Brad Meltzer is the best-selling author of such thrillers as The Tenth Justice and The Book of Fate. He’s also one of the most successful writers in comics — the self-described “nerd” and “superhero fanboy” wrote 2004’s controversial murder-mystery Identity Crisis, which ranks among the decade’s most popular series. About two years ago, Meltzer, 38, decided to bring his two authorial passions together for his newest novel, The Book of Lies, a conspiracy mystery inspired by the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel and real-life story of comics scribe Jerry Siegel, who co-created Superman with artist Joe Shuster in 1932. In his book — which concerns a Florida activist with a family secret linked to Siegel and a centuries-spanning conspiracy involving Nazis, secret societies, and a cryptic tome called The Book of Lies — Meltzer advances the theory that the death of Siegel’s father (who may or may not have been murdered in a robbery gone wrong) inspired his son to make the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy of 20th-century pop culture. Meltzer’s research into Siegel’s life led him to a new cause: rehabilitating and preserving Siegel’s childhood Cleveland home — the proverbial birthplace of Superman — which has fallen into an abysmal state of disrepair (watch the video and see the house below). You can learn more about Meltzer’s quest at ordinarypeoplechangetheworld.com. And for a nifty trailer he created for his book, featuring some of his fellow “nerd friends,” including Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Joss Whedon and Lost’s Damon Lindelof, visit Meltzer’s website. After the jump, the author discusses what inspired The Book of Lies and the truths it forced him to grapple with.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What inspired you to write the book?
BRAD MELTZER: Eleven years ago, I finished my first book The Tenth Justice andI went to pitch my follow up book, which was going to be a Cain andAbel story; a thriller. My editor at the time said, “You’re an idiot.You’re an unknown guy, we just got you on the bestseller list, we’retrying to market you as the next John Grisham…and you pitch this Cainand Abel thriller?” I could have been bold and stood up for what Ibelieved in, or I could have caved. And I caved faster than anyone inthe history of caving! I had barely paid off my student loans — I wasn’tgoing to risk my entire career on some kooky obsession. So I wrote thebook they wanted and it was my worst-selling book. It was obviouslythe very brutal lesson of, don’t write for anyone but yourself. Fastforward to two years ago: I’m at a signing and this woman stands up andsays, “I know more about Superman than you’ll ever know.” I say,”There’s no way lad you know more about Superman than I know.” Shesaid, “Sure I do. Jerry Siegel is my uncle.” She was the one whoinvited me into the [Siegel] family and really helped me explore thisidea that because Jerry lost his dad in a crime, the world gotSuperman. That was just a cool idea for a story — but even for me, alittle too nerdy. But then I went back to this Cain and Abel story,from eleven years ago, and suddenly I had these two murders thousandsof years apart; one gives us the world’s first villain in Cain, onegives us the greatest hero in Superman. The overlap was justfascinating. So came The Book of Lies.
To some people, the idea of blending a Biblical story with a comic book one might seem kinda apples and oranges–
But Superman is just as much a mythology story as Cain and Abel.It’s just two mythologies and me playing with the overlaps betweenthem. Because like it or not, that’s all comics is, it’s our modern dayAmerican mythology. You can’t discuss Superman without discussingAmerica….[But] in truth, the book is about my own father-son story.That’s all I’m writing about here. Cain and Abel and the Bible andcomic books, are all curtains in the room, but it’s not the heart ofthe room; it just dresses it up nice.
What do you mean?
My dad, when he was 40, lost his job, and started basically fromscratch. He lost everything, and he called it his “do-over” in life. Hemoved us out from Brooklyn, New York, to Florida. He had no job, he hadno place to live, he had twelve hundred dollars to his name — at 40years old with 2 kids. It was terrifying, and it certainly led to mymost overused literary device, the one point of view I understand, andthat’s the point of view of an outsider. I’ll never forget what it’slike to sit in Junior High School, that first day, and know that I havezero friends. Zero. Nobody. My issues with my dad are what this isreally about, and anyone who looks at the actual book comes away andsays “Wow, that was so fascinating, I learned so much about Cain andAbel, I learned so much about the Superman mythology, but man, thatfather and son story got to me” — that’s what this is about. My wholelife, I’ve been scared to write about it. I wasn’t intellectuallyhonest for the past ten years. I write about things that interest me,but I was always scared about writing the most personal thing. Twoyears ago, as I started this book, my mother got diagnosed with breastcancer and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the main character ofthis book is dealing with the loss of his mother. I just feel like I’mmuch more comfortable in my skin now that I can feel like I can dealwith it.
When I ran into you at Comic Con, you told me this story of adiscovery you made during your research that reminds me of some of thetheories about Lost postulated by a certain EW columnist. Would youmind sharing here what you unearthed?
On some level, when you’re dealing with the story of thisunsolved murder that leads to the creation of this great character, youstart playing “nerd Freud”: If there was a link between the unsolvedmurder of his father and the creation of Superman, what was hethinking? What was he reading? So I went back and looked at oldeditions of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. What might he have beenreading the day after his dad died? So I’m going through the microficheand as I’m digging through it I find that there’s an article, a letterto the editor, that’s written about why vigilantes should not exist insociety. The letter is signed by “A. L. Luther.” And I’m thinking tomyself, “Is this where you get Lex Luthor from?” I mean, it was insaneto me. Even with that, you still say, maybe it’s not because of arobbery that we got Superman….but then I found out that there were twoother versions of Superman created before the Superman we know. In oneof them, Superman’s a bad guy in the story. In the second one, on thecover, is Superman stopping a robbery, just the same way that JerrySiegel’s father was killed. And when you look at the victim of thecrime, make no mistake, look at it and then look at the picture, it’sJerry Siegel that’s drawn there. Again, I wish I could make up thesethings, because that would be a great thriller. The truth is, theyhappened, and it’s an incredible story of why we got this characterthat’s more recognized than Abraham Lincoln.
Now, from talking with Siegel’s family, is it their belief that Mitchell’s death inspired his son to create Superman?
Interesting, they don’t know anything about Mitchell Siegel.Jerry Siegel, even to his own family, never said anything. Can youimagine? I’m not talking about just a little bit, or a word here orthere — nothing. Which again, you have to raise the historical eyebrowat. Half the family will 100% tell you that Jerry Siegel’s dad diedfrom a heart attack during a robbery. The other half will tell you hedied from a shooting. To me, it actually doesn’t matter if it was aheart attack or a shooting, we’ll never know the answer unless they dighim up. What matters is that he died during a crime, and we got theworld’s greatest crime-fighter because this little boy lost his dad ina crime.
Siegel and Shuster seem to be famous for two things: creatingSuperman and what happened to them afterwards — falling into near-poverty and for not being acknowledged for years as the creators ofSuperman. That latter issue is one that has angered and galvanized manyin the comics community to action. Did working on this book get yousimilarly inspired?
No one knows this, but it’s been my passion since the moment Ientered comics. Paul Levitz said it best at the Eisner Awards when hesaid that this is an industry that doesn’t always do the right thing byeverybody, but we’re trying to get better. Things like the HeroInitiative are a start. I’ve talked to other creators about how can wehelp and get people pensions, because this is an industry that churnsout the old. The moment you are old, you are done writing comics; it’sa young man’s game. And that’s terrible. We do a good job of takingcare of older creators when we learn they’re starving out on the streetand their trailer is overturned and they can’t pay the bills — or whenthey’re dead. But that’s not really the solution. The solution is tomake sure they have something so they don’t get to that point.