I had the chance to interview Brad Meltzer, the writer behind DC’s best-selling Identity Crisis, on his latest works, I Am Superman and I Am Batman as part of his new Stories That Change the World. You can hear our full conversation Comic Book Herald’s “Creannotators,” on the podcast.
But since some people prefer the ancient art of “reading,” we’ve also transcribed the interview below, talking with Brian and Andre about making the graphic novel. The transcription has been slightly edited for clarity. Read and enjoy!
CBH: Thanks so much for joining, Brad Meltzer. It’s a pleasure having you hear on the Comic Book Herald podcast. I want to talk to you about I Am Batman and I Am Superman, new books you’ve got out today. First questions for you, you have the Ordinary Heroes, the Heroes That Change the World, People That Change the World books with Chris Eliopoulos, an amazing artist, we’re now switching to Stories That Change the World with Batman and Superman and then Wonder Woman upcoming next, I think. What sparked the transition from ordinary heroes to comic book heroes?
Meltzer: You know, I can give you this beautifully bloated answer about how we just felt like after giving kids real heroes, we want to unlock the power of their imagination and show them what fictional heroes can do, and that’s all true, but just bluntly honest, we love these heroes and we love these stories. And Chris and I feel like if you don’t know the story of Superman and Batman and of course Wonder Woman also, who’s coming, we feel that that’s as much a part of the American Dream and the idea of what it means to be a good person as teaching them Abraham Lincoln, as teaching them Amelia Earheart or anyone else that we’ve done. And obviously we clearly understand that a few of those are real and a few of those are imaginary, but as anyone who grew up on comics knows, comics are a place for those of us when we were younger who were searching for something.
I find it over and over again with my fellow comic readers and I can give you and say “oh my gosh, reading about Abraham Lincoln taught me to be a good person,” but that was when I was an adult. When I was a kid, my morality was you know, people want to say “oh, I read the great books and I read the Bible” you know what kids read and what I read growing up was I read comic books and I learned to be a good person by Ma and Pa Kent the same way Clark Kent did and I learned determination from a guy who had nothing more than a kid and a utility belt and had no powers. And those stories, as imaginary as they were, gave me those values that are the core parts of who I am. And we felt like “how do we not do that” and the truth was we were like “how do we do it?” and then we were all like “wait a minute, we can do it that way. Let’s make ordinary people change the world become stories that change the world.” And here we are.
CBH: Very cool. Very cool. No, I definitely connect with that as a long time comics fan. And I think it makes a lot of sense. You know, one thing I really like here is that you have these books, they’re kids books about the histories and distilling it, but you have this amazing art from Chris Eliopoulos, certainly as an adult I can appreciate and enjoy that, and enjoy the distillation, I really like how you have the creator history in here. The focus on Bill Finger, the shout out to Jerry Robinson, right? Making sure the creators are credited as well. I’m curious. When you’re distilling these creations, and their now 80 years of history down to a fairly short overview, what do you find to be the most important element for that approach?
Meltzer: You know, it’s funny when I first got hired by DC comics, Paul Levitz sat me down–like at the big boss’s office–Paul Levitz ran it. You know, those of us who grew up on Paul Levitz’s Legion of Superheroes or other things, it was like going to the Godfather. And I actually forget, I think it was either him or Dan DiDio who told me this, but I think it was Paul, they’ll of course tell me when I get it wrong, but they said to me there’s three types of continuity. There’s continuity that can’t be changed, right? Superman comes from Krypton, he lands in Smallville, they raise him. You know, Batman, his parents die in an alleyway. It can’t be changed. It’s immutable.
Meltzer: And obviously, you can have imaginary stories. You can have all the exceptions, but you know. That’s one kind of continuity. The other kind of continuity is, you know, there’s stories that you like, that you prefer, and then there’s bad stories. And we ignore those. You know? It sounds silly and almost trite, but it’s actually right and that’s how it is. We all want to say “oh my gosh, you better look at the continuity,” but there’s things that don’t make sense! I mean, Batman used to run around with a gun and shoot people! And you’re just like “okay, not anymore. We’re not doing that anymore.”
And so for me, what I tried to do was go to the purest version of the character that I like! And I guarantee you that if you wrote your version, you’d have a couple different things, but I really do–we joke that these books are for kids, but they’re for me as adults. They’re for you as an adult. It’s me writing the origin of Batman and me writing the origin of Superman. I would have written it not a single word different if they asked me to do it for adults. They just might not have had Chris’s incredible art on it, and that’s what will make it appealing for kids, but we really went out there and tried to find the best of it. And you’ll see some nods to great moments in comics. There’s nods to Year One in Batman, there’s nods to Man of All Seasons or, you know, other stories that I love from Superman and some of them are just my own changes that are in there and then there’s a Superman movie that’s in there and there’s one part of one Batman movie that’s in there but not all of them, you know? I’m just picking and choosing the ones I like, and I know one thing: I’m not that special. And if I like that one, and I’m pretty sure those are the ones.
