Not all of Brad Meltzer's heroes wear capes.
The best-selling novelist may also be well known to comic book fans for his stories about DC superheroes, but his passion for real-life heroes and the stories surrounding their lives has turned into quite a side career for the writer.
This week sees the release of his new book, History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time, which follows up on the author's TV show Brad Meltzer's Decoded for the History Channel. In the book, Meltzer not only counts down the most intriguing unsolved mysteries in American history, but he also debunks and clarifies by sharing factual information — including facsimiles of actual documents from history.
The author's curiosity about history is also informing a new set of children's books he's releasing as a series, beginning in January — focusing on real-life heroes from history, like Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln.
That doesn't mean Meltzer is walking away from his beloved superheroes, though. January will also see the release of a special Detective Comics issue from DC that celebrates the 75th anniversary of the caped crusader.
First released in 1939, Detective Comics #27 introduced a vigilante called the "Bat-Man" for the first time. But because DC started renumbering its comics in 2011, there will be another Detective Comics #27 in January — just in time for the 75th anniversary of the hero's historic introduction.
The new Detective Comics #27, which will be a whopping 96 pages, will be a celebration of Batman, with a collection of stories by Scott Snyder, Paul Dini, John Layman, Gregg Hurwitz — and Brad Meltzer.
In a story drawn by superstar artist Bryan Hitch, Meltzer will retell the story of the original Detective Comics #27.
Newsarama talked to Meltzer about History Decoded and what it feels like to retell the story that first introduced the world to Batman.
Newsarama: Brad, how did you come up with the idea for this book? It's more than just a list, isn't it?
Brad Meltzer: Yeah, we didn't just want to count down the top conspiracies throughout history. What I thought would be far more fun would be to show people the evidence.
So every time you get to a chapter, there's literally a secret compartment. And as you open it up, you pull out all the facsimile documents we've recreated. So for instance, when you read about the Lincoln assassination, you can pull out of the book, here is the actual letter than John Wilkes Booth left behind after he killed Lincoln. And when you get to the chapter on UFOs, we give you the original Roswell report, and we even give you the form that the government used to send you when you said you saw a UFO.
And when you get to the JFK chapter, which is of course a mother load of all conspiracies, we give you JFK's death certificate, you get the State Department's telex from when they were tracking Oswald years before he shot JFK, and we even give you Lee Harvey Oswald's fake ID that they found in his wallet.
As far as I'm concerned, let's see any other book give you Lee Harvey Oswald's fake ID.
Nrama: It's not surprising you're putting graphics in your books now, Brad, as a comic book guy.
Meltzer: Yeah! Maybe it's just one too many hologram covers from the '80s. [Laughs.]
I really like the idea that we could bring history to life by giving people the documents. There's just something about touching that document.
I remember going in the National Archives into one of their vaults. And they handed me the oath of allegiance that our troops — and we still actually have troops sign an oath of allegiance when they join the military — but they handed me the oath of allegiance that Benedict Arnold signed.
When you see it, and when you touch it — and even if you're just looking at it — Benedict Arnold isn't some name that you call someone on the schoolyard; he's not some dead old guy that you picture in black and white in your head. He's a real person, with a real pen, who put this pen to paper on this particular day.
And suddenly history's alive.
So when you go through and you see, hey, wait a minute — here's a telex from the State Department on Lee Harvey Oswald, and look at the date here — it's from the late '50s. Wait, this is years before he shot Kennedy. They knew about this guy.
Suddenly, it's not just an Oliver Stone movie. It's our reality.
Nrama: I remember when you and I first talked about your television show, Brad Meltzer's Decoded, before it had even aired, you talked about how thrilling it was to find out the truths behind all these stories from history. Is that what inspired you to do the book?
Meltzer: Yeah, I just think in this information age we live in, although we have libraries as great as Alexandria at our fingertips on the internet, the reality is, it's nearly impossible to find the truth anymore.
We have all become our own newspapers. We write stories about ourselves, we put our opinions out there, and anyone can put any theory they want out there.
More power to them to have that right, but the result is, you go put the term "9/11" into Google, and some of the first things to come up are going to be conspiracy theories, and some of them with semi-facts and some of them with no facts.
In a strange way, as a society, we don't even really care anymore. We just want information so badly.
I think that's actually wrong. We really need to focus back on truth.
Nrama: As you know, most of our readers are comic book fans. Do you think comic readers might lean more toward conspiracy theories, since we've been reading about time travel and voodoo for so long? Or are we more intellectually curious about the truth?
