Steely edge: Best-selling author believes 'Super' hero still 'matters'

By Kurt Anthony Krug

New York Times best-selling novelist Brad Meltzer, an alumnus of the University of Michigan and Columbia Law School, is a big fan of Superman and makes no apologies for it.

“Superman means something to people,” said Meltzer. “He stands for something – something important that’s bigger than all of us: truth, justice, and the American way. It’s a great catchphrase – but it’s serious and it matters. And Superman matters. Now more than ever, America needs heroes. We are a country starving for heroes.”

Meltzer, 43 and a resident of Florida, has penned 11 books and three best-selling comic book series. He also hosts The History Channel’s “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded.”

Last week, Meltzer attended the New York City premiere of “Man of Steel,” the latest movie featuring Superman, the comic book character published by DC Comics who is also the flagship character of the entire comic book medium. One of the year’s most anticipated movies, “Man of Steel,” debuted June 14 and was No. 1 at the box office its opening weekend, grossing $125 million domestically ($196.7 million worldwide).

Meltzer’s relationship with the character goes beyond being a fan. He wrote about how Superman was created in his 2008 thriller “The Book of Lies,” chronicled the adventures of Superman himself in DC’s “Identity Crisis” and “Justice League of America” comic series, and spearheaded the efforts to save the house Superman was created in 75 years ago in Cleveland.

In 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Cleveland teen-agers and offspring of Jewish immigrants, created Superman. The character made his debut in DC’s “Action Comics” No. 1.

The impetus for Superman’s creation came after Siegel’s father, Mitchell Siegel, was shot and killed in a 1932 robbery – a crime that is unsolved to this day.

When Siegel conceived Superman, he made him bulletproof – that was Superman’s first super-power.

At a book signing almost a decade ago, Meltzer spoke about the fun he had writing Superman for “Identity Crisis.” Afterwards, a woman approached him and told him that she knew more about Superman than he did.

“I’m like, ‘Lady, no way,’” recalled Meltzer.

It turned out the woman was Jerry Siegel’s niece and they talked for a long time. He learned that half of the Siegel family stated Mitchell Siegel’s death was a heart attack. However, Meltzer saw Mitchell Siegel’s death certificate.

“It says flat out that he died during a robbery. There is no question (Jerry) Siegel knew (how his father died),” said Meltzer. “While mourning the death of his father, his young son came up with the idea for a bulletproof man that he called Superman. And that’s why the world got Superman. Not because America is the greatest country on Earth, but because a little boy lost his father. The truly incredible part is that almost no one knows the story because in 50 years of interviews, Siegel never – not once – ever mentions his father.”

That begs the question: Why?

“(Jerry) Siegel knew the value of telling a good story. What sounds more interesting: two poor kids in Cleveland changing the world by creating Superman or one little boy missing his daddy? Only one story works. What’s interesting to me is that Superman comes not from a place of strength, but one of complete vulnerability,” explained Meltzer.

 The author took the unsolved murder of Mitchell Siegel and tied it to the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible for “The Book of Lies.” In it, the weapon Cain used to murder Abel somehow ended up in the hands of Mitchell Siegel centuries later.

Meltzer got the Siegel family’s blessing to do this and thoroughly researched Jerry Siegel’s history, interviewing his widow and niece (Jerry Siegel died in 1996, whereas co-creator Schuster died in 1992).

Meltzer also learned that the Cleveland house where Siegel created Superman with Schuster — which is featured in “The Book of Lies” — fell into a state of disrepair and vowed to do something about.

“Superman is a part of the American mythology. The house where Google was founded is preserved.

The garage where Hewlett Packard began is preserved. But the house where Superman was created was devastated. Something seemed wrong about that. All I did from there was tell the story,” said Meltzer.

Joining forces with a group of Cleveland residents, several celebrities, and comic book creators, Meltzer founded The Siegel & Shuster Society — a charity dedicated to saving the Siegel homestead — in 2008.

Its goal was to raise $50,000 in its first year to finance repairs, but more than $101,000 was raised in the first month alone, which amazed Meltzer.

“It’s really a testament to the great character Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created,” said Meltzer. “To me, the most important part of the story isn't Superman.  The most important part is Clark Kent. Why? Because we’re all Clark Kent. We all know what it’s like to be boring and ordinary and wish we could do something beyond ourselves.”

According to Meltzer, he got a Christmas card from the house’s current owner. It read: “Thank you, Brad. This Christmas was the first year there was no snow in our house.”

Late last year, a 7-foot Superman statue was erected in at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, thanks to the efforts of The Siegel & Schuster Society.

The statue stands tall and proud in the baggage claim area in front of a wall displaying Cleveland landmarks that are presented in word balloons.

Meltzer gave his perspective on what gives Superman such staying power after 75 years.

“Superman isn’t an idea.  He’s an ideal. You can’t talk about Superman without talking about America.  He’s not just who we are – he’s who we want to be. And that type of kindness and – I say this unapologetically – ‘goodness’ should never go out of vogue,” he said. “When you write Superman, you're writing a piece of American history. I hope people read my novels in 100 years, but I'm realistic. In 100 years, they'll still be reading Superman.”

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