Friday, 15 February 2013

On 21 Years Of "Tripwire": An Interview With Joel Meadows

Joel Meadows isn't bragging when he writes that Tripwire has "the best contacts and the best access of any magazine of this kind". Sceptics need only visit the Kickstarter page for Tripwire's 21st anniversary edition, where they'll encounter fond, enthusiastic quotes from the likes of Michael Moorcock and Ian Rankin, to realise that he's simply stating the truth. Equally fascinated by comics and film, Tripwire is a seriously well-respected, impressively well-connected publication.

Yet Tripwire's story is more than a record of the remarkable cast of creators who've featured in its pages. Of course, its success in earning the goodwill of, for example, Morrison, Moore, Mignola and Millar speaks for its estimable qualities. But there's also the matter of how Tripwire's been constantly reshaped over the past few decades, as Meadows and his collaborators have worked to fulfil their ambitions while negotiating an ever-changing, perpetually demanding marketplace. What began as a hand-to-mouth and at-moments spiky fanzine in the early nineties has evolved into today's sharp, opulent, digital labour of love. (*1) As such, the magazine's progress has reflected many of the fundamental changes which have so profoundly altered not just publishing, but the entertainment industry as a whole over the past few decades. 

*1:- If you haven't already, the free digital edition of November 2012's edition, which focuses on the Dredd movie, can be read here. It's well worth looking out, and you can see its front cover further down this this page.

Work in progress: a double-page spread from the upcoming Tripwire 21st anniversary edition
What follows is an interview that I suggested to Joel when we briefly discussed Tripwire's 21st anniversary. It struck me that it would be an opportunity to help highlight his campaign to fund a sumptuous celebration of Tripwire's achievements. But I'll readily admit to entirely selfish motives too. As someone who fondly recalls buying the earliest issues of Tripwire from Gosh! during sadly infrequent returns to London, and who's read every issue since, I can't help but be curious about the magazine's development. Since TooBusyThinking is essentially a comics blog, I focused on that aspect of Tripwire's history, but I hope that doesn't obscure its fascination with film too.

 My thanks to Joel for all his help.

1. Earlier this year, you discussed the history of Tripwire with Bill Baker. I was fascinated to read that you and your then-collaborator Simon Teff didn't at first “have a bloody clue what we were doing then and we certainly didn’t have a game plan”. What were the pros and cons of starting Tripwire in such an off-the-wall fashion?

We were pretty young and clueless and we just wanted to publish a magazine that covered comics and music in an interesting fashion. We didn’t plan particularly far ahead but we managed to include the occasional feature that no-one would have thought of, like the Bisley/ Morrison Tapes, which was Grant Morrison chatting to Simon Bisley, which is still quite amusing even now. We definitely learnt on the job but it is a little bit galling to look at some of the more primitive issues of the magazine.

2.  What would the young Joel who began Tripwire think of all you’ve achieved, and perhaps, what you haven’t? 

That’s a very intriguing question. I think he may be amazed that the magazine still plays some sort of part in my professional life all these years later. Hopefully he’d be proud of all the people we’ve covered over the years and some of the things we’ve done like directly commission covers from Fox and still be seen as some sort of influential force in the market, although I don’t know how influential we actually are anymore, or even if we were ever influential.

3. And what would you advise that younger Joel Meadows about the road ahead of him in 1991 if you could?

 I think we should have ditched the music earlier and replaced it with film and TV. But the music came out of TRIPWIRE because I had a massive falling out with the aforementioned Mr Teff. We never covered music properly because he wasn’t up for doing music interviews. Film and TV ended up in the magazine because I had met Gary Marshall, who suggested we should include it. I would also tell him not to sign with our now-defunct newstrade distributor MMC, because that led to a huge waste of money and being forced to wrap up the magazine in 2003, a break which lasted until 2007. I may also want to tell him not to bother with the gatefold silver ink logo cover we did to commemorate Star Wars The Phantom Menace back in 1999. There were a few moments when things were at a particularly low ebb thanks to the time and money invested in TRIPWIRE but in retrospect I am mostly glad about what we’ve done.

