The Book of Lies
November 13, 2008
Author Brad Meltzer had pitched a story about Cain and Abel shortly after his first novel, The Tenth Justice, appeared on best-seller lists in 1998. He was met with, shall we say, some resistance.
“You’re an idiot,” he was told. Justice was doing well and he was quickly establishing himself as a top-notch thriller writer. Why mess with the formula?
In an interview from his home in Aventura, Fla., Meltzer told NJ Jewish News he had a choice: “I could be strong, or I could cave,” he said. “And I caved faster than anyone in the history of caving.”
Ten years later, he combines his tale of fratricide with the creation of Superman in The Book of Lies (Grand Central Publishing).
This thematic marriage came about in a bashert manner.
“I was at a book signing in Sarasota, and this Jewish lady stands up and says, ‘I know more about Superman than you’ll ever know.’” Meltzer, a comics uber-geek who has collaborated on several graphic novels, including Identity Crises and Justice League 2, initially dismissed her claim. But it turned out she was the niece of Jerry Siegel, the artist who invented the Man of Steel.
She introduced Meltzer to other members of the Siegel clan, and he soon learned a dark family secret: Mitchell Siegel, Jerry’s father, had been shot and killed in a robbery in 1932, when Jerry was just 17. Family lore held that he had died of a heart attack.
Meltzer recalled his amazement. “In 50 years of interviews, when they say to Jerry Siegel, ‘Where did you get the idea for Superman,’” he never once says, ‘My father died in a robbery.’
“That’s why the world got Superman. Not because America is the greatest on earth, but because a boy lost his father.”
Meltzer became obsessed with Mitchell Siegel, determined to solve the mystery through his writing. But why this format?
“I take my novels as seriously as I would nonfiction,” he told NJJN. “That’s how I know how to express myself. I didn’t even think about nonfiction. It just shows you how pathetically my brain works.”
There have been several analyses in recent years seeking to tie certain comic book creations — including Superman — to Judaism. “They all kind of hypothesize that Superman is baby Moses coming to save us, or that the ‘S’ stands for Samson…. I just don’t think they’re right or fair.”
Photo by Herman Estevez
Superman may be the ultimate immigrant, Meltzer said, but it was because Siegel and his partner, Joe Shuster, grew up in immigrant families. “If you want to know the creation, examine the creators,” he said.
Superman made his debut in Action Comics No. 1. “When he first appeared, [he] didn’t have heat vision or X-ray vision; he couldn’t even fly. All he was was bullet-proof” — a conscious statement, perhaps, from the artist whose father died at the hands of a gunman.
An illustration in Book of Lies shows Superman stopping a robbery, the same crime that killed Siegel’s father. “Tell me that this isn’t someone with some family issues to work out,” Meltzer said.
Meltzer’s copious research turned up a letter to the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer that appeared the day after Mitchell Siegel’s murder about the dangers of vigilante justice in society. The letter was signed by A.L. Luther, eerily similar to Lex Luthor, Superman’s chief nemesis.
Meltzer also visited Siegel’s old home in a rundown section of Cleveland. The structure was in tremendous disrepair. “The house where Google was founded is protected, but the house where Superman was created is a mess.” The current owners told him city officials wouldn’t even put up a plaque denoting the pop culture significance of the building.
Meltzer, 38, organized a campaign to restore the old Siegel homestead. “I did the only thing I know how to do: I told the story.” In interviews and appearances about The Book of Lies, Meltzer commented on the sorry state of affairs with the hope of raising the necessary funds. His efforts to restore the Siegel house led to the creation of Ordinarypeoplechangetheworld.com (“One deed. One day. One dollar”).
“I believe ordinary people change the world,” he said, echoing the sentiment of tikun olam. “That’s how movements get started, from regular people.”
Support started rolling in. The producers of the hit TV series Heroes donated a walk-on part; Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert gave items from his show. Meltzer even auctioned a character in his next novel. He had hoped to raise $50,000. To date, he said, more than $100,000 has been received.
Meltzer got to include his Cain storyline in Lies. How exactly did Cain slay Abel? It all boils down to semantics, translation, and myth. Some believe a rock or stick or animal bone was used to do the evil deed. “Some say Cain bit Abel’s throat and that’s where you get vampires from,” Meltzer offered. In fact, the Bible does not mention a weapon at all.
Even though Meltzer said he is a practicing Conservative Jew, the biblical aspects of Lies posed the biggest challenge. “Sadly, the comic book part is in my DNA,” he said. (One gets the image of him in Hebrew school, hiding a comic book within the pages of his siddur.)
“Not to mix biblical characters and comic book characters, but these are the great stories of our time and they persist for a reason,” he said. “It’s not because they’re interesting or we like men in capes or brothers who kill each other; it’s because these stories say something about us.
“We’re a country founded on legends and myths and we never stop to see where [they] come from,” said Meltzer. “The Book of Lies as a concept just exploded for me right there, and I realized what I was going to write about.”
Since the book came out in September, Meltzer has received feedback from readers pointing out discrepancies in both the biblical and comic book content. “If I’m an anal writer, you better believe I have anal readers,” he said. He claims a high degree of competence when it comes to comic book knowledge. “I’ll out-geek the best of them,” he said proudly, but “on the biblical side, my ‘muscles’ are not of the same strength.”
Meltzer and his publisher employed a few unusual marketing tools to enhance readers’ enjoyment, including a pseudo-documentary video trailer for the Internet and a companion “soundtrack.” “You can listen to music while you’re reading the book and get the emotion of it,” Meltzer said.
As with Siegel and Superman, preparations for The Book of Lies came at a difficult time for Meltzer. While he was working on his creation, his mother, Teri — to whom the novel is dedicated — was diagnosed with and died from breast cancer. “She’s all over this book,” he said. “I didn’t realize it until I reread it toward the end. You show me any novel and I’ll show you what the writer was dealing with at that time. That’s why the main character [in Lies] is dealing with the loss of his mother and the reconciliation with his father. That’s where my brain was.”