Murder, sexism, and comics: Alex Segura talks up his latest novel, Secret Identity (and the comic spin-off!)
Alex Segura talks inspirations behind his new book, and the future of his noir-comics hybrid
Alex Segura has always been a jack of all trades, and master of all; he’s a novelist, comic book writer, and also works in the publishing side of things. He has always walked the line between these different fields but with the release of his newest novel, Secret Identity, he blends both comic and novel mediums into something a bit more unique — a novel set in the comic book industry while also featuring comic book sequences drawn by Sandy Jarrell and lettered by Taylor Esposito.
The book’s protagonist is Carmen Valdez, a secretary at a comic book company whose dream is to one day break into comics and write her own stories. Since the book is set during '70s New York, she’s working in what was, and would be for some time, a male-dominated field. Her boss respects her but won’t entertain notions of her writing something for the company, but she manages to get her food in the door when a male editor at the company offers her the chance to co-create a new character with him, the Lethal Lynx.
It’s a noir-tinged mystery that evokes a whole era that the medium has rarely explored. We spoke with Segura about his inspirations, what kind of research went into Secret Identity, the real comic spinoff The Lost Adventures of the Legendary Lynx at Zestworld, and writing something that he feels like he’s been building up to for his whole career.
Popverse: Alex, You’ve written both novels and comics throughout your career. What about this story appealed to you as a novel instead of a comic?
Alex Segura: I knew as I was finishing my private eye series, set in Miami, that I wanted to do something more finite - more standalone - for my next novel. And as a reader, I love books that are not only a good yarn, but that also transport you - to other places, other times, other industries. One of my favorite parts of the Pete series, at least the first one, were the newspaper bits: the peeks into working at a daily paper and the pulling back of that curtain. So that got me to thinking about writing a murder mystery in comics. I wasn't sure about the details yet, because I didn't have a character. But I knew it would be compelling to set it in comics, and that was a world I was familiar with and had read a lot about - in terms of the history of the industry.
It started out as "just" a novel - but I felt like, if I wanted to fully honor the medium, there needed to be some kind of graphic element, and I was reminded of my own experience as a reader - diving into Michael Chabon's superlative Kavalier & Clay. I loved the book. Devoured it and read it over and over as time passed. But the one thing I was left wanting was that I really wanted to see The Escapist in comic form - I wanted to experience the character Kavalier and Clay created. Eventually they did the comics, as a separate project, but I wanted it to be woven together. So once I knew I was going to write a novel in the world of comics, the idea of having the comics and prose in meta conversation came soon after. But it was all theoretical, because I didn't have a character yet.
Your main character, Carmen Valdez, is the ultimate outsider character for this period. For one, she’s a woman, and she’s gay as well. What or who inspired you in your creation of her?
Characters are created for two reasons - I think.
One is, they show up - they literally walk into your head, fully formed. The other, is they are serving the plot - you can flesh them out, of course, but the main reason they're there is because you need character X to serve the story. Carmen was the former. I knew the broad strokes of what Secret Identity was going to be, and I knew it would hinge on character creation as the motivation for the murder, but I didn't know who the lead was. Then she just showed up in my mind - I knew we had a lot in common when I "met" her. She and I were both Cuban-American, we were both from Miami, and so on. But we had differences, too. I'm a straight man and she's a queer woman.
So while I wanted to honor the spark of the idea, and who she was when she showed up, I also needed to be sure I was doing that justice. So I wrote her as best I could, but I also relied on a number of sensitivity readers to ensure I was in the ballpark when it came to experiences I didn't share with Carmen. I also spoke to a number of women who actually worked in comics at the time - the mid-70s. I'd ask them about their experiences but, most importantly, I'd run the plot of the novel by them and get their feedback. It was immensely helpful, and it really affected the book - when I got notes or feedback, I'd listen, and while at the end of the day Secret Identity is a mystery - a page-turner - I wanted to make sure I was being thoughtful in how I wrote Carmen and reflected her world.
In terms of inspiration - well, there's sadly a long line of creators who've had similar issues to Carmen. Lack of credit, working in secret, struggling for recognition. So I pulled a lot from actual comic book history, and from conversations I had with people that worked in comics at the time - a time that was very different from today, when comics are everywhere. We have a Moon Knight TV show! Ant-Man movies! Peacemaker! It's an entertainment golden age.
But back in the '70s, at least in the early part of the decade, people were often wondering if comics would survive. There was no direct market yet. The newsstand was unreliable. It was a rocky moment for the industry, and I don't think the creators and editors were thinking about the idea of 'IP' or 'media' or those kinds of things. It was a job for many. A passionate job for some, sure. But something that you did for a page rate with little regard to what would happen with the work itself.
