Brad Meltzer has a hang-up about heroes. He keeps looking for real ones.
The thriller novelist (The Inner Circle, The Book of Fate) and conspiracy investigator (the non-fiction History Decoded) has regularly explored the dynamics of good vs. evil in the comic book world, penning stories about Green Arrow and the Justice League of America. But as the father of three young kids, Meltzer says he started to rethink what it means to be one of the good guys. Superhuman crimefighters may be fun, but they’re fantasy.
As part of a new series of picture books, he decided to focus on real-life iconic leaders, adventurers, and trailblazers. But he found his stories of heroism in an unlikely place — their childhoods.
It’s not that what these individuals did as adults isn’t something children should learn, too. Meltzer just believes it’s important to show that great people were once regular people — like the readers themselves. “We’ve put real heroes on such pedestals that they’re not human anymore,” Meltzer says. “I said to my daughter that Amelia Earhart was this amazing woman that flew across the Atlantic Ocean – and I’m waiting for her to be impressed. But when I tell her that when Amelia Earhart was 7 years old, she built her own homemade rollercoaster in her backyard and came careening down it on a crate with roller-skate wheels on the bottom, my daughter said, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s just like me.’
That’s when his latest book series came to him – a kid-friendly collection of cartoon storybooks called Ordinary People Change the World, which he collaborated on with illustrator Christopher Eliopoulos. The series begins with I Am Abraham Lincoln and I Am Amelia Earhart, which are on on sale now, while I Am Rosa Parks comes out in June.
“I was like, oh, let’s tell the stories when they’re little,” Meltzer says. So, instead of focusing on the abolition of slavery, the Lincoln book shows young Abe stopping some bullies who were tormenting a turtle – a true, but little-known account from the future president’s youth.
“That’s my favorite one we have,” Meltzer says. “Again, I can tell my kids that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but that’s been told so many times that it becomes this walking history book. When you say when he was 10 years old he came across these boys who were putting hot coals on the backs of turtles because they wanted to see how to make them run faster, and Lincoln makes them stop, you know, now he’s like us. These aren’t the stories of famous people; they’re what we’re all capable of on our very best days.”
“The goal was not just to put out a book or to teach a little bit of history but we’re really trying to redefine what it means to be a hero in America today, because I think that definition is broken,” Meltzer says. “Fame is very different from being a hero, and I think that, as a society, we confuse that today.”
Meltzer hasn’t ditched the capes, though. He just wrote an updated version of Batman’s first adventure from 1939, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” for DC Comics’ 75th anniversary tribute to The Dark Knight: the anthology book Detective Comics No. 27. Named after the first comic book to feature the caped crusader, the anthology was also released this month. (The cover, and a page from his story is below.)
In the original 1939 comic book tale, written by Bill Finger and illustrated by Bob Kane, Commissioner Gordon is visiting his friend Bruce Wayne when he gets word of a murder. Batman, coincidentally, also takes an interest in the case, and helps unravel a wider plot to slay the partners in a prominent Gotham business.
“What I tried to do is keep everything, don’t mess with it — let what is perfect be perfect,” Meltzer said of his adaptation. “I do not believe that 75 years later I can outdo the minds that gave us The Case of the Chemical Syndicate. That was not my goal. I’m not gonna beat them. What I tried to do is tell a story that examines why Batman does what he does, and tells the exact same story but allows Batman to explain why he exists — and I made that the centerpiece of the story. This is his very first case, this is his very first story, let’s show him some respect.”
Is there any parallel between his comic book writing and his fascination with real-life heroism?
“I know it sounds silly to use Batman in the same sentence as Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln, but they’re all part of the American mythology,” Meltzer says. “Being good to someone else, being humble and showing kindness — that’s impressive. And to me, that is the lesson of my favorite heroes, real or fictional.”