely different comic — and that shows in some of the earliest strips. After I started figuring out my voice in the comic, though, it became more and more personal. Taking a sitcom-style approach to a comic strip while telling a long-form story is kind of an unusual format, I think, so for thousands of readers to respond to the strip is a pretty great feeling. Multiplex is neither Penny Arcade nor X-Men. (Although I enjoy both.) Because of its format, its premise, and my sense of humor, it was always going to be an "indie" or niche comic, so I'm really lucky to have found an audience as passionate as it has.
Along the same lines, it's been great to find out that some creators whose work I've followed for years actually enjoy my stuff, too. I think that's the greatest feeling in the world for a cartoonist.
Nrama: Do you think the rise in comic book-inspired movies has played any part in the continued success of your webcomic inspired by movies?
McAlpin: I'd like to think so! The comics-inspired movies give me more to talk about that resonates with mainstream comics fans in a way that doing comics talking about… I dunno, The Road or Religulous may not seem to. I try to make the strips about more than just a specific movie, so that even when I do a comic about a movie a reader hasn't seen — or even heard of — they can get the joke, or the point of the strip if it isn't a joke, exactly.
Nrama: Although Multiplex has an overarching plot, from reading the social media comments people seem to like your movie parodies and in-jokes about film a lot. Can you tell us about lampooning and celebrating movies such as you've done with Mad Max: Fury Road and How To Train Your Dragon?
McAlpin: Yeah, the movie jokes are generally more accessible to new readers, so those standalone strips tend to get shared the most, but it's the characters and the ongoing story, I think, that keep readers coming back twice a week.
A lot of the movie jokes — or arcs like the one involving How to Train Your Dragon — give me an opportunity to talk about movies in a different way that the more gag strip-y stuff. Having Jason start talking to his action figure of Hiccup let me joke about the long tradition of imaginary friends in movies, for instance, as well as shed some light on Jason's often… bizarre relationship with Kurt.
The How to Train Your Dragon arc was also slightly autobiographical in the sense that I had long thought about having Jason fall just crazy in love with some movie that didn't seem to be up his alley, and when I saw How to Train Your Dragon for the first time, I knew it was the right movie to do it — because I flipped out over it.
Nrama: Multiplex is fiction, but I'd be surprised if some of the statements made by characters about movies aren't your own personal opinion. Do you lean into that, avoid it, or what?
McAlpin: It varies from strip to strip. Certainly, my own opinion winds up in the comic a lot. I don't avoid that. I pull the characters' opinions from online comments or conversations I've had with friends just as often, though; the reason being, if a real person actually had that opinion, it should ring true when I include it in a strip, whether someone agrees with it or not.
What I do try very hard to avoid is the idea that any opinion is the "correct" opinion. Mouthpieces aren't characters. When I have two characters talking about something, it's usually about why those characters like (or don't like) a movie, how they talk about it, and what that says about them as people or characters.
This approach helps the strip stay more relevant over time, too. Some of the early strips don't make a whole lot of sense without some context (which I try to provide in the print collections' commentary). I eventually realized that when you're reading a comic about, say, a seven year old movie, it can't be necessary for the reader to know that they agree with Jason or Kurt, because they may not have ever heard of the movie. If the reader does happen to agree or disagree with a character, sure, that can add something to how they read the strip, but it shouldn't be a prerequisite.
Nrama: Which character's movie tastes do you see yourself most like, and flipping it -- least like?
McAlpin: Oh, I'm definitely most like Jason. Early in the series, he was a very exaggerated version of me. I made him a bit more of a snob to make him contrast with Kurt's supposedly "low brow" taste more.
Over the course of the strip, Jason's taste has evolved a little bit. At the end of Book Five, he actually saw a horror movie that he really liked — Insidious — which lead into Kurt introducing him to a lot of horror classics that Jason had previously avoided: The Thing,The Haunting, A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc. So while it's still not his favorite genre, his dickishness about movies (and in general) has gotten… tempered a little bit.
There's a newer character named Barry who I'm probably the least like — or at least I hope I am. He hasn't appeared much at this point, but he out-snobs Jason by a mile. Part of the point of the character is that everything he says is negative. Jason may be too analytical for his own good, and that prevents him from enjoying a lot of movies, but people like what they like. Barry, on the other hand, only likes to rip on things to "prove" that he's smarter than everyone else in the room. Or at least, that's how he comes off.
Nrama: You've been doing Multiplex now for ten years. You've talked about a change to the series coming up -- can you tell us about that?
