Look Back in Wonder: Joel Meadows on Tripwire at 20

Capturing 20 years of comics and pop culture between two covers.

By , Columnist

When I last spoke with Joel Meadows, he was prepping the latest issue of Tripwire, the long-running comics and entertainment magazine he helped create in the early '90s, for release. It was a typically cogent and enjoyable issue, similar to its predecessors in many ways but for one—it turned out to be the final installment of Tripwire as a magazine, at least for the moment.

In the months since, Meadows has continued working as a freelance journalist, designer, and editor even as he’s begun to pursue a new career as a photographer.

Meanwhile, both the comics and publishing industries have experienced a series of radical upheavals, many the direct result of—among other factors—a seemingly insatiable demand for digital delivery of content by consumers worldwide, and the growing acceptance of fan fiction, self-publishing, and crowdfunding as legitimate means to produce, issue, and underwrite new works.

In short, things in publishing and comics are more fluid than ever. However, that same instability also means that there’s never been a better time to reinvent your platform, your portfolio…or your professional profile.

All of which brings us right back to Meadows and his latest project, Tripwire at 20. A wide-ranging celebration of the riches that magazine offered its readers over the past two decades, the forthcoming collection will also provide Joel and company yet another opportunity to present readers new and old with a wealth of new material.

Recently I caught up with Meadows to ask him about the early days of Tripwire, how the magazine and the industries it covers changed and grew over the years, and what he’s learned from it all.

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Why don’t we start at the beginning: What were the circumstances behind the creation of Tripwire, who was involved in its founding, and what were you trying to accomplish with it?

Tripwire began life as a fanzine way back in 1992. A former neighbor of mine, Simon Teff, bemoaned the lack of magazines that covered both comics and music and that’s how it started. It was designed, and I use that a little in the broadest sense, by a friend of mine, James Cooper, who I went to sixth form college with. The first few issues were put together on an Amiga in Cooper’s house in Bounds Green. We didn’t have a bloody clue what we were doing then and we certainly didn’t have a game plan.

Seriously? You all just dove in without any mission statement?

As I said, we didn’t have anything as grand as a mission statement but as things progressed, we had a better sense of what worked in the magazine. Cooper stopped designing the magazine and I picked up the design and we switched from a PC to a Mac. I also became a better writer as the years progressed so Tripwire became a more professional enterprise. We dropped the music because Teff and myself had a parting of the ways around 1999 and my friend Gary Marshall came on board, which is when we introduced film and TV, which was a better natural fit for the magazine anyway.

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This new celebratory collection is being published by way of one of the various crowdfunding sites that have popped up in recent years. Why go that route, rather than a more traditional means?

The current climate means that it is much harder to get funded via traditional means, with mainstream publishers reticent to risk investment on anything other than sure things. So it was either crowdfunding or nothing and Unbound seemed to be a very good fit.

What are some of the benefits of using that system to underwrite and pre-sell copies of the new collection? How about detriments, if any?

There are pros and cons to crowdfunding. The pros are that projects can potentially make far more than your initial target and you have the freedom to put out pretty much whatever sort of book you want. The cons are obviously the fact that there is no guarantee that you will meet your target. I also admit that I am a little uncomfortable constantly asking people to pledge on the book but that’s the only way to get this thing out.

Given how busy you are as a freelance journalist in your own right, I know you’ve not really had the time to take a serious look at back issues of the magazine until this particular project made it necessary. What was that like for you? I ask because it seems like much of your life has been dedicated to this endeavor, and this whole process must have offered some real moments of nostalgia for you.

It has been genuinely interesting. Tripwire has taken up half of my life, something which is quite staggering if you think about that fact. Looking through the back issues was a little bit of a trip down memory lane and weirdly it made me realize that actually there are two back issues of Tripwire from around 1995 that I don’t have file copies of. It reminded me of putting specific issues together complete with all of the pitfalls and headaches that involved at the time.

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What kind of surprises, good or ill, did this long look back present to you?

Looking back at some of the earliest issues, I was a little embarrassed by the poor reviewing style and the more adversarial interview style I employed. But as the years progressed, it was very heartening to see a real improvement in quality and in breadth in terms of what we covered.

We did try to make the effort to include indie and small press titles with the more mainstream content.

Is there a specific “feel” to the articles you chose for inclusion over the years? And, if so, how conscious were you striving to achieve that kind of unity when putting this new collection together?

At the time, after the first few years of publication, we were trying to achieve a consistency of sorts by covering some of mainstream comics’ more notable events but trying to mix it up with the more left-of-centre mainstream movers and shakers. For the articles we are reprinting in the Tripwire 20th anniversary book, I wanted to include the cream of our interviews and features with some of the most significant creators of the past 20 years, so people like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Mike Mignola had to be included. We first interviewed Mignola way back in 1996 and have had an association with him ever since. I wanted to try and encapsulate the magazine’s history as well as the changes and evolution in comics and its related fields since 1992 as well. It hasn’t been easy as we’ve published a lot of really strong material in two decades.

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Another interesting aspect of Tripwire is how many well-known writers and artists have appeared in its pages over the years, quite often while in the early stages of their careers. Could you tell us a little bit about some of the more notable creators who contributed to the magazine, and what special magic they brought with them?

The first comic celebrity we had contribute to Tripwire was Grant Morrison. I was a reader of Speakeasy, that late lamented British comics news magazine, and Morrison had done a column called “Drivel,” which ran for quite a while and made quite an impact on me. So I remember giving Morrison a call when I was still at sixth form college back in 1994 in Barnet, asking him if he’d be up for doing a column for us. He did a few columns of what we called “Son of Drivel.”

