From Washington, D.C. To DC Comics

A conversation with Brad Meltzer

Last year, DC found a stunning new talent to replace Kevin Smith after the filmmaker revitalized Green Arrow. Except Brad Meltzer wasn’t quite a “new” talent, having garnered acclaim as – dare we say it? – a serious novelist. For most comics fans, though, he was new to us. And then, in an all-too brief six issue run called “Archer’s Quest,” Meltzer quickly established himself as an incredible writer. That run had to be short so the guy could get back to his day job – writing novels.

This week his latest, The Zero Game, sees release. It’s a taut thriller about congressional staffers betting on motions in Congress, then getting caught up in murder and intrigue. Already producers Kathleen Kennedy and Gary Ross have optioned it for film. A movie adaptation of his first novel, The Tenth Justice, is already in production. Oh, and he sold a TV pilot recently, too. But likely you came to Fanboy Planet to read about a comics creator, and yes, Meltzer returns this year with a mini-series that already has fans drooling – Identity Crisis.

Little is known and much is speculated about the mini-series with artwork by Rags Morales. It’s a murder mystery; it will change the way we think about many members of the Justice League, and it depending on which internet rumor you read, The Elongated Man will either be a crucial character or a dead man.

DC promises that it will completely rock the foundations of its universe. Meltzer? He only promises that he has delivered a great story – and from his past work, that looks like the safest bet you could make. Certainly safer than the bets made by his characters in The Zero Game.

In between bookstore appearances and radio interviews on Tuesday, Meltzer took the time to talk to me by phone.

Derek McCaw: Have you seen a lot of crossover in your fanbase now that you’re one of the hottest writers in comics?

Brad Meltzer: It’s funny. Everyone always asks that, but I hadn’t had a book out since I started writing comics. I just got out of a Barnes & Noble, not two minutes ago, and I was in there signing books for them. And the manager came over, the assistant manager came over, and I’m just signing books, talking and kibitzing, and all of a sudden this clerk comes over and says, “hey, you wrote Green Arrow, didn’t you?”

It was the first time – and it’s very clear from my e-mail, because I’m getting a ton of comic book readers writing me – but it was the first time I’d seen anybody (put the two together). Clearly, different strokes for different folks, and he liked the comics. It was just one of those great moments where, wow, the two worlds collide.

DM: Have you been to any conventions yet?

BM: As a reader or as a writer?

DM: As a writer, now that you’re a name in the industry.

BM: I’ve only been to Baltimore. I couldn’t make it last year because of other commitments, but I’m going to try to get to San Diego this year. I’ve been to Baltimore two years in a row and signed books there. And I say to anyone who asks me that there is no one in any genre more dedicated than the comic book reader. They are awesome. I would do anything for them. They are so amazingly supportive in every different way.

DM: Let’s talk about the novel, The Zero Game, since, hey, that’s what you’re touring to promote right now. What gave you the inspiration for it? I’ve been given press notes that say you found real examples of gambling amongst staffers. Can you talk about those?

BM: Oh, yeah, definitely. I can’t tell you who they are, but I can tell you the stories. The book itself came from a real story that I had heard when I was an intern for the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was probably an urban myth, but at nineteen we believed it like nobody’s business. The story went like this: There were two Senate staffers who were so sick of picking up their Senator’s dry cleaning that they decided to put the words “dry cleaning” in his next speech. One said, “you can’t do that.” The other said “watch this.”

“Although many people think of the environment as an issue that is dry, cleaning it, however, should be our top priority.” The one said, you can’t do that. The other said sure, I can. No, you can’t, and then the other said, wanna bet?

I put that story in the book, (because) it had always floated in my head. What a great idea. To do things under the Congressmen and Senators’ noses that they never even know is happening. I just thought it seemed so realistic. The crazy part is since the book is now out today, and in the past weeks when people have been getting review copies, I’ve gotten two calls. One from a member of a state legislature – this is an actual congress member – who called me up and said “we do this all the time up here. We bet on bills all the time.”

I’m like, “are you kidding me?”

They say, “you put in a dollar, you win five bucks, whoever gets closest to the amount of votes a bill is going to get wins.”

