Monday, October 26, 2009

Product Review: Theater Hopper, Books 1 and 2

About a month ago, Tom Brazelton's movie-themed webcomic Theater Hopper had a fire sale to raise funds for producing its third book. I decided to take advantage of the sale and purchase myself the first two print collections, Theater Hopper: Year One and Year Two.

For those unfamiliar with it, Theater Hopper is Tom Brazelton's movie-themed webcomic starring exaggerated versions of himself, his wife Cami, and his friend Jared. It updates with three full-color strips a week (MWF) and has been running since 2002, making it the internet's longest-running movie comic. Together with movie-themed webcartoonists Gordon "Multiplex" McAlpin and Joe "Loves Crappy Movies" Dunn, Tom talks movies on the "Triple Feature" podcast every Monday evening.

Now, it's one thing to check out a new webcomic; the only investment it requires is time, and if at any point you decide the comic is not worth your time, you just cut your losses and close your browser. But merch is a different ballgame entirely. Before you lay down the cash equivalent of two and a half hours at your day job, you want to know you'll get your money's worth. How can you tell you'll get a quality product? It's not like a trip to Barnes and Noble or Old Navy, where you can see the goods for yourself and actually pick them up. There's a good chance the cartoonist has a photo or two of the goods in his online store, but the difficulty remains: you don't want to get a bum deal.

On that note, let's start talking about these books by showing you what you get:

Book One includes Tom Brazelton's introduction to Theater Hopper, the first 155 TH strips with creator commentary, 11 guest strips by other cartoonists, and a crossover storyline with Carrington Vanston's concluded webcomic "Movie Punks." Book Two contains a foreword by Tom's wife Cami, 153 more TH strips with further commentary from Tom, several pages of bonus sketches, an index of movies referenced, 7 guest strips (including strips by Joe Dunn, and Scott and Kent from White Ninja.

The first thing that struck me when I received the two books in the mail was the presentation. The cover art looks great, ludicrously referencing classic movies 2001 and Ghostbusters II with the TH cast. It's not stellar, but it's solid, and it's clear the creator went the extra mile on the covers. Inside each, you'll find 200+ slick full-color pages of comics, commentary, and additional content. Brazelton openly admits in Book 1's disclaimer that he did not create early strips with print in mind, and while he has tried to restore the artwork as best he can, some strips suffer from fuzzy colors or jpeg artifacts. Still, it's clear he's made an effort to improve the presentation for print, and by Book Two the artwork is largely sharp and snappy.

So it looks pretty good--but how's it taste?

Overall, it tastes pretty good too. I have to say, though, that Year One suffers in quality, as it would with any comic, simply for being Year One. Theater Hopper's humor style is less of the well-polished comic strip gag, the "craft of the joke," and more of the banter you throw around with your friends. Rather than building up to the punchline with immaculate timing, a TH strip will likely have a handful of funny moments--at least in theory. In early year one, Brazelton is still finding his voice, and some punchlines lack the punch even to carry the strip. The art has similar difficulties, and it cribs a bit from the Penny Arcade stylesheet. It takes several strips before it starts to resemble present-day Theater Hopper in quality.

To its credit, though, Brazelton's self-deprecating commentary on each strip in Year One goes a long way. He's utterly transparent about the first year's shortcomings, and the commentary's conversational tone makes the print edition a more personal experience than browsing online. Additionally, the collection contains a collaborative storyline with cartoonist Carrington Vanston that pits TH's Jared and Tom against the protagonists of the comic Movie Punks. The back-and-forth strips in the storyline are some of the book's strongest material and do a lot to add to its value.

Plus, the first book contains this strip. I laughed out loud right in the airport lobby at that one.

By Year Two, Brazelton is really getting a feel for his comic. The humor's more solid, the art is more solid. There are a number of inspired sight gags on par with the "small cola" comic referenced above, plus an increased predilection for
off-the-wall storylines that develop several jokes on a theme, such as the introduction of "Goth Jared" (whom Comic Tom has apparently encountered before). TH story arcs (at least in these two books) often begin in the middle, unexpectedly, with no explanation and perhaps even the suggestion of some backstory that is never explained. I like it, and I think it works. But I digress.

It's also worth noting that I didn't find the humor to be at all dated. With a movie-commentary comic, it's always a danger that comedy value will decrease as the humor ceases to be topical, but not so here. Theater Hopper doesn't stray too far from the mainstream movies and actors that we all know and love to make fun of, so you'll have no problem recalling relevant films from 2002 to 2004 as you're reading. There were a few isolated cases where the commentary had to explain the joke, which of course kills the joke, but these are the exception.

So, what's the final verdict? Was it worth my ten-bucks-per-book?

Overall, I think so. I found the books to be entertaining, and I got a different experience than the kind the TH site offers for free. A 200-page book with extensive full-color artwork is the kind of thing you'd usually pay upwards of $20 to $30 for, and I got two of them for this price. Compared to Year Two, Year One is rather lacking, and perhaps a better purchase for TH fans than for newcomers to the comic--TH: Year Two makes the better introduction.

Even though I'm not a huge movie enthusiast, I enjoyed both books. With the holidays coming up, TH: Year Two could be a good purchase for any friend or relative who's way too into movies. If you're thinking of getting either book for yourself, you can always sample Tom Brazelton's humor for free at to figure out if it's your style of comedy. Apparently, the two books are still selling at the fire-sale price of $9.99 each. It's also worth noting that the third book is available for pre-order, and from the preview provided, it appears to raise the bar even higher for quality.

Theater Hopper Volumes 1 and 2 are available for purchase in the Theater Hopper store.

1 comment:

Stephen R said...

I recently received both books, and was also surprised by the quality and effort that was apparent in each. It's definitely a good buy, and I'm looking forward to book 3.