But after Morrison, we also included early writing from people like Mark Millar, Warren Ellis and then settled into a regular series of columns from Gary Ushaw and Simon Jowett. We did have a regular rotating guest column slot where we got comic professionals to talk about whatever took their fancy, called “Sounding Off.” Here we had contributions from everybody from Brian Bendis to Frank Quietly, Alex Robinson to Chris Staros. The contributions of these people varied the voice of the magazine and offered something different to the other contributions. It also garnered us some attention in the wider market so it was very useful. Because Tripwire was quite anarchic when it started, we would run almost whatever we wanted and I think this appealed to comic creators.

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Well, what are some of the highlights that this 20th anniversary collection will be offering readers, new and old?

The Tripwire 20th anniversary book is a lavish, 214-page hardcover and trade paperback, at A4 size and it will be packed with a ridiculous amount of quality material. When I first started thinking about this book about six months ago, I took a look at Tripwire at Ten, our tenth anniversary book which came out back in 2002. It was about 60 per cent reprints and it still holds up well today, but I didn’t want to just ape what we did back then. I felt that it was important to represent what we had published between 1992 and 2012 but also to offer new thematic pieces looking at what has changed over the past two decades.

So on the reprint side, we’ll be giving people the chance to revisit our chats with Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Mike Mignola, James Robinson, and many more. In terms of new content, we’ll be looking at topics like the 20 best graphic novels of 1992 to 2012; comic movies: the good, the bad and the ugly; the 20 creators who have come to prominence over the past two decades; and the rise of things like web comics, digital comics, and 20 significant creators we have lost over the past 20 years.

As well as that, there will be images scattered throughout the book, new and rarely seen images from the likes of Mike Mignola, Walt Simonson, Chris Weston, Drew Struzan, Howard Chaykin, and many more. So it will hopefully be the best thing that Tripwire has ever put out.

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And what premiums are being offered to those who help fund it?

The perks are pretty impressive too: you get a first edition hardback, signed and personally dedicated at one level plus a limited edition signed art print. At another level, you get an invitation to the launch party and at one of the higher levels, you can nab yourself a goodie bag of five graphic novels specially selected by myself, the best of the last 20 years. Basically, the more you pledge, the more you get in terms of swag.

I was wondering, since Unbound deals mainly with European-based projects, if with residents of the US can participate in funding the new collection, and if so, will they be eligible for those premium perks?

Yes, residents of the US, or any other country for that matter, can pledge to support Tripwire at 20 and they will receive those special items.

Now, is this collection only going to be offered via Unbound, or will it be available though more traditional channels like comic shops and bookstores, as well?

The hardcover will only be offered initially through Unbound, but there will also be a trade paperback edition, priced at $24.95 US, which will be in the next (July, 2012) Previews out in June. We felt it was important to allow the direct market, who has supported us all these years, to be able to get the book.

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You’ve also begun to establish yourself as a photographer, putting out a couple books and even mounting a couple shows. Was that a natural outgrowth of what you were already doing as both a freelance journalist and editor of the magazine, or did that come from someplace else?

The photography happened without me even realizing it. When I went to interview subjects, I tried to bring a camera along so we would have photos to run with the piece. But around 2007, when I bought my first digital SLR, I realized that I was enjoying it as much as doing the interviews. So now it seems a natural fit and there’ll be a selection of my photos in the anniversary book from 20 years of Tripwire.

Photography flexes a different creative muscle to the other work that I do and now I couldn’t live without my camera in my work. It is possible that subconsciously it grew out of my other pursuits.

What do you get from doing all that work on the magazine that was lacking in your other jobs?

I suppose the biggest thing I get from doing Tripwire is the fact that I have control over what goes into it. It has honed my design and editing skills over the years and I certainly wouldn’t have been as au fait with InDesign and Photoshop if I hadn’t done Tripwire. It has also allowed me to make tons of great contacts and a few friends who I wouldn’t have met or encountered if it wasn’t for the magazine. It allows me to be a jack of all trades, too, as thanks to it I have dealt with printers and distributors as well as contributors. So I do have a very unique skill set thanks to Tripwire.

What do you hope readers get from this collection? Is this all about eye candy, cool art and sheer entertainment, or might there be something else there for those who look for it?

I am hoping that this will be the ultimate Tripwire book, something that if I wasn’t putting it together, I would want to pick up off the shelves myself. It will look gorgeous, obviously, and the art and images will look lovely, but in terms of writing, it will contain the sort of sophisticated and witty pieces that we have always intended to fill the magazines pages with. We want it to be an intelligent snapshot of 20 years of Tripwire and 20 years of the comics industry.

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Do you have anything to say about the future of Tripwire right now? Is this a sign of things to come, or might we see it return as a regularly published magazine again?

We are looking into doing Tripwire as a regular app but we haven’t quite worked out the logistics as yet. Print is very hard these days and a lot of companies don’t have the budget to support print magazines. So with any luck we’ll be back on a more frequent schedule before too long. If the crowdfunding works for this, then I expect you’ll see other projects Tripwire-related before too long. I do miss having a regular presence in the marketplace, but we’ll see.

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Anything else to add before I let you get back to work?

We have made Portraits available to order through Diamond Comic Distributors so people can buy that.

The Tripwire 20th anniversary book will be available to buy as a trade paperback in comic shops early this fall. You can order it through Diamond, using order code JUL121370. It’s on page 362 in this month’s Previews magazine (i.e. issue # 286, with a cover date of July 2012—Ed).

There are plans to do a few events to tie in with the anniversary book in London, possibly at Foyles in September or October. The best place to check this out is on the Facebook page.

You can pledge for the Tripwire anniversary book here.

Captain America, Darth Vader, Hellboy, Martha Wayne, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and all other characters are the property of Marvel, Lucasfilm, Mike Mignola, DC Comics, the estates of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs, or their respective owners.

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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