Monday, September 15, 2008

Interview: Gordon McAlpin from Multiplex

Multiplex is a digitally-illustrated webcomic about the employees of the Multiplex 10 Cinemas. It updates at least twice a week--often more--and much like its ensemble cast, it brings a little of everything to the table, with equal doses of movie commentary, workplace humor, and teen drama. And truthfully, what really sells me on Multiplex is the characters. You can stop in every so often and get your movie humor fix, but if you keep visiting this theater for long enough, you'll really get to know the employees. There's Jason, the perennially-grumpy movie snob; Kurt, the sharp-witted prankster with just enough responsibility to keep things together; bookworm Becky, who is a loyal friend once you get past her shyness; and a host of others. Seriously, I could go on--but the purpose of this entry isn't to reduplicate the cast page.

Multiplex creator Gordon McAlpin agreed to have an email interview with me, so I shot him a few questions and he fired some answers right back. Gordon's a fun guy, and he's also very professional about his comic, so I was eager to hear his thoughts on Multiplex, the webcomic universe, and everything.

JF: First, as much for my own curiosity as anything: it’s no secret that you originally envisioned Multiplex in animated-short format. Any chance we’ll be seeing Multiplex-related animation in the future, not-too-distant or otherwise?

GM: I hope so. But since no animation studios are coming up to me with offers, I’ll have to do it myself (or mostly myself), and I barely have the time to keep up with the updates, let alone teach myself Flash. Long-time readers know I’m about six months behind on the ebooks (and counting), which affects the print collection, too, and that should really be my priority.

JF: Your other major comic undertaking, Stripped Books, was hand-drawn—and recently we’ve seen hand-drawn Multiplex bonus sketches and even some hand-drawn strips. What motivated your initial decision to draw Multiplex digitally rather than by hand? Do you have a preference for either approach?

GM: I did Multiplex digitally because I wanted to build up a library of vector shapes for an animated version of Multiplex. I can basically take what I’ve drawn for the strip and paste it into Flash now, and I just need to animate it and add sound and all that — which is still a lot more complicated than it might sound.

I liked the idea that Multiplex, being about movies, is more visually evocative of animation than comics; I lay things out more or less like frames of a movie and do the panel breakdowns pretty rigidly, to emphasize this, too.

But I also just really like well-done 2D vector illustration and had fun doing it for the second Stripped Book (on Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith). I don’t understand why everybody in comics is so locked into the traditional pencils-and-ink cartooning technique. Comics are stories told in pictures, not just drawings: you can make comics with photos, CG imagery à la Dreamland Chronicles, whatever…

So, no, I don’t have a preference for either. I just like to change up my drawing style a lot, and I’d settled on a vector style for Multiplex, and… well, it got popular, so that’s the style I’m best known for.

JF: What are some of your favorite parts of the comic? Do you have any favorite story arcs, favorite characters to write/draw, a favorite facet of what Multiplex lets you do as a cartoonist?

GM: Well, I’m really excited about the addition of James Harris, not just because I get to finally do some hand-drawn bits in the strip (which I’d actually intended to do for a long, long time), and because it adds a new dimension to the strip: movie theater history.

Multiplex is a comic strip about movies, but it’s not just about the new releases of the week. It’s really a lot deeper than that, despite all the bathroom humor. Or at least, I’m trying to make it deeper than that, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. It’s about criticism and whether or not anybody really does have a more valid opinion about movies than someone else. It’s about movie theater industry, which a lot of people say is dying, but I call “bullshit” on that.

The addition of James is — in the long term — going to raise a lot of parallels between now and what was going on in the 1950s, when the film industry (and the movie theaters that played them) were taking a massive beating from, primarily, television.

Basically, Multiplex lets me talk about my love of movies in a way that is, I hope, very entertaining to the readers. That’s my favorite part of the strip.

My favorite character would be Jason, though. It’s no shock to my readers (especially ones who know what I look like) that he’s an exaggerated version of myself. He often knocks movies I enjoy, so he’s really not just spewing my own opinions, despite what some readers assume. But I like his asshole side, and his dry sarcasm, which kind of runs through the strip as a whole, I suppose.

JF: Some of my favorite parts of the strip come from the relationships between characters—Kurt and Jason’s repartee, obviously, but also Melissa’s tough-love friendship with Jason, or how Neil relates to his workers. Do you have a character dynamic you particularly enjoy writing or drawing?

GM: Kurt and Jason are my favorite, but I enjoy it any time Jason gets a dressing-down, either from Neil, Melissa, Angie… whoever. I mean, a lot of the time, he is a little asshole. But that’s the point, and that’s why we love him. He’ll grow up, eventually. A little bit.

JF: Kurt and Jason…ha, I really should’ve guessed that one.

Anyway. In a recent interview, you remarked that you’ve got Multiplex on your mind almost constantly. What do you do when you need some space from your creation? What other activities do you find help your creative process?

GM: I like to drink heavily when I need some down-time. Or, honestly, watch movies that have absolutely nothing to do with the strip, or with the Triple Feature.

But that’s the thing about Multiplex: because it’s really about a love of movies, I don’t often feel like I need a total break from it — and, in fact, when I’m back in my parents’ hometown, away from any computer that I can work on Multiplex with, I’m often pretty anxious to get back to the strip.