And it’s funny. I went on my Twitter account before I started writing each book and I said “hey everyone, what’s your favorite scenes and favorite moments from Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman?” just to see if everyone’s match mine. See what I was forgetting, see what I was leaving out. And I’m telling you, nothing was different. Everyone had the same ones. They were like “yeah those are the best ones.” We all know. “What are the best moments?” these are the best moments.
CBH: Yeah, no. It’s really interesting how that–because I did notice that, especially in the Batman one, right? You have the famous Batman-falls-down-the-well scene and the quote about “so we can get back up,” right? And obviously, the Chris Nolan movieverse inspiring that, but then so many other comic references throughout. Seeing Chris Eliopoulos do the super cute little boy Batman do Frank Miller Year One? Seeing him do Frank Miller-David Mazzucchelli Year One? That was an absolute treat.
Meltzer: Oh! By the way, can I just talk about that?
CBH: Yes! Please.
Meltzer: It was so funny that when Chris first did it, it was horrifying because he did it exactly like Mazzucchelli did it! And that’s what I asked for in the script! I said “we’re doing Year One here. The Year One version is the best version. I want to do it like this.” And I literally said to him “draw the bat how Mazzucchelli draws the bat.” And his bat is horrifying. It’s one of the few ones–you know, even when I was little and a bat flew through the window, I was like “does that really inspire you?” and it wasn’t until you see Mazzucchelli’s that you’re like…and I think Miller’s too did a beautiful job of it…it’s terrifying, it’s scaring, and that’s why it inspires you. And we all know the kind of really fearful things that get under our skin forever and so Chris draws this horrifying creature of the night that comes through the glass, and we’re all like “oh, we can’t do this. Children will by crying.” So he gave us a much better, palatable bat.
CBH: It’s super fun. Like the “yes, Father. I shall become a bat” with the smiling.
Meltzer: With a smile on his face. I know. I love it! It’s like a devious little thing! And it’s the funny thing that you mentioned the movies. You know, actually, I’m a comic guy. I don’t love the movies when it comes to the origins. I usually don’t. At least on the Batman side. Like even the best Batman versions in the movies, I think they’re the ones that just reproduce Year One. That’s what I really think. It’s the ones that do it just like Miller wanted to do it and Mazzucchelli did it. And oddly that was the one little moment I did think–when I was in the movie, I always think that comics is this, I always say to my kids this, it’s Darwinism in comics. And if an idea is good enough, it will bleed into comics. The same way, you know, Superman flying didn’t come from the comics. It came from radio and then people were like “that’s a good idea” and then they pulled it into the comics and suddenly it’s good enough or making Nick Fury look and sound like Samuel Jackson, right? Like, Mark Miller and Hitch were like “yeah, let’s do that” and it was so good that it actually happened and then it was so good in the movies that it happened backwards into the comics!
Like, Darwinism literally took over and made this incredible thing happen and I feel like that was the one moment from the movies, that to me, deserved to be in the comics. This having that..we never know about Bruce’s relationship with his parents. We don’t really know much about Bruce. He’s a nobody until his parents are dead. And I always loved that moment, like “you gotta get back up.” Like, that to me is the core of Batman.
CBH: Yeah, yeah. I think it’s a great call and it’s also, like, I’m reading these books with my kids and I told you before we started, I’ve got three little boys under five and there’s a real emotional resonance to that moment in particular, you know? That heightens the sadness of Bruce’s story. And then I think, the one thing also, the elements that you focus on the most are Bruce’s determination and Superman’s kindness. You know? And those are the two guiding principles through these characters as you’re doing an in-brief biography, like you said. Through all this comics bibliography, through all this media bibliography, that it all kind of intersects. And even for younger readers, reading it, I was getting emotional. It was hitting!
Meltzer: I can tell you, I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I watched my wife read this Superman book and she burst into tears.
Meltzer: She burst into tears reading it, and I promise you she will not be the only one. I was in tears writing it. Because that book especially, and I love the Batman book, because Batman has always just been…I was a Batman kid growing up. I was in a Batman following from every year from like 6 to 40 and the truth was, there’s something about the Superman story when you’re a parent that just cuts you to the core. Because the parents in Batmans, of course, they’re gunned down and they’re gone, but the Superman story, all of his kind–half the book as you say in I Am Superman when we do it–half the book is Smallville.
And if you don’t understand Smallville, you don’t understand Superman and it means that I was writing half the book about this kindly people who taught him the values of hard work and kindness and decency and my God is the world starving for that for my kids, and suddenly I’m not writing Superman, I’m writing the dream I had for my children. And that book became–literally, my wife was crying reading it, going “oh my gosh, this is the dream that we have for our kids that our kids can grow up, and we can’t turn our kids into superheroes, but teach our kids to be kind, for everyone to be good to everyone.”
