Tag Archives: comic books

Q & A #92 – Alex Segura, “Secret Identity”

Kirkus raved, gave it a starred review: “A masterful book filled with real heart and soul.”

National Public Radio offered glowing praise: A “masterful 1970s literary mystery.”

(There’s that word “masterful” again.)

The New York Times joined the party, too: “Witty and wholly original.”

Alex Segura’s Secret Identity has got the buzz going.

And it’s likely headed for a slew of awards, too.

When they come, they won’t be Segura’s first. Alex is also the author Star Wars Poe Dameron: Free Fall, The Pete Fernandez Miami Mystery Series, and of a number of comic books – including The Mysterious Micro-Face (in partnership with NPR), The Black Ghost, The Archies, The Dusk, and The Awakened. Segura’s short story, “90 Miles” was included in The Best American Mystery and Suspense Stories for 2021 and won the Anthony Award for Best Short Story.

Segura, whom I met a few years ago when we served together on the board of Mystery Writers of America (during a somewhat, let’s say, “interesting” time), agreed to answer a few questions about Secret Identity by e-mail.

A full review of Secret Identity follows (far below). Full disclosure that Alex and I share the same agent, but I stand by every word.

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Question: You said in the acknowledgements that Secret Identity has been percolating “for years.” Can you trace the moment of inspiration all the way back to a specific time when the idea hatched? Had you already been writing Pete Fernandez stories or did this idea come even before that?

Alex Segura: This idea came in three forms, and they kind of combined to become the basis for Secret Identity. In college, I was a journalism kid, but an English Lit major. So I took a lot of literature classes and also read voraciously (still do, of course). One of my favorite authors was/is Michael Chabon. I have a particular fondness for his early novels—Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, and, of course, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It was while reading the latter that I had the first bolt of inspiration. I loved the novel, of course. It felt like everything I’d ever wanted in a book. But I also really longed to read the comics about the characters in the book—especially The Escapist. I filed the idea, of inserting actual comics into a novel, away. Never really thinking I’d be the one to do it.

Another kernel of an idea came along a bit later, in a creative writing class in college. wrote a short story titled “Sometimes Green,” about an entry-level employee at a comic book company that discovers a lost character, and how they try to reinvigorate it. I never finished the story, but I was clearly interested in exploring that space. But I was very set on being a “literary” writer at the time—I hadn’t fully embraced the joys of genre yet. So it faltered. The third element was a character I created in my early twenties, called The Lynx. I don’t remember much of anything about the idea except the name, which obviously stuck with me.

So those three things were floating around when I realized, after writing five Pete Fernandez novels and a Star Wars book, that I wanted to set my next crime novel in the comic book industry. I love stories that take you somewhere else—that transport you to other places, cultures, industries, and times. Writing about comics felt natural to me. Once I settled on 1975 as the year, and New York as the obvious hub for comics at the time, Carmen appeared to me—and the three ideas that had been living rent-free in my head for almost two decades popped up again. I knew the book would really sing if there were actual comics. But the comics needed to be tied to the story, and what better story than one of a creator losing control of her creation, her character? It all felt very natural and meant to be, so I rode the wave.

Question: Could you have written Secret Identity without five Pete Fernandez novels under your belt (and more, of course)? What did you learn from writing those stories that you could apply to Secret Identity?

Alex Segura: I don’t think so, no. I’m grateful that Secret Identity is my seventh novel, because I was able to take all the lessons learned in the writing of the first six and apply them here. I just don’t think it would’ve been as mature, or textured, if this had been my first novel. I don’t want to diminish my earlier work, which I think still has the same ambition and themes as Secret Identity, but I definitely needed the seasoning and experience that came from writing my first few books, and trying new things under the confines of an established sub-genre like PI fiction, or a sandbox like the Star Wars universe. It helped me really cut loose with this one.

Question: What needed to happen for you to get your grips around the story so you could start to write it? The research (again, based on the acknowledgements) looks extensive. How did you know when you had enough to begin?

Alex Segura: The research was a fluid process—I was reading and interviewing people before and during the writing, up until the end, really, of the first draft. I hate to even call it research, you know? It’s just feeding obsessions. When I first got the idea for the book, I thought “well, this will be easy! I know comics! I don’t need to research at all!” Boy, was I wrong. Once the story began to form, and Carmen showed up in my mind, I knew there were so many angles that I needed to drill down on—the particulars of comics in 1975, what it was like to be a woman working in comics at the time, writing outside my own experience, the landscape of New York in 1975…so as the story gelled, I got more focus on what to read, and I was able to immerse myself in different things and figure out who to talk to, as well.

Question: How did you choose the year when you’d set the novel?

Alex Segura: I wanted to set the book during a time that would present not only a very different NYC from the one we know today, but a very different comic book industry. I wanted readers to go in and see a setting and backdrop that felt familiar but was also very, very different.