He says to me, “It’s just a fun way to win five dollars.”

And I’m still saying, “Are you kidding me?”

Then, to top that one, I get a call that tells me that there is a member of Congress who speaks so often on the House of Representatives’ floor, that there’s a group of staffers who wagers on whether the person is going to speak or not. They have a betting jar, and they pass it around. If the jar is on your desk the day the member doesn’t give a speech, you keep the money in the jar.

This is unbelievable. It’s my exact book coming to life.

It’s one of those things where it doesn’t really shock me, but I’m floored by it. It just seems absolutely ridiculous that people are doing this. But the nicest compliment I’ve gotten over and over from every person who’s read it, the people who’ve proofed it, they’re all saying the same thing, even the capital hill staffers. “If you told me The Zero Game was being played today, I wouldn’t at all be surprised.”

I’m blown away by that.

DM: If you were a gambling man in Washington, what would you be betting on?

BM: Oh, gosh. I guarantee that if you take any member from Florida, any Senator from Florida, I’ll wager that they’re going to vote against Social Security reform. That’s a pretty safe bet. I guarantee you that all the xenophobic members of Congress are going to wind up having some issues with Bush’s immigration reform and things like that.

But in truth, I think the fun stuff is in the margins. I think it’s, can you get five extra votes on a bill that you know is going to pass? They had a bill, which again, I saw it on the House floor, and I loved it. It was called the Clean Diamond Act. I think it was a bill that just basically said we should have cleaner diamonds. Okay?

Now who’s going to vote for the bill for dirty diamonds? “Yes, we want crappier diamonds in our society.” So it’s basically a 99 to 1 blowout. I’d much rather see if you can get seven people to vote against that bill. That’s interesting to me.

DM: One of the mantras of the novel, Pasternak says it to Harris, is “It’s all a game.” Do you really believe that about our government?

BM: I think in many ways, The Zero Game is about everything I don’t like about Congress. But it’s also about everything I do love about Congress. There’s nasty fighting and bickering and pettiness and slapfights, even all the pessimism that goes along with Congress. But all the people I encounter there, including my wife who let’s not forget worked there, are really there because they believe in what they’re doing. That to me is Congress.

Somebody once said to me, Congress is us. And it’s so true. It’s the good and the bad. It’s the pessimism and the optimism, and that’s who we are. We’re all pessimists, but at the end of the day we all want to believe. And that’s what I tried to get at in the complexity of the book. It’s about these two jaded guys. Yes, it’s about a game, and yes, it’s about Congress, but the entire book is really about if you can find hope and optimism again when you’ve clearly left it behind. To me, that’s what I think about Congress. There are some wonderful things in there.

DM: So let me make absolutely sure, your wife no longer works there?

BM: She worked there until a couple of months ago. We actually just moved from Washington, D.C.

This will give you a little more perspective into everything. When I started researching the book, it was post-9/11. It was impossible to get into the capital. Security, obviously, was higher than ever, and it was nearly impossible to get in the front door. I have a secret weapon no one else had. My wife was a staffer, a lawyer for the House Judiciary Committee. So for two years of my life, in our house it was “Take Your Husband To Work Day.”

Literally, that’s what she did. I went to work with her. Our Congressman let me sit in on meetings. I went to hearings; I went to mark-ups. All that stuff you see in the book is real. Why? Because I saw it. There’s a page in the book where a Senator takes out a handkerchief to wipe his forehead, and he winds up pulling out a pair of women’s panties instead. And wipes his forehead with that. I didn’t make that up. That’s a real story that’s pretty well-known – among staffers. Someone told me about it and I put it in the book. The Senator who uses the words “Great Americans” as a code for big donors, that’s a real Congressman who does that. His staffer gave it to me.

There is a real Zero Game being played. All these staffers are screwing over their bosses by giving me the information. I’m getting phone calls from people laughing that it’s in there. And the members and the Senators have no idea that it’s there.

DM: On a scarier note about the book, there’s mention in the press notes about a scientist clamming up on you once you got too close to the possibilities.

