Brad Meltzer, former attorney and now writer of best sellers set in and around the courtroom, makes no apologies for his love of comic books. By his own admission, his chart-topping novels, among them The Zero Gameand The Tenth Justice, read very much like the superhero stuff of his childhood, and you'll notice it, too, if you just read between the lines. Granted, there are no spandex-clad judges in his books, no attacking aliens or shape-shifting detectives, but every few pages there's a small twist upon which the tale turns. To him, it was only natural that one day he would become a writer of comic books, for which he has to do little or no research to prepare. "Sadly, all that stuff is still in my brain," he says.
Meltzer follows his marvelous recent run on Green Arrow, a title resurrected by filmmaker Kevin Smith, with a miniseries featuring all of his beloved heroes from the DC Comics universe, from the A-teamers (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash) to the lesser scrubs (most notably the bendable detective Elongated Man). Titled Identity Crisis, it's one of those geek hypes that actually surpasses its expectations and ought to register with more than an audience of Wizardreaders. Not only do Meltzer and artist Rags Morales play with their superhero action figures, but they do so within a grim murder mystery that makes these two-dimensional undies-on-the-outside heroes seem more tangible than twee. Indeed, the character killed in the first of the miniseries' six issues isn't one of DC Comics' franchise players, but the impact is undeniable, never more so than at a funeral where heroes lose their composure and, in the final pages, long-buried secrets are suggested but never revealed.
"My wife hates comics," Meltzer says, "but she loved this one for just that reason. My goal, in any of my novels and any of the comic books, is just to give it to you as realistically as I can with as much emotion as I can. The plot is always going to be the plot, and anyone can have a great plot. The question is can you pull the realism and emotion so you believe and care and cry and feel for these characters? I think Identity Crisisis the perfect example of that."
DC's editors were going to allow Meltzer to kill off one of its bigger stars, presumably one with a poor-selling book, but he differed; he likely didn't want a repeat of the Superman-is-dead disaster of a decade ago, when people bought the books as collectors' items but didn't care about the thin story between the covers. He stayed with the original concept of killing this minor character because it allowed him to take all those comics he read as a kid and reinvent them. Meltzer likes to say his book is a deconstruction of all those "campy" comics of the 1960s and '70s, when heroes were indestructible and villains were indistinguishable from one another and every story read like something left over from a Saturday-morning cartoon.
"Identity Crisisis really about giving all those so-called imaginary tales a very dark bent you never knew was there," he says. "People always say, 'What do you try to do when you write Superman?' I tell them Superman doesn't need my stamp. Superman as a character has endured because he is absolutely fully realized. What I am trying to do when I look at him is not pull out something new that I made up. I am trying to look into him, and what I pull out of him is something that when you look at it, you say, 'What's scary about that is that it was there all along and so logical how did I not see it first?' That to me is always the far more interesting thing, and there has to be a level of deconstruction there because you're arming yourself with what already exists. There are no changed histories in Identity Crisis. It's just a matter of looking at it and saying, 'We both saw the car accident. Which is the more realistic truth?'