Some of this I've answered before, but much of the interview is a real nice look at my writing thought process. And the IGN guys are first class.
The Past, Present and Future of the JLA
Brad Meltzer chats about DC and his novel, The Book of Fate.
by Dan Phillips
April 26, 2007 - Not many writers can claim to have a best-selling novel and a top-ten comic book series out at the same time, but writer Brad Meltzer has both. With his best-selling novel Book of Fate hitting bookstores in paperback form this week and Justice League of America continuing to sell like crazy, Meltzer is enjoying huge success in both literary forms.
Much to most comic fans' delight, this month marked the beginning of the JLA/JSA crossover, "The Lightning Saga." Alongside Justice Society writer Geoff Johns, Meltzer is weaving a thrilling tale that includes not only both of DC's flagship superhero teams, but the 31st Century Legion of Superheroes as well. We sat down with Brad to talk about the Book of Fate, the Justice League of America, the JLA/JSA crossover, and his past comic book work, which includes the successful Identity Crisis and Green Arrow: Archer's Quest.
IGN Comics: Your latest novel, Book of Fate, comes out in paperback this week. Can you tell us a little about the book's premise?
Brad Meltzer: The Book of Fate has a very simple plot: The President's aide watches his friend die right in front of his eyes, and then eight years later finds out his dead friend is actually alive and on the run. Trying to figure out what happened takes him back to these buried secrets in Freemason history and a 200-year-old code invented by Thomas Jefferson, and he has to figure out if this is all coincidence or is it fate. And of course, I managed to sneak in as many comic references in the book as I could.
IGN Comics: What gave you the initial idea to write the book? Are you a conspiracy theorist at heart?
Meltzer: I think every thriller writer is paranoid - that's why you're a thriller writer, so I definitely think I have that in me. This book came about in the most surreal way ever. Former President Bush wrote me a letter one day saying he liked my novel The Millionaires, and asked if I would sign a copy for him. I don't care what your politics are, if you're a former President, I'll send you a free book. So I sent him a free book, but then I started thinking - how much free time does this guy have on his hands if he's actually writing me a letter?
I was just obsessed with the idea of these former Presidents - because we all know the West Wing, we've all seen it - and the idea of what happens when you leave office? What happens when you know for a fact that you've peaked in your life, and everything else is downhill? What happens when you're the most powerful man in the world one day, and the next day you suddenly have to stop at red lights like the rest of us? I was just obsessed with that.
So I wrote him back and of course signed the book for him, and I asked him if I could come see what his life was like. He was nice enough to say yes, so I spent nearly a week in Houston with the Bushes and then went up to Bill Clinton's office in Harlem. All the details you see in Book of Fate are based on all the things I saw there. They're pulled from reality.
IGN Comics: So other than those experiences, how much research went into the book? You mentioned that the Freemasons play a role...
Meltzer: Well honestly, I love the Freemason stuff, but I think the publisher - either rightly or wrongly - sees it in their own way, and it becomes a marketing ploy whether I like it or not, because they know people are interested in it.
I think people who read the book will see that [the Freemasons] plays a small but vital role. I mean, you can write tons of books on the Freemasons if you just want to accept every conspiracy theory out there, and there are people out there who will tell you that the Freemasons are responsible for everything from taking over the world to stealing your car right there - which they are. [laughs] But there are only a few things that can be proven about them. For instance, you can prove who was a Freemason, and that alone is fascinating. I didn't know what Freemasonry was, and then someone sent me a list of all the powerful Freemasons in the world, and it was a list that included everyone from George Washington to Winston Churchill to John Wayne to Mark Twain to Harry Houdini. Eight signers of the Declaration of Independence, nine signers of the US Constitution, and 15 Presidents were all Freemasons. Now we've had 43 Presidents; if 15 of them were all part of the same secret club, you better believe I want to know about this club. So I really tried to limit the conspiracies and leave it more to the facts, because I'm far more interested in that than the whack job theories that are out there.
IGN Comics: One of the strongest and most recognizable aspects of your comics work is your use of multiple perspective narration, a fairly common device in novels but one we don't really see too often in comics, at least to the extent you were able to do in Identity Crisis and now Justice League of America. Has it been at all difficult to apply the technique or device to your comic book writing?
Meltzer: I'm one of those people who really try not to pull the thread on the sweater to figure how it all happened, because I'm worried the sweater will just evaporate. But I'm a firm believer in trying something new.
