Cursory Conversation: Gordon McAlpin

The ‘Conversation’ heads to the movies as the man behind ‘Multiplex’ and ‘Stripped Books’ gives a director’s commentary on drawing like Chris Ware and plotting his webcomics’ animation

Originally posted on
September 26, 2007
by Brian Warmoth

Though I have yet to stumble across webcomics addressing my first jobs refereeing soccer games, working food service and begrudgingly manning the front desk at an all-girls dormitory, I’m sure the great webcomics machine in the sky will eventually produce something to cater to the reading habits of employees in at least one of those industries. Gordon McAlpin’s Multiplex tells the tale of a group of employees in a movie theater, and I feel like no one in America is more than three friends removed from someone who works in a movie theater and can corroborate most of McAlpin’s insights.

If you don’t know Multiplex, you may know McAlpin from another popular series of comics he did online called Stripped Books, where he has drawn famous creators like Chris Ware and Seth right into stories about them in the style of comics that they are known for. Asking him about the two series, McAlpin echoed an observation that I’ve heard a lot lately, which is that webcomic audiences are often not a fluid group that transfers easily from one strip to another—as was the case when Multiplex graduated from its home on Stripped Books’ website and outgrew its parent site with a mostly new readership.

McAlpin talked movies and standard strip origin stories when I called him up in Chicago, but he also talked about his lingering aspirations in animation for Multiplex, why that could soon be a reality and what reactions have been like from the big-name creators he’s used in Stripped Books upon seeing his acts of homage.

WARMOTH: Between reading comics, watching movies and making comics about both, where does most of your time go?

MCALPIN: Well, Stripped Books is retired at the moment. I’m planning on doing more nonfiction stuff, but I haven’t really done much writing about comics or movies in a long time. Outside of the day job, I spend a lot of time watching movies, working on Multiplex, and reading movie news constantly. It’s the only way to keep up with what’s going on. I moved recently, and haven’t had the Internet at my house. It has been hard to try and keep up. The strip that goes up next Monday refers to a bunch of movie news, and just getting four lines of dialogue referencing movie news was such a pain [laughs], because I had to go to Internet cafes and write stuff down. Even little things like trying to figure out when to go to a movie, I was like, “Where are the movie show times?” Then I thought, “Oh yeah, I can go to the <i>Chicago Reader</i> and look them up there—or phone books.

Where do you usually go to see shows in Chicago?

MCALPIN: There’s a couple of theaters that I go to most often. The Century 12 and CinéArts 6 in Evanston is really good. The CinéArts 6 has mostly art house and indie films. The Century 12 half—or two thirds—is mainstream Hollywood stuff. Then there’s also the Landmark Century down in the Lakeview/Lincoln Park area. That place is really good about playing the indie/art house/foreign stuff. Between those two, that’s where I spend most of my movie-going time.

Do you even look out the corner of your eye to see what’s going on behind the counter when you walk in?

MCALPIN: [Laughs] Sometimes. I’ve spent so much time in movie theaters. When I was back in Peoria, my friend Kurt, who is the namesake of the Kurt in the strip, managed a movie theater. At the time I had this weird job where I was working out of my house doing mostly second shift—just because if you can determine your own schedule and like to sleep in late, that’s when you end up working. So I would get done with my job at 11 at night and stop by there and watch free movies, so there was a lot of interacting with the staff kids.

Was that where the concept for Multiplex sprouted from for you?

MCALPIN: Yeah. At one point in there I was struggling with something to do. Throughout my 20s I wanted to be a cartoonist, and I never considered myself much of a writer. I always had problems coming up with ideas to write about. Part of it is that I don’t generally have an interest in writing fiction—like long story arcs and that sort of thing. At one point Kurt was like, “Hey, you should do a strip about a bunch of kids who work in movie theaters,” and I was like, “Nah, that would be stupid.” I didn’t think I had the mindset to do short humor comics, and I guess I was wrong. Once I sat down and started doing it a few years later, things started falling into place. I do longer strips than the typical three- or four-panel newspaper-style strip. It was really about figuring out a format that I was comfortable in.

As far as figuring out things to write about, the same thing happened with the Stripped Books concept, which came up after Jessa Crispin, who edits, asked me to do a comic for them.

So you originally started that with the intention of putting it on BookSlut?

MCALPIN: Yeah, for the first five or six. Just the last two were original to the Stripped Books site. The rest of them were all initially at It was an irregular feature—just every couple of months, which is about how frequently I could do it because I was drawing a page a week with a full-time job.

I wondered how long that took you working a day job, since they’re so elaborate.

