Brad Meltzer became the first writer to top “The New York Times” Bestseller List and the Diamond Comic Distributors Top 100 Sales Chart simultaneously when “Book of Fate” and “Justice League of America” launched in 2006. That feat alone would label him a hero for any person – including yours truly – that ever tried to string together a bunch of nouns and verbs.
When his first son Jonas was born eight years ago, Meltzer started compiling a list of heroes whose virtues and talents he wanted to share with his son. Meltzer included heavyweights like Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Jim Henson, Amelia Earhart and Muhammad Ali but he also included personal touches like his mother and his grandfather.
While no comic book superheroes made the list of 52, Meltzer, who just completed his run on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8” for Dark Horse Comics, did include the creators of one.
Meltzer shared who that is with CBR News along with a great story about Batman, Robin and a few of their favorite rogues.
CBR News: Let’s face it. You’re a high energy guy. But right before you release a new book, do you feel a different kind of rush?
Brad Meltzer: I’m just a bundle of excitement and complete nerves, specially with this one because it’s for my boys. I feel in some odd, strange way if no one buys the other ones, at least only I fail. In this one, I’d feel like I’m letting them down. Even though I know, in my heart, that this is just for that audience of two, I can’t help it. It’s just the way my brain works.
Fans have been able to follow the progress of this project for some time via your blog, but or those that may not be up to date, take us back to its earliest beginnings. How did “Heroes for My Sons” come about?
My son was born eight years ago and I was driving back from the hospital. As I was stuck at this red light, I remember looking back at the sky and deciding: “I’m going to write a book that’s going to last him his whole life and I’m going to give it to him and he’s going to think that I’m such a genius and the moment is going to be so special that Norman Rockwell himself is going to have to be resurrected to paint this moment.”
It was the day my kid was born, so of course I was allowed to be schmaltzy. The truth is, I was right about fatherhood but I knew nothing about fatherhood. So, I started making a list of morals that I wanted my son to “live by,” as if I had any control in that – all of the things, really, that I learned in comic books over the years. But they were just morals. They weren’t anything more that that. They were just words. And they were completely ridiculous, because they didn’t have any real reason for him to follow them other than I said so. As someone who grew up not following their dad, I should have quickly known that was not going to go well by me.
Then a friend of mine told me about the Wright Brothers. They said that every time the Wright Brothers flew their plane, they would bring enough extra material for multiple crashes. That meant that every time they went out, they knew they would fail. And they would crash and rebuild and crash and rebuild and that’s why they took off.
I love that story. I want my son to hear that story. I want him to know that if you have a dream and you work hard and you have a good side of stubbornness that you can do anything in this world. And that’s where the book really began. I said, “I’m not going to give him morals. I’m going to give him proof – absolute proof – that anything is possible.” So for the better part of the last decade, I’ve been working on this book about heroes from history, from Jim Henson to Rosa Parks to Mr. Rogers.
How did you make your selections? Did you have a giant March Madness tournament-style bracket sitting in front of you?
Yes, Rosa Parks totally pulled the upset over Jim Henson in the quarterfinals and that’s how she got through to the next round.
No, the reality is that I started with the ones that were heroes to me. I started with my mother and my grandfather. My grandfather, I should tell you, was the first hero in the book. When I was little, he used to tell me Batman stories and he used to tell me one particular Batman story that went like this:
“Batman and Robin are in the Batmobile at the edge of a cliff. And in front of them, they’re chasing a white van that has the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler and Catwoman in it. And then, they catch them.”
And I would say, “Tell it again.”
And he would say, “Batman and Robin are in the Batmobile at the edge of a cliff…”
He would tell me the same story 5,000 times for no other reason that he knew I loved it and loved to hear it. I mean the story was ridiculous. I shouldn’t say ridiculous, but almost silly, and it’s only like 30 words, but he knew I loved it. And I loved hearing that story over and over and over again. And he told it over and over and over again. He was the first person to show me what it was like to be completely selfless with your time and generous with your time. And he taught me that through his actions. Not through his words. He didn’t say a thing. He didn’t make a joke about it. He didn’t tell me what to do. He just did it. And that example is the first one in the book.
Then I just started picking people that I loved. Growing up, Jim Henson and Mr. Rogers were just always heroes to me. Maybe it was just idealistic, maybe it was public television, but whatever it was, I just loved that idea that you are in the top of your game – look at Jim Henson, the cutting edge of entertainment and what do you give it to? Children’s Public Television. That’s my hero.
Then I started picking people that certainly, as I got older, I liked, whether it was Gandhi or Martin Luther King or George Washington or very obvious choices like that.
And then it was finding people like Lucille Ball and Paul Newman – people that I always admired and liked – people like Houdini and Charlie Chaplin or Steven Spielberg – and then start looking at their lives and seeing if I could find a moment that really spoke about them. I didn’t want the book to be just about great people. I wanted it to be about the single moment that made them great.