When I started writing novels, I remember my editor telling me that if you do point of view, you have to stay in that point of view no matter what. As a 24 year old kid, I figured those were the rules and that's it, I can't change it. And then I wrote my second novel, and I said - well why can't I write from two perspectives, because I wont be constantly changing perspectives, it'll just be a two perspective story? He said ok, but I can't change perspectives mid-scene, and if I write in third person, I have to stay in third person. Then when I wrote the First Council, whether it was a matter of feeling older or more confident (although I'm always terrified of writing), I certainly felt that I wanted to try something different. So I said, why not take third person and first person and mix it, and you know what? The world didn't end that night, and I realized the first rule of writing - as clichéd as it sounds - is there are no rules.
I've tried to do something different in every book, not so I could say "look at me, I'm different," but only because, as a writer, I don't want to get bored. If I have to write the same book in the same way every single time, then I'm just going to be some hack who's churning it out book after book. Again, I think we all like to pretend we know the way the craft works and all start from this great place, but I didn't. I stumbled my way there, and it's taken me a decade to get there. But I feel like what I've found now is my voice. I realized I like multiple perspectives. Why? Because it becomes complex. You get to see everything from different perspectives, and it's not just a Roshamon effect, you actually get to see everything from different perspectives, and the same instance becomes twenty different instances, just because it's seen through different eyes.
To go back to that line in Identity Crisis - "people see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear." That was one of the essential points I wanted to get across, because that's obviously the moral dilemma the league's going through in that book, but it was all derived from the fact that they're all looking at the same instance differently. So it's nothing more than, to me, the way I can bring the fullest emotional experience to any situation. That's where I'm going to get the emotional resonance from.
IGN Comics: Do you ever struggle to capture the various characters' voices, and did whether or not you wanted to or could capture a character's voice come into play when assembling your JLA lineup?
Meltzer: It's definitely a question of preparation. I'd be a moron if I just started and assumed I knew everyone's voice and just started writing whatever the story's going to be. I really had to break down and keep notebooks full of details about the characters, things you'll never see in the novels or comics, but details that I need to know. I'm figuring out people's voices, figuring out who they are, and I may just write a back-story or back history about them.
A character like Hawkgirl I just could not crack in my head because I couldn't figure out who she was. For all the time, even since Kendra has been around, I just couldn't find a voice for her. She was basically just a female character who has wings. But I kept thinking about the character, and I fell in love with the idea that maybe this broad has a death wish. Maybe she does subconsciously want to kill herself because she really wants to be her original self again. Suddenly that character became far more interesting than anything else I could work on, and now I had a voice for her. Now I had a new tone for her, a new cockiness to her that for me cracked open the character.
I'll say there were characters who didn't make the League, not because I didn't like them, but because I don't think I write to their strengths. There were characters that were too internal. I'll admit that some of them I have found voices for, but some of them I never will. I don't think you should include anyone because all the readers out there want you to, because then your writing for approval and writing to be liked, and that to me is one of the most dangerous trends that is happening in comics right now.
IGN Comics: How did you decide to make Black Canary the leader of the team?
Meltzer: It's funny, I - again, that came from as I was walking through the plot. I didn't plan on it when I originally thought about it in a global sense and pitched the whole league to DC, but as I started thinking about the characters and watching who was making what move.
I tend to write the general big arc in my head so I know where I'm going, and then the details I kind of break down arc by arc as I get to them - and as I started looking at the "Tornado's Path", I just kept coming back to this thing that, you know, the whole point of it was to show that the Big 3 are the center of the universe but they're also not the center of the universe. When I looked at those scenes when they're not the center of the universe, it wasn't Hal Jordan who was jumping to the front. It was partly because of the dynamic that was playing out between Hal and Roy, but it just was very clear to me that there was someone who was the bigger anchor than any of those other characters.
It's like the Supreme Court definition of pornography: you know it when you see it. I just knew it when I saw it - this was Dinah's time. I just felt it. She has a strength that's anchoring the League at this moment. Maybe it's because she feels ties with all of these characters, or maybe it's because Roy is there and she feels a little more maternal and protective, but whatever it is, she just felt like the right person to put in charge.
IGN Comics: Speaking of Roy, you first explored the character and his relationship with Ollie in Archer's Quest, and their relationship has certainly played a big role in your first JLA arc. Have you always wanted to give Roy a more prominent role in the DCU?
