How Secret Identity fuses superhero comics into its murder mystery
Up until now, author Alex Segura's writing has come primarily in two forms: Mystery novels like Miami Midnight, and comics like The Archies. With his new book, Secret Identity (out this week from Flatiron Books), the writer decided to combine those two interests. The result is a hardboiled noir, set in decaying '70s New York City, about working in the comics industry.
"The history of comics is full of so many characters, weird stories, and just interesting corners to explore," Segura tells EW. "The '70s struck me as a good time because it's so different from the comic book world we live in today, where the characters are everywhere. I never thought there'd be a day where we'd be watching a Peacemaker show or Guardians of the Galaxy movies. So I wanted to tap into a time when comics were not that big in pop culture. It was really like a forgotten industry, teetering on the brink. I wanted to contrast that time with today."
Amidst the modern superhero zeitgeist, many of us are familiar with the big names from comics history: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko. But Secret Identity centers around a female protagonist, Carmen Valdez. Carmen is a lifelong comics fan who relishes the chance to work in the industry, but is also frustrated by the sexism of the boys club around her. As a queer woman, she has even less time for their various flirtations and harassments.
That's where the title of Secret Identity comes in. Carmen finally achieves her dream of co-creating a brand-new female superhero — but in order to bypass male gatekeepers like her boss, she decides to leave her name off the project. So she ends up with a bifurcated life like Clark Kent or Peter Parker: By day, she works as an assistant in the (fictional) Triumph Comics offices. But on her own time, she writes the adventures of the street-level superhero known as the Lynx.
Secret Identity is not the first novel to dramatize the process of comic creation. Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is still the gold standard in that regard. But with Secret Identity, Segura wanted to actually include the comics written by his protagonist. So every other chapter or so of the novel includes a full page from a Lynx comic, written by Segura but drawn and laid out by artist Sandy Jarrell with lettering by Taylor Esposito. You can check out some of those pages below, along with an exclusive cover image for the first issue of The Legendary Lynx #1 and Jarrell's original design for the character — neither of which appear in the book.
"When I started having these ideas about doing a comic book noir, I was like, well, we need to have comics. We need to show you what the comics are. Sandy was the first person I thought of," Segura says. "The thing about Sandy is he's a great storyteller, which we needed, but he also understands comic book history in a way that I think not everyone does. He gets it."
Jarrell says he jumped at the chance to collaborate and help design the Lynx. Segura gave him the simplest of design ideas ("jumpsuit") and he was off to the races designing a characters who evoked '70s superheroes like Ms. Marvel and Wonder Woman while still feeling fresh. He also has a personal connection to Secret Identity's comics history.
"I was reading the book, and I hit this place in the middle of it where we're at the 1975 Comic Art Convention at the Commodore Hotel," Jarrell tells EW in a Zoom session alongside Segura. "Alex describes the booklet, and so I pull my copy of the booklet out and take a picture and send it to Alex. Like, 'dude, I was at that show.' I was really young, but I had a relative who would drive me into New York and take me to shows. It was great! That's where I met Jack Kirby. So yeah, there's a scene in the book where I'm in the room."
It was important that Secret Identity's comic history feel lived-in. Segura even talked to women who were there at the time to make sure his description of Carmen's experience felt accurate.
"I spoke to a lot of women that worked in comics around that period like Linda Fite, who wrote the Marvel comic The Cat," Segura says. "I got to chat with Louise Simonson and Karen Berger, even though Karen came a little later. It was really to float the idea and say, 'this is the story I'm working on. Does it make sense?' Aside from the murder, obviously. They gave me some context and texture about the era, because I wanted to make sure I got the period right and that I got Carmen's perspectives right. I thought it was an interesting theme to explore, how challenging it was for a woman in comics at the time. There continue to be challenges! It's just a different situation."
Female superheroes have not always been handled well by male writers and artists. At one point in the story, the Lynx is totally taken out of Carmen's control and handed to male hacks who are favorites of the boss. This plot development is reflected in that chapter's comic page, which looks more campy and exploitative than the rest.
"When I did that page, I tried to ink it like Vinny Colletta," Jarrell says, referring to a prolific comics inker from the '50s. "I couldn't think of a good hack-y artist to emulate, but I knew I could finish it hack-y. I knew I could make it look wrong, make it not look like everything else. But I'm glad that was only one page. If I had had to do Colletta for a few pages, I would've been sad."
It's up to Carmen to reclaim her character from these hacks — and, of course, to solve the murder mystery at the heart of the book.
"I wanted it to be really about her passion for the medium, so much so that she's willing to take that risk and say, 'sure, don't put my name on it right away. Eventually I'll get my credit,'" Segura says. And then when it's taken away, it becomes this massive problem she has to resolve. You know the way we would all doodle characters as kids and come up with ideas, she basically gave it to this company, and then she had to try and reclaim it, otherwise it would be lost forever."
Secret Identity is in stores now.