For this month’s Web Comic of the Month we’ve got a strip that features both normal humans, and superheroes–Theater Hopper. Brought to us by Tom Brazelton, this is a movie-themed comic that’s been going strong for many years. Updated every Monday, Wednesday, & Friday, Theater Hopper has a lot of archives to look through.
One thing I appreciate about this comic is that in addition to the tons of “back issues” you can read through, you get a snapshot of history from the box office over the past 7+ years. As you read through the older strips it’s very interesting to remember what we all wanted to see a few years ago. Or to see what poor movies competed against titans of the big screen from years past.
What exactly is Theater Hopper?
Well, in Tom’s words…
Theater Hopper is a web comic about movies written from the fan’s perspective. It is semi-autobiographical, combining characters based on real people with a supporting cast of fictitious creations.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, these characters satirically address what is current in the world of movies and celebrity culture as they have since August 5, 2002.
So, this comic strip is supposed to be funny. Well, it is funny, stinking hilarious even! It’s times like these, when I’m laughing pretty loudly at my screen, that keep my wife trusting that my online activities are moral and upright (as well she should), albeit a little juvenile. Here’s an example of what I mean about funny.
PLEASE NOTE–If you are a fan of Shia LaBeouf, I make no apology for what follows.
Now, if you didn’t think that those strips are funny, that’s fine, though I doubt even Shia himself could keep a straight face while reading them. Well, maybe until he got to the last bit, where he gets the crap beaten out of him by Harrison Ford and Jared. Trust me when I say that there’s plenty more where those came from, you’ll just have to head on over to Theater Hopper and check them out for yourself. While you’re there, you might also discover why Ben Affleck was mentioned in the above strip.
The man responsible for this movie madness
Tom Brazelton is a man of many talents, with creating web comics fitting nicely among the others. He’s married with two kids, and lives in Des Moines, Iowa. If I was as busy as he is, I don’t know where I’d find the time to stick to a schedule of publishing a new strip 3 times a week. However, I’m sure glad he does, and I know that you’ll agree with me once you take in some of his work. Now, let’s get to know the man a little bit, shall we. Tom and I got together, through the email, and I squeezed some info out of him. Let the shenaniganizing begin!
Comic Attack: Do you remember the first comic you ever read?
Tom Brazelton: I don’t know if I trust my memory enough to say that it was definitively the first comic I ever read, but I want to say it was Amazing Spider-Man #244. It has Spidey on the cover dodging a hail of pumpkin bombs. I was probably 8 years-old when I first read it. I think my Mom bought it for me at the grocery store. I still have it! Polybagged, of course…
CA: What was the first comic that you created? When?
TB: I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember, but I probably didn’t attach an original story to my work until I was in junior high. It sounds cliché, but I would draw comics during study hall – usually about myself, my friends or people we knew. Not much has changed except the technique.
CA: Have we seen your work anywhere else?
TB: Aside from TheaterHopper.com, my work has appeared on the movie blog FirstShowing.net. That happened for about a year back in 2008 and was probably my most high profile syndicated exposure.
My work has also appeared in Juice Magazine, which is a weekly social calendar published by The Des Moines Register. But you wouldn’t see if you weren’t from Des Moines.
CA: How did Theater Hopper come about?
TB: Basically Theater Hopper started as an excuse to teach myself web design.
I had operated a local music blog for a few years before that became too difficult to manage on my own and I was looking for something new. At the time, I had just started reading webcomics – Penny Arcade and PvP specifically. I looked at the creators of these comics and realized they were a lot like me. I figured, “If they can do it, why can’t I?” So I gave it a shot. It ended up being the perfect combination of my interests – movies, writing, comics and design.
But all of it was propped up by my interest in learning how to design a web site. Since then, it’s kind of taken on a life of its own.
CA: What do you do when not creating the next Theater Hopper strip?
TB: I’m a father of two, so that takes up a most of my time. I’m also pursuing my Masters Degree in Communication Leadership and – of course – still rockin’ a 9 to 5 job.
CA: What do you use to make your strip? Hardware, Software, gadgets? Why?
TB: I draw the site in blue line pencil and then ink it with Micron pens. After that, I scan it into my computer to add color, shading and lettering. I do all of that work with Photoshop. I don’t really use any gadgets, although I would love to integrate a Cintiq tablet into my art to clean up my line work. But until I find a giant sack of money in the street, that’s probably not going to happen.
CA: What is your creative environment like? Noise, silence, day, night, what??
TB: My creative environment is pretty much wherever I can tuck in for an hour to draw the strip. I usually draw and ink the comic over my lunch hour, so you might find me in the company break room. Either that, or at home in front of the television. Once I scan the comic in and I’m on the computer, I’m usually listening to a podcast or music. Something I can ignore. And almost always I work late, late, late into the night. Who needs sleep?
CA: What is your favorite Theater Hopper strip?
TB: I have an archive of over 1,000 comics, so it’s hard to pin down a favorite. Every once in a while I look through some of my older comics and one or two will catch my eye. Sometimes I won’t remember writing them and be kind of impressed by my output. It catches me by surprise.
CA: What are your goals for Theater Hopper?
