Joel Meadows has been a fixture of UK comics commentary for three decades via the various print and online incarnations of his long-running Tripwire magazine. This month, though, he will be swapping comics coverage for comics creation as writer of the new Sherlock Holmes and the Empire Builders: The Gene Genie series, alongside artist Andy Bennett. We chat to Joel today about the enduring appeal of Holmes, what readers can expect from this new take, and how comics journalism has changed since the ’90s…
ANDY OLIVER: When did you first discover Sherlock Holmes and what makes him such an appealing character for you?
JOEL MEADOWS: I was first exposed to Holmes when I was a kid with Jeremy Brett’s small screen portrayal and it snowballed from there. As the years progressed, I saw things like Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Young Sherlock Holmes with Nicholas Rowe and my interest continued to rise. Holmes is such a wonderful, iconic and universal character imbued with so many interesting character traits that he is a truly unique creation for any writer, as he is also such a versatile figure too.
AO: Can you tell us a little about the premise of The Empire Builders and the themes you wanted to explore with the story?
MEADOWS: The story behind this tale goes back twenty years when we were working up a proposal for it. I have a short synopsis for the story which seems to encapsulate the tale well: “When Watson leaves Holmes to help Francis Crick unravel the DNA helix and finds himself in the employ of England’s most evil man, Holmes is forced to team up with an unlikely group to defeat this monstrous figure and return England to its status quo.”
I wanted to incorporate real-world figures like Oswald Mosley and weave them into the story too. I also felt like this was a good place to explore themes like the dangers of taking science too far and giving leaders too much power and influence. Also the idea of betrayal and regret is very much at the core of this story as well. The approach is one of an epic sci-fi steampunk adventure, hopefully giving readers an enjoyable fictional ride.
AO: Sherlock Holmes and the Empire Builders: The Gene Genie sets Holmes’ adventures in an alternate timeline. Holmes seems to be a character with a malleability that allows him to cross genres and work in markedly different narrative landscapes. Why do you think he lends himself so well to so many radical re-imaginings?
MEADOWS: Getting back to the crux of Holmes, Doyle created such a distinctive character with Holmes that he lends himself so well to such a wide range of different kinds of stories. The writer also placed him in such a vivid setting populated with other fascinating characters like Doctor Watson and Moriarty that it is such a rich vein for other writers.
AO: Your co-creator on the book is Andy Bennett. What are the qualities in Andy’s visual storytelling that made him such a good fit for the world of Holmes? And who are some of the contributing artists providing supplementary material for the project?
MEADOWS: Even though Andy is American, ironically he does have quite a British sensibility as an artist and this works perfectly to bring the story to life. His art here has been compared to Eddie Campbell’s From Hell although I also feel it has a little bit of Guy Davis who drew Vertigo’s Sandman Mystery Theatre in its DNA too. It was designed as a book that owes a lot to Vertigo as that had a big impact on myself as a writer.
I am very lucky too because thanks to years working on Tripwire, I could call on a number of impressive guest artists both for the covers and the supplementary section. So for the covers, I called on legendary artist Walter Simonson (Thor, Manhunter) and DC’s former art director and an exceptional illustrator in his own right Mark Chiarello to create the two covers for the book.
For the special section, we were also fortunate as we got unique pieces from a range of very distinctive artists all with their own unique take on the characters. So we have British veteran artist Barry Kitson (Supergirl, L.E.G.I.O.N.), Shawn Martinbrough (Thief of Thieves, Detective Comics), veteran UK indie illustrator David Hitchcock (Hedrek, Hellboy variant cover artist) and Liam Sharp with Bill Sienkiewicz, whose joint credits are far too lengthy to detail here. We also included a colour piece from interior artist Andy Bennett too.
AO: This is volume 1 of the story. How extensive are your Holmes publishing ambitions for the future?
MEADOWS: This first tale is a two volume story with the second part out later in 2024. If this initial tale is well received which it looks like it will be, then there will hopefully be other stories set in this world.
AO: Tripwire Presents is the imprint you’re publishing The Empire Builders under. What other comics plans do you have for the future?
MEADOWS: Initially it will just publish our Sherlock Holmes graphic novels but we shall see as it could potentially expand. It’s just that publishing comics is even harder than publishing magazines about comics or running a website about them. So perhaps.
AO: Let’s move over to Tripwire itself which recently celebrated a big anniversary of its own. Give us a potted history of your pop cultural commentary both in print and online.
MEADOWS: Tripwire celebrated its 30th anniversary in Feb 2022 which was a nice milestone to hit. It started life as a fanzine back in 1992 and it published in print until 2011, when it felt that it got harder to sustain it as a print publication. We published a 21st anniversary book in 2013 and switched to the web in 2015. But I always missed it in print so we decided to bring it back as a print magazine in 2020, probably the worst year in our lifetime thanks to Covid. However it did well and so we did more print magazines (one at the end of 2021 and the end of 2022 plus the anniversary book out the end of 2022).
This year we will have published three issues although the third issue has slipped a little. So next year will see four print Tripwire editions. So it has had a slightly convoluted history (we didn’t publish in print from 2003 to 2007, coming back with a print annual in 2007) but we have managed to publish 61 issues in print once the next one appears, which I think isn’t too shabby.
AO: How do you feel comics commentary has changed and evolved in the decades since the beginning of Tripwire, both for better and for worse?
MEADOWS: Sadly comics commentary has got a little worse since we started with many websites scrabbling around for clicks and not really offering any decent comics journalism. There are still quality sites like yourself and John Freeman’s Down the Tubes who do cover the industry well but many of the US sites just feel like PR machines. We still strive to offer proper journalism whether that’s in our comics features but also our film, TV and art and illustration content as well.
AO: And, finally, are there any other plans for Tripwire in 2024 that we haven’t already covered?
MEADOWS: Sherlock Holmes and the Empire Builders The Gene Genie Vol.2 will be crowdfunding in summer 2024 with publication for later next year. There will be another three print editions of Tripwire coming in the spring, summer and autumn too. We just want to focus on making sure that the magazine and the website are as strong as they can be.
Interview by Andy Oliver