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NEAL CONAN, host:

Within a few pages of mystery novelist Brad Meltzer's new book, a spouse is murdered, old secrets turn up old enemies and lifelong loyalties start to fray--familiar territory for the author of thrillers like "The Tenth Justice" and "Dead Even." But this time, instead of plotting out the moves of hot-shot lawyers or congressional aides, Meltzer is working with some highly distinctive characters, including Batman, Superman, Green Lantern and the other members of the DC Comics' Justice League. A series of six issues published under the title "Identity Crisis" is now out as a hardback graphic novel. If you have questions about the book or about the challenge of writing for characters with tights, capes and superpowers, our telephone number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org. Brad Meltzer joins us now by phone from Ft. Lauderdale in Florida.

Nice to have you with us.

Mr. BRAD MELTZER (Author, "Identity Crisis"): Than--nice to be here, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: We'd arranged for you to go to a radio studio to get a good quality line for us. I understand Hurricane Wilma intervened. I hope you got through the storm OK.

Mr. MELTZER: We did, and it's actually been OK. Luckily a very good family friend was smart enough to get a generator in her house, so by the magic of technology I'm here today.

CONAN: OK. Well, let me ask you as an established mystery writer, why did you decide to write a superhero comic?

Mr. MELTZER: Very simple reason: I just love the characters. I grew--you know, I think many writers grew up reading and I grew up reading just as much as anyone else did, but I was reading comic books. That's what I loved reading. I loved Superman; I loved Batman. And I think writing comic books is a little bit like when you were little--there was that kid down the block who always had the best toys in the whole block. And you always wanted to go to his house and play. Well, I think Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman are just the best toys on the block, and I love my characters. When I write my thrillers, I love writing those characters, but there's something about playing with Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman--putting words in their mouths.

CONAN: We had the Habivs(ph) who lived a few blocks over, our family and friends. They had a basement full of comic books.

Mr. MELTZER: Sure.

CONAN: Now I have a basement full of comic books.

Mr. MELTZER: And you probably wanted to play there all the time.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. MELTZER: And that's really all it is. I mean, there's just su--I know--or let's put it this way. I hope that in 50 years someone may read my novels--they probably won't; those are the odds--but I will guarantee that 50 years from now people are still reading Superman and Batman, and there's--it's just very humbling when you get to kind of deal with characters that are at that level and that have that much history behind them.

CONAN: Interesting that you would regard something as ephemeral as a comic book as a form of immortality.

Mr. MELTZER: Well, you know, listen. I think if anything the past year has shown people how many people who are in movies, who are in television, who are in all these other different mediums all love comic books. And I think we kind of turn our noses up to them and we think, oh, it's just Superman and Batman, and you know, it's as important as a coloring book. But you know, I did my senior paper when I was in college on comic books as propaganda in World War II. I mean, if you look at the history of comic books, it's actually pretty amazing. They come from a time when you would see--early in the Great Depression the most popular comic books were the characters who were--Tarzan and Flash Gordon. They were characters who took their readers to another world, 'cause people didn't want to deal with reality at that moment in time.

But if you look at World War II, suddenly in 1938 a character called Superman is created. In 19--right in '39, '40, '41 we get Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman--all these characters with red, white and blue flags across their chest. And my theory has always been you don't get the heroes who you want; you get the heroes you need. In 1942 as everything was happening with World War II, we wanted someone to protect us, and we got the heroes that we needed. I think there's no--that's the exact same reason today why you see the resurgence of Spider-Man and all these other characters in movies and television and all these other different ways--is very simple. It's because once again in the post-9/11 world, we're afraid and we want someone to protect us.

CONAN: We want listeners to get involved in the conversation: (800) 989-8255. E-mail is totn@npr.org. Mystery writer Brad Meltzer is the author of "Zero Game." But his latest is a graphic novel called "Identity Crisis": That's what we're talking about. And Chris is joining us. Chris, on the line from Ames, Iowa.