MCALPIN: It took me about a page a week. Then we’d need a week to transcribe everything and a week to break down the whole strip. It was really time-consuming. [Multiplex] was originally run at Stripped Books as the regularly updating feature that would tide people over until the next page of Stripped Books came out, but very quickly Multiplex started getting way more hits than Stripped Books. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just naïve sometimes, but I thought, “Hey, maybe this strip about books and authors might be more popular than a humor strip about a bunch of immature kids who work at a movie theater.

There’s really no overlap with the audiences, either, which is funny. But Multiplex took off and I spun it into its own site, just because it needed its own URL in order for people to remember it.

Does Kurt give you feedback even now on the strips?

MCALPIN: Yeah, he does. Kurt is similar in some ways to Kurt in the strip, but not really. His taste is more like “Family Guy” and my taste is more like “South Park” when it comes to humor, but I try to keep things fairly realistic. He’s always suggesting really outlandish stuff. He kind of hates me for it, but I shoot down almost every idea he has. I credit him for suggesting the premise of the strip by having the character named after him, and every once in a while something he suggests pops up, but not too often.

Do you ever get feedback from any of the creators you’ve done Stripped Books comics about?

MCALPIN: A couple of them, yeah.

I’m curious to know what their reactions have been like?

MCALPIN: I always am. The only two people I can think of off the top of my head were Jon Scieszka, who was really enthusiastic about it, and we kept in touch for a little while. Also, Ivan Brunetti had gotten back to me, and he mentioned that Chris Ware had said that it was eerie, some of the little details that I couldn’t possibly have known that I got right somehow. I swear, though, I was not stalking Chris Ware. Sometimes I think the cartoonists may be a bit wary that I’m aping their drawing style to some minor extent when I draw Stripped Books about them, but generally people seem to like them.

Whose style would you say has been the most difficult to mug?

MCALPIN: I don’t know. Chris Ware was definitely hard, but on that one I didn’t feel like I was trying too much. Usually, more than trying to draw exactly like a person, I’ll just pick up a few visual cues, like the way they lay out their panels or the way they letter, because I usually use computer lettering. You pick up the visual cues, get the color palette and page layout and panel layout right. The rest of it looks much closer than it really is because of those little things.

I also try to guess at what kind of tools they use. With Seth, for instance, he’s obviously inking with a brush, so if I ink with a brush I can probably approximate his style a little more. Chris Ware is a little more precise, so the only way I could really even get close to him was to use a crow quill, even though I’m pretty sure he uses a brush too. He was definitely hard. So I’m really not sure that the way I drew him looks in any way like he would draw himself ever. [Laughs] He’s got a square jaw in that strip.

Are you seeing any movies this weekend?

MCALPIN: This weekend I’m going to be in New York, so maybe not.

What was the last movie you saw?

MCALPIN: The last movie I saw was “3:10 to Yuma,” which was [slight hesitation] good. There were some bits about the ending that didn’t work for me. I wouldn’t say it necessarily ruined the movie, but it did drag down the movie a bit. The acting was good all around though.

I almost went to see that on Saturday, but I skipped it in favor of “Shoot ’Em Up.”

MCALPIN: “Shoot ’Em Up” was dumb but fun.

I wanted to ask you about your schedule. Are you still regularly on Mondays, or have you expanded?

MCALPIN: I try to do it a little more often than Monday. Sometimes it’s a little difficult. Last week I actually cranked out five updates, but that was a special case because it was one big conversation, so it was really the same couple of panels, but I moved the characters around a little bit, so I was recycling a lot of the art. There is a lot of cut-and-paste to Multiplex, but I try to make the characters “act,” if that makes sense. I look at it more like puppetry than cartooning in some ways. It’s all drawn in Illustrator, so I reuse stuff all the time. I feel a little uncomfortable when people call it a cut-and-paste strip, because I get visions of cut-and-paste comics where it’s the same four panels over and over again with different dialogue, and to me that stuff’s not comics.

Multiplex is a weird thing because it’s not the way I do my hand-drawn stuff. It’s started to inform how I do my hand-drawn stuff, but it started out as this weird sort of thing that I thought I could crank out. Then it just happened that sometimes the strips take me seven to eight hours, so it’s even longer than if I did it by hand. I had originally wanted to do it as an animated short.

Did you ever animate anything for it?

MCALPIN: No, not yet. The latest version of Flash plays really well with Illustrator. That was always a big stumbling block for me, because I’ve got all these characters and backgrounds drawn in Illustrator. I’d want to reuse that art exactly, but even when I would pull over one character a circle would look oblong in the earlier versions of Flash. Now, because Adobe bought it, and Illustrator and Flash are almost seamless, I can take the art from the Multiplex strips and just cut-and-paste it into Flash.

So, someday.