BM: The book establishes this connection between neutrinos and plutonium. When I started researching how you can make plutonium and all these things, my source at one of the government’s top scientific institutions stopped returning my phone calls. This is the guy that helped me find the connection in the first place. Then a couple of weeks after that, I got a call that said, “take me out of your acknowledgments. Take my government organization out of your acknowledgments.”

And that’s when you have to start wondering, okay, what am I really talking about here? Have I gotten too close to something I shouldn’t be talking about?

I spoke to a guy last week who used to imagine doomsday scenarios for the government. He’d basically work them out, figure them out so the government could figure out how to prevent them. I told him the ending of The Zero Game and he said I was totally on to something with that. They wouldn’t know how to stop it. So it’s a really good question. Obviously, stranger things have started from fiction. Does that make you rest easy?

DM: Oh, yeah, I’m going to be able to sleep tonight.

BM: And there’s a man sleeping under your pillow.

DM: You’ve got a film adaptation of your first novel, a television series coming out, The Zero Game has already sold to film, you’ve got Identity Crisis coming out from DC, and you’ve got a kid. When exactly are you going to sleep in 2004?

BM: All this sugar is just good for me and my system.

It’s not like it’s curing cancer. We’ve just had a really lucky year. Things that we put in motion two or three years ago happen to be going now. It makes us look far more organized than we actually are.

My wife and I keep joking about it. This TV show we started working on two and a half years ago. The fact that we got an okay on the pilot this week, right as the book is coming out and all that…it looks good. But I wrote Identity Crisis six months ago now. Obviously, in taking the art, and waiting for everyone to react and everything to come in…well, it’s just happenstance.

I wish we had some sort of master plan and we could stroke our goatees and pet our evil cat and do the whole James Bond villain thing, but no. In truth, we’re just the right suckers in the right place.

DM: How involved are you in the film projects?

BM: If you mean by “involved” that I get a phone call once in a while, then I’m very very involved. I’m not a producer on either of the films. On the TV show, I’m a producer, and I’m an executive producer on another show that we’re working on. It just depends on the project and how much they want me involved. I have no ego about it. If they want me, they’ve got me. If they don’t, thanks very much and we’ll see you in another time and place.

But as Hollywood always is, I’ll believe any of them when I see it. Just because they pay a lot of money, it doesn’t mean they’re making a movie. Of course, that doesn’t stop my mom from picking out what she’s going to wear to the Oscars, but that’s how it goes.

DM: Can you tell me what the television series is going to be about?

BM: Jack and Bobby? It’s about a young boy who’s sixteen years old, and he has a brother who’s fourteen years old, and one of them will grow up to be the President of the United States. But he doesn’t know it now. It is literally The West Wing meets The Wonder Years. That’s basically it. There’s a kid right now…you go into a supermarket and you see a kid in the aisle screaming, wanting candy, throwing a tantrum…that kid could be the next President. We just don’t know. So the whole TV show is about that theory.

Right now, there’s a sixteen year old kid who’s going to be President. We don’t know who he is, but obviously, he’s going through tough times right now. Some good, some bad, some awful, some terrific, some terrible. This is his story – the boy before he becomes a man.

DM: When you’re writing, is there a moment when you think, wow, this would make a great movie?

BM: I wish I could say I don’t think about Hollywood at all. But I’d be a liar. Every writer at some point thinks in their head, my stuff is better than that crap. You can’t help it. There’s so much crap out there. But if you do try to write for Hollywood, that’s a disaster. That’s a train wreck to me.

I write what I like, and I believe that if you love it, it will show on the page. It will work. If I try and write for what I think Hollywood will buy, two years ago I would have done a giant parody, because that’s what was selling then: parody. Two years before that, I would have done a giant earthquake movies, because giant natural disaster movies were selling then.

When you’re taking two years to write a book, you can’t predict the future. You just really have to do your best and write what you love.

DM: Back to your comics work. In Archer’s Quest, you added a stunning and moving twist to Green Arrow’s character, that could be taken or left by future writers. Did you do that intentionally, and if you were to return to writing Green Arrow, what would you do with it?

