Writer Alex Segura has spent his career bounding between comics work and novels. His output in the former category includes several Archie titles and The Black Ghost. Meanwhile, his prose includes the award-winning Pete Fernandez Mystery series.
But for his latest project, Secret Identity, Segura has combined both comics and novels into something intriguing if not entirely novel. Before the book hits shelves this week (3/15 via Flatiron Books), Segura told us all about his love letter to both comics’ heyday and pure crime fiction, not to mention insights into his own work and collaborating with artist Sandy Jarrell.
On the elevator pitch:
Secret Identity is a comic book noir set in ’70s New York City. It follows Carmen Valdez, a Cuban-American woman who is trying to pursue her dreams in comics. And when she anonymously co-writes a new female superhero for a fledgling publisher, it becomes a huge hit, but her collaborator is murdered. So she has to basically solve the crime to reclaim the character and figure out what happened to her friends.
On the book’s origins:
When I get an idea, the idea comes first. Outside of format. Then as I pull the thread, I think about how am I going to tell the story.
The idea of Secret Identity goes back a long time — well, maybe not that long. I was in college reading [The Amazing Adventures of] Kavalier & Clay, which is a huge influence on me. I remember loving it, and kind of experiencing that idea of, ‘Wow, comics and literature are together — not that there aren’t literary literary comics before, but it was such a cool meta thing. So that idea always stuck with me.
I just kind of put it in my back pocket. I mean, it was in my 20s, and I wasn’t even sure what I was going to be at that point. But fast forward to a few years ago, and I was finishing up my PI series, the Pete Fernandez books, and thinking about what I wanted to do next. I remembered that idea, and my favorite crime novels are the ones that really pull you into not only a different place but a different world. Megan Abbott does it really well, where she’ll do a cheerleading noir or a science noir. So you’re pulled into this culture, and world, that maybe you’re not super familiar with, but it still has the noir elements, like the inquisitive police officer or the person painted into a corner and forced to dig their way out and make some morally tough decisions. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to do that in comics?’ I’m sure, I’m not the first one to write a crime novel in comics, but it felt like if I did it, and stuck to the elements of noir, and really painted a realistic picture, it could have happened. If you read Secret Identity, and squint a little, it could have happened.
Well, what if this woman who’s creating this comic — what if we see the comic? And what if the pages we excerpt from the comic echo the story going on in the prose and you have this little meta conversation going on between the comic book sequences and the story. That felt really fun.
On working with artist Sandy Jarrell:
And I was blessed to have Sandy Jarrell draw them. Not only is Sandy a fantastic artist, just one of the best storytellers in comics, but he also really gets comic comic book history.
He’s a big fan of what’s come before and he can evoke it. So we have this really nice shorthand in terms how we worked. I didn’t give him full script, and I would send him like a few paragraphs and say, ‘This is gonna probably be like two or three pages. Let’s evoke like, [Frank] Miller’s Daredevil or Gene Colan’s The Tomb of Dracula. Then he would break down the panels, and I’d come back and lay in the strips. It made sense to do it in the Marvel method, because we were really trying to evoke that time.
On writing a specific story about comics:
They always ask about the business side, like why are you worried? Why focus on the industry at this time? And there’s an answer to that, because it’s so different from today.
Now, comics are everywhere — we live in an era of like comic book abundance. It’s part of the pop culture lexicon, and 1975 is the opposite of that. Comics were teetering on the edge of something. The newsstand industry was shaky. Comic book shops hadn’t really started to thrive yet. The back issue market hadn’t really kicked in. The only people that were working in comics were super fans, like Carmen, or people that were just using comics as a springboard to something else.
I don’t think the companies were really thinking of it in terms of the media implications to what happens in the comics. Or the ripple effect will affect the TV show or the movie or how we sell it in Hollywood.
There was some really trippy stuff going on, and there were some really great creators pushing the envelope in ways that we see now with creating our own books.
You have stuff like Dr. Strange, the Jim Starlin stuff, who I mentioned in the book as just really bonkers stuff in the best way. It’s such a great era of comics. And so I really wanted to tap into that. And have Carmen and Dettmer, the artist in the book, create something that was true to them and wasn’t beholden to anything else.
On his novel take on crime fiction:
I think the idea of crime fiction as a genre is much more flexible than people sometimes think
It doesn’t have to be the P.I. pulling the flask out of his drawer as the femme fatale walks in. It also doesn’t have to be the grizzled police procedural, as a story type can fit anywhere.
Like we talked a little bit about with Megan Abbott’s books — you can do a sci-fi noir or a fantasy noir. You can bring these elements because they’re so human. The idea that you have to make a tough moral choice because you’ve been painted into this corner. And what do you do? That’s a very basic, like human things. What would I do if I was about to lose everything because of some bad decision? Like, how would I cover it up? It’s something very relatable. I think people love to read those kind of stories because we always think we wouldn’t do that. And then you read them, and you’re like, oh, man, maybe I would do that, and that’s terrifying, but also really interesting.
