Brad Meltzer may be known to comics readers as the popular behind DC Comics' "Identity Crisis," "Justice League of America" and "DC Universe: Last Will and Testament," but while the scribe's work in the superhero field over the past four years has helped shine a sales spotlight on the capes and tights crowd, he's still best known as a writer of suspense novels like "The Book of Fate." Although of late, the author's two worlds seem to be participating in what fans typically refer to as a crossover.
Doubtlessly, many have discovered Meltzer's latest non-creative effort - an online auction to raise money to save the boyhood home of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel -- commonly referred to as "the Superman house." But of course, the genesis of the project was Meltzer's research for his just released novel, "The Book of Lies," and he took the time to explain the origins of both at a recent signing at a Borders bookstore in Birmingham, Michigan.
"I started this book ten years ago, no joke," the author explained to a large crowd of local supporters, man of whom knew Meltzer from his days as an undergrad at the nearby University of Michigan. "It was right after 'The Tenth Justice' was published, I had to go in to my editor, and he says, 'What do you got next? What's your next novel going to be?' And that's a scary moment because you've got to say, 'What's the next magic trick.' And I said to him at the time, 'I want to do a thriller set in the modern day, but I want to play on the elements of the Cain and Able story.' He looked at me and said, 'You're an idiot. You're an unknown author. We just got you on the best-seller list. Why are you going to go and do some kooky thing like that?'
"And I had this moment where I could be really strong and stand up for what I believe in, or I could cave. And I caved faster than anyone in the history of caving," Meltzer confessed. "I knew I was going to come back to that story. I didn't know when, but I knew that story was in me."
Over ten years later, the opportunity to return to Meltzer's abandoned story would finally present itself at a similar book reading in Florida. There, a woman in the audience confronted Meltzer with the statement, "I know more about Superman than you'll ever know" and revealed herself as the niece of Siegel. When Meltzer made contact with the woman and the rest of the Siegel family as an interested fan, he found out about the bizarre circumstances of the death of Siegel's father shortly before the teenager dreamed up Superman in that Cleveland house with artist Joe Shuster. As it turns out, Siegel's father died in a robbery of his haberdashery - with half the family suggesting he died of a heart attack and half claiming he was shot on the scene. The mystery and its impact on the creation of his favorite hero had Meltzer hooked.
"In 50 years of interviews, when they say to Jerry Siegel, 'Where did you get the idea for Superman?' he never once said to anybody 'My father died in a crime.' His father dies in a crime, and weeks later he creates the world's greatest crime fighter and fails to mention it to anybody," Meltzer remarked. "And I was fascinated by that. I spent two years thinking I was going to solve this murder."
Meltzer's search led him to the microfiche archives of The Cleveland Plain Dealer, where amongst other bits of trivia he found a letter to the editor published the day after Siegel's father was killed. Written by an A.L. Luther, the letter argued that vigilantes should not exist in society. Meltzer was excited at what he thought was a possible inspiration for supervillain Lex Luthor, but spurred on even more to work with the Siegel story.
"No one's ever found it because no one's as big of a loser as I am and cares about this stuff," joked Meltzer to the crowd. "But I found it, and I started working this idea of a thriller that would be based around this creation story of Superman. But evesn for me, that story was missing something. It was just like an episode of 'Cold Case' that just happened to have Superman in it. It wasn't enough. And then I remembered that Cain and Able story from eleven years ago that was just lodged in me."
Along the way, Meltzer found the Superman house and its horrible state of disrepair and a lack of care from the city of Cleveland. This led to the creation of The Siegel Shuster Society and a month-long auction to raise funds for restorations. When asked by an audience member why Cleveland had not taken care to protect and clean up what is an official historical landmark, Meltzer explained, "More power to them that they built the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame, and that's fantastic. And they found $100 million for that beautiful place, and they found nothing for [the Superman House] because it's in a bad neighborhood. We are doing nothing more than trying to publicly shame them into doing what's right. And if they won't do it - which it looks like they won't - we'll just do it ourselves because I think that it is right."