Meltzer: I'll tell you — I make no bones about it — you know where I heard about Hitler's Spear of Destiny? It was when I read Justice Society comics when I was little. So I've really been raised on them from this same spot. I still remember that picture in that little DC digest of Adolf Hitler grabbing a spear and yelling in German and screaming his little mustache off.
And you know, I love that we get to prove that the Spear of Destiny from that Justice Society story wasn't just a myth. The great part of the story is that — a lot of people don't realize that it wasn't just me that that story inspired; the Spear of Destiny and the chase for it is where the writer got the plot for Raiders of the Lost Ark. And that, to me, is real magic power.
But I don't know if we're necessarily more susceptible to conspiracy theories. In fact, if you want to know the number one indicator that you'll believe a conspiracy theory, it's whether you believe another conspiracy theory.
So if you'll believe one, you'll believe the other.
I do think we're more accustomed to some of the more outlandish theories. I think when it comes to UFOs, or when it comes to the Spear of Destiny, I think we have a background that other people don't have, as comic readers. Our brain doesn't explode as quickly as I think other people might when they don't read about aliens on a regular basis.
But I think at the end of the day, whether it's comics or whether it's non-fiction, I think what we as readers really want is a good story. And to me, especially in non-fiction, a true story.
Nrama: Why do you think humans — or maybe Americans — want to twist reality by inventing conspiracy theories? Do we want to change history to suit our ideals or something?
Meltzer: You know, I don't think we want to change history. I think what we really want to do is find an explanation for ourselves. You show me your favorite comic book, I'll show you who you are. You show me your favorite conspiracy theory, I'll show you who you are. And that to me is fascinating.
I think in an odd way, it's the same thing with superheroes. It's not necessarily what we believe. But it does absolutely prove what we want to believe. I certainly have read comic book for all these years and all these decades, and as a result, have — for better or for worse — a finely honed sense of right and wrong. And I think, in an odd way, it's not necessarily something that comics gave me. It's something that I want. I want to believe in Superman. I want to believe in the power of Clark Kent as an ordinary person.
Nrama: As long as we're talking superheroes, I wanted to ask you about the Detective Comics story you're doing. I know it's a retelling of Detective Comics #27, where Batman was first introduced to the world. What can you tell us about that story?
Meltzer: You know, I don't really want to reveal anything about the actual story. But I just love that I get to celebrate the 75th anniversary and we get to play around in that universe, and with that history of Batman, in a true, historical context.
And the fact that I get to do it with Bryan Hitch is, to me — I mean, I get to write about JFK and Batman and Abraham Lincoln and Amelia Earhart, all within the same month of each other (or actually, within weeks of each other, since that's when our new children's books launch), I just feel that it proves what I've always believed. This is our American mythology.
I know Abraham Lincoln may be real and Bruce Wayne is not, but they both stand for different parts of the American psyche, and they are vital to the American psyche.
When Dan [DiDio] approached me and said, listen, we're celebrating the 75th anniversary of Batman, would you be interested in taking a shot at that history, looking at it from that very first issue and that very first appearance, how could I possibly say no?
Nrama: Wow, Brad. Retelling the original Batman story sounds daunting alone, but when you start comparing the mythology to Lincoln and all these iconic people from history, it really sounds daunting. You don't find that intimidating at all?
Meltzer: Listen, this has been my dream for 30 years of my life. Anyone who knows me knows my love and passion for these characters. And just to add one little thread in the giant tapestry that becomes comics continuity is an honor.
Nrama: And particularly with Batman, a character that everyone knows and pretty much everyone loves.
Meltzer: And stands for so much of what we stand for, right? That fight for what's right; that fight for people who need it; that fight for ourselves and our own salvation.
Nrama: You have children's books coming out in January too?
Meltzer: Yeah, Batman comes out in the second week of January, and the third week of January — on January 14th — we launch a line of illustrated children's books, non-fiction. The first ones are I Am Abraham Lincoln and I Am Amelia Earhart.
The truth is, I just was tired of watching my kids look around and see reality show stars as heroes, or a loud-mouthed athlete as a hero. Those are not heroes. That's what fame is. There's a very big difference between fame and being a hero.
I just really thought it would be an amazing opportunity to redefine how we view our heroes today. So we started with the biggest and the best. But we're doing six different books. We're doing Rosa Parks; we're doing Albert Einstein. And the goal is to be able to have a full library of these great heroes.