Alex Segura is no stranger to either comics or crime fiction. The Miami native is the author of the highly acclaimed Pete Fernandez mystery series and has served in executive roles in the comics industry at DC, Archie and now Oni Press, where he is senior VP of sales and marketing. But his latest book of him, Secret Identity (Flatiron Books, March 15, 2022) is the first to combine his two passions. The result is a compellingly readable, historically rich literary gem that evokes the grittiness of 1970s New York and offers a glimpse into a nearly forgotten world.
Secret Identity is set in the comics industry of the mid-1970s and centers on the efforts of a young office assistant, Carmen Valdez, to realize her creative dreams in a business dominated by casual sexism, corner-cutting and treachery. The choice of setting is key. Few people think of post-Watergate America as a “more innocent time,” but the grubbiness of the industry and the outrageous squalor of New York City allowed a kind of freedom that no longer exists now that the stakes are so high. twenty-onest century readers know what was to become of the New York of CBGB, dive bars and affordable rents, and comic fans know the almost unimaginable success and attention that comics would enjoy after hitting a creative and commercial low point in this era. That knowledge suffers Secret Identity with a bittersweet nostalgia for the not-so-good-old-days that seeps into the crevices between the plot points.
Segura himself is too young to remember all of this firsthand, but he conducted extensive research to get the details right. This includes interviewing some of the trailblazing women who began their careers in this era, as well as scholars and other veterans with long memories. The main characters are composites, but sharp-eyed readers in the know can figure out the real people they are modeled on. The background for Secret Identity is more than a basket of easter eggs for comic fans and historians; it’s also fuel for the engine that drives and motivates the plot.
That’s because Segura never forgets, or lets the reader forget, that Secret Identity is a mystery thriller. After a long build-up to establish the characters and atmosphere, the bodies start piling up. That leads Carmen into a web of intrigue that connects some of the shady figures she works with and a hushed-up episode from the recent past with her ongoing struggles to get her work into print through anonymous collaboration with less-talented male professionals.
Once the story machinery is in motion, Segura keeps the pace high and the twists coming. The payoff and the coda reward the reader’s attention to previous details and put the main story in a larger perspective.
Because Secret Identity has a broader agenda than your average crime thriller, it pushes against genre boundaries. “I love genre. You can tell amazing stories through genre,” said Segura. “But Secret Identity is more of a slow-burn than my [Fernandez] novels. “I wanted to spend time with Carmen and her world of her. I tried to give myself enough room in the writing to enjoy the world and talk nuts and bolts about comics. I was obsessed with this book and by Carmen’s journey from her as a Cuban American coming from Miami to NY, carve out a place for herself. ”
The book also has a unique touch: interludes of actual comics, illustrated by Sandy Jarrell. These purport to be pages from Carmen’s (fictional) comic, The Lynx, and are drawn in the style prevalent among publishers of that era. Segura said he worked with Jarrell and letterer Taylor Esposito to hit those notes to provide a visual point of reference for readers.
The combination of first-class storytelling, scholarship, commitment to character, and the special appeal of the artwork makes Secret Identity more than the sum of its parts. This isn’t just a “literary mystery;” it’s Kavalier and Clay with a body count. And like Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2000 novel set at the dawn of comics’ Golden Age, Secret Identity is a book destined to be admired and enjoyed by a readership that’s never cracked the cover of a comic, and for whom the dark days of the mid-70s might as well be the Middle Ages.