Brad Meltzer owes it all to a laughing fish.
That was the first big revelation uncovered in the “Spotlight on Identity Crisis,” with writer Brad Meltzer at the NY Comic Con, where Meltzer was grilled by DC Executive Editor Dan DiDio about how he came to start writing, how he felt about the backlash to the rape and subsequent murder of Sue Dibny in “Identity Crisis,” and just about anything in the hour long discussion.
The first comic Meltzer ever owned was an issue of “Detective Comics” with a sinister cover featuring a laughing fish, courtesy of the Joker. That was the first comic he owned, but not the first comic he read, since the young Meltzer was too freaked out by the cover to actually read the book. And he still hasn’t.
“I’ve paged through it,” said Meltzer, ‘but to this day I’ve still never read it.”
The first comic he ever actually read was “Justice League Of America” #150, a book that lead to both his lifelong love of comics and the JLA itself.
“I just loved that concept; a team of friends who are always there for you.”
Unsurprisingly, Meltzer remained staunchly a DCU guy from then on. Although he later started reading Marvel, DC has continued to be his favorite.
Meltzer also revealed that comics played a major part in his becoming a novelist. Originally from Brooklyn, Meltzer’s middle class parents moved to Florida as an adolescent and then lied about their address to get him into a better school.
“It opened up the world for me,” said Meltzer.
The exposure to people who were planning on going to college led Meltzer to head to college, where he would meet the lifelong friend who would set him on the path to becoming a writer: Judd Winick.
“The reason I’m sitting here today is Judd Winick,” Said Meltzer. Winick was the first person he’d met who made him realize that writing could be a professional. Later, when a job in Boston didn’t pan out, Meltzer would try his hand at writing, sitting down to do his first novel, a Kinko’s masterpiece that still hasn’t seen the light of day.
“My first novel was rejected twenty four times. And at that point, there were only twenty publishers. So at four of them wanted to make sure I really got the point,” joked Meltzer.
In spite of rejection, writing was in Meltzer’s blood now and he just kept going. But he never forgot comics. His first published novel, “The Tenth Justice,” includes a supreme court whose justices are all named after characters from Watchmen.
Even though Meltzer puts comics references like that into every novel, the connection betweens comics and his writing runs even deeper than that.
“The pacing of my thrillers,’ said Meltzer, “is one hundred percent the pacing of comics.”
After years of reading comics, he absorbed the structure well enough to realize that the short chapters and cliffhanger ending of comics were an ideal way to structure a prose thriller as well.
Meltzer’s first break in comics came when he followed Kevin Smith on “Green Arrow,” a move that was a big gamble on DC’s part, since at the time, “Green Arrow” was their number one superhero book. Meltzer’s status as an established writer but an unknown in comics helped him get the job, since DC reasoned that while trying to follow up the success of Smith’s run with an established creator would inevitably lea to backlash, an unknown might arouse enough curiosity to bring readers in.
Even so, it was still a gamble. Meltzer had to hook them in the first issue if he wanted to be successful. The gamble paid off big, establishing Meltzer as a writer and keeping sales of the title up.
The next big thing for Meltzer and DC would be the wildly successful “Identity Crisis,” a story that found its origins in the tragedy of 9/11.
“When you think of firefighters after 9/11, you look at them differently,” Said Meltzer, recalling what DiDio said to him when they were looking at the story. The event made people realize that firefighters weren’t just the guys pulling cats out of trees and marching in parades, they were heroes doing an extremely dangerous job where their lives were on the line every day.
This was something that DC wanted to create for its heroes. They wanted fans to remember that what the heroes are doing is a scary dangerous job.
But Meltzer wasn’t on aboard with it initially. He’d always wanted to do a Justice League story, but couldn’t get his head around why anyone would want to hurt Sue Dibny. But DiDio got his attention with two words; Jean Loring.
A week later, Meltzer had the entire story, save the Batman mind wipe, ready to write. Meltzer wanted to write a small story, one that worked on the fears we all have, a story driven by human mistakes, human errors.
“I’m not scared by a guy who can throw a building at me,” said Meltzer, “That’s never gonna happen. I’m scared by the guy who spends ten days plotting for ten days to put a bullet in the back of my head.”
Meltzer also confirmed a popular rumor, that he was presented with a death list that included two big heroes who Meltzer didn’t use and are, at least for now, still alive. Prompted by DiDio and his failing memory, Meltzer went further to reveal that the big heroes on the chopping block were the Martian Manhunter and the Atom.
“But it would have been a cheap ploy,” said Meltzer about why he spared the characters, “and one of you people sitting in the audience, after becoming the new writer, would just bring them back. It’s what I’d do.”
He had no such qualms about killing off Firestorm, because the death was appropriate to the story and because the new Firestorm was already being planned. Another decision that Meltzer gave a lot of though to was the exclusion of the Justice League’s big three, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, from the decision to mind wipe Dr.Light.
“They’re the ideal,” said Meltzer. “They should be larger than life and they shouldn’t be sullied.”
His decision to keep Batman and Superman ignorant of the mind wipe was also another way to keep them more realistic. Batman is the world’s greatest detective, and he would have to know. It was this thinking that lead to both Batman’s mind wipe and the revelation that Superman has to ignore some things that his super senses would have to reveal. Not having that, for Meltzer, would be far more unrealistic than just men dressing up in tights.
When asked how he felt about the success of “Identity Crisis,” a story that was originally supposed to be a small intimate story and ended up one of the biggest phenomenons of the recent past, his answer was simple.
“I’m still absolutely shocked.”
But he was quick to give credit to DC for the role of its’ innovative marketing program for the title. DC’s offer to make half the copies returnable for any retailer who matched their orders for “Hush” (a popular Batman story), a move that created enormous buzz for the series, a strategy that was been repeated for the new “Infinite Crisis.”
Meltzer admitted that he was surprised by fan reaction to some of “Identity Crisis, “particularly the misfortunes of Sue Dibny.
“The [reaction to the] rape scene surprised me more than anything. I didn’t expect the venom,” said Meltzer.
But he thought that the response was the result of a very vocal minority, not indicative of the views of most of the book’s readers as a whole. He wishes that rape didn’t exist, obviously, but it doesn’t, and comics should reflect that and deal with real issues.
He wrapped it up with one simple statement.
“Don’t let anyone tell you no,” said Meltzer, ” It’s just a difference of opinion. The only way to find your dream is to chase it.”
CBR’s coverage of the New York Comic-Con is Sponsored by Comics Unlimited.