CBH: Yeah. Yeah absolutely. It definitely hit me in a similar way. It’s been a nice experience because it’s one of those things where like I’m not trying to push comics too hard on the kids, but at the same time I always want the opportunity to share some of these connections with them and these books are a good opportunity to do that, so I’ve been enjoying it in that regard. Now, I know, obviously as we’ve been talking here and you can tell you’re a big comics fan, but especially if you read your Justice League of America run, one thing I always liked about it was you’re weaving in reference after reference and so many touch points, and you kind of had the feel of “well, I don’t know if I’m going to get to do a (unclear) thing later, so let’s get in a big (unclear) reference here” and all these different things. What were your favorite deep cut references in the I Am Batman and I Am Superman books? Because you got in a couple.
Meltzer: Oh I’ve got more than a couple. I feel like–someone said to me “you should have a contest to see who can even catch them all.” And there’s the obvious gimmes there’s the point where what’s so fun–and usually we have a comic book editor at DC comics–but these are published by Penguin Random House. So they’re are published by my book publisher who knows nothing about comics, so she’s the most amazing woman and edits us for Marie Curie or Rosa Parks or John Lewis or Doctor King, but now she’s got to edit Superman and Batman, so there’s this moment in Batman where he says, you know “and I’ve got all these wonderful toys” and you turn the page and there’s the Bat Cave and you see everything. All the gadgets, all the stuff, right? And so she writes, and to obviously to anyone with a brain in their head, “where did he get all those wonderful toys” is from obviously Burton’s Batman and she literally wrote “can we say ‘where do I get these wonderful gadgets?’” and I’m like “no, you’re missing the joke! I’m doing a reference here!” and like, everyone who needs to get it will get it and she can’t get it.
And similarly, there’s a moment in I Am Superman where we talk about how Superman’s weaknesses are Kryptonite and magic and you see Lois Lane grab the Kryptonite rock and says “don’t worry, Superman, I’ve got you” and he says to her “you got me? Who’s got you?” and she writes to me “why is he saying ‘who’s got you?’” and I’m like “trust me. We’ve got to have the line in there.” Like, so for me I don’t think there’s a like whether Superman says “General, will you care to step outside” or any of those things? Those are what I love. I love those things where if you didn’t read it, you don’t know you’re missing it, but if you get it, you understand that this character’s not just an Easter egg because Easter eggs are cool, but because those sentiments hit me at my core when I was seven years old, and for those of us who grew up on those characters, there’s nothing like someone telling you “I’ve got you. I totally see this character like how you see this character” that to me is the fun of those little winks and nods are.
CBH: Yeah, yeah. For sure. No, it’s a blast. So you’re putting these out through Penguin Random House, but obviously they’re DC characters, did you have any DC editorial oversight where they were like “oh, well, actually we have to have this reflected in the character” or any oversight like that?
Meltzer: You know, I’ve been really lucky with DC. They’ve just been a family to me for almost two decades now and they’ve obviously given me their characters multiple times and they know that I don’t go out on limbs. Like, I see those characters how they see those characters, so there’s never been one thing where they came back and said “Superman better do this or has to do that” or “Batman can’t do this or can’t do that.” Nothing. The only edits that they had, understandably were “these are books now for little kids. I Am Superman and I Am Batman, and obviously you and I will enjoy them, but really for kids that are whatever, 4 to 12 years old, for about 4 years old, you can’t show his parents being gunned down.” And we were like “Let’s try it. Let’s see if we can pull it off in a kind of subtle way.” And we tried it and it was terrifying. Like, literally it would be terrifying to your young boys. So we have a version that Chris did where we went for it, and I will be the first to say that they were absolutely right. The audience was just wrong for it and so we obviously chose to put him kneeling in the moonlight, obviously, ala Year One under the lamppost. But you know, some of the things we couldn’t be as graphic with and that’s always a trickier thing.
CBH: That makes sense. Yeah, I was a little nervous about that. Like what exactly you were going to show here.
Meltzer: But I love those! And you probably read it as you were going with your kids and were like as you start, “wait a minute. His parents are going to die soon, so what are we going to do with this?” And so again, if you’re doing a Disney movie, you can deal with serious subjects, but you have to know your audience and make sure–my goal with these books was that I want your kids to get the values, but I want your kids to love Superman and love Batman. And if I scare them, they’re not going to, right? They’re just not going to. So that was a very important one. And you know, in the book we killed Pa Kent. It’s a vital thing you’ve got to do as Superman. And you know, some people will kill both or kill one or do whatever.
