Writer Brad Meltzer wears a lot of different hats — but maybe not as many as the protagonist of his latest thriller.
The novelist and comic book scribe spent the past few years hosting TV shows on the History Channel, including Brad Meltzer’s Lost History, about lost artifacts from America’s past. And while his efforts proved successful at finding some (including a famous flag from the site of New York’s 9/11 attacks), they also served as inspiration for The Escape Artist, his just-released novel. The thriller mashes up the real-life Army post of war artist with the country’s secretive history with the illusionist followers of Harry Houdini in the form of Nola Brown — a new protagonist set to take his writing career in all-new directions.
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At the same time, the comics enthusiast is prepping a story for DC Comics’ incoming milestone Action Comics #1000 with artist John Cassaday. As ever, Meltzer sees the influence of his favorite superheroes impacting his novels and vice versa. CBR spoke with the writer about the surprising origins of The Escape Artist, his take on the current state of comics and more.
CBR: I was trying to describe to someone the path you’ve been on the past few years between your television work and your path of finding significant historical objects like the flag that flew after 9/11, and the phrase I thought best did it was “nerdy Indiana Jones.”
Brad Meltzer: [Laughs] That’s my dream come true! The funny part was that on the show, I didn’t even realize I was doing this, but a couple of times I just blurted out “It belongs in a museum” which is one of his famous lines. That’s either revealing myself in the best way, or playing out my fantasy on national television.
Well, your thriller novels have always been built on real world or historical ideas, but with this new book it seems that your hands-on research has affected the books even further. Do you feel like you’re a different writer for having done this stuff?
Absolutely. And I’ll also say, especially for the CBR audience, that the comic books have influenced my book in a major way. This is my 20th year as a writer, and you can’t help but get nostalgic at that point — especially for someone like me who’s obsessed with history. So I looked back and said, “What’s my favorite stuff? What did I write that was reviewed the best, and what did I like the best myself?” Often I found the answer was the projects where I got to do a lot of character work like Green Arrow and Identity Crisis and Red Tornado in Justice League. And I thought to myself, “I really need to bring that back to the thrillers. If I want to get better 20 years in, I need to do my best work in the place where I started my work.” And so I wouldn’t even start this book until I had this character. That’s what all my comics have in common: I know the characters so well. So I wanted to write this book from the same perspective, and it took me an extra year to crack that character.
Tell me about Nola Brown — this woman who straddles the line between soldier and artist.
To take it piece by piece, the character was first born when I was recording our show Lost History and searching for the 9/11 flag, the producers wanted a military location to film. God bless the production person who chose Fort Belvoir in Virginia, because what no one knew when we were filming is that I was running off and getting tours behind the scenes. And as I was walking around I saw that they had a painting by Adolf Hitler, and all this other art from top military people. As a comic book person, I’m thinking, “Why does the government have all this art?” It made no sense. Then they said, “No, you have to meet our artist in residence.”
It’s this position they call the War Artist, and I didn’t even know what that was. So they took me back to this tiny room and explained to me that since World War I, the U.S. government has had a painter on staff who paints disasters. So as everyone else is running in with guns, they’ve got nothing but colored pencils in their pockets. That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard, and as soon as I heard that, I said, “I want to meet him.” And they said, “You mean her. You want to meet her.” And she just suddenly became the most interesting person in the universe to me — this woman who runs in to battle and is drawn to that flame. That’s where Nola was born.
We know that there is a history shared between comic artists and the armed services going back to when Jack Kirby was on the front lines, or when Stan Lee was helping make propaganda posters. Does your experience with that history or with artists in general inform how you see this job and this character?
Every single comic book artist I’ve ever worked with is built into this character. Artists just have to have this kind of cold eye where they can see what no one else can see. I remember when I was doing Justice League #11 with Gene Ha, he came to Florida for a convention, and we wound up having dinner. And he said while we’re eating that it was interesting to watch me eat. I had no idea what he was talking about, but just spit out a little list of things I do that I never realized I was doing. I really understood it that he sees the world differently than I see the world. It’s the same kind of experience I had meeting Chip Kidd, the graphic designer. He sees the universe in a different way. We see a stop sign, but he sees all these elements of design that are meant to communicate something.
So as I was building Nola, you better believe I was relying on all the experience I’ve had with artists. But beyond that, my senior paper in college was all about how comics were used as propaganda in World War II. I have a whole history that I wanted to unpack as I was writing the character. But her power, so to speak, is that she can see the weakness in anything. She just finds that weakness on you, and all of that is laid bare for her.