City Paper is not for tourists
Novelist Brad Meltzer is taking a break from writing best-selling legal thrillers to work on something a little pulpier.
Brad Meltzer looks dazed. He’s used to fixing his jones on a weekly basis, but it’s been more than a month since he’s been to his dealer, Bethesda’s Big Planet Comics, and he’s not sure where to begin. His bespectacled eyes whip from title to title. His eager hands grab at all that he’s missed as his overactive mind darts away from answers to the questions I try to wedge in between his cries of “Oh, man, this is out!”
“I haven’t even seen this issue yet,” he says, snatching Green Arrow No. 11 from Big Planet’s neatly stacked shelves, “because I’ve been on the road.” Though Meltzer is back home in Bethesda now, he was traveling for three weeks to promote his new book, The Millionaires, a page-turner about two brothers who get caught stealing money from an abandoned bank account. It’s the 31-year-old’s fourth thriller to make it to the New York Times’ best-seller list.
I try to ask Meltzer about Green Arrow, the DC Comics book he was recently hired to author for six issues, but he ignores the query, grabbing for another title. “Oh, have you been reading this?” he asks about Justice Society of America. “It’s a great book, but only if you’re a fan.”
Meltzer is definitely a fan, and with his Green Arrow assignment, which he’s taking over from film director Kevin Smith, he’ll be living the ultimate fanboy dream: to write the comics he’s been reading for more than 25 years. It’s the perfect medium for Meltzer, who already writes dialogue-heavy, plot-first cliffhangers that his fans devour immediately. And he already has one reader, he notes, who described his books as “one big word bubble, and there’s no pictures, and it just lasts 500 pages.”
“I just love that,” Meltzer says. “That’s such a great way to look at it.”
It’s only after 20 minutes of exclamations, recommendations, and debates that we’re able to head to Big Planet’s back-office area for a sit-down interview. The office also happens to be where Big Planet keeps its pull-boxes, which the store uses to store books for readers who don’t want to miss out on even a single issue of their favorites. Meltzer’s is stuffed with preordered titles, and it’s the first thing he heads for when we enter the back room. “This is a month’s worth,” he says, pulling out about 30 comics.
Though Meltzer is now merely a dedicated reader, he was once obsessed with collecting comics and comic-book paraphernalia. “I used to be one of those guys who didn’t rip open the bags, didn’t rip open anything,” says Meltzer. “And then, one of my friends, during [the X-Men’s] ‘Fall of the Mutants,’ ripped open the bag and set me free. He said, ‘Just read it and enjoy it.’”
That interventionist friend was former Real World San Francisco cast member and current Green Lantern writer Judd Winick, who went to the University of Michigan with Meltzer as an undergrad. Winick is one of many of Meltzer’s friends and family members who have ended up in his novels, plugged in as the name of a law office or some minor character.
In his first book, 1997’s The Tenth Justice, about the blackmailing of a Supreme Court clerk, one of the justices was named after Meltzer’s wife and high school sweetheart, Cori Flam. Tellingly, the remaining justices were named for characters in writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’ legendary 1986 graphic novel Watchmen. In last year’s The First Counsel, Meltzer named the president’s senior staffers after the original Justice Society members.
In The Millionaires, Meltzer named main character Oliver Caruso after the Green Arrow, aka ultrarich activist Oliver Queen. When Bob Schreck, an editor at DC Comics, read the first chapter of the novel in a pre-publication promotional e-mail, he immediately guessed the connection. “Schreck is reading it and he’s going, ‘Wait a minute—Ollie. I got an Ollie who needs a writer,’” Meltzer says. “He called me up and asked me. He came to the first signing of The Millionaires [in New York], and said, ‘If you’re serious about this, I’m serious.’
“When Bob asked me to do it, the first thing I told him was, ‘Let me think about it, because I just don’t know if I have a good story to tell,’” Meltzer continues. “‘I’m not here just to sell books for you. If I don’t have a good story to tell, I have no business being on the book, and you don’t want me on the book.’ Then I called him back a couple of days later and I said, ‘I have a story. If you like it, great; if you don’t, tell me to walk away. No harm, no foul. I’ll come back with another one.’ And he was like, ‘No, I really like that. Let’s go with that.’”