There’s a million ways to kind of figure out which way you want to go, but we tried to deal with that in a kind of sensitive, beautiful, regular circle of life way and I love that page that Chris drew where you see Clark in the fields of Smallville saying “I don’t have the strength to go on” and Ma saying “you do. You’re stronger than you think you are.” And that to me is why. That’s the lesson Ma gives him right there, is that you are stronger than you think and even Superman needs to hear that.
CBH: Yeah, no. Definitely right. And I always appreciate because I do wonder about that because the continuity of that is like, well, you can go a few ways with that, the way it’s been handled with when does Superman lose his parents? But, personally, as a fan of the character, I always just prefer Ma still being around. I like when they get to have those conversations, you know?
Meltzer: Me too. In fact, and I’ve done it both ways. When we did it in Identity Crisis, we had Ma and Pa, both were alive and it’s fun, but it’s weird when you have to make a choice, right? Like, here you are doing your definitive version. Not the definitive version, but your definitive version. And I realized I like having him–like, one of my favorite moments from the original movies when you find out that Clark Kent sends half his paycheck home every month. You know? I just love it! It’s a little throwaway line. Like, I think Perry White says like “you gonna send this home to your Ma in Kansas” and he’s like “Yeah actually. Yeah” and you just realize, “oh, he’s still that person. He has that thing that grounds him” and I love that in him.
CBH: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely. What’s your–so, we’re talking about these I Am Batman, I Am Superman books, and of course we’ll include links in the show notes for everybody to check these out, again they’re really nice and I love Chris Eliopoulos’s stuff and I love your writing here with these–what’s your proudest comic work? Because you’ve had a few really interesting short stories recently, you’ve got these books, you’ve obviously had Identity Crisis, Justice League of America, what’s the one where you feel you hit it? Like, you’re just thrilled with the way it came out?
Meltzer: Yeah, I still love Identity Crisis because I’ve just never seen people react and I know there are people who will be critical of it and people who are like “this book changed everything about how I read comics and why I read comics.” And of course neither of them are right, you know? But I just love the fact that it caught something in peoples’ imagination. It just did and I love that story. It’s me pouring everything. Once they gave me “here’s everything,” I was like “I’m taking everything” like when they give me Green Arrow, I put Superman in there because I was like “never know if they’re going to invite me back again,” so page one I wrote Superman. Like I didn’t know if I would be back at this dinner table, I’m taking all the food I can grab. And when they gave me Identity Crisis, I just was like “I’m putting everything in there.” There’s Titans references, this stuff, and everything I can do to make that universe real and matter the way it mattered to me.
I will say that if you ask me the best work we’ve done, I do think that Justice League #11 that I did with Gene Ha with Red Arrow and Vixen being trapped under the rubble. You know, we won an Eisner Award for it and it’s not because we won the Eisner for it. When I did the story, I was like “this might be one of my favorite things I’ve ever written” and I knew it then and we went with a different artist purposefully, like it was just bad timing. Bendis needed a break and when I saw what Gene did, I was like “this is even better than it was in my mind” and, you know, I had that with Rags too when the art came in, I was like “this is better than it was in my head” and when that happens, it’s just magical. The truth is, I Am Superman. It may be my favorite. It’s just like everything that I want to do as a writer, but more importantly, it’s everything I want to be as a person is born into that book. My core beliefs are etched in those pages.
CBH: Yeah, yeah. That’s really interesting. And they’re beautiful beliefs, I mean, you can get that out of Superman. Like, people can be cynical, talk like it’s hooky, but like, yeah, I kind of love that ideal. I always do and it’s why Superman works. With Identity Crisis–I mean, obviously it’s a huge book, it’s immensely popular–did you intend for that to be like a gateway book into the DC universe? Like, did you see it being that for new readers, or were you surprised it took on that life?
Meltzer: I had no idea it was going to do anything. When I worked on that, Dan DiDio came up to me and said “I would love to do a small, emotional story.” It was right after 9/11, and 9/11 had obviously just devastated us as a country, but devastated our heroes. We used to–if you remember after 9/11, and that dates us now because now we feel old, but after 9/11 happens, what was so incredible about it was people were going up to police officers and going up to people in the fire department and just saying “thank you. Thank you for serving.” You see anyone on a plane in a uniform, “thank you.” And you think about where we are with the police right now, whatever your politics are, the controversies that are up there, we were thanking anyone that put on a uniform. I remember Dan DiDio came up to me and said, “you know, everyday those cops and those fire people put on their uniforms, they’re risking their lives. And we forgot that. And it took 9/11 to give us that feeling back again.” and he said “I want that feeling for the DC universe. That every time our heroes put on their capes and their utility belts, that we feel like they’re risking their lives, because we don’t feel that anymore. We just assume that they’re going to go out and fight another bad guy. Like, help make it feel real.”
