DANEET STEFFENS: You have a career history of working professionally with comic book publishers and publications, and of course you still do so. Did that precede your interesting in writing comic books, or did you pursue work in that world because you were interested in writing for comic books?
ALEX SEGURA: As a child, as a kid, my first comic was an Archie; I grew up reading comics. I loved them from an early age, so once I realized that people wrote them and created them, the dream was to be one of those people. I took kind of circuitous path: I went into journalism and then that became a career as a publicist, so that was my foot in the door in comics — writing about comics as a journalist for websites or publications, and then promoting them, working at DC and then Archie. That’s when the door opened to actually writing them.
In Secret Identity, you have a highly detailed origin story for Carmen’s comic book character Claudia, a.k.a. the Lethal Lynx. Have you been secretly writing your own comic all this time?
The Lynx was an idea I had out of college. It’s not the Lynx you read in the comic in this book, it was just this rough idea I had and the name. When I was putting together Secret Identity, I was thinking, “What are the comic book sequences going to be?” And I thought back to that character, and it was like “Well, that’s kind of cool! I’m going back to my young, early days and this character I came up with.”
That’s when Sandy Jarrell, the artist, came in: in comics you can do a full script where it’s like a screenplay and the artist just pulls from that and draws it, or you can basically plot out the page and defer to the artist in terms of layout and directing. We did it that way: I gave him a paragraph and said, “This is what I’d like to happen on the page, these are the big beats,” and he drew it and then I went back and scripted over it. That allowed me to react to his art in terms of the dialogue and the captions, and it felt a little more organic and stronger, a little bit more creative. I trust Sandy implicitly — he was the perfect choice because he loves comic book history as much as I do, he gets it, and he’s just so talented. I’m so grateful he was able to make time to do this because it really elevates the book.
It’s pretty cool how the comic book excerpts are woven throughout the novel. How did you decide to do that?
It all dates back to when I read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay forever ago. With that book, it felt like I was finally being seen. As someone who read a lot of novels and crime novels but also someone who was passionate about comics, to have Chabon merge the two things — I mean, it’s not a traditional crime novel but there’s crime, and it’s not really a potboiler but it’s still really engaging.
I was reading the book and loving it and the one thing I had in my mind was, “I wish I could see the comics. I wish I could see the comics that these people, these characters, are creating,” and that idea stuck in my head. I had it while writing the Pete novels, but I didn’t think I was ready to write that book yet. And then when I was finishing up Miami Midnight, I knew that Secret Identity was going to be the next thing, and that’s when I started to think, “Well, do I really want comic book pages?” At first, I was worried about whether that would make it more challenging to sell, but when I pitched it I had Sandy draw a sample page and I think that actually helped clarify what I had in mind. So, yeah, I’ve had the idea for a long time and I’m just happy that it came together.
There are lots of real-life comic book writers and illustrators mentioned in Secret Identity, lending a cool heft to Carmen’s fictional world. Do you have particular favorites? And does Carmen represent an amalgamation of any of those figures?
I think all the characters in Secret Identity that aren’t real people are amalgamations in some way. Carmen, in many ways, is the polar opposite of Pete Fernandez, my PI character, because she is so much more put together: Pete has his demons and his problems and I think the interesting part is the arc of his journey, whereas Carmen, well, I wouldn’t say she’s fully formed but she’s very definitive in what she wants, very focused, very driven, and I think that’s part of what propels the story.
All the fictional characters in this book owe something to comic book history: I used tidbits from different people that I admire in creating the fictional characters. So Doug Detmer, for example, feels like a lot of iconoclastic artists that have worked in comics like Alex Toth or Jack Cole, these guys who are curmudgeonly and super-talented. But it’s never a one-for-one: it’s always a mix of different people because it’s just more interesting for me that way.
There’s a really great scene where Carmen overhears two young girls discussing the Lynx. I loved the idea of this woman who’s trying to push herself forward and empower herself, overhearing these younger women admire her creation: “She’s fast, she’s strong, she’s smart — she’s like Batman or Daredevil but, I dunno, better — she feels like a real person.” How much fun was it to write that scene?
I loved it because it means so much to me as a reader to see myself in stories, and I think a lot of what I do is as a writer is to try to diversify the people we see as protagonists and stars. I remember as a kid when I picked up this comic called Spider-Man 2099, which was a future Spider-Man and he was Mexican Irish and his name was Miguel O’Hara. I just remember thinking, “Wow, he’s kind of like me: I’m a Cuban American kid from Miami, and he’s not just a regular white guy.” It was so eye-opening. It felt like he was my character, you know? I think people underestimate the power of that, and I think it’s really important for our stories as a whole to be as diverse as possible and as welcoming as possible because those moments are priceless.
Since you started reading comics as a kid, what was a niche medium has just exploded and saturated our world now. Did you ever think it would take off like that?
I never thought it would be so prevalent, but I think it’s amazing. My wife and I can sit down and watch WandaVision, and she’s not a comic book fan but she’s pulled in and entertained. It just opens up the medium to so many people — everyone can embrace these characters and ideas. We’re so rich with it at this moment. But as a kid I never imagined it: I thought it would be the kind of thing where every couple of years we’d have a comic book movie, maybe have a comic book TV show, and maybe some would tank. There was always the worry, “Would this tank and sink it for everybody?” But instead it just snowballed.
Do you think it’s because we are looking for heroes?
I think there’s some truth to that. I think people want to see complex people making tough decisions and saving the day. It’s kind of our new mythology in many ways — these are really powerful people that we can all look up to and be inspired by.
What sets Secret Identity apart for you from your previous work?
It feels in a lot of ways like a culmination, which is not to say that I won’t write anything else after this, but it feels like a nice way of blending all the things I love — noir, comic books, comic book history, Miami, New York, strong female protagonists — and just having it all synergize. I mean, I wrote a book that I wanted to read; I wrote a book that I always dreamed would exist. I talked about reading Kavalier and Clay earlier and how I wanted it to contain comics, and the Pete books were very much an exercise in creating a PI series I wanted to read — I wanted to read PI novels about a guy like me from Miami, with my background. So that’s kind of what Secret Identity is: it’s a book that I wanted to will into existence.
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.