How much of the setting you decided on also influenced her creation?
I knew I wanted the book to be more character-centric. A lot of my crime novels aren't shy when it comes to body count or action. The Pete novels are adventure stories, even if at the heart of them, they're about a man struggling to deal with his own demons.
But I wanted Secret Identity to really scream noir - mood, tone, texture. I wanted it to feel like a de Palma movie, honestly. Or something really evocative and as much about what was going on in Carmen's head as what was happening to her. Now, I've lived in New York since about 2006 - a long time. But I never felt ready to write a 'New York' novel. It's why my first five books were set in my hometown of Miami, because I felt comfortable there. But after a while, I felt like I was ready, and if you're writing about comics in the '70s, New York is the nerve-center for superhero comics.
I did make a nod to San Francisco and the burgeoning alternative comix movement, too, but this was always going to be a story about a superhero comic book creation, so New York felt right, and playing in a more dangerous and "lost" era made for a fun novel to write.
A lot of comics nowadays are usually injected with prose, but with Secret Identity you’ve done the reverse; how did the comic sequences within the novel come about?
I explained the idea earlier, but the execution was an interesting puzzle, too. One thing I didn't want was for the comics pages to seem...perfunctory, or tacked on. Like, 'oh, look, Alex knows some comic people and is showing off - but you don't need to read these pages.' I wanted the comic book sequences to feel additive and like they were amplifying or teasing things happening in the core story.
I also needed an artist who could evoke - but not imitate - the style, who was a fan of comic book history, and who was versatile enough to not only draw in the main "Doug Detmer" style of most of the Lynx stories, but also showcase what happens when other, lesser creators take over. Sandy Jarrell was my first choice and he thankfully said yes. His pages feel like they could've existed at the time, but they don't feel like he's riffing too hard on a specific artist. I wanted that sense of verisimilitude, that idea that if you squint a bit, you could envision this having happened in our real world, this idea that the Lynx maybe existed.
It's the vibe we're taking with the actual Lynx graphic novel we're doing. We're going all in, completely meta, and treating the book as if it's a reprint of a lost classic - in the way we often see today, but treating it completely seriously. It's been an unexpected blast.
Regarding the Lynx graphic novel you and Sandy are working on; I’d love to hear more about that, about how you decided to expand the Lynx’s story into a graphic novel?
I always wanted to do more with the Lynx - beyond having the pages complement the prose. As Sandy and I worked on the interstitial sequences, we kept having to leave some stuff on the cutting room floor. You see, the work that went into creating the Lynx, her world, her cast, her villains - all of that took the same amount of time it would've if it were a full-blown comic. So we didn't want to waste all that.
We want to present the collection, which is being serialized first digitally on Zestworld, as kind of a 'lost' collection - a reprinting of key issues of a series many comic fans have forgotten. We're going to really lean into the meta of it all, and I hope people get a kick out of it. Hoping to start showing some art soon, but Sandy is already hard at work on it.
Writing a comic as yourself is one thing, but I’m wondering if writing the Lynx comic, “as Carmen,” provided a different writing experience for you?
I mean, you're always writing outside yourself - whether it's a comic book character or prose character. I think a lot of times, people assume that the star of your novel or story is somehow based on you, the author, and the reality is, all the characters have some connection to the author - we slice off little bits of ourselves to help spur the creation of these characters. So, to answer your question - no, the process for creating, or as I felt it, welcoming Carmen into the story wasn't as different as it would've been for a comic book character, like, well, the Lynx. It just becomes a question of how the character is utilized and what they do.
It must have been a wholly different creative process to create those sequences for a novel as opposed to an ongoing sequential story. How did you and Sandy work to create something succinct to the narrative but also something that you could believe would be an actual comic in this world?
It's funny, but it was a good use of my marketing background. I thought - what would a publicist or historian extract? What would be the best preview sequence from this kind of comic? And I'd send Sandy a rough, 2-3 paragraph description of each sequence, noting how many pages, and then he'd send back some rough layouts. We'd go back and forth, then he'd ink, and then I'd script and Taylor Esposito would do the letters in his best imitation of a hand-drawn style. The end result felt really of the time, and I also think, in terms of content - hit the right amount. I don't think it ever feels overdone, which was something we wanted to be mindful of.
Since you’ve bounced between novels and comics a lot, I’m curious as to which medium you prefer? Or where you think your strengths lie?
Oh, I love them both for different reasons. Comics are fun because you're jamming with people. It's like making music. You do a bit, the other person does a bit more, and the end result is something completely different from what you'd envisioned, and hopefully better. Novels are the other end of the spectrum - you, as the writer - are the screenwriter, director, producer, everything. You'll eventually get feedback, but the bulk of the work falls on your lap.