And so, I remember he used “small, emotional story” so I just thought of some little, tiny thing that was never meant to be a big event. There were no big events back then. There was no crisis. They never used the word. Anything. I wrote the entire story, it had no title. And then Dan read it and said–I handed him all the issues, like I basically wrote it all at once because I wasn’t monthly, I was just doing my thing as a novelist, and like a novelist, I wrote the whole thing–and then every month I had a calendar reminder like “okay, hand it in the new issue so it looks like you’re working” and just every month I handed in but they until were all done and he read the first issue and said “oh, we’re going to make this an event” and then Mike Carlin said “we should put the word ‘crisis’ on it so people know we’re going to do another event.” And suddenly it was a thing and I was like “you do what you want. As long as you don’t change the story, I’m okay.” And that changed my life.
CBH: That’s fascinating. Yeah, that “crisis” was added after the fact, because obviously it has such resonance in the DC universe. I mean, I think that’s certainly the marketing side of it that heightens just the expectations, right? Of what this book is going to be. And then I think the mystery hits on that. Yeah, that is fascinating that it would give you all those opportunities.
Meltzer: And I remember saying that it would be the first time we use the word “crisis” since Crisis on Infinite Earths, and I remember thinking–and this is how I feel about the novels too, I always tell a publisher “I never care about the title.”
CBH: Oh, really?
Meltzer: I’m not good at titles. I always say to them, I care about the five-hundred pages. As long as I can tell that story, you want to pick the three words that will sum it up? Have at it. I mean, I tend to pick a lot of them, but when he said he wanted to do that to tell people this and this is something big, I was like “as long as you don’t change the inside, I don’t care.”
CBH: Yeah. No, it makes sense. I’ve seen you talk about this before. Obviously, there’s controversy with the book and some of the themes and some of the harder things to deal with. You know, the sexual violence in the book. I have to imagine that if you wrote it today, you’d write it differently. I imagine that’s true of a lot of your stories. Is there anything you look back on with regret, or is it purely like “I did what I set out to and, you know, people have their reactions to it.”
Meltzer: Yeah, interestingly, and again, here we are now. It’s almost coming up on twenty years. Twenty years and people are still talking about this book I made up twenty years ago, and I never thought that. Like, whatever, a few comics are still in print that you can go buy at your Barnes and Nobles or your local comic book store today that were around twenty years ago, and that always kind of blew me away. And to anyone, but oddly in twenty years passing, I feel the same about one thing, which is I wish that rape and sexual violence did not exist. But anyone who says that our industry cannot deal with that issue or cannot take on that issue is just absolutely thinking too little of our industry, too little of our stories and it’s sadly a reality and our stories will always reflect reality. And that’s how we tackle these things and that’s how we deal with them.
I mean, obviously times change and how we do things change and all those things will shift and our own values shift. You know, whether it’s about the police or anything else in between. But that was always a goal of mine, is to draw attention to that issue and say “this is a real problem” and this is how we look at it. We always do whether it was people dealing with racism in the 60s in comic books or white supremacy in the 70s or dealing with sexual violence. And listen, admittedly, of course some of deal with it like it’s nothing and they throw it aside and some deal with it like it’s a little plot point and who cares, but I felt like we were always trying to give it the attention it deserved in terms of a really horrible, terrible thing and it had just devastating consequences for everyone that was associated near them. Just like it does in real life. So, I wish it didn’t exist, but I don’t think you can ever limit any genre and say “you can’t deal with that issue.”
CBH: Yeah. Yeah. I think broadly, I’d agree. I think it’s a lot of times people have issues with is how it’s dealt with, certainly and I think that if the aims are attention and a gravity and a seriousness to it, then that tends to be met with respect. And obviously there’s been a lot of discussion about this book. It’s been around for a long time, so I’m sure you’ve seen it all. I’m sure you’ve heard it all around Identity Crisis. Would you ever want to take on a run on comics again, do you think? You know, it’s been a while. You’ve done some shorter stories since, obviously you’ve got these new books going on, but do you think you’d ever want to come back to like print comics?
Meltzer: I mean, they always ask me to come back. I mean, I talk to Marvel and DC all the time. I know what they’re doing all the time. Like what the plan is for years. And so I just always say to them “just tell me what you’re doing. If I have the physical time, I’ll do it.” It’s not because I don’t want to, it’s just because when I used to do comics, I used to do my thrillers and then I’d do comics. And now, we do the thrillers and we do non-fiction books and we’re doing a book called The Nazi Conspiracy about a real life plot to kill FDR and Stalin and Winston Churchill at the height of World War II. That’s going to come out in January. And also in January, I Am John Lewis. I think we’ve done 30 kids’ books with Chris Eliopoulos.
