A Conversation with Alex Segura, author of "Secret Identity"
Insight into comic books? Check. Page-turning mystery? Check. Twists and turns that are emotionally-rooted? Check. A Hell-of-a-fun read? Yep, it’s a new novel by Alex Segura.
Secret Identity is all you’re expecting from Segura—and more. At Triumph Comics, writer Carmen Valdez is just about to score her big break with “The Lethal Lynx,” a female superhero in the 1970s’ male-dominated stable, when the bottom drops out from under her. Her secret project becomes entangled in a colleague’s murder and all her dreams begin to unravel, even as the stakes for both her and the Lynx get higher and higher.
Okay, let me just start by saying—no, shouting from the rooftops—that you were Born to write this book. It's so unequivocally you, blending comics, crime, mystery, Miami, New York, art, music, the life of a writer.... If someone had handed me Secret Identity without the author named, I still would have known it was written by you. And, trust me, I mean that as the highest compliment. But I want to jump in with—why now? What made this the time, in the world or in your life, for Secret Identity to land on the page?
That's so nice to hear, Steph! I feel like we've been on this journey together and had so many ups and downs as young writers, and it means a lot to hear you say that. You're one of my favorite writers and people, so it means the world. Thank you.
Well, likewise! And you’re very welcome. It’s been so wonderful to see your writing career really come charging out of the gate.
Thanks! That’s an interesting way to put it—a lot of people are reacting to this book like a debut, which is funny because it’s my seventh novel. But it definitely does feel like… a leveling up?
As for why now... I guess I felt ready? I knew, probably by the fourth Pete book—when I knew the end of the series was in sight—that I was going to do a standalone set in comics. It just felt like it was time. I felt ready, as a writer. When I first started, I don't think I had the ability to pull off this kind of book—to do the research it required, or to nail down the tone and vibe I wanted. I also just wasn't ready to write a New York novel, either. I didn't have the tools in my kit yet. I know that sounds trite, but I'm thankful I had that long-view, and that I didn't try to force it. So, by the time I got to Secret Identity, it felt right, and it was liberating—after a long-running series and a Star Wars detour—to be really flexing my writing muscles in this new space. I just had a blast writing the book, and I hope it shows.
Oh, it does. I was just saying this about a difficult novel I’m currently working on. There’s no way I could have written it five years ago. Or even one book ago. I had to go through the process of learning how to write—by writing all the previous books—to have any idea of how to tackle this project. But to have the foresight to understand that as you did… see, yet another reason why you’re so good.
Yes, exactly! I had to write the Pete books to learn how to write novels, and then I could really tinker with the process, as opposed to leaping for the brass ring first. It’s why people suggest short stories or shorter works first. You have to get your sea legs.
Absolutely. So, on to comics! Although I grew up reading comics in the late 80s and early 90s, I must admit I knew almost nothing about the comic book scene of the mid-70s. Why did you choose this specific era as the backdrop for Secret Identity?
I wanted to pick a time that was the complete opposite of today, where comics are literally everywhere. Not just in print, but on TV and movies and podcasts. You can't avoid them, and that's great! But knowing my comics history, I also realized there was a time when comics were seen as this disposable thing, to not only the readers who loved them, but to the people working in comics. Before comics shops were a big part of the industry, the only way you could get your fix was at the newsstand, and that didn't guarantee you'd get the next issue of X-Men or what-have-you. The distribution model was just flawed. So sales were dwindling, and the people involved were either super-fans (like Carmen), or creative types looking to do something else, but biding their time in comics. I realize this is a massive generalization, but speaking broadly, that's what it looked like to me. There were also only a handful of options for creators—you couldn't, like today, create or launch your own series. You had to do it at Marvel, DC, or those kinds of places, and that meant giving away your ideas and IP. It was a completely different time, and ripe for the hook of the novel—which is this idea that Carmen loses control of her character, this thing that was so tied to who she is, so personal. I think there are so many stories like that in comics, and it feels really relatable.
My experience reading comics as a child and teenager was much more akin to Carmen Valdez's than any of the lucky readers of today. If comics were cool somewhere in the early '90s, it wasn't backwoods North Florida. I was one of the few people I knew who read comic books and the only other girl I knew—who, incidentally, is still my best friend to this day—I met through the 'pen pal' section in Wizard magazine. Needless to say, I've always thought of the comic community as a 'boy's club.' Why did you choose to have both your protagonist and your superhero be women?