BM: I did that very intentionally. I said to Bob Schreck, I want to leave Green Arrow and Oliver Queen different than how I first found him. And as I wrote in the introduction to Archer’s Quest, he nodded gracefully and happily ignored my pretentious rantings. But the truth was that I did want to say something about the character and do something different to him, not just for it’s own sake, but something that really got to the core of the character.

What happens with Connor, to me, makes every future conversation with him completely black in its heart. It takes every nice moment and gives a layer of ruin to it. That’s what I love about it. Do you have to deal with it in every issue? No. Do I think anyone should go in right now and have him say, “oh, my gosh, Dad, you knew. You always knew, you bastard, I hate you.” No.

Judd (Winick) and I have had conversations about this. And I think the right writer will deal with it at the right time. I’m a big fan of you don’t need to answer everything at the end of the issue. There are plenty of good things that are good and quiet, and they should stay that way.

DM: You’ve added actual subtext.

BM: You’ll see in Identity Crisis; it does the same thing. It’s just what I loved about comics when I was little.

I’m a big fan, I’ll say this right now, of writing story arcs. I like a beginning, a middle, and an end. I don’t like “creatures of the week” that are just hit someone, punch him around and get out of there. There’s a time and a place for them, but I don’t like every issue being that. But sometimes when you write for the trade paperback, you lose some of the bigger picture, because you’re just thinking about those six issues. In those six issues, I always tried to think, what else is going to be done with this character? What else do we have to say about him in the future? Where can it go from here?

To me, the Archer’s Quest is a starting point. It’s not just self-contained. I knew full well that Judd was going to be writing it after me, that it was going to be in the hands of one of my closest friends. I will say that some of the things are going to be dealt with fairly soon.

DM: How much editorial mandate were you given when you came onboard Identity Crisis?

BM: You know, it’s funny. I think people always assume that somehow DC has this giant invisible hand that presses the stories into place. It’s so much more organic than that. Dan DiDio and Mike Carlin approached me and said, here’s this one character that we want to do something with. I basically went back for a month, couldn’t come up with anything interesting, and finally was going to say no.

And then, in a final conversation, we had this real breakthrough. It all happened from there. It wasn’t like it was a grand scheme. They didn’t even put the word “crisis” on it until after the thing was written. “Crisis,” let’s be clear, is a marketing ploy. The only reason that thing is called Identity Crisis is because that will sell more comic books. I’m happy to have that, because only a fool would not want to try and sell their work. But at the same time it wasn’t like let’s start this and try to change everything. It just so happened the story I wrote worked out.

Instead of handing it in monthly, because I don’t work monthly, I handed in the first four issues together. Then I handed in the last three. They had the entire run within a couple of weeks of each other, because I just sat down and wrote the whole thing. When they read it, that’s when they said, oh, man. You’ve done something really different here. We’ve got to get attention for this. That’s when they started doing something much bigger with it.

DM: The art we’ve seen so far definitely features Elongated Man front and center. I don’t know if that’s the one character DiDio and Carlin had approached you with or not, but the big rumor is that he’s scheduled to die. Without confirming or denying that, can you defend the existence of Elongated Man in a Plastic Man dominated DCU?

BM: I can absolutely defend that. And you will see that in Identity Crisis. You will see my take on the answer to that question. That’s the better way to see it. If I answered that question, it would reveal everything. So you’ll see. I love mysteries, and I’d be a fool if I let this one get out of my hands.

I think people are really going to be surprised.

With that, Brad had to go to another signing. Thank you, sir, for the conversation.

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About Derek McCaw
In addition to running Fanboy Planet, Derek has written for ActionAce, Daily Radar, Once Upon A Dime, and The Wave. He has contributed stories to Arcana Comics (The Greatest American Hero) and Monsterverse Comics (Bela Lugosi's Tales from the Grave). He performs with ComedySportz San Jose and ShakesBEERience, in addition to occasional screenwriting and acting jobs. If you ever played Eric's Ultimate Solitaire on the Macintosh, it was Derek's voice as The Weasel that urged you to play longer. You can buy his book "I Was Flesh Gordon" on the Amazon link at the right. Email him at editor@fanboyplanet.com.