Alex Segura’s new mystery novel, Secret Identity, to be published by Flatiron Books this month, offers a perfect reflection of his multifaceted career as a crime novelist, a comics writer, and as a comics publishing executive. Set in a tough, crumbling New York City in 1975 in the offices of a third-rate superhero publisher, Secret Identity is the story of an unlikely comics writer caught in a murder mystery and the web of secrets shrouding the killer.
Segura divides his time between his day-job in comics marketing–he has worked for DC and Archie Comics and is currently senior v-p sales and marketing at Oni Press–and writing crime novels, including five acclaimed Pete Fernandez mysteries, set in his native Miami. He’s also written Star Wars Poe Dameron: Free Fall, a YA novel about the Star Wars hero, and a series of Archie comics. His comics writing credits range from Archie Meets Kiss to his creator-owned title The Black Ghost.
Segura says Secret Identity owes a lot to Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which blended comics and literature “in a very cool way.” So when he wrote Secret Identity, he wove actual comics sequences (drawn by Sandy Jarrell) about a key character called The Lynx into the story. PW talked to him about how Secret Identity took shape and why he chose to set it in an era when comics were in decline.
Publishers Weekly: Which came first for you, writing prose or writing for comics?
Alex Segura: I read a lot of comics as a kid, and a lot of true crime and science fiction, so I was always pecking away at stories, whether drawing and writing my own comics or trying my hand at prose. The two paths diverged a little bit when I started working at DC. When your hobbies become your job, you start looking for other hobbies. I love working in comics, but I found release in reading mystery novels and crime novels. In the hubris of youth, I thought, let me try this, and it became the thing I was doing for fun. And then then it became its own thing and its own alternate career.
For a long time, I was wearing my comics day job hat, and then in the evening, I would write novels. When I was ending the Pete Fernandez books, I knew I wanted to do something that blended them both. The comic book industry is so interesting, so full of great stories and characters, and my favorite kind of novels are the ones that transport you somewhere else, so comics just felt really right for a murder mystery.
Did you start with your main character, Carmen Valdez, the aspiring comics writer, or with the plot?
The character showed up first. I had the broad strokes of 1970s New York comics, comic book interludes, a Cuban American woman from Miami. And then the puzzle came into focus. The best way I know how to write is you create the character, and you kind of let them run around and bump into things and stuff happens. That's when the mystery started to unfurl. Carmen doesn’t have many friends, and then this one friend approaches her with this idea. It's her dream actualized, but with so many red flags that she's smart enough to know that nothing good will come of this, but she does it anyway, because she's been preparing for this moment her entire life. To me, the elements of noir are really about painting people into a corner and seeing how they react, and what they do when things are stacked against them. I wanted to bring those elements into comics as a backdrop and see what would happen.
Why did you choose to set Secret Identity in the 1970s?
It was a particularly interesting time for comics in that it was before comic shops became prevalent. You’d go to the newsstand for your comics, and you’d pick up what was there, but there was no guarantee that you could get the next Amazing Spider-Man or whatever. The industry was falling apart financially. In 1975, it was a very insular industry, and it was very much driven by superfans or people that were working in the industry as a means to getting somewhere else. You’d work in comics a little bit and then maybe travel or write for TV, unless you were someone like Carmen, or someone like [real comics industry writers and publishers] Paul Levitz or Len Wein, people that came up through fandom. I wanted to show that contrast, and I want people who are familiar with comics today to see a very different industry, while still echoing themes that are important today, like characters and creative credit.
How did you handle the logistics of setting a comic within the novel?
When we pitched the book to Zack Wagman at Flatiron, I had Sandy Jarrell, the artist, do a page, the one where The Lynx is crashing through the window, and I sent it along with the pitch. I felt like that was the best way to show what the book would be, this conversation between these two mediums that hopefully together makes for something better.
I'd worked with Sandy at Archie, and we’d always wanted to work together. When I walked him through this, he was all in. I didn't want to hamper his storytelling ability, so I gave him an idea of who the character was, and he did some designs. As opposed to going full script, I would just say, this is a two-page sequence, the Lynx will be jumping from rooftop to rooftop, and she'll capture a criminal and interrogate him, and then we'll end with an ominous moment. He would do a layout and I would script over that and then Taylor Esposito, the letterer, would layer in the letters and Sandy would ink the work. It was much more organic than comics traditionally are.
There's one sequence where a different writer and a different artist take on the character and it loses all the heart. All the nuance and the subtext and pathos that Carmen was feeling are gone, and it becomes this very typical, very middle-of-the-road superhero comic, and I wanted to reflect that. Sandy drew it completely differently, and that really is a testament to how good he is.
Did you find that the comic pages changed your prose writing?
Yes. There were moments when I had to go back and turn the prose up to match the pitch of the comic sequence. [The comics] serve as interludes, like change-of-gear moments or catch-your-breath moments, but they also serve to amplify what's happening in the main story.
What was the most fun part of creating Secret Identity?
It was a lot of fun just to create the story. I wanted to create the sense of verisimilitude, that if you read the book, and you squinted, you could believe that maybe it happened, that maybe there was a Triumph Comics, and maybe there is a Lynx comic book somewhere in a comic shop, at the bottom of a bin. That was the fun part.