TB: It would be nice if I could make a living doing Theater Hopper, but I don’t think that’s a realistic goal. So, instead, I focus on what I think I can achieve. Right now that includes maintaining a schedule of 3 updates a week, earning enough from advertising and merchandise to help pay for the site and occasionally publishing a book of my collected work. I would love to grow Theater Hopper’s audience, but right now I’m being pulled in a couple of different directions because of my current responsibilities. Right now my main goal for Theater Hopper is to sustain it. 2010 will be my 8th year doing the comic. I’d love to see it make it to 10.
CA: Ever receive feedback from a celebrity who has made an appearance in a Theater Hopper strip?
TB: One time I received an e-mail from someone who said he was Judd Apatow. I parodied him in a comic and he asked for a high-res copy of it. I can’t say for sure it was him, though. I never heard from him again once I e-mailed him the comic.
CA: What goals have you set for yourself in the comic business?
TB: Publishing seems to be my main goal right now. I’ve self-published two books and I’m in the middle of producing a third. They sell well for me on my site and at conventions, but I would like to get them into stores. It’s a point of pride when your work appears in a brick and mortar store after being online for free. Even if no one buys it, I’m comforted by the thought that it’s there on the shelf.
CA: Do you have any tips for aspiring web comic creators in our audience?
TB: The most important piece of advice I can give to any aspiring web comic creator is to pick an update schedule and stick with it. Also, don’t expect immediate success.
Yes, it helps if you’re an excellent writer or illustrator. But if you’re not, those skills develop over time. So long as you update when you say you will, your audience will grow.
CA: You’re given the chance to do a mini-series for any character from comic history, who do you choose? Why? What’s the title?
TB: It would have be Iron Man – my favorite comic character of all time. The title? No idea. I just want to draw the character.
CA: Person you’d love to get the chance to work with on a comic?
TB: As much as I enjoy writing my own material, I think it would be nice to take a step back from that and focus on my art for a while. So it would be a treat to collaborate with someone like Jerry Holkins from Penny Arcade. If I’m thinking pie-in-the-sky, it would be fun to work with the Spider-Man brain trust and illustrate a story by Dan Slott. I just love his sense of humor and how he writes the character.
CA: Who is your favorite character from comics? Why?
TB: Yeah, still Iron Man. I mean, I love Spider-Man, but I’ve always been more attracted to the characters that not everyone else loves. That’s not really the case with Iron Man these days. At least, not since the movie. But there was a time when he was kind of an underdog. Certainly not as popular as the Hulk or Captain America. It made me root for him on another level. I love Green Lantern for the same reason.
If I could make a baseball analogy, it’s easy to be a Yankees fan because they win a lot of games. It takes heart to be a Chicago Cubs fan. You love them because you love the tradition. That’s why I like Iron Man and Green Lantern a little bit more than I like Spider-Man and Superman.
CA: What’s your favorite comic book right now?
TB: You’re going to think I’m Iron-Man crazy by the end of this interview, but I think Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca are doing phenomenal work on Invincible Iron Man. I’ve also been a really big fan of the changes Geoff Johns has made with Green Lantern since Rebirth in 2005.
I appreciate a writer or an artist who is in it for the long haul. Comics have a problem sometimes where they rotate creative teams on and off books and never give them a chance to develop their style. If I think back to some of my favorite comics, they’re always from writer/artist teams who spent a good deal of time on their books. Claremont and Byrne. Michelin and Layton. I see the same thing with Fraction and Larroca and I hope DC keeps Johns and Ivan Reis on Green Lantern for as long as possible!
CA: Favorite comic movie?
TB: I’m going to go out on a limb and say Catwoman.
Naw, man. Iron Man, of course. The perfect mix of action, humor and the thrill of discovering your powers. Robert Downey Jr. was the perfect choice and it was a treat to see a studio not simply choose the next big 20-something actor that would have brought nothing to the role.
CA: Comic book movie that needs to be made, but hasn’t yet?
TB: I don’t know! They’ve made a lot of them. I mean, when they’re making a Jonah Hex movie, you know you’re starting to run out of characters.
I would have really liked to have seen an X-O Manowar movie. But at this point, I think people would dismiss it as an Iron Man knock off. Beyond that? I don’t know. Seems like every other comic book movie I would be interested in seeing is already in the pipeline!
CA: Cast yourself in a future Iron Man movie as anyone but Tony Stark. Where would you fit in?
TB: I think it would be pretty cool to be cast as one of Iron Man’s villains. But, admittedly, Iron Man has a pretty lame rouges gallery. Maybe The Ghost?
More likely than not, I would be cast as “Scientist #5” and be stuck somewhere in the background of a Stark Labs shot.
CA: Have you ever worked in a movie theater? Craziest story?
TB: I *did* work in a movie theater for about 8 months back in 2004. It was such a thankless job and the pay was terrible. They paid us $4.00 an hour under some loophole in Iowa law that says movie theater employees are “seasonal help.” I negotiated a raise for .25 cents more, but that was still .50 cents below minimum wage.