Question: How much has the industry changed since the mid-1970’s? I assume (as a non-comic book guy) that Hollywood has given the industry a huge lift or at least tugged it more into the mainstream with the Marvel and DC Comic adaptations, but what was it about the business dynamics of the mid-1970’s that made this plot work?

Alex Segura: People approached the industry differently. Back then, if you wanted to get comics, you’d go to the newsstand—to the corner drug store or grocery. There were very comic book shops, or specialty stores. There was certainly not an entirely different distribution channel yet. Comic conventions also didn’t really exist. There was fandom, of course—but it was very insular and tight-knit. The collector mentality didn’t exist yet. And the idea of comics as “IP” or intellectual property—i.e. something you could monetize and exploit in movies, toys, or what-have-you—wasn’t established yet. You had stuff like the original Batman show, but they were few and far between. Working in comics was something you did to pay the bills, creating these disposable stories that would be on spinneracks for a month and then gone, and then moving on. Or, if you were a super-fan, it was something you did because you loved comics, not because you thought, hey, there’s big money in this. That’s very different from the industry today, even if some of the core issues persist.

Question: Okay, Carmen. So many complexities with her life—from her heritage to her sexuality to her ambition. She’s smart. Did she come fairly quickly to you or was she someone who revealed herself in the drafting and development?

Alex Segura: She showed up pretty fully formed, which is something I didn’t want to fiddle with. My best characters tend to just appear— and I follow them around. But Carmen isn’t like Pete, who I had a ton in common with. While Carmen and I have a lot in common, we also have a lot of differences—she’s a queer woman, she’s living in a different time, for starters. So I had to put in a lot of time to not only try on my own to get writing her right, but I also had my fair share of sensitivity readers to look over the manuscript in various stages, to nudge and point me toward the right path. I was also mindful that I was writing a mystery, and while it felt right to be inclusive about my character choices, the responsibility to be thoughtful and mindful of how I wrote her was on my shoulders. I hope I did her justice. She’s by far my favorite character.

Question: The Patricia Highsmith references are clever—particularly The Price of Salt by “Claire Morgan” (a.k.a. Highsmith). A cool echo to Carmen’s struggle to break into the industry, given Highsmith’s status as a rare female writer in the business in the mid-1940’s and given Highsmith’s own drive and determination. Did you track down and read any of Highsmith’s comic stories? Did you read a Highsmith biography as research? And—care to mention a few of your favorite Highsmith novels?

Alex Segura: Highsmith’s presence looms large over the book, so I’m glad you noticed it. I love her work—and read some of her comics, but not in an immersive way. I was more drawn to her novels, particularly Deep Water, Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt, The Blunderer, and This Sweet Sickness. She has a knack of creating suspense where many would have trouble finding any, and her characters are always complex, seriously flawed, and not definitively good or bad. All of that seeps into Secret Identity in some way.

Question: Clearly, you’re a fan of the music from the mid-1970’s. Great references in Secret Identity to Richard Hell, Television, CBGB’s, and much more. Since you were born after this era, when did you get turned on to it? Isn’t that first Television album incredible? Other favorite albums or tracks? And was it a bit daunting to bring Hilly Kristal back to life in your plot? 

Alex Segura: It was daunting! I had to listen to interviews from the era and try my best to evoke him, but I think we did him justice! I love the early days of punk—Talking Heads are probably my favorite band ever, and I have a great fondness for Television, Blondie, and earlier groups like the Velvet Underground (and the Reed and Cale solo libraries). Patti Smith and Springsteen are also favorites, so it felt really important to get nods to them in there without it seeming too much like a Wikipedia entry. I got turned onto most of these bands in college—I’m pretty sure it started with a Velvets compilation, and I was hooked from there. I listen to them all pretty religiously still.

Question: Can you describe the process of going through a sensitivity read during the editing process? Did the reader make suggestions you rejected? Were you surprised to see images or ideas sneak into the prose that might be considered offensive and that you hadn’t spotted yourself? Was this new step and/or process for Secret Identity or something you went through with the Pete Fernandez books, too?

Alex Segura: The process usually involved me sending the manuscript to the reader and then having a phone call or exchanging emails about their thoughts—and I’d say, 99 percent of the time, I took the edit or suggestion, because that’s why we do this. We want to get notes on how to write a character that we don’t share our life experiences with better.

There was one note that was presented as kind of “not super important, but you could do this” and it just felt like too much to tack onto a given scene, so I skipped it. But everything else (which ranged from a minor tweak to a larger note that changed the core plot for one character) I did integrate, and it really made the book stronger. There’s a moment where Carmen is walking by Stonewall, and one of the readers noted it would be odd for her not to think anything about where she was—and that made a lot of sense and didn’t feel like I was being heavy-handed, so I took the note and I felt like it really added to Carmen in the moment. I’m grateful for stuff like that, because I’m always there for anything that makes the book better.

Question: What has nobody asked you about Secret Identity that you wish you could answer?