What [author Jonathan Lethem] does really well is he blends that with those sci-fi elements. And that makes it kind of new. It’s almost like you’re getting the crime story but with an added twist. Isaac Asimov wrote a P.I. series with a robot as the Watson to a Sherlock Holmes P.I.
And it was super interesting because you’ve got this dressing on top of the crime story. With Secret Identity, the idea was to let me give the reader something they probably never experienced before. For insiders in comics, our day job, it’s neat from an archaeological perspective — oh, there’s a mention of so and so.
But for a casual reader, which I always have to keep in mind…I have to think about the reader who doesn’t know what that means. It should just be like, ‘Oh, cool. I didn’t know that’s how comics were made.’ Or, ‘Wow, this is the process and that’s how it’s done.’ I think it makes it more engaging for crime readers.
On the power of a proper protagonist:
For me, it always starts with character.
If I’m not interested in the character as a reader or as a writer, then I don’t care about what happens to this person. What are their demons? What are their obsessions? What makes them interesting and different? That’s what pulls me into the story as a reader. And what I hope to do as a writer is like to create these people that even if maybe the plot isn’t exactly what you want, you’re so mesmerized by the character that you’re going to follow them along and see what they do.
I think as writers, as mystery writers, we have to earn the mystery. I’ve read so many books, where the twist at the end is just, ‘Oh, it’s this random character that you saw for a page in chapter three.’ And you just feel cheated, because you’ve been along for the ride. If the ride was great, then forget it. You can say, ‘OK, well, the ending wasn’t fun. But at least the journey was fun.’
But I think you have to earn it. So what that means is just that the clues have to be there. So the reader says, ‘Oh, man, how did I miss that?’ And you don’t always succeed. I’ve had mysteries that I think the twist is earned and meaningful, and then you have some that I could have probably tightened that up a little better. But you always have to strive — you don’t want to trick the reader but you want to surprise them.
On balancing the audience’s needs/knowledge:
I had to explain it, but explain it in a way that wouldn’t be cumbersome to you and I [as comic book readers].
There are some moments that I had to trim down because they just got a little bogged down in the weeds. Like, explaining things about comic book distribution, or things that are interesting to me, and I would read about, but maybe just don’t need to be in a mystery novel. There’s a moment I think early on where one of the editors, like Carmen’s mentor at the company, kind of rattles off about Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams. But I had to really keep it short and sweet and interesting enough that you would say, ‘Wow, that seems like a really interesting take on Batman,’ but also not lose the plot. You don’t want those detours to become Wikipedia pages.
On the larger social power of crime fiction:
I think crime fiction is really great at kind of spotlighting the way society works by telling the story without being a billboard. The story was much more compelling when it was a story about a woman in comics at this time. And I spoke to a lot of people that worked in comics at the time, and just got a sense of what their experiences were like, and tried to really blend that into the story in a meaningful way. It’s a crime novel, and it’s supposed to be engaging and fun to read. But you also want to show that conflict and the challenges she faced. There’s a scene where she’s talking to her boss, and she says, ‘You know, I want to pitch you on this book.’ And he basically says, ‘I’ve got one of my friends around the door that I have to deal with first before I even consider your work.’ And that felt very realistic and true.
There’s a challenge in any kind of entertainment industry where you have to deal with who’s gatekeeping the content. So I wanted to have moments of that, where if you’re reading it, you understand what’s going on. But it didn’t feel like you’re getting just a lecture on how things were and how things should be.
I definitely never approached it as a novelty. Like it felt like this is a new way for me to tell this story. And it felt really evocative.
On the comics-prose relationship:
I hope that and I hope that the gearshift from reading prose to reading comics is something that people find engaging.
I read comics differently from how I read prose — because your senses are being fed in different ways. Like with prose, you’re getting just enough to paint the visual picture in your brain. With comics, you’re getting the visuals and the words, and you still have to connect those and create a picture in your brain. But I think there’s a lot to be said for that, and I think it’s fun and engaging and interesting.
I think the idea of blending these two things was really interesting to me as a creator. Because you’re thinking about how are these things in conversation with each other,
If it was just prose, it would still be a very linear crime novel, and you would probably get a lot out of it and it would be fun. But when you have that added texture of the comic sequences, it I think it deepens the prose. You’re seeing that the Lynx is cornered, and how is she going to get out of it? And then you hop into the prose, and Carmen is cornered and how is she going to get out of it? And was this playing in her mind when she was creating this comic? Like, how does it all work together? It just adds a layer of engagement that I don’t think would be there if it was just a novel.
On the role of the comics writer:
Writing comics makes me think more graphically or more about the visuals when writing prose.
When you’re writing prose, at least when you start out, you tend to overwrite. And as I get older and write more, I find that I just need to give the reader a little bit. I don’t have to describe the character’s full attire or haircut or facial expression. And with comics, like novels feed into it by making the words count. The artist is the director of that movie, but as the writer, you have to add value and give your words that literary meaning. That’s a push and pull that I think a lot of writers have early on, and you tend to over explain and overwrite. But at the end of the day, it’s a visual medium, and people want to look at the art and follow the art and see what the artist is saying. And you’re kind of helping elevate that.
Secret Identity is available wherever books are sold starting today.
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