So, it’s not that I don’t want to do comics, I just don’t have the physical time because we’re so committed to doing these kids’ books and doing a non-fiction side of things. So, obviously, you know, there’s moments where–I can’t tell you how often–that I’m like “oh, should I just jump back into this when this is going to be a fun one?” And when I have that perfect story, then I’ll jump back in. Until then, it’s just about trying to find time to do everything I love to do.
CBH: Sure. Sure. No, that makes a lot of sense. So in prepping for this, I had a fun experience. I started reading The Tenth Justice, which I hadn’t read before and then I reread your Action Comics 1000 story and lo and behold, there’s Rick Fagan, the criminal.
Meltzer: You are the only person–the only person–who has caught that. There’s your answer to your earlier deep-cut question.
CBH: I got one!
Meltzer: I put that in there. There’s one other I put in. There’s one other Tenth Justice character that I hid in another book. I will not tell you where.
CBH: That’s what I was going to ask. Yeah!
Meltzer: Oh yeah. I’ve been hiding them. I mean, I hide stuff…there’s so much stuff hidden in everything. So, I’ve been writing comics–for those who don’t know, Tenth Justice was my very first novel written twenty-five years ago. I was a kid when I wrote the book. I was like twenty-seven years old when the book came out, and if you read The Tenth Justice, you can see it is littered with comic book references. And back then, comic books were not what they are now. They just were not cool, they weren’t the thing. There were no movies. Nothing like this. And I remember I put the Supreme Court Justices in and Corvax and Dreiberg and anyone back then, I would have every book signing, I’d have all these people at the book signings and one guy every five cities would come up to me and whisper at the end, “dude…is that The Watchmen, right?” And I’m like “you’re my brother. Like…we’re friends now. There you go.”
CBH: Secret society. Right.
Meltzer: And I know it’s so obvious, but in my third book, I put all the Justice Society secret identities in. And like one person would find it. Now, people will hunt like crazy because whatever. Comics just became cool and it became whatever. But as I was doing all of that, as I was writing my comics, I was always hiding my novel stuff in my comics and no one’s found that. No one can find that. So you just found one of them and it might be my favorite one.
CBH: I’m so proud. I’m so proud of myself.
Meltzer: Yes. The villain–for those who don’t know–the villain from The Tenth Justice is actually the villain that Superman is grabbing in Action Comics 1000.
CBH: Yeah. Yeah. Okay, that’s super fun. Well, I’ve got to check out the rest of these now and see what the references are. I also, seeing that Action Comics short that you did in Marvel Comics 1000, a one page Spidey story with Julian Totino Tedesco. It’s called “Ben,” I think. Or “We’ll Name Him Ben” or something like that.
Meltzer: Yeah. “We’ll Call Him Ben.”
CBH: That…–it’s such a good one page comic. I don’t usually reveal this, but one of my sons is named Ben, so I was like “oh my goodness.”
Meltzer: That’s spectacular.
CBH: How do you pull off a one-page comic when you only have such little room? Like, how do you even approach that?
Meltzer: Yeah, that was tricky. So, at the time–so this is a perfect segway for my kids, right–so, when I wrote Action Comics 1000, the story that had–and it was like a six page story? A seven page story? Sure–but they said “you’ve got to do it quick. Okay?” And the story was Superman is trying to save this woman and basically as it starts, he’s flying and he says “I’m not going to make it.” And you can see that across the city as he looks with his telescopic vision and X-ray vision, there’s a woman with a gun to her head and a guy pulls the trigger. The bullet is already spinning through the chamber, and he’s trying to fly toward it and he’s like “I know my top speed. I know the distance. I can do the math. I’m not going to make it. I’m not fast enough.” And he’s like “but I’ve got to try.” And he keeps flying and the whole story takes place in half a second. So it’s just as the bullet is coming through the gun and it’s twirling through the gun. And as he’s getting closer, what he sees is that he didn’t notice is that the woman, instead of pulling her head away from the bullet that’s coming to her head as he pulls the trigger, actually leans toward it. Just enough to knock the gun a little bit high. And she’s still going to take a bullet in the brain, but it’s going to buy him a half a second. And he’s like “that’s all I need.” And he bursts through the wall in that half second and he catches the bullet and he says to the woman at the end, he says “you know, that was really brave what you did,” and he says “you should be a cop,” and she says “that’s what my dad says.” And Superman flies off and says “your dad’s a smart man.” And he asked her her name, and she said her name is Lila and he says “your dad’s a smart man.”
