The era: 1970s New York City. The tone: dark and noir-ish. The setting: A small-time comic book press.
It’s a unique environment for a gritty crime story, but author Alex Segura uses his background as a writer of both mysteries and comics to blend these worlds together in his latest novel, “Secret Identity.” The book arrives in stores on March 15.
In “Secret Identity,” Carmen Valdez is working as an assistant at a struggling comic book publisher run by a boss who won’t take a chance on a female writer. Trying to escape painful memories of failed romance as well as parental conflict from her past de ella in Miami, all Carmen wants is a shot at creating her own superhero series – not easy for anyone, let alone a woman of color.
Related: Sign up for our free newsletter about books, authors, reading and more
But a secret partnership with another writer, Harvey Stern, brings to life the heroine Lethal Lynx, and the prospect of finally reaching her goal, albeit without credit. But then Harvey is murdered and the first Lynx books are submitted – without Carmen’s knowledge – and published to huge acclaim.
Carmen is thrust into the position of trying to piece together what happened to Harvey while trying to protect the Lynx, now in danger from hack writers and sexist tropes. All the while she’s dodging phone calls from her father de ella, the attention of a persistent police officer, the drama from an old flame and the many barriers in her way de ella as she struggles to carve a path in an unfriendly industry.
In “Secret Identity,” Segura directs the reader’s focus to experiences – the experience of being raised in an immigrant family, of working in the comic book industry at one of its low points and of living in New York during a time of both rampant crime and unparalleled creativity in art and music. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. You’ve written mysteries before – was this the first time you’ve set one in the comic book world?
When I started writing mystery novels, I was working full-time in comics. As a kid growing up, I read Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie and a lot of the classics, but around the time I started working in comics, I was reading a lot of modern private eye novels. That’s when I got the idea to write my own, which led to the [Pete Fernandez] private eyeseries.
“Secret Identity” is the first time that I’ve had comic book elements in a mystery. I wanted people to get a sense of the setting, the time, the industry and the work that goes into comics, but not be bogged down by entire Wikipedia pages of content where you’re just getting a lot of factoids thrown at you. To me, the best books give you just enough information that you then go and do your own research. If the story gets people interested in comics, or the world of comics, that’s great!
Q. The comics industry of 1975 seems like a really specific time period. Why set the story then?
I’ve always been a comics fan, not just of the stories but of the industry. I chose the ’70s very specifically. I wanted to show a time when comics weren’t nearly as prevalent as they are today, and how the seeds of what we see today – now-iconic parts of pop culture – were created by people who were just kind of toiling.
Today, comics are everywhere. There are four or five Marvel movies a year. A “Peacemaker” show. Even people who aren’t comic fans can rattle off the names of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and that’s amazing.
But 1975 was a totally different time – the industry was falling apart. People saw comics as a dying craft. The ones that were working in comics were either doing it to get to something else, a book or a TV show, and this was kind of paying the bills, or they were super fans that grew up reading Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and wanted to contribute to something that they loved. Carmen obviously falls into the latter group.
Q. Carmen is an interesting protagonist. How did you come up with her character from ella, and did you speak to any women in the industry for background?
Usually, my characters are an amalgamation of people I’ve met or connected with in some way. When I wrote my private eye series, the character of Pete Fernandez kind of walked in, and I realized, OK, this is who he is. And I never thought that would happen again.
But then Carmen showed up and I realized she would be the perfect character for this story because she adds a level of intrigue. Carmen is not a detective, and I think there’s some fun in the idea that this person who’s never dealt with crime is pulled into this situation and figuring out the choices she has to make. Also, there weren’t a lot of women working in comics in the 1970s – there weren’t a lot of stories about that era in which women were allowed to drive the narrative.
One of the first interviews I did in researching the book was with Linda Fite. She wrote a comic called “The Cat” for Marvel, and it was billed at the time as the first female superhero series written by a woman. She was in the Marvel bullpen and so she had a lot of great stories and a lot of feedback. And I spoke to louis simonson, who is an amazing writer and editor and has been in comics forever. Louise told me about these volleyball games that Marvel and DC had, so I integrated that into the plot.
I also spoke to Paul Levitz, who was the president and publisher at DC Comics. When I first worked at DC, he was the top boss, and he’s also an acclaimed writer. He read “Secret Identity,” and said, “You know, I’m going to give you feedback on the comic stuff” – details that maybe a casual reader would gloss over, like when sales numbers would come in. But if you’re a comics fan and know that time period, these are the little things you would know.
For some elements [of Carmen’s sexual identity], I had sensitivity readers to make sure that I was doing justice to the story I was telling. The list of people who helped me is long, and they were so giving with their time, without any expectations. I was really grateful that people took the time to read it at different stages, or just give me insight into that era, which I felt added to the texture of the story.
Q. Carmen’s background includes growing up on comics thanks to her father and moving to New York from Miami. Do those events come from your life history?
For me, comics were a big part of my youth. I remember getting my first comic at Publix [supermarket], and the first comic I bought with my own money with my dad from the newsstand. I never really got into bagging and boarding and selling my comics, I was all about hoarding them and reading them. I’d read them until they disappeared.
I moved from Miami to New York when I was probably a little bit younger than Carmen was. I can relate a lot to that sense of isolation like you’re in the biggest city in the world, paddling through. But you’re also focused on not losing your shot – that this is going to be your moment.
I always wanted to write a New York crime novel, but when I first started writing private eye novels, I knew I didn’t have enough New York in me yet to write it. I had just moved from Miami and I was homeick. So instead I wrote five Miami crime novels. Even in “Secret Identity,” I always want Miami to be some part of every story I tell, just because it’s so integral to who I am.
Q. You interspersed the narrative parts of the book with pages from the Lethal Lynx series that Carmen wrote. Can you talk about their origin and how you decided to use them?
I was an English major and going through this phase where I read a lot of literary fiction. When I read “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” I was just blown away, because it felt like [author Michael Chabon] was blending all these things that I love – an adventure story in prose in this world of comics that I was familiar with. I remember really wanting to read the comics [created by the characters in the book] as part of the novel experience. I kind of filed that idea away, but years later, when I knew I wanted to do a novel set in comics, it kind of found its way back into my mind.
When my agent and I were shopping the novel, I reached out to Sandy Jarrell, who’s the artist of the sequences. I walked him through what I wanted, and who the character of the Lynx was. We drew a page that went with the pitch just for proof of concept. These comic sequences ended up being part of the bigger story. taylor esposito did the lettering.
Sandy is not just a great artist – he gets the history of comics. We could have a nice shorthand: I’d say, “Hey, let’s make this look like 1970s ‘Daredevil,’” or “Let’s really evoke ‘House of Mystery.’” And we’d send images back and forth. Traditionally in comics, you write a full script and the artist follows that screenplay – obviously, with some wiggle room. But there’s also another path, a shorthand that they call “the Marvel method.” You give the artists a paragraph or a few slight descriptions for each page, and then you let them direct the sequence. That’s what we did with this. I wanted to read into his skill as a storyteller.
I was pretty mindful of where I placed the interludes because I wanted it to amplify the story beats – if there’s a moment where Carmen’s in trouble, then we can drop in a sequence where the Lynx is in trouble. It kind of echoes what’s happening, but also gives you some texture.
There’s an old saying to write the book you want to read that doesn’t exist. This is a book that I wish existed when I was younger. I would have devoured it because these are the kinds of things that interest me. If you’re a fan of comics, I think you’ll find the book interesting because it gives you a peek behind the scenes of the industry. And I think it’s enough of a potboiler that it would entertain a mystery fan.