CHRIS (Caller): I would like to further alliterate on something you said--these characters that we seek that kind of take us to these different places. Do you think that that is the reason there are so many comics that are out there right now that are very violent--for instance, I just read one called "Wanted," where the main character, who resembles Eminem, strangely enough, from the "8 Mile" movie and the rap fame, he becomes the most powerful villain in the universe, and the superheroes have all died in this book and I found myself just thumbing through the pages. But I think there's an essential point to be made where comics are also educational; there's that entertainment aspect, but it's kind of along a spectrum. If you look at the polarities there education and there's entertainment, and you just kind of want to lie somewhere in the middle there.

Mr. MELTZER: Well, I think on some level--absolutely that's right. There's always a spectrum in any entertainment, so yes, there are, you know, Archie and Veronica and those characters you can read, and they're fun and you're 11 years old and, you know, last year we had the--or this year we celebrate 20 years of Watchman and I just saw a five-page spread on the history of it, and Time magazine recently called Alan Moore's Watchman one of the 100 greatest novels written from 19--I think--20s onward.

CHRIS: Yeah. It won a Hugo Award as well.

Mr. MELTZER: And--I'm sorry?

CHRIS: It won a Hugo Award.

Mr. MELTZER: And it won a Hugo Award. I mean...

CONAN: Which is a science fiction award.

Mr. MELTZER: ...so there is this spectrum. I think the point is, though, is you see more and more that people are using comic books and are using these heroes to tell stories that are more than just about buildings being thrown at each other.

CHRIS: Yes, it is.

Mr. MELTZER: And in fact, when I started "Identity Crisis," what DC Comics asked me to do--and I just thought this was interesting. It was post-9/11--right after 9/11. DC Comics is located in New York City. And the head of DC Comics said to me, `Listen, when we think of firemen, we think of policemen, we used to think of people who were really out of a Normal Rockwell painting. They had a child on their shoulder and they're in a parade and they hold the American flag, and isn't life grand. But after 9/11, they said, `You look at a fireman and you look at anyone--a policewoman putting on a uniform and you stop and you say, `Wait a minute. They're risking their lives every day. They could die today.' And we never looked at those people the same again. And what they said to me was, `Brad, we want you in "Identity Crisis" to do something like that for us. Let us feel that when these characters, when our Superman, when our Batman, when our Wonder Woman--as silly as it sounds--but when they put on their uniforms, even though it's a cape and a utility belt--but when they put on their uniforms that they're risking their lives. Bring us that sense of danger back, that sense of reality and what it really costs to be a hero in today's society.' And that was really our starting point.

CONAN: And of course, it isn't Superman who's vulnerable, but Superman's friends.

Mr. MELTZER: And that was really--I originally said, `You know what? I have no desire to go and just, you know, do a big shoot-'em-up or do anything silly. I wanted to do something serious,' and what I hit upon was what if someone was attacking all the loved ones--all the family and friends of the world's most powerful superheroes? And for me, that got us something much greater. I think a lot of superhero comics, and even the medium in general--comic book--apologizes for itself. It's almost sorry. It's almost like, `Oh, I'm sorry that I operate in this medium that was once for children,' and I actually wanted to not do that. I don't apologize for it. I love writing comic books as much as I love writing my own mysteries.

But I wanted to start with is something that embraces the most silly of all comic book cliches, and that is the mask, the mask every superhero wears. And everyone makes fun of it. It's a--oh, the mask is so silly. Everyone knows it's Clark Kent, or everyone knows it's Batman who puts on those gla--the mask doesn't protect anyone. But to me the reason you have the mask is very simple: If you didn't wear a mask, villains would go and slit the throats of your wives and your husbands and your children, and that is why you wear a mask and that is why you hide your identity. And so from that one idea, we really built the whole concept of "Identity Crisis." What if there was a serial killer going after the loved ones of our heroes?

CHRIS: Well, that's great. I look forward to reading it. Thank you so much.

Mr. MELTZER: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Chris.

CHRIS: Yeah.