Now, again, to tell you what my easter eggs are, my daughter’s name is Lila. What I had John Cassaday do, is I gave him pictures of my daughter and I had him age her up. She was a little girl when I wrote that story, and I said “I want that for my daughter one day.” And I love it because it’s Superman saying “your dad’s a smart man” and I’m her dad. And that story was a gift to my daughter. I wanted her to have that gift. And so when Tom Brevoort–that’s a very long way of telling you this story–so when Tom Brevoort soon after that said, “I want you to do that same thing, but we’re doing one page stories.” And my kids, at that point, like two boys, love Spider-Man. I wasn’t going to do it and I didn’t have the time and I was really busy, but Tom was like “dude. It’s one page Brad. Just do one page Brad. Just do one page.” And I can do it if I’ve got the best story and if I can’t get the best story, I don’t want to do it. And I sat there for like weeks trying to think of it and I remember sitting there like “I’ve got it. I got it. I can tell what I know the most” because it has to be humanist. It can’t be a fight. You can’t do anything fun in one page.
But the story that I had, and I remember I was sitting at the dinner table pitching it to my wife and my son are a kind of nerd person like me. He loves comics and I said to him, “this will be Spider-Man with a pregnant woman and he saves her and she says ‘you know what? You just saved my life. I’m going to name my kid after you.’ And he’s like ‘oh, that’s funny.’ And I do the jokes and she’s like ‘I’m not kidding. I’m going to name my kid after you. What’s your name?’ And he looks at her, takes a beat and says ‘Ben.’ And then you see all these other kids going ‘I’ll name my kid Ben.’ All these babies being born, ‘I’m naming him Ben,’ ‘I’m naming him Ben’ and it’s very clear that Spider-Man does this all the time. All these babies are named and of course he picked ‘Ben’ as his name because he’s never going to reveal his own secret identity.” And I loved it because to me, like, again as a father, I was writing with boys and my son is named Ben because my grandfather is named Ben. So it’s his middle name and all that. So of course, it’s what you responded to. It was me writing as a dad and I always think my best stories come from when you’re writing from that personal–like I Am Superman–resonances and I wrote that original little story at the end of I Am Superman, which I won’t ruin, but that scene when he’s on the way to fight Lex Luthor with little girl, is literally my version of what I would write if I could write a story for DC of my perfect Superman story. It’s on those two pages in there.
Meltzer: And I loved that moment that they have.
CBH: Yeah. Beautiful. Beautiful. I love that. That family connection is amazing. Alright, so we’ve got Wonder Woman next in The Stories That Change the World. How’s the progress coming on that? And what are the plans from there?
Meltzer: So yes. At this point, I’m literally proofing them. That’s what I’m doing today. I’m literally looking at Chris’s amazing art and obviously, so many people. We’re working on Wonder Woman for six months, I promise. I knew we had to do it, we just physically couldn’t get Chris to draw all three together and get them all out on the same time, so it was Superman, it goes Batman, and John Lewis, we do Temple Brandon–our first autistic hero–then we do Wonder Woman.
Meltzer: And so there’s going to be a little bit of gap between them. And what’s so interesting about Wonder Woman is, you know, you’ve got to find the core story. I won’t ruin it for you, but interestingly, I feel like if I put a gun to anyone’s head and say “what’s the core story of Wonder Woman and what’s the core Batman story?” we would all kind of agree on what it is. We’ll all pick amongst the same top three favorites. Wonder Woman’s very different. People have very different versions of Wonder Woman. And I think what is almost embarrassing to me was how few women have written Wonder Woman. And I think there’s some amazing stories that have been told, but my god. Until they let women actually write the character, how are you possible going to get a version that’s an authentic, true, down to its core version? So it took a lot more work for me personally. And I know other people have their own opinion.
Everyone has their own view of the perfect Wonder Woman. I don’t think everyone agrees on what the number one, best version is. And you’ll at least see my version. Or what I think. But I’m very very proud of it and I was emailing today with my friend Alan Heinberg, who I just think is one of the best Wonder Woman writers ever and he was really–as close to me as could be–when I wrote this book, and he wrote Wonder Woman for the first movie too, and he really helped crack it wide open for me. As we were talking, we spent a while on the phone just talking, like. I don’t just go blind into this, I wanted to talk to the best people who knew the most about this character and it was during our conversation that I was like “I got it. I got it. I got it. Let me go and I’ll send it to you.” And so it was really fun to send it to him and watch his reaction.
CBH: Very cool. That’ll be nice to see. Yeah, I mean, Alan–and I was going to say–Patty Jenkins version, I think that’s why the Wonder Woman movie resonated so much in a lot of ways because it is a harder origin to pin down. There’s been so much variance and fluctuation. I mean, the George Perez run certainly is beloved and I think a lot of fans would go there, but otherwise it’s like…yeah you can go to a lot of different directions, so I would imagine that gives you more…I don’t know. In some ways it’d be thrilling, right? You have a flexibility. Maybe you could do a little bit more, but then in someways maybe that’s a little more intimidating. It’s not as locked down.
