Life & Death: Schwartz talks "Meltdown"

By now you have probably heard of "Meltdown," the upcoming series that's received lots of praise via advance reviews and feedback following the release of the trailer. It quite literally is the life and death story of a superhero named The Flare who discovers he has just seven days to live. The reason? His own powers are killing him. Written by David B. Schwartz and drawn by Sean Wang, the two-issue, full-color series has received startlingly loud and virtually unanimous praise from advance reviewers. CBR News spoke at length with David Schwartz about the book, which ships this December from Image Comics.

The Flare's story begins in a small Central American town. Plagued with inexplicably high fevers from the moment of his birth, The Flare was given the name Cal, short for Caliente ("hot" in Spanish). Cal's family moved to Miami, Floria, where Cal spent a painful adolescence battling his fevers; his intense, largely angry emotions; and trying to keep his powers in the closet from his friends and classmates. Consequently, Cal occupies much of his adult life with trying to recapture childhood, but one he barely ever had; one where he believed anything was possible and that he could one day grow up to live out of his childhood dreams.

"Most folks never get to live those dreams," Schwartz told CBR News, "but most folks also move on, give in, and come to terms with their various fates and choices. Cal could never accept his lot in life, and he's constantly consumed by all of the 'what ifs.'

"Somehow, he's got to find a way to get rid of all that…before he burns out."

And burn out he will, for what also consumes Cal constantly are his own powers. From hiding his powers from the other kids at school to getting kicked out of his dream job in professional baseball to ruining his marriage, Cal's superpowers have done little else than ruin his life, and now they're literally killing him, even faster than his own uncontrollable emotions. Cal spends what time he's got left on a relentless pursuit of resolving regrets and seeing to unfinished business with his most powerful enemy.

The concept of seeing a superhero's entire life flash before his eyes just before he dies is quite novel. Schwartz explained that the inspiration for his unique take on the genre came from an abandoned pitch for the Marvel character Sunfire.

"Bernard Chang and I were talking about pitching some projects together, and he really wanted to draw Sunfire. I thought of Sunfire as a character with so much pent-up rage and regret that it had to be eating him up inside, in a figurative sense. What if that emotional damage was being mirrored by his powers also eating him up inside, causing a physical deterioration? His rage was destroying his spirit, his powers equally destroying his body."

The pitch fell through the cracks during editorial changes at Marvel, which turned out to be for the best for Schwartz and Wang. "[I] completely re-tooled and re-invented it into what would become 'Meltdown.' Having The Flare be an entirely new and original character, instead of an established character like Sunfire, has really allowed us to make it a much more personal story, to explore a number of additional themes and ideas that have really taken it to an entirely different level. It's changed tremendously from its original incarnation, and I'm truly thrilled with how it's turned out."

Reviewers are equally as thrilled, with those who've read advance copies of "Meltdown" heaping loads of praise on the book and the creative team for creating an authentic, personal tale in the superhero genre, some even drawing comparison's between "Meltdown" and "Astro City."

"I absolutely love Busiek's work, and it probably did have some influence on this book," admitted Schwartz. "I also tried, in many ways, to make 'Meltdown' a throw-back to the comics I loved as a kid; the old Claremont/Byrne X-Men, the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans; et al. I always felt that those books became so popular because they concentrated as much (if not more) on developing characters as they did on developing storylines. The reason we became hooked is because we truly cared about these characters, cared what happened to them, and I really wanted to try and bring that same level of depth and characterization to my writing on 'Meltdown.'"

Adding to the authentic resonance of this story is the fact that Schwartz, like Cal, is also from Miami, as are illustrator Sean Wang and the book's graphic designer Rory Myers. In fact, all three went to an arts magnet high school together.

"Sean and I had lost touch after 9th grade," Schwartz explained, "and I had no idea that he was working in comics until I bumped into him at the San Diego Comic-Con last year. It was a truly wonderful coincidence, because I don't know that 'Meltdown' would've been even half as good without him. He's an absolutely amazing collaborator, and has made my words really come alive visually."

The other most common praise for 'Meltdown' is how concise the story is considering its sophisticated content. Schwartz obviously knows enough about his character to have made "Meltdown" much larger than just two issues. The writer explained that he did indeed consider other formatting options, including an original graphic novel.

"A graphic novel would've been a really tough sell. I don't think many people would've shelled out $12.99 or $14.99 for a book with an unknown character by unknown creators. So, it was two issues or four… Around the same time, Image and various others convinced me that, from a business standpoint, revenue would be stronger doing two issues instead of four. So, 2 issues seemed to be the way to go from both a business and a creative standpoint. Plus, I've always just loved the prestige format; I think it lends a level of import and gravity to a book."

What could be called the "meltdown effect" is palpable in the superhero comics of the last few years, which is to say that stories and characters have appeared to be designed and directed towards inevitable, multi-level meltdowns. We've recently seen DC's heroes clash, betray and explode on universal, apocalyptic levels. Marvel's heroes war against each other over philosophy, ethics and politics. "Meltdown" continues the trend in a very personal, microcosmic sort of way.

"Without getting too political, I think the five years since 9/11 have been a very dark and scary time," Schwartz said. "We're living with the constant threat of terrorism, rising global tensions, incredible division within America, and the potential loss of personal freedoms in the name of security. Given all that, many folks are definitely more on edge than they've been since the height of the Cold War, and you're seeing that reflected in current entertainment, including comics.

"It truly seems like we live in a world of greys nowadays. Is Bush right or wrong to potentially curtail our freedoms in order to prevent terrorism? Is Tony Stark right or wrong to hunt down heroes who break the law (whether he agrees with that law or not)? And, with our book, is The Flare right or wrong to do whatever it takes, no matter how brutal, in order to stop all of his evil and ruthless archenemies once and for all before he dies?

"No easy answers; all shades of gray. Black and white no longer exists, and, perhaps, neither can black and white heroes. I actually tend to hope that some type of black & white heroic stories can re-emerge. I think we really need that 'shining beacon'-type character in these frightful times, but it may take us a few years (and a few elections) to get back to those iconic-type pure heroes being in vogue."

Although The Flare is of course dead by the end of "Meltdown," one can never be too sure in the realm of superhero comics. Could Schwartz's critical darling still have some spark left in him?

"Of course, in boiling a guy's life down to 96 pages, there's a lot of untold backstory still left to cover," Schwartz noted. "If sales are strong and fans are clamoring for more of The Flare (as I hope they will!), keep in mind that he had a full thirty-two years of life and adventures that we can always explore in more detail, and a whole universe full of interesting characters I'd love to go back and play with."

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