Queen has long been the leftist firebrand in the DC universe, equally fast with the quip and the quiver. “He’s the original DC smartass,” says Meltzer, whose novels are filled with superhero-worthy banter. “It comes from years of living with my parents,” he says. “Crazy family. Lots of Yiddish. I feel like on some days I grew up in 1950s Brooklyn, and I bring that sensibility to what I write.”
But it’s Queen’s regular-guy individualism that appeals to Meltzer most. “He was the bomb-thrower,” Meltzer says, his thin voice rising with excitement. “He was the guy who messed it all up. He quit the Justice League because he could. He didn’t need them, and he didn’t need you, and he didn’t need anyone, and he was without super powers, and he was going to save the world—you know what—by himself.
“[Marvel Comics’ archer] Hawkeye is a superhero,” he continues. “Green Arrow is Oliver Queen. To me, you’re either Superman or you’re Batman. Who did you want to be when you were little? You look at me in any [family photo], and I’m Batman, not Superman; I’m Green Arrow, not Green Lantern. Every picture you look at me from 8 to 10 or 7 to 9, I’m wearing a Batman cape. That’s who I always associated with. I love the idea that you put your mind to it and it will happen.”
Here Meltzer bangs his fist on the table for emphasis: “You don’t need to come from Krypton—just determination.”
It’s a lesson that Meltzer learned early on. “My dad lost his job when he was 40 years old,” he says. “We lived in Brooklyn, New York, and I came home and he’s, like, ‘I got fired.’ He was a manager in a card shop like a Hallmark. He decided to start his life over from scratch. He had $1,200 to his name; he had myself, my sister, and my mom, and himself, and he moved us all to Florida, where he was gonna have what you call a do-over of life.”
Meltzer was 13 when his family moved from Brooklyn to a blue-collar neighborhood in the Miami area. “In a mad stroke of genius,” Meltzer says, “my dad lied about my address so I could go to a wealthy suburban public school, because I was going to a not-so-great school. By going to this [better] school, I was going to school with all the local rich kids; they were the richest kids I ever saw because they had two cars and they had houses. I hadn’t seen anything like that in my whole life. And they were going to this thing called college, which I didn’t know what they were talking about.”
Nonetheless, Meltzer did well enough in high school to get into the University of Michigan, where he planned to study business. He eventually drifted into history, though, and soon began to dream of becoming a writer. As an undergrad, he drafted Fraternity, a still-unpublished novel that was rejected by 24 agents and publishers.
“I was just terrified,” he says. “I was like, I gotta go to law school and at least cover my debts. I hated it when my dad lost his job….I didn’t want to live like my father and mother lived—living month to month. I know what it’s like to—and this sounds silly—but not to be able to afford what you want and have everybody else around you have it and really struggle for money.”
“If I want to write, I’ll write at night,” Meltzer remembers thinking. “I mean, I wrote Tenth Justice in law school over two years. I wrote during the summers, working full time.”
All that extracurricular activity eventually earned Meltzer a six-figure advance from publishing house William Morrow & Co., which published The Tenth Justice just after Meltzer graduated from Columbia Law School and moved to the D.C. area so Flam could pursue a law career. 1999’s Dead Even, The First Counsel, and The Millionaires
Writing Green Arrow is delaying the start of Meltzer’s next novel, but he doesn’t seem to mind. “I love it more than anything else I could do,” he says of writing comics. “To this day, I don’t know how much I’m getting paid. I don’t care. I’d pay them to do it; it’s fantastic.”
After two hours of shopping and kibitzing, Meltzer stands up, smoothes his hair, and pushes his faded jeans down over his New Balance sneakers. “I have to get going,” he says.
He’s running home for a few precious hours before he catches a flight to Florida for the final leg of his book tour, which he can’t wait to end. Meltzer is the father of a 4-month-old boy, and he dreads leaving his kid again.
His long, dark winter coat uncrumples behind him as he walks to the front counter, his bundle of comics safely in hand. Big Planet owner Joel Pollack rings up Meltzer’s pile: “$109.28. Broke the $100 barrier.”
“First time ever,” Meltzer says, pulling out his American Express card and smiling at his score. CP