Meltzer: When I wrote Archer's Quest six years ago, my plan was to have Roy in the Justice League. It's in there. You can look at it. There's a line in there where Roy asks Ollie, "Are you gonna join the League now that you're back to life," and Ollie looks at Roy and says, "Why don't you join? You're the same age I was when they asked me to join." Then there's a silent panel of Roy's face. That was my seed right there. I put it out there. At that point in time I never knew if I was going to write another comic again or if anyone would like what I was writing, so I was putting it out there hoping that someone might grab on to it and run with it. I had no idea that six years later, I'd get to do it myself. But my plan all along was - why is this character stuck in this adolescent limbo?
IGN Comics: The only character that didn't join the League through a trial by fire is Geo-Force, so I'm curious why you decided to make him join this way?
Meltzer: Well he didn't join. [laughs] You said it in your question. He may be in the last spread on JLA/JSA, but he's not officially a member yet. He's not in the League, which is why he isn't in the picture in issue #7. He may be soon, but not yet.
IGN Comics: Moving on to the crossover - how and when did the idea to do a JLA/JSA crossover come about?
Meltzer: I couldn't pinpoint the exact moment, but the truth is, Geoff and I have been talking about this since I've known him. Not in direct ways, like "Hey let's do this together," but more along the lines of "This is our fanboy dream come true." When I first met him and he was stuck at my house during a hurricane in Baltimore, he was stranded, so he started reading the scripts to Identity Crisis as I finished them. I remember talking about our favorite Justice League and JSA stories, and we always came back to those great old crossovers.
The most beautiful things in life are the things that you don't plan and you don't try to do because you hope people will like them or like you, or because you want to make money and be successful, they're the things you do because you love them. This was one of the ones where it wasn't DC saying "Hey, take the two re-launched books and do a crossover." DC did not even know we were doing it until we went to them and said we wanted to do a crossover. They said great, and now they get to put out there that they're having this great crossover, which we appreciate, but it really came about when we said, hey you're doing this book, I'm doing this book - we should do a crossover. It really did come from those best of places.
IGN Comics: So when did you figure out that you wanted the Legion of Superheroes to come into play in this story?
Meltzer: That was early. To show you how far back it goes, if you look at the first image that we put out there of the Justice League, The Karate Kid is in there. I remember when I asked Ed [Benes] to put him in, I said, "Do I want to put this out there, or will they start guessing it too quickly?" I figured you'd have to be a really good guesser to get that one, so we put it out there.
This was over a year ago when I was still waiting for approval on the team, and we already knew it'd be cool to do it with the Legion. We really wanted to do an homage to Seven Soldiers for a new era. That to me is the ultimate JLA/JSA team-up, even better than issues #21 and #22. Geoff and I are both huge Legion fans, so this was our way in. Again, this is cliché in any comic book interview today, but you know the saying - if you get to play with the toys, you might as well play with the good ones.
IGN Comics: The Legion has undergone a ton of reboots and relaunches, more so than most properties. How did you and Geoff decide which version of the Legion to use?
Meltzer: Geoff and I just have a very similar eye for what we like in geekdom. I just can't say it better than that. We're similar in age, same generation, so we read and grew up on the same comics, and the same stories affected us in the same way. So when it came to which version of the Legion we were picking, it was literally like - this one? Yeah! That was it. We knew it in a heartbeat. I don't even know who said it, because we were so in sync.
I think people are going to be surprised next issue when they're able to see the new explanation of the Legion, and I think it'll all make more sense. I'm someone who doesn't like writing about the old stories. Everyone calls everything a retcon, and I don't even like the word because I think it acknowledges that you can just ignore things. As much change as I've been lucky enough to make on certain parts of the DCU that I've worked on, the one thing I've tried to do is pull in as many of those old stories as I can and bring them back into continuity, as opposed to just looking at them and saying "those are cute coloring books, but we don't need them anymore."
IGN Comics: Will we be seeing any major villains, or will this be more of a mystery surrounding why these seven Legionnaires are stranded in the present?
Meltzer: Oh, you'll see some villains. Well you already saw one in the first issue, but certainly what [the Legion members] are doing here is the biggest part of the story.
IGN Comics: Were there any character interactions that you really enjoyed writing?