Beyond that, all of my crazy stories are more about my co-workers than anything else. One of my former managers was a firing range instructor in the Army. He would talk incessantly about weapons and ammunition. Another employee I worked with won tickets to Woodstock but only expressed interest in seeing Green Day and said the rest of the festival was boring.
CA: Best all-time hero supporter, as in Foggy Nelson, Alfred Pennyworth, etc?
TB: I gotta give it up to Mary Jane Watson-Parker. Even though I’ve been enjoying the stories since One More Day, I’m still a little miffed Marvel undid Peter and Mary Jane’s marriage.
CA: Who’s tougher, Batman or Rorschach?
TB: My knee jerk reaction is to say Batman. But then I started to think about it a little and came to the conclusion that while Batman is physically tougher and lives by a code, I think he has a moral flexibility that is weaker than what Rorschach believes in. I mean, Rorschach willingly lets Dr. Manhattan destroy him because of his adherence to the truth. I don’t see Batman falling on his sword like that for anyone.
CA: Is there any specific reason for Ben Affleck and Shia LaBeouf being objects of hatred for Jared?
TB: The animosity for Affleck and LaBeouf is genuine to me as a person. I just use Jared the character as my proxy and then exaggerate it for comedic purposes.
I was really annoyed with the whole Bennifer thing back in 2003, 2004 or whenever that was. I am also of the opinion that Affleck is one of the most blank and uninteresting actors ever – especially when he’s trying to be serious. I think he’s funny in Kevin Smith movies and when he hosts SNL, but that’s about it.
After a while, though, my annoyance with Affleck went away and was replaced by Shia LaBeouf. When the media started calling him “the next Tom Hanks,” I thought it was premature. And when he started to believe his own hype, it became aggravating. So I put him in my sights.
Based on the feedback I’ve received, I don’t think I was wrong to target either actor. Sure, both of them have their fans. But I think there is a large undercurrent that rejects these actors because they are being told to admire them by celebrity magazines and news shows. They’re trying to push us into respecting them when they really haven’t done anything to earn that level of admiration.
The only thing I regret about it is how seriously some people take things. Since the comic is semi-autobiographical, people think that I must really hate them and would be willing to beat them with baseball bats. That’s not the case. I don’t really give that much thought to them. If anything, I’m reacting more to the media machine that vaulted these actors into celebrity than I am at the actors themselves. The actors are more like straw men in this scenario.
CA: Who’d win in a battle to the death between Tom & Jared vs. Ben Affleck & Shia LaBeouf?
TB: Affleck has the height, which also means he has a longer reach. But LaBeouf is a liability. He’d probably get winded fairly quickly on account of all the cigarettes he smokes.
Fundamentally, it comes down to who wants it more. A pampered celebrity versus a rabid anti-fan? Affleck and LaBeouf are goin’ DOWN.
CA: You’re in Des Moines, Iowa. Give me a reason to move to Iowa?
TB: There’s tons of great reasons to move to Iowa. We have one of the most stable economies in the Midwest, lots of jobs in the financial and insurance industries and the cost of living here is incredibly cheap. For what you spend on an apartment in a larger city, you can get a 3 bedroom home here.
CA: What’s the one book you’d want to have if stranded on a deserted island?
TB: Probably a book on how to survive in inhospitable environments!
The nuts and bolts of web comic success
CA: Do you have any advice for artists in our audience who might be looking at their web comic as a business?
TB: I will fess up and admit that I am a crappy businessman. I think most creative types are. They’re more concerned with telling a good story than making a quick buck.
That said, if you think there is an opportunity to monetize your work, my advice is to start small.
If think you have enough traffic to support advertising on your site, look into ad networks like Google AdSense or Project Wonderful.
If you think there is an interest in purchasing your work, auction artwork on eBay, take commissions or sell copies of original comics. Do things that are easily replenished and don’t require a lot of money upfront.
If you get into merchandizing – shirts, books or coffee mugs – always do a pre-order first. Try to gauge your audience’s interest in a particular product and be careful not to over-order the quantity. There’s nothing worse than being stuck with a closet-full of merchandise you can’t sell.
CA: What’s the first thing a web comic artist should do to develop their fan base (beyond publishing an awesome web comic, that is)?
TB: I think the best thing for an up-and-coming webcomic artist to do is network with other creators. Send e-mails, ask to trade links, follow the work of others that you enjoy and help promote it. 9 times out of 10, they will return the favor in kind.
The trick to developing your fan base is reaching into pockets of the internet that your work might not normally reach. You can’t expect your site to be first when someone types a search into Google. You can’t rely on advertising to draw eyes or keep readers sticking around. But when you network with other creators, their approval of your work becomes an endorsement and I think people are far more responsive to “Hey, check out this great comic I found” rather than you standing on top of a mountain shouting “Hey, check out my comic!”
Social media makes this kind of networking a lot easier than it was even 5 years ago. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube… there are so many outlets that can help you build your brand and expand your reach. To suggest specific methods here would take up too much time. The point is to get creative and use the tools available to you. But fundamentally, to nurture relationships with contemporaries. They will help you more than you know.
CA: Thanks so much for chatting with us Tom. You’ve done a great job with Theater Hopper!