Author and poet Erica Wright has an in-dept conversation with author Alex Segura about Secret Identity and his writing journey.
Alex Segura knows a thing or two about creative risks. He’s killed off popular characters, ended a beloved series, and written comics for both The Archies and Star Wars. Even so, his latest project—a mystery novel with its own illustrated mini-comic—feels like a leap into the unknown. But Secret Identity lands that jump, offering readers riveting stories in two different genres.
Set in 1975, the narrative follows Carmen Valdez who dreams of writing her own superhero book in an industry that’s not particularly welcoming to women. She sees an opening and takes it, creating the Lethal Lynx. When her co-creator gets killed, he also gets all the credit, and Carmen is left where she started—with nothing. So she starts her own investigation and gets into dangerous territory faster than a lynx can hunt. This book has been appropriately compared to Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, but Segura has created something wholly original about a subject he clearly loves.
Segura is currently the Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Oni Press, known for graphic novels such as Rick and Morty and Scott Pilgrim. He previously worked at Archie Comics and DC Comics. When I asked him what he loved about this medium, he downright gushed. But he is also the author of five mystery novels starring PI Pete Fernandez, and his passion for noir came across in our conversation, as well. He memorably asked, “isn’t it always worse when you’re prepared to be scared, and you get scared anyway?” That question alone could fill an interview, but we also talked about controlling intellectual property, combining “the visual and the verbal,” and—of course—creating a brand-new, world-class superhero.
When I asked him what he loved about [comics]he downright gushed.
Erica Wright: First things first, tell me everything about the Lethal Lynx.
Alex Segura: It’s funny, because I had an idea for a character named “The Lynx” years ago, in my early twenties. So when I start writing Secret Identity and I knew the lead character was going to create a street-level crimefighter, the name popped back into my brain. But it was so much more than interstitial sequences to just flesh out the main narrative. Sandy Jarrell, the artist, and I had to create the story and visual world for the Lynx, which included her backstory and origin, her rogues gallery, and even her sidekick and love interest. It was a blast, and I hope people enjoy the echoes between the Lynx’s adventures and Carmen’s own, real-world struggles.
E.W.: Carmen Valdez is such a great character. She’s this determined, talented artist navigating a world that does not want her there. What’s her origin story? How did she come to you?
AS: I was finishing up my fourth Pete Fernandez novel, Blackout, and by that point I knew the series was going to end with the next book. I just hadn’t tidied up that plot yet. So I set up Blackout As a real jaw-dropper, in terms of how it ends, and that got me to thinking about what I’d do next. I’d always envisioned Pete as a finite series, with a few flourishes after. Anyway, that’s when I went back to my idea for a New York crime novel set in comics. I wanted to evoke the novels of authors like Patricia Highsmith and Megan Abbott. The latter, in particular, has a gift for transporting you into these worlds and industries—like cheerleading, science, dance—and injecting them with the classic tentpole elements of noir.
So, I started toying with the idea of doing that with comics, but I didn’t see my lead yet. Pete showed up to me fully formed, and I thought that was just a blessing, and I’d have to really drill down the next time. Instead I got lucky, and Carmen showed up in my mind, and I could see all aspects of her: from her origins, to her obsessions, to how she reacted to things. She’s very much the anti-Pete. She’s driven, organized, self-aware, fearless, but also weighed down by those around her. But I admire her motivation and perseverance. She is prepared and ready to seize an opportunity when it presents itself, and we see that in the early part of the book.
E.W.: How did it feel to transition from writing hard-boiled, nothing-gets-by-him PI Pete Fernandez to someone with a little more to learn about the world?
AS: It was great, honestly. I love Pete, and I love the PI genre, but I wanted to step outside of it for a moment and just tell a story of a person trying to overcome obstacles to achieve their dream. There just happens to be a murder in it, you know? And the stakes felt much higher when the hero isn’t a grizzled crimefighter herself, just a normal person looking to preserve this idea she’d been saving since she was a kid. It’s a fun meta-commentary on IP [intellectual property], too, this idea that characters can be owned and how ownership doesn’t necessarily denote creation. But to your point, Carmen isn’t hardened by crime or has even seen a dead body before, so we’re experiencing the story through a novice investigator’s eyes, which adds a verve and energy to it that you can’t tap into with a private eye, and that propelled the story in a way I wasn’t expecting, but that was really fun.
Alex Segura knows a thing or two about creative risks. He’s killed off popular characters, ended a beloved series, and written comics for both The Archies and Star Wars.
E.W.: I know you’re immersed in this world, but did you have to research anything about comic books or perhaps comic books in the 1970s?
AS: I did! This was the most journalistic book I’ve ever written, at least in terms of the work I had to do before I put a single word of prose down. I read or reread a ton of books on the history of comics, some biographies, some documentaries. I mean, I knew comics pretty well, but I felt like I really had to immerse myself and then I’d be able to really cut loose on the writing. I also interviewed a dozen or so people who worked in comics at the time, who either shared their stories (which added color to the novel) or read early drafts to ensure the facts were in order and to make suggestions on how to evoke the period better. But I make it all sound like work! It was actually a blast—and I would’ve done all that for fun if I could have.