Meltzer: My favorite character to write, which surprised me, was Powergirl. This has absolutely been the best collaborative process I've ever been a part of. As a novelist, I'm not good with collaboration. I do my own thing, my editor keeps me in line, and I get to steer my own ship. Then suddenly in something like this, in comics, it's a full collaboration. You know, it's absolutely 50/50 artist and writer. And this time, we've got two writers in there. So we kind of had the JLA and JSA draft, where we got to kind of say - who do you want? Neither of us were going to take all the good ones and just walk away, so with dumb smiles on our face, we kind of said, who do you want? I remember Geoff definitely wanted Superman and Black Lightning, and I wanted to write Powergirl and wanted a crack at Hawkman. You want what you can't have, so that's what it came down to. But writing Powergirl for me was just a great deal of fun. Mr. Terrific was also a fun character to write, because I just like those real cerebral characters.
IGN Comics: The crossover wraps up in issue #10, so what do you have planned for your last two issues?
Meltzer: Issue #11 is the most experimental piece of writing that I've ever undertaken. We went out at got Gene Ha to do it, because I think he's one of the people who pushes the medium and the craft more than just about anybody out there. It may be the single story that I'm most proud of, because it takes so many chances. We're either going to fall on our face, or not, but I'm glad we took the chance. The last issue kind of gives you the bow on the package and gives you the big picture, and you get to pull out a little. Then we do our parade wave and say goodbye.
IGN Comics: Do you have any plans for future comics work? Any characters or series you'd really love to write?
Meltzer: The truth is, if you asked me what my favorites are, there'd be the JLA, the JSA, and the Legion.
IGN Comics: So you've already tackled all three...
Meltzer: I'm very fortunate for that. I still love the Titans. I still love the X-Men. I mean, there are characters I like, but my dream has always been to write the Justice League. That's the one thing I wanted to do, and in my head, if I came back to comics, I would write the Justice League again. I would love to do that again.
I'm by no means done, it's purely a function of just having to get back before my publisher kills me. In truth, I probably should have signed up for four issues or six issues and done it like I did Identity Crisis and Archer's Quest, but I felt like I just didn't want to do that to the reader. If they were going to sign on, then I needed to commit as well. So I took on the thirteen issues, and four of them are double issues, so it wound up becoming this immensely bigger project than I ever intended, which is never a complaint in any way.
IGN Comics: One of the things that's recognizable in both your and Geoff's work is your love and respect for the characters really comes through. We asked Geoff this question when we interviewed him, and we'd love to hear your answer, too: What is it about the DC Universe that you find so appealing?
Meltzer: People always say the DC Universe is full of archetypes and Marvel is full of flawed human beings. I think in broad strokes, all those overstatements can be true, but for me, any superhero story is about an ideal. That's all its about.
Anyone who loves comics, whether they admit it to themselves or not - and I include myself in this group - has an issue with self-esteem, an issue with right and wrong, and very strong opinion on where those right and wrong lines fall. I want to believe that there's someone out there that will do good when everyone else is doing bad. I want to believe that someone will have my back, no matter what it costs them personally. I want to believe that people will do good through their own self sacrifice. I want to believe that this world exists. That can easily get lost in the popular press as, "Look, he likes superheroes!" But anyone who reads comics knows that the stories are far bigger than putting on a mask and running around with underwear outside of your tights, and that's why I think the popular culture today is obsessed with this fantasy.
I don't think it's a coincidence that Spider-Man and comic book movies - whether it's 300 or Ghost Rider, or whether it's good or it's bad - are doing so well right now. I think you always get the heroes that the time requires. I've said it before and I'll say it again - if you look at when Superman was created, right before he was created, Tarzan and Flash Gordon were the most popular comic strips. At the time of the Depression, strips that took people to a different time and place were big, because it took people away from this miserable time and place in our country's history and took them to Mars, the 25th Century, or the Jungle, or wherever. And then Hitler and World War II looked like they were encroaching on our shore, and here comes a character named Superman to save us all. That's not a coincidence.
After 9/11, it's no coincidence to me that Spider-Man did the numbers it did at the box office, and it's no coincidence to me that all the other superhero movies followed, because the world again became a very scary place, and people wanted someone to save them. I do believe that in history, you don't get the heroes you want, you get the heroes you need. I want to believe that these characters exist. I've wanted to believe that for the past 36 years of my life. I'll never apologize for that, and that's what has always appealed to me about any fictional universe.
IGN Comics: Thanks, Brad!
Meltzer: Thank you!