In terms of strengths - I like to think I play to the artist when writing comics. I have no aspirations to draw, and my ego isn't that big, so when I'm working on a comic, I want the artist to not only feel engaged and excited, I want to rely on their eye - their expertise. They're very much the director and wardrobe and cinematographer. I focus on plot and pacing and making sure my visible contributions - the dialogue and captions - complement the art, but don't overshadow it. I try to let the art tell the story because that's why people bought it. They'll read the words, but they want the visuals to transport them.
I'm proud of my dialogue when it come to prose - I also really value my characters and how they all sound different and how (hopefully) memorable they can be. I feel like I miss them when I'm done, which is good. I also try to make sure my mysteries feel earned and not cheap or "gotcha." When I reveal who the killer is, I want the reader to smack themselves on the head because they missed it, or if they knew, to be happy the ride to the conclusion was at least fun and engaging.
How did your experience and knowledge as a comics writer influence your work on this story?
It helped in terms of the nuts and bolts of the craft - talking about writing, talking about editing, and working with others - that really helped add some realism to it, but I have to be honest: I didn't expect the writing of the book to be so research-intensive! I thought, "okay, comics - I know that! I can just wing it." But as I got deeper into it, I found myself doing more and more research because you want to get it right, you want to make sure you describe what it was like to work in comics at the time, and as much actual experience as I have, I was born in 1980 - so I never worked as a writer in the 70s. So I needed to make sure I got that right or as close to right as I could get with research.
You very much set Secret Identity in the real world, with references to Marvel and Batman. What pushed you in that direction as opposed to making up a whole set of analogue characters and companies?
It would've just felt cheesy to set it in this alternate world with SuperDuperMan and Ratman or stuff like that - right? I wanted it to feel like it happened. The comic book sequences are treated like historical artifacts in the novel, like you're reading a document chronicling something that happened, even though it's clearly a prose novel and fictional. I wanted Carmen, Detmer, Carlyle, Harvey, the Lynx - everything - to fit into the world as it was, and weave through history, interacting with real people and talking about real things. I owe a lot of that to writers like James Ellroy - his American Underworld quartet was a huge influence, even if it's very tonally different from Secret Identity. But those novels dance between actual, major moments in history and feature real historical figures making cameos and I just ate that up as a reader. I wanted that verisimilitude to really be a big part of the novel.
Carmen describes losing the magic of comics when working behind the scenes. As someone who has worked in multiple aspects of publishing, how do you keep the magic alive for yourself?
For me, it's about connecting to works that I love. I'm not a big novel re-reader, but I reread comics a lot. Whether it's a beloved run, or a graphic novel I'd missed, I try to engage with the medium as a fan as often as I can. I like to talk about books I love online. I like to celebrate artists. I'm a fan. I wouldn't work in comics if I didn't love the medium, so I try to tap into that whenever I'm feeling particularly jaded or burnt out on the business or churn side of things.
With the novel, you’re blending together two different worlds: a New York noir narrative with the relatively undramatic look at the realities of comic book publishing. How did you go about folding those two worlds together without betraying the honesty of each one?
I think one of the challenges was, if I wanted the book and what happened in the book to "exist" or actually be part of comic book history, I had to be mindful not to disrupt what already existed, if that makes sense. So, I couldn't, say, have The Lynx outsell Superman, or have Jack Kirby draw Avatar, or derail actual comic book fact. That also meant that the crime - without spoiling anything - had to be something that could be forgotten and become a lost tale of comic book lore. I think all that really helped the comic book part of it blend with the setting, with a seamier, darker New York that, like the comic book business of the time, was very much unlike the New York of today.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
Oh, a ton. I outline most of it in the afterword of the book - but suffice to say I spent a big part of time reading books about comic book history, listening to podcast interviews, interviewing actual creators and editors and fans from different eras (focusing on the 70s), and reading fan publications from the time. It was immersive, and so fun - but there was a certain point where I realized, "okay, I have enough to write - I need to write." So you strive to be accurate, but you can also very easily get lost in the sauce. That was hard, because the research was just so much fun.
In your research, what’s one aspect of publishing from that era that you’ve found still frustratingly lingers in today’s era of publishing?
I think comics have gotten much better at finding new voices - looking outside the usual rolodex of people and finding rising stars or people working in other mediums that might be good fits, and that's been a marked improvement from the era where Secret Identity happens. Carlyle literally says to Carmen that he has to keep his friends happy and paid for before he can consider hiring her. I think that's gotten better, but you can always improve. I also think creators have so many more options now - options that didn't even exist back then. You don't have to just do X or Y, you can do so much more with your ideas, and that's going to keep growing and exploding, which is a good thing for talented people.