Meltzer: Yeah. I don’t think I ever got intimidated. I don’t mind ever filling in the blanks with my own versions. That’s what we did. We do different versions, you know, like and there are some people who are like “oh, I love it when she’s one of the gods” and some people are like “I hate it when she’s one of the gods,” and some people are like “I want more mysticism” or “I want her more grounded.” Like there’s no right answer. They’re all choices. But for me, I could never relate to…–like I need to relate to the character. And I don’t mean “relate” as in “I have their experiences.” I’m talking about in a like…deeper emotional way. You know? We’re never going to be from planet Krypton and we’re never going to land in a rocket in Kansas. But we all know what it’s like to have someone who is so kind to us and so good to us that they taught us right from wrong. That is just a human thing. Just about everyone has someone they can think of who’s their Ma and Pa. You know? And it may be a real relative, it may be a teacher, but someone who just believed in them and made them feel like they were better than themselves. Because that’s what Superman is. He makes you feel better than yourself. And that is something we all relate to.
And Batman? You know, when you lose it all and you feel like nothing’s there, you’re going to get knocked down tomorrow and the next day, and the next day, and the next day, but you’ve still got to get up. We all have that. And it may be a fantasy or an aspiration of what it means to climb to your knees and stand up again. And we all can relate to that moment and I needed that for Wonder Woman. You know? And I don’t know what it’s like to live on Paradise Island. I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman, much less someone with super powers, so I had to find that core thing that all of us as human beings experience before I feel like I can understand and write the character and if I don’t, I’m not starting the book. And until I had that, the book couldn’t go.
CBH: Okay. But you feel like you’re there? You feel like you’ve got it?
Meltzer: Oh, yeah yeah yeah. I wouldn’t have written the book. I literally would have been like “we’re not going to do it.” And I don’t want to do a crappy story. I always tell DC they say “hey, do this story” and even Identity Crisis, I said to them “I don’t want to do it.” And even Green Arrow! The very first thing they offered me! And I wanted to do it so badly! I said to Bob Shirk at the time, “I so want it. I love it but only if I can come with a good story. If not, I don’t want to do a story for you.” And I think it’s the one thing that’s made me very proud of my comic book, is that I don’t just take the work. I only do the work when I feel I have a story to tell. Tom Breavor asked me about Spider-Man and I said, “I’ll do it if I have a good story.” And it took me a month and I called him back and I was like “I think I’ve got one.” And he was like “okay, what’ve you got?”
CBH: Yeah. Yeah. No, very good. Alright, so last question then for you. You say you’re doing John Lewis, so folks on John Lewis in the Everyday Heroes books, are you reading March and Run? The excellent graphic novels on John Lewis’s life?
Meltzer: Not only are we reading them, but Andrew and Nate, who wrote and drew that book are our advisors on this book.
CBH: Oh, okay.
Meltzer: So when we did I Am Martin Luthor King Jr. in the Ordinary People Change the World series, it was like the sixth book we did? Seventh book? John Lewis was actually part of the Eisner on it. So he actually read the book and you know told us whatever was right or wrong with it. It was incredible. Now we go to I Am John Lewis, and obviously John Lewis has passed away, but who knows the story better than obviously…March is one of my favorite books and graphic novels that’s been published in the last ten years in the non-fiction universe. And Andrew and Nate are friends of mine, and I said “hey, I’m going to write this thing, you mind taking a look at it and tearing it apart where you think it’s wrong? I need someone to put their eyes on this.” So we of course went right into it. Like I said, we never just try and say “oh I know what I’m doing. Let me just do it.” We really pour ourselves into it and make sure we have people to catch our blindspots.
CBH: Yeah. Okay. Cool. Now I’m looking forward to it. Those graphic novels are incredible. I’m looking forward to the rest. The Run series as well, though sadly, posthumously for John Lewis.
Meltzer: I know.
CBH: He had an incredible life.
Meltzer: And obviously I’m such a huge fan of Nate’s art. We worked together on the I Am Gandhi graphic novel that we did together and even though I love seeing it all…I’m always biased to the ones that Nate draws it all.
CBH: Yeah. Yeah, it’s great stuff. Alright, Brad. Well, this has been a pleasure. Do you have anything else you want to make sure people know about or where people should find you before I let you go?
Meltzer: No, you can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. All of them are @ bradmeltzer and I know we’re putting up a lot of free previews of the Superman and Batman books. I think, hopefully by the time you hear this, there’s going to be some little Wonder Woman peaks there as well. So, what I only want to say is thank you. Because there are people who are listening here who heard of me in the comics and then come over to the novels and come over to the non-fiction and come over to our kids’ books and said “you know, I used to read your thrillers and now I read these with my kids” and I just can’t thank you enough. Especially those who were smart enough to catch, you know, who Osterman and (unclear) and Dreiburg were. I appreciate you being there for years.