CONAN: We're talking with Brad Meltzer about his book "Identity Crisis."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I did want to ask the `DC' in DC Comics, the initials stand for detective comics. In a way, you're bringing all that back full circle. This is a real mystery. Somebody has to find out what happened.

Mr. MELTZER: Yeah. No, I'm--I love my mysteries, and when they came to me they had that idea. They had no idea how I was going to do it. They just said, `Can you bring back a level of seriousness and a level of reality?' And I'm amazed it took me as long as it did to say, well, why don't I do a mystery 'cause that is what I do for a living. But there was something no question that I loved about bringing up `detective comics' back to DC, and my own comic store owner, where I shop--I've shopped since I'm 13 years old--and he's known me since I'm a 13-year-old kid. And he said to me, `People just love to guess,' even if it's in superheroes. And it's amazing that we're so used to in superheroes, you know, Superman fights Lex Luther and that's the battle and then it's over. It was amazing to me that more mysteries have not been done in that genre. So bringing it back did bring a good sense of history to it.

CONAN: Get another caller on the line. Al's with us. Al, calling from Manhattan in New York.

AL (Caller): Brad?

Mr. MELTZER: Hey there.

AL: Yeah, hi. How are you?

Mr. MELTZER: Hi, Al.

AL: Quick question for you. What do you think would constitute the most current superhero character now in the year 2005 post-9/11, somebody who had saved Metropolis, saved the US--in other words, have we become too saturated and inured to the, you know, superheroes of the Second World War, so forth. Who do you think is going to save us now?

Mr. MELTZER: You know, very interesting.

AL: What kind of superhero?

Mr. MELTZER: That's a good question. I've always thought--and again, I said before you get the heroes who you need. I think 10, 20 years ago, it was Superman. That was the easy answer. Superman's going to come and save us, which is why "Superman" was the popular movie and they got to make four sequels. I think it's very interesting and very telling that the most popular comics have in the past couple of years been Spider-Man and been the X-Men, characters who are really truly, when you look at them, outsiders. And I think for a while we all did feel like Superman as Americans. I think we felt like, you know, we were strong, we were powerful and we were modern-day Rome and isn't life grand?

And then I think 9/11 happened and I think people realized they were more like Spider-Man. They were the scared teen-age boy who had greatness in him but didn't always find it, and had to work harder to find it. And I think you can argue and say, `Well, listen, the only reason Spider-Man's so popular and the X-Men were so popular as movies is because Marvel, you know, put out some good movies,' but I just don't chock things like that up to coincidence. I'm a history major and I always feel like, you know, you could always read the tea leaves through popular culture. I've always believed that, and I think that the success of "Spider-Man," the level of the movie, was like the number-one three-day movie in history, is because of that. I think "Harry Potter" even goes to that, where suddenly these kind of scared young people who want to see their own greatness and will work hard to find that greatness within them. So I think that trend is going to continue, and I think it's going to be a while before we're back to our Superman time.

CONAN: Well, there is one current character who directly addresses the post-9/11 situation in a comic book called "Ex Machina," Mayor Hundred who was a sort of superhero who miraculously saves the second tower from crashing and then gets elected mayor of New York.

Mr. MELTZER: Yeah. "Ex Machina" is one of my favorite books, and Brian Vaughan, who writes it, has tapped into something that is absolutely brilliant and that is the superhero as politician, which I think is the easiest thing to roll your eyes at, and an "Ex Machina" proves that you can and need--again, saying need. I think if that book--you sit right on it--if that book were pitched before 9/11, people would go, `Why do we need that?' And then, you know, after the days of Rudy Giuliani, we kind of quickly understand and say, `Oh, I can quickly realize why that character could be potentially out there, you know, even if it is in my imagination.'

CONAN: Al, thanks very much for the phone call.

Brad Meltzer's new book is called "Identity Crisis." Brad Meltzer, thanks very much for being with us today, and good luck with Wilma's aftermath.

Mr. MELTZER: No, thank you, Neal. And I appreciate all the support of the industry.

CONAN: Brad Meltzer's book is called "Identity Crisis." He was with us on the line from Ft. Lauderdale in Florida.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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