While detailing the famous Apollo 11 mission to the moon, writer Brad Meltzer and artist Chris Eliopoulos found themselves in their element, creating a comic book about Neil Armstrong for their latest book in the Ordinary People Change the World series, out in bookstores today. Meltzer proudly claims that I Am Neil Armstrong is the nerdiest book they’ve done and that Eliopoulous drew as many details as he could, because they had to get it right. Meltzer gave the book to a friend who used to work at NASA to proof. His friend returned it and called them nerds. If NASA is calling them nerds, then they were on the right track.
“I love writing about Dr. Martin Luther King and George Washington,” Meltzer exclusively told SYFY WIRE, “but when we get to really break down how the Apollo mission worked, step by step, bit by bit, piece by piece and Chris drew rivet by rivet, on the whole thing. We turned it all out!”
A majority of I Am Neil Armstrong champions the scientists and engineers involved and details the science behind the Apollo 11 mission. Armstrong’s own recollection of that landmark day in 1969 is also included, and something new to the series is a 7” x 28” double foldout to show, in scale to the rest of the book, what a majestic sight the Earth was from Armstrong's point of view. SYFY WIRE's been given the exclusive to show that drawing (along with Neil's first steps on the moon), below. The moment the reader needs to fold out the poster has a major impact on what an incredible feat this was to leave the planet.
“I really wanted to show what the Earth looked like to Neil Armstrong in space. It had to be vast, we had a lot of double-page spreads in the book, but it had to be bigger than that, like nothing you’ve ever seen. This is our 15th book, and the publisher knew what to expect from us. When Chris drew it, I said, ‘No. Bigger. We need it to be bigger.’ I asked if we could have it fold out to almost like a giant poster (but bound into the book). To their credit, the publisher told us, ‘Yes, nerd. We can do that.’ When you open it up it dwarfs everything else in the book, which is the point. It’s my favorite thing in the book."
In case you’re new to the Ordinary People Change the World books, Meltzer and Eliopoulos find important figures in mankind and present their famous contributions to the world, but put a focus on a story of similar greatness that preceded their fame, whether they be acts of kindness, life lessons, or the early beginnings of great character that would influence their path in becoming real-life heroes.
None of the special details are new discoveries per se, but they could be to the individual reader and especially to young readers finding out about these figures for the first time. Meltzer loves poring over interviews and history written about each figure. For Armstrong, like many of the other subjects, that golden nugget was mentioned in his autobiography that would show what kind of man he would become.
“Everyone wants to hear about the giant leap for all mankind, but they never read chapters one through six, which is really about him as a boy. That’s where the good stuff is. Show me who you are when you’re a kid, I’ll show you who you are today.”
“You see him trying to climb this tree, and saying it was a puzzle and took one branch at a time and slowly got this figured out. I thought, ‘Wait, wait wait, the metaphor is very simple here. That’s what engineering is. You have to break it down one step at a time to understand how to build something, you can see that.’ So with the help of Chris, and a lifetime of reading comics, it just presents itself visually right there.”
The harder task for Meltzer is finding what thematically each book is about. It’s no question that Martin Luther King Jr. and Hellen Keller were amazing people, but why?
“Take away their deed, take away what they did tell me at their core, what is it that you can apply from their life to your own life, and that’s where you really have to boil it enough to get that special sauce. Until you have that, all you have is encyclopedia entries. For me, I have to get that part.”
Oftentimes, Meltzer does have to reach into the childhoods, though that was never the plan. But in speaking with his daughter about the achievements of Amelia Earhart, he discovered that the most empowering thing we can do is tell the origin stories of these real heroes.
“She didn’t care. She told me that everyone flies across the Atlantic these days. But when I told her the story that Amelia Earhart build a homemade roller coaster when she was 7, which is a true story, now she was paying attention.”
“Suddenly, Amelia Earhart was alive again and bold and fun. None of us are going to be the first president, or the first person to step on the moon, but we can all take our first step. We all can look out for others, and I think that’s what kids and adults react to in the books.”
Meltzer is well connected to writing about heroes. As the author of memorable comics such as Identity Crisis, and runs on Justice League and Green Arrow, the novelist loves writing about those who make an impact on our lives. He worked on Capitol Hill for an internship during George H.W. Bush's presidential term; he's written political thriller novels and American history treasure-seeking novels; and I Am Neil Armstrong comes out weeks before the Damien Chazelle biopic about Armstrong, First Man, which has stirred up controversy where Armstrong is not shown planting the U.S. flag on the moon. As the current administration has often shown, it knows how to divert unwanted attention away from itself by distracting the public.
“Oh, you mean like yesterday, when Donald Trump at a rally said the flag needs to be more in a movie that he hasn’t seen?” Meltzer said, chuckling. It’s not a coincidence that Armstrong is back in the conversation, as the heroes we look to are often the products of our culture and times.
“If I’ve learned through anything though comics and my own love of sci-fi, it’s that you don’t get the heroes you want, you get the heroes you need.”
Take the birth of Superman, for example. Before World War II and during the Great Depression, Tarzan and Flash Gordon were specifically designed to transport you away from the world. But World War II threatened the U.S. shores and suddenly a character draped in a flag named Superman sells a million copies.
“We were a country that was terrified,” Meltzer surmised. “We were scared and wanted someone to come save us. So it’s no surprise that we’re talking about Neil Armstrong again.”
“We’re starving for men and women like him, we’re starving for leaders that represent humility and hard work and being quiet and getting the job done. As a culture, we’re celebrating, sadly, those who are the loudest and getting attention, but as a culture we have a need for someone to teach our kids that it’s the quiet ones, the humble ones, the hard-working ones that will offer us far better rewards.”
With writing about heroes of all kinds, Meltzer has takeaways from each person he writes about, whether they're real people or fictional. For Armstrong it was his humility.
"I know we're supposed to celebrate him being the first person on the moon, and I take nothing away from that, but I feel like his best gift to us is what he taught us as he was going there."
"He never used the word I; he always used the word we. We accomplished this, we did this. It was the mathematicians, the scientists, and the tailors who sewed the uniforms. He said that it was all of our accomplishments, and I love that. He just stayed quiet and let [the landing] speak for itself. I just feel where the world is right now, we need heroes like that."
Written by Brad Meltzer, with art by Chris Eliopoulos, I Am Neil Armstrong is out in bookstores today in hardcover for $14.99 and in a variety of digital formats.