The initiative has been very successful so far, with Meltzer noting that of a goal of $50,000 to be raised, the auction finished its first week with $37,000 in the bank. And moving forward, new items may be coming in for bidding, including the possibility of something from renowned Superman fan Jerry Seinfeld, who Meltzer and his cohorts have been trying to contact.
After a reading of the second chapter of "The Book of Lies," discussion swung across other topics, including Melzter's work as a comics writer and television scribe. "I treat each [medium] the same - try to tell a story," Meltzer told a fan when asked if he wrote his comics like novels. "When you write a comic book, you hand in the script where you tell them what to draw. I even did page layouts, and I will write for a 22-page comic book a 75-page script. And of course I make them crazy. Sometimes they're just like, 'Shut up! It's Superman. I know how to draw him!' But I'm just going, 'And then the spitcurl goes a little to the right and his cape.' And they repeat, 'Shut up!'
"But it is a collaborative process. Sometimes I can write the most brilliant set of words in the whole world, and they will draw a picture that's not as good, and it will ruin everything I intended. More likely is the case where I write something totally mediocre, and they draw something totally beautiful. And I look like a genius because these artists are so talented and it's a collaborative process."
The comics process is vastly different from writing for television, which Meltzer did for the short-lived WB drama he co-created, "Jack & Bobby" - the story of two brothers, one of whom is fated to be president. "I would write an episode with my friend Steve Cohen, and we would put it out there, and the network would make changes, and the studio would make changes - the stars of the show would come up to us and say, 'You know what, Brad? I don't want to look like a jerk. My fans don't think I'm a jerk. Make me look nicer this week.' Then we got to make that change. Then the editor would make changes and make a short scene very long and drawn out. Or the music guy would take a very serious scene and put some light and fluffy music under it and just undercut the whole thing. It was an amazing process because I would come home and watch the episode that I wrote and I'd watch it going, 'Wow! I wonder what's going to happen next?'"
Meltzer announced that he's hoping for bigger success for his latest TV project, "The Romeos," which he's developing with "Ugly Betty" writer Marco Pennette and "Avenue Q" songwriter Jeff Marx. The proposed series -- which has had a pilot script ordered up by ABC -- tells the tale of four teenagers fated to become the world's biggest rock band.
"We basically just took 'Jack & Bobby,' crossed out the words 'Jack & Bobby' and put 'The Romeos' on it, resubmitted it to ABC, and they totally bought it!" laughed Meltzer. "They didn't even know! Here's the thing about television: every year like it's a Christmas present, everyone gets fired. Everyone gets fired at the TV networks because it's like, 'The shows were bad this year, everyone's fired.' So when you go in to do a pitch, there's always new people who don't know you."
The talk wasn't all jokes and Hollywood, however, as Meltzer also took time to discuss his mother's influence on his latest novel. She passed away from cancer shortly before he finished the final draft of "The Book of Lies," and Meltzer was surprised to find what a dramatic impact she had on the writing. "She's absolutely all through this novel. When I was reading it and proofing it in the end, it was amazing to me how much of her was in it, and I'm proud of that, and I want to share it," he said. "The closest thing you'll see to my mother is in that last chapter, and I didn't even realize when I wrote the book how sick my mom was. And then I had to re-read it for edits just as she got really sick, and it was amazing to me what I either was projecting or feeling, because I don't know the difference. It was just happening.
"I don't look back on this book and go, 'Oh, I'm so glad I wrote it now because I'm so much better of a writer.' I'm not any better of a writer. What I am is more honest and more intellectually honest. I would never have told you how I was feeling eleven years ago. I would've covered it up. The Superman story here is not about Superman. It's not about Cain and Able. Those are window treatments. They spruce up the room, but they're not the furniture at the heart of it. The furniture at the heart of it is my issues with my mother, my father, my issues with them - the ways I love them and the ways they make me nuts. And you'll see that in the book. Hopefully, it all makes sense."