Oh, that's awesome! How did I not know that? I worked at Wizard! Probably long after you wrote that letter—but I was also a reader around the same time you were. I was obsessed with it.
Ha! See, this is why we should have talked comics a while ago! It only took you having to write a whole novel about them for us to finally have this conversation. But, yes, Wizard magazine was so influential to me. I actually had a subscription, and seeing a new issue arrive in the mail was the best thing ever. Like you just said, it was a different time, even back in the 90s. I had no one around who understood my love—and with certain characters and storylines it was a deep love—of comics. Poring over the pages of Wizard made me a little less alone in that love.
We need to get you writing a comic soon! You’d be so great.
And in terms of Carmen’s creation, well—this is weird—but like Pete did, Carmen just kind of showed up in my brain, and she fit perfectly into the story I wanted to tell. It made it more compelling, I thought, to have Carmen not only struggle for purchase in comics, but also have to push back against the ingrained misogyny of the industry (and the world) of the time. I didn't take the idea lightly, though. I'm not a woman, and while I can write women characters, I wanted to make sure I did it thoughtfully—so I talked to a lot of amazing and talented women who worked in comics at the time, just to bounce ideas off them and see how plausible the concept was. It was an awesome learning experience and added so much to the story. I'm eternally grateful that they gave me their time.
But yes, especially back then, comics were a boys’ club—the makeup was mainly male, and I wanted to showcase that—and the added hurdles someone like Carmen would have to leap to get the chance to write. While the core idea of the novel might not have happened, I don't think it was too far off base to think that Carmen's boss basically said "no, sorry - I'm gonna’ give my friends work instead" to her continued attempts to break in as a writer.
Do you think that sexism in the comic industry is still present? Or, rather, still rampant and as accepted as it was in the 1970s? I know this is a bit off-base, but I’m thinking of events like Gamergate, where female game creators and reviewers were mass-harassed to almost brutal extremes by men who were afraid women were altering the landscape of the gaming industry.
Yeah, for sure. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think it was still present. There’s still a lot of work to be done. Comics has its own toxic movement akin to the one you mention—I don’t even want to give it credence by mentioning it by name, But yeah, there are still vocal minorities within the fandom that don’t want to see the creators and characters in comics reflecting the world we live in, which is a shame and unrealistic, to say the least.
I was going to ask you about research for Secret Identity—even though you're in the industry, I knew you'd put in the research hours—but then I read the acknowledgements in which you list so many incredible resources. So instead of asking what you read to prepare for writing Secret Identity, I'd like to know why it was so important to you to get it all right, down to the slightest detail. Why does the novel's authenticity matter?
I wanted to really achieve a sense of verisimilitude with the novel, the idea that, if you squint slightly, you could think it happened. This makes me sound insane, I bet, but I always love stories that weave through history—this might be a weird example, but something like the movie That Thing You Do! comes to mind. A work that feels... plausible. And I knew the only way to achieve that with Secret Identity, to ensure I got not only the casual mystery readers but comic book diehards to buy into the story, was to make sure I got my facts right. I'm sure I got some of it wrong, but I really strove to evoke the period and comics of that time, as opposed to just winging it. It just adds to the whole thing. I'm really grateful to the comics pros who spent time reading the book and giving me notes, catching the little things I missed due to my own ignorance and saving my butt. It made the book better.
You mention two different types of readers—even though Secret Identity has everything that both mystery lovers and comic book fans will love, did you have one audience in mind over the other?
No—I really wanted to strike a balance, honestly. I wanted comic book fans to get a chuckle at all the Easter eggs, but enjoy a fun romp of a mystery, and I wanted mystery readers to enjoy the book and be intrigued by the nods to the world of comics, enough so that they might consider reading some comics, too! But that made it hard—because I didn’t want to fall too far into the “explaining” trap—especially with people or characters in comics. I found that it worked better when it was just in the background and mentioned in terms of the plot, as opposed to a lot of detours to over-explain who these people were. You had to pay attention to get it, which I think is ideal with a novel like this.
I was so, so thrilled to see that there are actual comic book pages in Secret Identity. You do such a masterful job of blending and playing out Carmen's story in flashes from her comic, The Lethal Lynx. Aside from the artwork being memorable, I was also struck by the attention to detail. For example, how the credits of the comics’ pages change as the novel's story progresses. Did you know, from the beginning of writing Secret Identity, that you would include comic artwork?