Were there any surprises on the list now that you look back at who made the cut and who didn’t?
Lucille Ball is a perfect example. I picked her just because I liked the old “I Love Lucy” episodes that I used to watch with my grandparents and I started looking at her life. You never know, just because you like someone, you like their movies or their work, doesn’t mean they are going to be a great person. Mel Gibson is the best example of that. You get that whole Mel Gibson situation on your hands, then you go, “OK. I need a new hero.”
But Lucille Ball, looking into her life, grew up with this really strict grandmother who didn’t allow any mirrors in the house except in the bathroom because she thought vanity was a sin. And she had no friends. She used to play in a chicken coop and play with the animals. She used to ride the cable cars, and make funny faces in the reflections of the cable cars, and that was where she learned to make people laugh. Just that idea that humor can take on anything, no matter how miserable you are, is a lesson I want my boy to learn.
Did any fictional characters make it into the book?
You know, I actually debated if I should put a Superman or a Captain America or a Batman or whoever the fill-in-the-blank is, but I went with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster because it was just the most obvious one. I do have a fictional character in the book that I’m working on for my daughter right now.
Do you hope that dads and moms pick this book up and, while they may not write a book of their own, may share some stories with their children of their own heroes?
The book is definitely, without question, not one that you just read to your child. You actually share it with them. It needs explanation. It needs discussion.
I know nothing about Roberto Clemente because my sports knowledge is basically zero, but he’s one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He finds out about this earthquake in Nicaragua and sends three plane loads of food and medicine there, all the planes are diverted and the food and medicine is stolen. And he actually says, “On the fourth plane, I’m going to go on the plane itself to make sure it gets there.” And he gets on the plane, the plane crashes into the ocean and, as it says in the book, Roberto Clemente isn’t a great hero because he died. He’s a great hero because of why he was onboard.
The reality is that I was waiting for this moment forever, when I’d get to read this book with my son – and my son actually loves sports, he doesn’t care about Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks – he jumps to whoever has a baseball bat in their hands in the book. And he jumped to Roberto Clemente and read the story. And as I’m sitting there, this is a moment that I’ve waited almost a decade for, to share this book with my boy, the advanced copy, I have it, we’re curled up in bed together, just ready for this moment to be perfect, just as I always imagined it would be and as he’s reading it, he gets to the part where Roberto Clemente dies and I feel him shrinking in my arms. I feel the air leaving his lungs as he’s reading it and he looks up to me and says, “Dad. This is sad.” I realize, in this moment, that I’ve terrified him. But I also realize that you can’t teach the highs without teaching the lows. You can’t teach about heroes without teaching what horrible things went on that you needed this hero for.
I kind of backed off the next day. I didn’t want to scare him. I felt the whole thing was a disaster and backfired in my face and as I got into the room and didn’t even go near the book, he grabbed the book, jumped up on the bed and said, “OK. Who are we reading tonight?”
Later I asked him, “What about Roberto Clemente?” And he said, “I like him.” I said, “Why do you like him?” And he said, “Well, he gave his life for those people.” I just love the idea that story of sacrifice is now somehow screwed into my son’s chest.
So many of the people who have read the advanced copies have said, “I read this book with my kid or with my teenager or I gave it to my 20-year old who loved it.” It’s not a children’s book at all. It is something that you share with your hero.
The last page is the most important page in the book. It’s a blank page, that says, “My hero’s photo here” and, “My hero’s story here.” And the idea is that you put in your hero, whether it’s your grandfather, whether it’s your parents, whether it’s your grandmother, whether it’s a teacher in our life, and that’s who you give the book too. It’s not just for people with children – and I know my publisher wants me to say it’s for everyone, but this isn’t a book, this is my dream.
I always use the example of Bruce Springsteen with my son. He’s not the greatest singer and he’s not the greatest lyricist and he’s not the greatest guitarist. But he works so hard, and that hard work is why he’s great.
Exactly. The goal of the book was to give you that moment. Volumes and volumes of biographies have been written about these people, and we tried to find the moment you don’t know. Amelia Earhart, the detail that was pulled out for her – it’s a vignette, it’s a one-page story about her – is that she is actually not a natural pilot. She had to work at it. And I love that lesson. You have to work hard to do it. It didn’t come naturally. She wasn’t God’s gift to pilots. She was just the hardest worker. The same thing with Neil Armstrong. Everyone says, “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
But it wasn’t that one step. It was the thousands of steps that he took before that. And we actually catalogued it, from the money he saved to buy a bike that he later sold to get his pilot’s license and moved on to becoming a pilot, and you see all the steps this kid takes since he was 10 years old to get to the point where he’s at when he’s 40 years old. The book is not about fame. It’s about what we’re capable of on our very best days.
“Heroes for My Son” is on sale now.