4. As you've said, you didn’t have a game plan for Tripwire when you started. But you must have developed a sense of what is and what isn’t right for the magazine as the years have passed. Can you recall particular moments when you really felt that you knew what Tripwire should and shouldn’t be?

I would like to think that we did. We didn’t touch much in the way of mainstream superhero coverage unless it related to an interesting or notable creator taking on a superhero title or series. I suppose our remit was the most interesting end of mainstream comics and then film and TV. Ironically our short-lived full colour ‘monthly’ back in 2003 was ahead of the game. We tried to cover genre, film and TV the way a mainstream magazine would but we were hindered by the greed of our distributor and the newstrade outlets who refused to stock us unless we paid them for the privilege. We didn’t always get it right but we covered people like Moore, Morrison and Milligan long before almost anybody else. We gave Vertigo more covers than any other publisher and I think we were right to support them. That was partly because we wanted to help British talent. We also tried to cover independent comic creators like Ed Hillyer, Roger Langridge and the Metaphrog people.

5. In 2002’s 10th Anniversary Issue of Tripwire, you wrote that early issues had seriously annoyed “a number of prominent figures in the comics industry”. Yet Tripwire has had a remarkable degree of support from comicbook creators and publishers alike. How did you earn such good will while also making waves? (Is it important that a magazine like Tripwire does piss off prominent folks at times?)

When we started, I was young and I wasn’t a journalist or an editor really. I was just feeling my way around and so we did piss off a few people. I used Speakeasy and the music papers, NME and Melody Maker, as my template, so we were far less reverent towards subjects than the Americans who covered the material. But if we had continued on this path, then the magazine wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did, so we changed tack with our approach. I would like to think that the reason we have had decent access is because we love comics and feel that the people who create them should be accorded the same respect as people who work in film, TV or any of the other creative arts. We have had a long relationship with many of the people we have covered over the years, like Mike Mignola for example, who we first interviewed way back in summer 1996. I think we had more Hellboy covers than any other character during the print run of TRIPWIRE. So we try not to make waves anymore although there are still creators who are mercurial, who we helped to get attention for, who for whatever reason feel that we are no longer worth speaking to any more, which of course is their prerogative. Also, the big two publishers seem less interested in listening to other voices to advise them on their future plans, so I feel like we would be wasting our breath.

6. To what degree have your own endeavours to keep the magazine alive and vital helped you understand the challenges which have faced the comics industry over the period?

That is a big question and doing TRIPWIRE has hopefully allowed me to better understand the mindset of the dominant companies, the changes in the market and, while some decisions really frustrate me, I can usually understand the reasoning behind them. Sadly, it seems to me that the bigger players in the comic market have become so driven by their corporate masters and owners that many of their decisions seem motivated by short-term thinking and placating their shareholders to the detriment of the quality of the material. Of course, comic publishing is a business and an industry and you can’t blame publishers for trying to make money but I do feel like the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, especially since the changes at the top of Marvel and DC.

7. Are there a few particular highs, and perhaps even lows, which come to mind when you consider the past few decades of Tripwire?

That is also a tricky question to answer. I am proud that we managed to support British independent and left of centre mainstream creators like Milligan, Fegredo, Phillips and US creators like Mignola and Wagner. I have been sifting through old issues of TRIPWIRE, partly to assemble the 21st anniversary book and I am struck by just how imaginative and visually interesting some of our covers were. We didn’t get everything right: the JM Straczynski interview we ran back in 2010 read like a rather noncommittal email interview and the fact that, after DC made such a big fanfare about him taking over Superman and Wonder Woman, he walked soon after anyway. But hindsight is all well and good. It is hard to pick specific highs although I still have a soft spot for the TRIPWIRE Spring Special 2000 we did, with its pastiche circus cover that integrated JH Williams’ Promethea image, and Volume 4#9, which was our Dark Knight Strikes Again special. Despite the fact that the series wasn’t very good, I think the cover still looks striking and holds up over a decade after we put it out. Lows also included dealing with WH Smiths and being dropped by Diamond, which we were quite a while ago. We have always tried to punch above our weight and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

8. How different is the business of producing a magazine such as Tripwire in 2013 compared to 1992? Would it be possible to start a Tripwire now, and, given today's challenges, how are you planning to take Tripwire forward?

