As a longtime comics fan, it’s hard to remember a time when there were so many really astonishingly good writers generate content for the major companies at the same time — Brian Bendis, Greg Rucka, Robert Kirkman, Ed Brubaker, Warren Ellis, Brian K. Vaughan, Geoff Johns…
There are several reasons why writing in comics is so good right now but one of them is what DC President Paul Levitz described to me in an interview as the “permeable membrane” that exists between comics and other media sectors in the midst of an increasingly transmedia culture. Some of the most exciting writers in comics today come from other media — look at Joss Whedon over at Astonishing X-Men or J. Michael Straczinski or the occassional forrays of Kevin Smith into comics writing. It’s in that category that I place Brad Meltzer.
Meltzer first came to my attention when he took over control of the Green Arrow series from Kevin Smith. Smith had literally brought Oliver Queen back from the dead and demonstrated the continuing appeal of this character that many of us associated with the late 1960s. When Smith left, there was a wide spread expectation that the character might sink back into obscurity but crime novelist Meltzer stepped in and keep the momentum going. From there, Meltzer created Identity Crisis, one of the most controversial and talked about miniseries to hit mainstream comics in some time. I have to admit that the death of Sue Dibney, the wife of the Elongated Man, brought tears to my eyes, even though I had only limited familiarity and interest in the character previously. And the ethical issues explored through the series cut deeper than most superhero comics on the market today. Some feel that he has permanently damaged the relations among the core DC characters, but he argues below that he has simply paved the way for the redefinition of their relationship that is starting to unfold as he has taken over control of Justice League. And, oh, by the way, when Meltzer isn’t writing novels or comics, he helped to create the television series, Jack and Bobby.
Meltzer was nice enough to respond to some of my questions about his experiences of moving between media and about the particular experience of writing within a mainstream superhero franchise.
You would seem to be part of a new generation of storytellers who move fluidly across different media platforms, having work in comics, novels, and television. What factors have shaped or hindered your ability to work across so many different media?
With the world running on Internet time, I think there’s been a huge shift in the fluidity between mediums in just the past five years, thanks in large part to people like Kevin Smith. Once that happened, the walls really came down. Especially, in Hollywood, where the Emperor’s New Clothes rules, and where so many people need to have someone else say it before they’ll say it themselves. For example, when I first said that I’d like to try television, I was told, “Well, you’re a novelist…” But the moment CBS said they were interested in one of my novels, suddenly I was a TV creator. That’s how Jack & Bobby was born. Today, the movement seems obvious — a good story is a good story. But that’s only a recent development.
You have worked as a novelist constructing your own characters and you have worked for DC developing new storylines for characters such as Superman or Batman which have been around since the 1930s. What do you see as the benefits and challenges of working with pre-established characters?
They force you to work different muscles in your brain. With Superman or Batman, I can’t just make up any character trait. I have to work twice as hard to find something in them that a reader has never seen before. But that’s the thrill.
The Elongated Man mourning the death of his wife Sue Dibny has quickly emerged as one of the iconic moments in contemporary comics, reappearing across a range of other books as we play out the implications of this moment for the entire DC universe. What do you think it is about this moment that has had such a great impact?
I think so much of it belongs to Rags Morales’s stunning visual. In the script, I wanted this shot to be just like that shot in The Shawshank Redemption, with Tim Robbins looking up at the sky, the rain falling down around him — but instead of joy, I wanted a moment of horror. I wanted to be looking straight down at Ralph and Sue. Rags called me up and said “I really want to do it at a little bit of angle.” I said “No, no, no, you have to trust me on this.” He said, “I’ll do it my way and if you don’t like it, I’ll do it your way.” I sat at the fax machine waiting for it to come through and when he sent me the sketch, I called him and said “Your way.”
Some critics have argued that superheroes are governed more by ethics than by politics. Clearly, the events of Identity Crisis reveal very different ethical codes at the hearts of the different superhero characters. Can you help us to map the different ethical compasses which govern their decisions?
I think the mistake is to assume that the superhero “ethical code” is limited to only truth and justice. If these characters are us, or at least ideals for us — as I think every great hero must be — then they should also be filled with our flaws. Embarrassment, revenge, regret, anger, and selfishness are hardly the things we think of when we think “superhero.” But they are real emotional components of all of us. That’s not my way of dancing around the map question — it’s my way of saying that I think there is no one map. No one moral compass. The range is what makes it interesting. Otherwise, everyone is Superman.
The DC universe has historically been known for the strong feeling of “comrades in arms,” yet Identity Crisis really shattered the alliances that held the Justice League together. What do you see as the long-term implications of that loss of trust? How do you plan to deal with it as you move into writing Justice League?
It’s odd — I designed Identity Crisis to be a full return to that “comrades in arms.” That’s what I thought was lost all the years prior to it. It’s what I thought Batman had lost being turned into such an ass (in some warped way of “honoring Miller”). Identity Crisis shows you the break-up — but in doing so, it reaffirms why the “marriage” (and I mean that for all the characters) was so important. At the end, we once again realize why those comrades need to mend the family again. SO long-term…well, that’s what you’re seeing now in Justice League.
You have described yourself as a comics fan. In what ways can we see your work within the comics industry as a form of fan fiction? To what degree are you playing out fantasies you had as a reader of comics? What changes as you get the power to shape the official mythology?
It’s all fanfic until the copyright owners pay you to do it. And that may seem a small distinction, but it’s not. As for playing out fantasies, I sure hope it’s not just that. The stories I tell aren’t what -I- -want- to happen. They’re what I find most interesting. Again, a subtle distinction that gives headaches as you contemplate it. But what does change when you shape the mythology officially is, well…I think you add this x-factor of seriousness that you just don’t get when you’re standing in front of the mirror singing into your hairbrush. When you’re on the stage and the lights are on you and the crowd is waiting for you to open your mouth…only a fool or a corpse doesn’t treat it differently.
The superhero genre is constantly shaped by borrowings from other genres. I wonder what you bring to writing comics from your work in other genres — crime fiction, political drama? What changes as you play with these conventions within the superhero comic?
The odd part is, I think my novels are more influenced by my comic work. The commitment to character in the comics forces me to make the novels more character-driven. I owe comics for that. As for my effect on comics, that’s for others to decide…
You are now writing Justice League. I am really not looking here for spoilers about the series, but I wonder if you could give us some sense of the philosophy which will shape these stories? What do you want to add to their saga that differs from the ways they have been treated by previous writers?
I hope I always bring an exploration of the characters that’s true to each character — and fascinating for us in that it explores some part of the human condition. Certainly, The Tornado’s Path, the first arc, tackles that issue from page one. As for what I add that differs from others before, I don’t need or want to change the past. All I want is to add a new section to the quilt.