I did! Sandy Jarrell, the amazing artist, and Taylor Esposito, the letterer, and I did a spec page that we included in the pitch packet for the novel, as a bit of proof of concept. The idea first came to me in college, no joke. I was reading one of my favorite novels, Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon.
Such a good novel!
Just the best. I loved it, of course. It felt like a validation of everything I wanted in a book—comics, adventure, etc. It felt like he wrote it just for me. My one thought, though, was why didn't he have The Escapist comics *in* the novel? That idea stuck with me for years. I never thought I'd actually get the chance to do it myself, though, and I knew I needed someone who was not only a great artist—which Sandy is—but also a student of comics history. Sandy and I had an amazing shorthand, and he was able to evoke the style and tropes of the era without seeming like a bad imitation.
I love that you noticed the credits, too! That was the nerd in me. I wanted to reflect the changing people behind the comic sequences, and echoing the main plot—where, for example, another writer steps in. You see it reflected in the comic. It's those little things that give me a thrill as a reader, so I wanted to do the same here. The book is loaded with Easter eggs—comics, music, Pete Fernandez, you name it.
One of my greatest dreams is to adapt one of my books into a graphic novel. The format, the blend of text and art, the framing of the storytelling—it's such an incredible genre. Secret Identity puts a twist on the genre, though, as it's a true novel, with a comic book embedded in and running parallel to the story. I know you have experience writing graphic novels and comics, but how was it to write in this new blended genre you've created? And how was it to work with Sandy Jarrell and Taylor Esposito on the artwork and design of the comic?
Working with Sandy and Taylor was a dream—they're both pros, and I've been wanting to create a story with Sandy for over a decade. Sandy is such a good storyteller, too, that I wanted him to flex those muscles as much as possible—so once we'd finished nailing down the look of the Lynx, I just gave him a few sentences for each sequence, then he'd lay out the page and we'd go back and forth. We ended up with our own casual shorthand, like "let's go for a Frank Miller vibe here" or "think Bill Sienkiewicz Moon Knight here,” stuff like that. Where you just know the other person is going to nail it. After he'd do the layout, I'd write the script and Taylor would layer it into the page and we'd be off to the races. It's been one of the best collaborations of my career.
I was going to say, that whole process sounds like an amazing experience! I’m just going to sit over here and be jealous a moment. Keep going…
Ha! Well, as far as being a blended genre—I guess I just saw it from a more musical perspective? Like, I was switching instruments between songs, and the comic book sequences were musical interludes to the main film? Does that sound wild?
Considering how important music is in this novel, and all your novels, not at all.
Okay, good. I also felt like the comics and prose were in conversation with each other, amplifying and evoking the other so that they were essential to the bigger picture. I don't think the novel, for example, works on its own, without the art—and obviously vice versa. I didn't want to do it just to do it, is my point.
And I think that shows. What could have been a gimmick by another writer, or done in another way, is essential to the story in Secret Identity. And that the two genres flow together so effortlessly, it’s just really something to see and read. Do you think you would use this format again for a different novel? Or is it something that needs to stay tied to Secret Identity?
That…is a great question. I’ll just smile and nod.
Fair enough. And I’m sure you saw this final question coming… now that you’ve knocked out a comic book novel, what’s turning your head? Is there a new project you’re currently working on or a new direction you’re going in? You always seem to have your finger in a lot of pies, so I’m dying to know what you’re going to surprise us with next.
So much stuff! I have a comic being published by NPR’s Planet Money podcast, of all places—The Mysterious Micro-Face. That’s an interview unto itself, but it sprang out of me being a guest on one of the episodes. It’s drawn by Jamal Igle and features a lost Golden Age hero named Micro-Face. It’s just been a fun, meta experience. I also have another announcement in the novel space coming soon, so I’m stoked for that. I’m working on my next crime novel now, while trying to promote Secret Identity. I have a new comic book series, co-written by Michael Moreci and drawn by Dean Kotz, called The Awakened, in partnership with a new digital platform named Zestworld—it’s a superhero noir comic that takes the idea of an Avengers or Justice League-type team and asks the question of what truly defines power, and does power equal heroism? It’s been so great to work on. The Dusk Kickstarter, which got funded last year, is close to being done—so I’m excited to get that into people’s hands, too. I’m sure I’m forgetting something—oh, I have a secret project with our own Rob Hart that we’re shopping around that I hope finds a home soon. Not that I don’t have enough to do!
Sure, so not much going on at all… In other words, stay tuned for more, folks!
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