Comic book readers know Brad Meltzer from his work on series like "Identity Crisis," "Justice League" or his current run on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight," but the celebrated author turned his focus to a distinctly different sort of hero for his latest project: a book collecting the stories of 52 real-life people and the little-known decisions that made them heroes.
Meltzer began writing "Heroes for My Son" eight years ago, when his first son, Jonas, was born. Wanting to collect the stories of people whose choices in life he could share with his son, Meltzer began a labor of love that finally culminated with the book's arrival on shelves this week.
"Heroes For My Son" offers a brief glimpse into the lives of everyone from Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel to Muppets creator Jim Henson, and while it isn't a comic book, it is a story of what makes people heroes. And it will very likely surprise you.
I managed to get a few questions with Meltzer this week about the book, its origins and the experience of reading it to his son for the very first time.
MTV NEWS: Brad, it must be a very big moment for you to finally have this book hitting shelves. If there was ever a "labor of love," this is it...
BRAD MELTZER: I can't tell you anything I've been more proud to put out there than this book. It's something I worked on for my son for nearly a decade, and it just feels like... Well, if you look at my books and come on Twitter or Facebook, I think people know me pretty well. My wife says, "People get you pretty quickly." But I think if you read this book, you'll really get to know me in a very different way — in a way that I think is more honest than anything I've ever done before. This isn't just a book about my heroes like Jim Henson or Mr. Rogers and the amazing stories we found about them, it really is my philosophy of life and how on my very best days, I wish and hope and try to live that life.
MTV: Have you been able to sit down and read the book to your son yet? Did you do so along the way?
MELTZER: When i finally got the preview copy, I got to sit down with him and share it with him. I started writing this book on the day he was born, eihgt years ago, so now I've spent nearly a decade waiting for this exact moment when I get to lie in bed with him and share it. When it happened, I said to him, "You can pick any hero you want."
Well, he doesn't care about Rosa Parks or Eleanor Roosevelt or Gandhi or Muhammad Ali — he cares about the athletes in baseball uniforms. He loves baseball. So he flips immediately to Roberto Clemente, and the Roberto Clemente story is this amazing story of how he knew about this earthquake in Nicaragua and filled three planes with food and medicine for the victims, and all the food and medicine on all three flights got confiscated and stolen. Well, Clemente said, "I'm so determined that this fourth flight get there that I'm going to go on the plane myself and make sure it arrives." Clemente then gets on the plane, and the plane crashes in the ocean, killing everyone on board.
But as it says in the book, he's not a hero because he died, he's a hero because of why he got on board.
And as I'm reading this to my boy and I'm so excited for this moment when he'll tell me what a great dad I am, he's physically shrinking in my arms as he reads the story out loud. I can feel the air leaving his body. He looks up to me and says, "Dad, this is sad." I realized in that moment that I'd broken my son's heart for the first time.
MTV: That must have been crushing...
MELTZER: Absolutely. So the next day I back away from the book, because it clearly didn't work out the way I wanted. But he comes bouncing into the room, jumps up on the bed, and says, "Okay, dad — who we reading tonight?" I eventually asked him, "What about Roberto Clemente?" and he said, "I like him." I asked why, and he said, "Because he risked his life to save those people."
I realized in that exact moment that you can't teach about a hero without teaching about the reasons why
you need the hero. You can't teach the high without teaching the low. The idea that the story somehow screwed its way into my son's chest is just spectacular to me. It happened in a way that I never anticipated happening.
MTV: One thing that didn't surprise me about the book was the presence of Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Can you tell me a little about why you chose them and what aspects of their history you chose to call out for the book?
MELTZER: They're the third heroes in the book — and as it says, they're not there just for creating Superman. They were nerdy, they weren't good looking, they weren't popular, but they were two best friends with this one dream. On the brink of World War II they gave America something to believe in.
These are all people that we already know so much about, but what I tried to do was not find these great people, but try to find the moments that made them great. I wanted them to be in there not just for creating Superman, but to show my son that the nerdy kid in class, the kid that no one likes, that kid is as spectacular as anyone else in that classroom. That's the lesson to me: it's not that they gave us Superman, it's that they gave us Clark Kent.
MTV: What was the discovery process like for you? I'm sure you learned a great many things researching this book that you didn't know beforehand. Did it inspire you, too?
MELTZER: I always tried to find something I didn't know. The story of how Jim Henson became a puppeteer, for instance. He wanted a job in television and they turned him down, but he saw an advertisement for puppeteers on his way out of the building. He went to the library and read every book they had on puppeteering, then came back and told them, "I'm a puppeteer." He had five minutes to prove it to them, and he did. It's stories like that.
Thomas Jefferson is not in the book for writing the Declaration of Independence, he's in the book for not taking credit for writing it. The average American didn't know he was the writer of the Delcaration until after he died and it was in his obituary.
Those moments of generosity and humility and selflessness, I tried to find those details about this person that you otherwise know so well.