McAlpin: Well, the series is ending. That's a pretty big change, right?
It's not going to be for another year or two, but when I decided that the Multiplex cast would age in real time I knew that meant it would need to end someday, and that any ending needed to be decisive. It needs to have a definite end, not just stop.
But I love the characters, and so I'd like to keep coming back to them in some form or another from time to time, as long as the readers are there. But I don't want to do a sequel, and I don't really want to do it as a webcomic first — maybe a straight-to-digital comic like for ComiXology instead.
One of the things I started doing in Book Three is occasionally doing hand-drawn sequences for "imaginary" stories. The first time was when Multiplex 10 and the Flickhead Video crews faced off against each other in a Happy Cart video game tournament. And the longest one was for Book Six, when the characters made a zombie movie that was basically an alternate universe Multiplex: it was about them, at their movie theater, and the zombie apocalypse… sort of.
Because Multiplex is set in real-time, I can't really do a story that takes place all in one night over 60-something pages. And because it's set in the real world (more or less), that limits the way I can parody certain kinds of stories. By having the characters make a zombie movie, I was able to get around both of those "rules" I'd set up for myself, and I found the experience really liberating.
So I'd like to do at least one or two other "alternate universe" stories where I get to play with the characters in completely different genres. And I would draw those by hand, because after ten years (and counting) of drawing Multiplex mostly with Adobe Illustrator, I just want to do something else for a while. But all of that's a long way off, still.
Nrama: And you’re now in the final days of your third Kickstarter, for a new print volume of Multiplex. People know the series best as a webcomic, but how do you think having a print volume helps the series as a whole?
McAlpin: The farther into the series the strip gets, the more it becomes focused on the characters and story. Doing a webcomic is kind of like publishing your first draft one page at a time, twice a week, and so I add strips here and there to smooth out some of the rough edges of the narrative, which helps the everything kind of flow better and read as a book. (Book Three, in fact, will have about 35 pages of new material, some of which goes to revisiting a plot thread that I abandoned the first time around for a variety of reasons.)
I think the strip reads better in larger chunks — whether it's online or the eBooks or a print book. Because it's not just a series of gag strips, if you're reading the strip twice a week, it can be months before a plot point pays off. Reading the strip in a bigger chunk, like the books, means all that is still fresh in the reader's mind, so it's a lot clearer what I'm doing in each arc. As a webcomic, Multiplex can seem like a soap opera; in the collections, I think it's clearer that there is a larger story — even though Multiplex is decidedly a comic strip, not a serialized graphic novel.
Having over 1000 strips in the archive is daunting to a lot of people, though — especially people who don't enjoy reading comics while sitting in front of a computer. And like a lot of comics fans, I prefer the experience of having a paper thing in my hands more than staring at a screen, even on an iPad. So having the books makes for a more fun reading experience, too.
And certainly, at conventions, having a print book helps attract new readers the webcomic, because you can flip through them a lot more easily than a website.
Nrama: As we've mentioned, this is the third volume. Do you have plans to reprint the earlier ones, or partner with a publisher at some point?
McAlpin: Multiplex: There and Back Again (Book Two) is still available, but Multiplex: Enjoy Your Show (Book One) is very very close to sold out of its first print run. Some of the rewards for the Multiplex: The Revenge (Book Three) Kickstarter project include the earlier books, as well, but I'm down to my last case and a half or so, so they're pretty limited in quantity. There are still a few new copies of Book One on Amazon and maybe at couple of comics shops or bookstores, but I'll need to do a second printing of Book One before I start thinking about doing a fourth book. New readers tend to want to start at the beginning, and having Book One makes it a lot easier to sell any later books.
I don't see myself partnering with any publishers for the Multiplex collections, although I'd certainly be open to discussing it with any interested parties; I enjoy the process of making the books entirely on my own, though. I love that for better or for worse, every aspect of the books is my fault: I wrote and drew it, I designed it, I produced it… And when Book Two won the Gold Medal for Graphic Novel–Humor/Cartoon in the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Awards, I got to take all the credit for that, too.
I would like to get bookstore and comics shop distribution again, though. Diamond doesn't do well with webcomics collections, and so they didn't pick up Book Two.
If any companies wanted to partner with me to do an animated version of Multiplex, though, I'd leap at that! I made a really short thing about Tomorrowland a few months ago, and it's so much more work than doing a comic strip.
I love writing and drawing pretty much equally, but the actual animation part of it isn't something I'm very good at or enjoy. Make mine comics!