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Feature Thu Oct 01 2009

Lights, Camera, Comic: Talking to Gordon McAlpin

No stranger to comics, movies, or Chicago, it seems only natural that Gordon McAlpin would create Multiplex, "a comic strip about life at a movie theater." The Peoria native's knowledge of and deep affection for the webcomic's prevailing topics is evident: characters and dialogue have an easy familiarity to them, movement and expression coming through surprisingly well given the strip's slightly static, cartoonish aesthetic. Recently, Gordon filled me in on his history, Multiplex's backstory, and the next step in its evolution.

How did you get into comics in the first place?

I always loved superheroes from watching cartoons, specifically Super Friends. My older brother read a few comics, horror comics, he had the most copies of Gru. He was never really into it. He was more into D&D and heavy metal. In 4th or 5th grade, I got the DC Heroes roleplaying game. They kept referencing this series called Crisis on Infinite Earth, so I saved up more allowance, trucked on over to a comic book store, picked up the old Crisis books. I started hanging around Metropolis, a comic book store, then Acme, its competitor. A chain-smoking, curmudgeonly guy named Jim would recommend stuff to me. Eventually, he would introduce me to slightly more grown-up stuff, he knew I wasn't going to run and show it to my mom. I hung out there for years. Fell in love with the medium, and I always liked to draw.

Did this love last throughout high school? College?

Right at the age where most guys made up their mind whether to go for comics or girls, I didn't even need to make that choice. I studied English with a writing concentration, Art with a drawing concentration, as close as I could get to a comics degree.

During that time, did you ever work in a movie theater? Many of the situations in Multiplex are funny because they're so accurate. Are any of the characters based off people you've known in real life?

I did not work in a movie theater. After college, I got to know this friend of mine Kurt Bollinger from going out to bars and seeing his band play. His day job was as an assistant manager in a movie theater. I would eventually hang out at the movie theater, wait for him to get off of work. I ended up spending probably hundreds of hours there over the course of a couple of years.

Kurt is loosely based on my actual friend Kurt, Melissa is slightly based off his girlfriend at the time. I made a promise to myself that they will never, ever break up, I want them to be the one stable couple in the strip. Other than those two, some people say Jason is very much me. He's kind of like me in my 20's. People don't like him because he's an asshole, but he starts to mellow out with age.

At one point, Kurt said: "You like comics. You should do a comic strip about a bunch of kids who work in a movie theater."

Me: "Nah, that'd be stupid." I wanted to write these big, long, epic narratives. I don't enjoy gag strips, I can't stand the 4-panel newspaper thing, no room for art. It didn't occur to me that it would be something I would enjoy doing.

Did you ever think you'd be working on a comic full-time?

I used to write for Bookslut. I wrote a couple of webcomic reviews, and Jessa, the editor, was like: "Why don't you draw a comic for us?" I did Stripped Books: I'd go to a book-related event and turn that into a comic strip. Some turned out better than others. The monthly nature of Bookslut site was frustrating. If an event came in the middle of the month, I'd have to end up rushing and rushing to get things done.

I moved Stripped Books to own site to work at own pace, about every two months. I wanted to do something that would update more frequently, and ended up doing Multiplex as a backup feature for Stripped Books. Very quickly, it started getting more readers than the comic about authors talking. After awhile, I started separating them...just became a matter of time before Multiplex got its own URL.

What comics have influenced Multiplex, in terms of style and overall look? What else has?

South Park was a big influence, it started out very much like it. I think I've added a little more dimension to it progressively. It's pretty subtle, but adding shadows on a few things here and there, little lighting things, really helped the art. I want the backgrounds to have a little bit more life in them.

Yeah, it always bugs me when comics skimp on the backgrounds. It sounds like animation was a big influence?

Animation and movies. Flash animation, cut paper animation such as Fantastic Planet by Rene Laloux, editorial illustrations in womens' magazines. Kirikou and the Sorceress, which is based off Senegalese folktales. It's very flat, characters are almost always facing sideways, never facing the camera.

What do you think makes Multiplex particularly Chicago? The racial makeup of the characters always feels like parts of Chicago to me, but what else?

It's definitely a northwest suburb thing. It's a fictional suburb located in between Evanston and Skokie, vaguely in that direction.

I lived in Rogers Park, am familiar with that area. It's a nice mix of cultures, geographically. There's a massive Indian neighborhood, there's a massive Jewish neighborhood. I absolutely love the North Side of Chicago, it's culturally so rich, and there are a lot of great old movie theaters there. I've kind of gotten into the classic movie theater theme in the comic, with Jason and Devi going to the Bollywood theater in Niles and the Calo Theater in Andersonville.

I've mentioned the Music Box, sooner or later they'll visit that. I wanted it [Multiplex] to have some substance to it, some meaning -- actually reference real theaters, real movies. It's drawing from the real history of the city, which also establishes every history book ever written about Chicago as a backstory for Multiplex!

That sounds pretty great. So, I hear you're using the fund-raising program Kickstarter to turn Multiplex into a book?

Self-publishing is the plan. I need to finish off the book: the first year of the comic, I had to gloss over so many story points, that I wanted to expand on it, to give it the same amount of depth. That's a lot of new material. It will also be serialized in five eBooks. The first one is almost done. I'm running Kickstarter partly so I'll have the time to finish the book, partly for the publishing costs.

I'm going to add a Star Wars prequel. Multiplex started in 2006, right around the time the last Star Wars movie came out. I want to flesh out the backstory, make introductions. The main point is to do something exclusive to the print book.

What do you like about Kickstarter, as opposed to just a straight-up donation or Paypal link?

I like the idea of a funding goal -- if you don't get there, nobody gets charged. It's a way to ensure that I either get that amount that I need, or worst possible outcome, a few extra Kickstarter people find out about Multiplex and like it.

What do you hope to achieve through publishing the book?

I've always felt that Multiplex is more of a story strip. There are gags, but it's more like a sitcom, works better in larger chunks. I feel bad because people get caught up, then they can only read one at a time. Also, it gives me a chance to fix up some of the old ones without being dishonest. There's higher quality reproduction: 72dpi ruins just about any art, one of the drawbacks of reading webcomics. You can look at it on the web and think it's flat, but if you actually have the eBook in front of you, you can zoom in and see the stuff that gets blurred by downsampling it to the web.

Sounds like a lot of fun extra material. Okay, I have to ask: top five movies? And what's your favorite Chicago theater?

The Apartment by Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite movie, but beyond that it kind of changes with my mood.

Today, I'll say The Incredibles, The Proposition, Tokyo Story, and Sense & Sensibility. I've probably watched Sense & Sensibility more than any other movie, and the ending gets me every single freakin' time. It's ridiculous.

The movie theater I go to most is actually not in Chicago; it's the Evanston Century 12/CinéArts 6 Theater in Evanston. They have a pretty good mix of Hollywood stuff and indie/foreign fair, it has a bar in it, and it's two blocks from where I work. Can't beat that!

My favorite movie theater that is actually in Chicago, though, is the Uptown Theater, which is the last of the true movie palaces in Chicago. It was poorly treated for a long time, but has finally ended up in the hands of an owner who actually cares about the building.

They're in the process of restoring it, and I hope the stonework from the top of the building (which was removed some time ago in order to preserve it) finds its way home soon. There's no other building in Chicago I want to watch a movie in more.

You can learn about Multiplex by visiting To find out more about Gordon's Kickstarter project, go here.

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geekgrrl / November 23, 2009 4:12 PM

thanks so much for the interview! I'm almost caught up on Multiplex, after not knowing about it for the past umpteen years.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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