 If you were launching TRIPWIRE now, you would probably have to put it out as a digital publication. With the demise of Borders UK and the rest of the UK book market and the newstrade seemingly lumbering from one crisis to another, you’d need very deep pockets to do a regular full colour magazine about comics. Admittedly, Future’s Comic Heroes, which I contribute to, makes a decent fist of this but Future is a public company. As for the future of TRIPWIRE, we are launching a regular digital edition, a bi-monthly from the end of February, with a similar approach to the print magazine although we shall be giving greater emphasis to books and films and original graphic novels. Additionally we shall be offering TRIPWIRE 21, our 21st anniversary book through Kickstarter UK. We tried to do a TRIPWIRE 20 through Unbound in 2012 but that didn’t work so we’re renaming it and having another go. I would like to think it will do better because Kickstarter is packed with comics projects.

9. In your editorial for the 2007 Tripwire Annual, you wrote that “This is the most exciting and evolving time for comics in recent memory … .” Is that an opinion you still hold? How do the comics and the comics culture of 2013 compare to those of the past few decades?

Ironically, it is still an exciting time for comics and comics culture. We’ve seen two of the highest grossing films of all time come from the world of genre, two graphic novels have been nominated for the Man Booker Prize and the stigma of reading comics seems to have lifted. It is a golden age for reading graphic material and the quality is even higher when you look at the publishers outside of what used to be called the Big Two. Both Marvel and DC seem determined to put out juvenile and hackneyed titles, marginalising the more sophisticated comics.

10. It would have been hard to foresee in 1992 how pop culture has merged with the mainstream in the 21st century. What does Tripwire offer in a world where graphic novels are reviewed in the Sunday supplements as well as featured in an unbelievable number of fan sites?

Hopefully TRIPWIRE offers a level of professionalism, intelligent discourse and accessibility that is lacking in many of these places. I have written about comics and genre in places like The Times, Time Magazine, Big Issue in The North and Independent on Sunday and pop culture is something that I genuinely respect and care about, so when I see a lazy, poorly researched article about comics in the papers or on a website, it makes me very sad. Hopefully we also offer more depth and context for the reader, making them more aware of the history of the subject.

11. The 21st anniversary issue obviously needs to catch the interest of both the folks who know something of Tripwire and those that may not even heard of it before. How do you intend to attract what in some ways are two very different audiences?

This is another tough question. We have always tried to approach matters in a professional and intelligent way. Wizard’s approach was never for us as we have never been fanboys towards any of the material and have always been more interested in getting under the creative skin of the people who work in genre, whether that’s comics, film, TV or books. Genre has become mainstream culture and for just over twenty years, we were at the heart of what was going on, trying to dissect it and try to make sense of the material we felt deserved greater respect. So the anniversary book, and it will be a book rather than a magazine, will hopefully distill everything that’s been good and interesting about TRIPWIRE, offering reprints of its best material and a slew of new artwork and commentary on what’s happened since 1992 in a book that people will hopefully be proud to have on their shelves. I am trying to make it the sort of book that, if I wasn’t publishing it, I would buy it myself.

12.  What ambitions do you still have for Tripwire? Is it possible to envisage a 30th and even 40th anniversary issue?

I need to get the 21st anniversary edition out of the way first. I haven’t given any thought at all, to be honest. I would never have imagined, if you had said to me, twenty years ago that this thing that started life as a bit of fun would still be part of my professional life now. I am hoping that the regular digital will give it a new lease of life and the provisional plan is to collect the best of the digital in a once a year annual. But we’ll see.

Thank you, Joel.

  • That Kickstarter project can be found here
  • Tripwire's homepage is here. There's more than just the Dredd issue that's available there, and it's all worthwhile material.
  • And Bleeding Cool has printed a welcome, broad range of features from Tripwire's past. A few comics features, since this is a comics blog, to start you off; Mike Mignola on Hellboy, Alan Moore from 2002, and Grant Morrison and Simon Bisley from 1994.

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