E.W.: I’d read a book of just those interviews. Kirkus described Secret Identity as “as a love letter to comic books,” which rings true. What is it that you love about this genre?
AS: I love the combination of the visual and verbal. It’s this rare sensory thing that is unmatched by any other medium. I love the colors. I love the heroic ideals presented. I love the vastness of story potential. A lot of people think comics are a genre, but they’re not. It’s a medium, like a novel or short story. You can do anything in comics, and it’s a cheap, direct way for people to tell stories that evoke so much. I love the wonder of comics and the potential.
E.W.: I often get asked about the links between poetry and noir, so I’m delighted to turn the tables and ask, what are the links between comic books and noir?
AS: Hm, that’s a good question. I feel like together they make something potent, or at least the idea of superhero comics and noir. You have this fantastic, colorful world blended with the dark, very human world of noir, where people are pushed to the brink and forced to make tough, deadly choices. It’s as powerful, I think, as the idea of Miami and noir, which is this tropical setting with a dark, menacing undercurrent. I think comics have the potential to tell all kinds of stories, especially noir ones, so that overlap felt really important when crafting this novel.
E.W.: One aspect of the novel I loved is the sense of there being no safe places. New York City in the 1970s isn’t particularly safe, especially not for someone like Carmen. Her apartment has—by my count—three backup locks. And then somebody’s killed from her office. I wonder how that relates to superheroes, these vigilantes trying to rid the world of bad guys.
AS: I’m glad you noticed that. I really wanted there to be a deep-seated sense of peril—like a low simmer—so when something actually happens, it surprises, like a shock. Because isn’t it always worse when you’re prepared to be scared and you get scared anyway? I wanted Carmen to feel on edge from page one, and build from there. The setting helps, because the New York we see is very different from the one you and I know. It’s dark, dangerous, and gritty, as opposed to the more Disney version of Times Square that exists now. I wanted to give Carmen a feeling of a small boat lost at sea, with only her wits there to help her find her way.
E.W.: I love how our conversation keeps turning back to Carmen. The premise of this novel is so compelling, but then the heart is all Carmen. Your prologue ends with the memorable line “She had to become someone else to survive.” How does that theme work in the story?
AS: Not that it matters, but I wrote the prologue (and epilogue) last. The body of the novel was done, so I had the benefit of being able to zoom out on the work and think about the themes, which I don’t do while I’m writing. I’m the kind of writer that just figures theme will bubble up on its own, that if you guide it too much, you might mess up the magic. But Secret Identity is about choosing your path—and then fighting for it. The clearest example is Carmen deciding to take that leap, to try and write comics, and then fight for her creation when she loses control. We also see it in the comic book sequences, as the Lynx is broken and defeated, but still manages to defeat her enemy and reclaim her place as this hero.
I was a “spoiler” when writing the Pete books. If you were reading book three, I’d spoil one and two, because I just…didn’t know how else to write it.
In the immediate, the prologue is about Carmen finding solace and safety in comics. I could relate to that scene a lot as a kid, just going to my room and reading these comics to escape whatever was worrying me as a child. And in the novel, we see that as it progresses. Carmen immerses herself in her work to avoid I guess…dealing with life. With her family. With her past. With the industry she’s chosen to be a part of. But it’s not an escape to her, it’s a passion and a calling, so I felt like that was an interesting thematic tool.
E.W.: Can we talk about the differences between writing a standalone versus writing a series?
AS: Sure! I’d love to hear what you think about it. I love your standalones but also really enjoy your series. I found it to be liberating, honestly because I didn’t have to recap characters or plot threads from previous books. I was a “spoiler” when writing the Pete books. If you were reading book three, I’d spoil one and two, because I just…didn’t know how else to write it. With Secret Identity, it felt more atmospheric and cinematic, and I could play with readers not really knowing who these characters were. And each character had limited screen-time, so I really had to make those moments count, because it’s not like I could focus on them in the next few books. So it felt much more urgent, if that makes sense.
E.W.: Definitely. In a conversation we had a few years ago, you said, “[c]rime fiction lets you talk about deeper issues through the prism of a mystery or caper. It’s almost like sneaking medicine into a treat.” What would you like readers to take away from Secret Identity, even if they don’t notice?
AS: I love that you referenced a past interview. I think in some ways, Secret Identity is a meta commentary on creation and IP, and how we control ideas. And I think the big takeaway I hope creators like us take away from it is to strip to maintain control of our creations and ideas, because they’re so personal and integral to who we are.
E.W.: Would you consider writing about the Lethal Lynx again?
AS: I think we’d love to do more—and we’ve talked about it at length. So I would not be surprised to see an actual Lynx comic sometime soon.
If you’ve enjoyed this conversation with Alex Segura, you can check out Mystery Tribune’s online archive of conversations with notable mystery, crime fiction and thriller writers here.