One of my other hobbies is photography. I’m not terribly good at it, but I enjoy wandering around and taking pictures of old buildings. That interest is where my interest in old movie theaters came from, actually.

And, of course, I read comics. I love comics every bit as much as I love movies. I really just love visual storytelling.

JF: Unlike many webcomics, Multiplex has a racially diverse cast—but when it comes to race, it’s anything but politically correct. Was it a conscious decision on your part to expand your cast beyond the typical “white and nerdy” ensemble?

GM: Absolutely, and not just about race.

I’m keenly aware that there are people out there who are absolutely incapable of reading any characters that aren’t white, straight, and male as anything other than statements, which is why so many cartoonists are reluctant to break out from that.

An early strip set up that Becky doesn’t like action movies, so that must mean that I was saying all women hate action movies. I read a review of Multiplex that leaped to exactly that moronic conclusion. Guess what? There are women out there who don’t like action movies. They exist by the thousands.

But that’s really what most white, straight, male cartoonists are afraid of: “If I have a black/gay/woman character and they do ANYTHING, people are going to assume I’m trying to Say Something and somebody’s going to get offended.” Oh no!

It’s just cowardice, and it just perpetuates the lily-white state of comics. I don’t think having token minority characters or cool-chick characters (hot girls who are just one of the geeks!) cuts it, either.

JF: Your characters often have a surprise twist to their “first glance” identities—the resident goth turns out to be a serious Christian, the “dumb guy” has been playing dumb to con the theater, the skeezy pervert discovers that he’s gay. Given your fondness for pitching change-ups like that, is it ever tough to keep it from getting gimmicky?

GM: Angie being a Christian was not a twist! I put a cross on her in her very first appearance specifically because I wanted her to be a Christian, even though I never had any plans to use her beyond that first appearance (in #40). And making it an important part of her life was to counter the fact that the only other vocal Christian in the cast was Sunny – the dumb blonde girl.

I say "vocal," because America is something like 60 or 70% Christian, so to me it just stands to reason that about that many people on the staff are Christian as well. Just because none of the other characters in the strip have talked about it doesn't mean they aren't religious.

Anyway — back to the point — as for the other two examples you mentioned, those were really jokes not twists — albeit complicated jokes that were set up and played out over the course of several months. As long as I think they're funny, I don't worry about things like that seeming like a gimmick.

Generally speaking, the characters are not fundamentally different before and after their big reveal: Chase was and is the guy who tries too hard. Brian is still stupid, but differently stupid.

JF: Yeah, I guess by “twist” I just meant “surprise.” Not very precise of me! Still, I was plenty surprised by Angie’s disclosure. You really couldn’t expect people to infer that her cross is more than your standard Goth accoutrement. ;)

GM: You’re right — but I don’t see why people should assume that it’s only your standard Goth accoutrement, either.

JF: Fair enough. Your comic also stands out because in a world of talking dinosaurs, improbable antics, and magic robots, it’s essentially 100% realistic—the sort of thing that might actually happen to you if you worked at a movie theater. What role do you think the impossible has in fiction?

GM: I do think that there is some absurdity in Multiplex; it’s maybe more 90% realistic than 100% realistic. But the reason for the amount of realism in the strip is that I’m talking about real movies and a real industry. Any serious commentary on that stuff is meaningless if I have a talking robot in the strip.

But I love random, impossible, absurd things. I’m just… well, honestly, my writing interests have always leaned towards the real. When stories have almost nothing to connect itself to reality, they’ve got to be beautifully rendered, or I tune out really quickly.

As for the impossible, I think it’s obviously used as escapism a lot, but in the right hands, the impossible can be used as sort of a fun-house mirror to look back at ourselves. It may be showing us a distorted image, but it’s still real; it’s still truth. There has to be some element of reality in a story or it cannot have any real meaning.

Not that stories need to “mean” something; action movies often have absolutely no purpose other than to entertain, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, you know, too much junk food rots your teeth. Too much junk storytelling rots your brain.

JF: Amen to that. Why don’t you leave us with a recommendation? A webcomic that’s both fantastic and says something substantial. Or, barring that, I’m sure we’d appreciate anything that’s just good storytelling… ::grin::

GM: Well, it’s not running anymore, but I think Minus managed to turn out a few soul-wrenching strips in-between its tales of an omnipotent little girl. The three-parter beginning here — — has really stuck with me.

I can’t just recommend one webcomic, though! I love Octopus Pie. That seems to be everybody and their mother’s favorite recent webcomic. I also love Diesel Sweeties, Girls With Slingshots, VoidsTheater Hopper and Joe Loves Crappy Movies, of course. I miss Perry Bible Fellowship and Beaver & Steve (which is on hiatus). Ummm… I dunno.

Outside of webcomics, I’ve recently gotten into The Wire, and although I’ve only seen the first season so far, it’s absolutely brilliant. Some of the tightest, best writing I’ve ever seen. Mad Men is also pretty amazing.

JF: Good comics, all of those. Though I certainly don’t keep up with Octopus Pie like I should. Thanks for the interview, Gordon!

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