Alex Segura: Nobody’s asked me about all the Easter Eggs relating to my own work! And there are a ton! Two Pete Fernandez references, nods to other comics I’ve written like The Black Ghost, The Dusk, The Awakened, Micro-Face…I had a lot of fun with those.

Question: What are you working on next? And will the Lethal Lynx evolve into a full-blown comic series? 

Alex Segura:  I’m working on a pseudo-sequel to Secret Identity. It’ll be set in the modern day and feature a new protagonist, but we’ll see old friends from the first novel. It’s very much the other side of the coin to Secret Identity, and hopefully entertains. And yes, we’re going to unveil a Lynx comic sometime next year! Stay tuned.

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More at Alex Segura’s website.

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REVIEW:

Carmen Valdez is sitting in a classroom in Dade Junior College in Miami. She’s taking a writing class because the teacher, Emma Lytton, has come highly recommended. The teacher offers this bit of writerly insight:

“If your characters are developed, if you spend enough time with them—really, truly, get to know them … then they’ll come to life,” says the teacher. “You have to create a world, with people in it, so believable that you are just the tool that the world uses to tell the story.”

Fictional Emma Lytton may as well have been describing the approach of real-life writer Alex Segura, who has been pondering Carmen Valdez and her story for a very long time. As in, a good couple of decades and five mystery novels ago. The ruminating has paid off in the richly layered Secret Identity.

And did Ms. Lytton say something about creating a world? Well, Alex Segura may not have been alive at the time this novel was set (Segura was born in 1980) but he knows more than a little about comics. Segura he is the Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Oni Press, with previous stints at Archie Comics and DC Comics. And if you follow him online, well, you know he’s steeped in the business. And its history.

Secret Identity is set in 1975. Carmen works for Triumph Comics in the Flatiron District of New York City. Jeffrey Carlyle, who owns Triumph, is a self-important, old-school grump. He sees the business as a means to an end. He wants to move “up” to the world of true literature. But he also enjoys the business battle against comic book giants like Marvel and DC Comics.

Down in the pecking order at Triumph—we first meet her in the copy room—Carmen Valdez wants nothing more than to develop and write her own superhero comic. She’s already been told by Carlyle that a script she was “competent” but “needs work.” Carlyle explains (er, condescends to her) that she’s competing against “a line of guys outside my office who would kill, literally murder someone to write a comic here, to be in business with us.” Carlyle wants Carmen to be an editor. Maybe. Carlyle tells her to be patient.

Soon, a fellow staffer seeks Carmen’s help in developing an idea. Somehow, Harvey Stern has been greenlighted to pitch something to Carlyle while she was discouraged. Watching as Harvey and Carmen develop a concept is entertaining—a peek inside the process when a couple of story-focused creatives conjure a new character. What they come up with is the Lethal Lynx. Harvey is interested in Carmen beyond the story development (no surprise there) but Carmen is quietly queer. In fact, Carmen lives in a triple shadow—sexually, creatively, and professionally.

And then things get complicated. Harvey is found dead, a bullet in his forehead. Their joint creation has gained traction with Carlyle, but Harvey had kept Carmen’s role in the project a secret. The Lethal Lynx is about to be published. “She felt a heavy stone inside her—but she also felt loss. What would happen to their creation now? Should she burst in and tell Carlyle the truth? That she’d helped Harvey create the character he was about to launch? No. She knew Carlyle well enough … He would cancel the book within minutes.”

So Carmen’s quickly got her hands full—wanting to see the Lethal Lynx reach its potential, protect her intellectual and creative property, and figure out who shot Harvey. And then there is a sudden re-appearance in New York of one of Carmen’s ex-lovers from Miami. Carmen, who is concerned that the Lethal Lynx has the right backstory to get “activated” as a character, is suddenly very activated herself. She is not instantly transformed as an amateur detective, but it doesn’t take her long to become a driving force. Segura takes every opportunity to plunge into New York of the time, including plenty of musicians (jazz and rock) and a chance for Carmen to quiz legendary CBGB’s owner Hilly Kristal. 

You can feel Segura’s interest, commitment, and passion for the comic book business. There’s a gem reference (and it’s not a throwaway) to one-time comic book writer Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, the novel she had to publish under the penname Claire Morgan due to the lesbian relationship at the heart of the novel, which neatly echoes Carmen’s predicament, too. There are references galore for true fans and followers of the business (I am not one of those). And Segura (with artist Sandy Jarrell) gives readers a glimpse of the Lethal Lynx with excerpts from the series interspersed as the novel progresses. Anyone who doubts the work that went into Secret Identity, please check the extensive acknowledgements and the many interviews and research that went into this project.

Secret Identity takes us to an unusual setting, takes us deep inside the business, and gives us a strong character at the heart of the story. Personally, the “noir” references don’t really ring true for me; Carmen is too young and not jaded enough (yet). Secret Identity is crime fiction to its core but Segura isn’t afraid to keep the pace grounded and believable. Remember teacher Lytton’s advice how to make something believable? Segura would ace the class.