Secret Identity: A Noir Mystery About the Uncredited Heroes of Comics HistoryBooks Reviews Alex Segura
Secret Identity, the latest novel from Alex Segura, comic book writer (The Black Ghostt and Oni Press SVP of Sales and Marketing, must juggle multiple personas as both a period piece about a crucial turning point in comics history and a murder mystery. While the latter genre layer is more in service to the former, with the killing of a comics editor spurring his ghostwriting partner into investigating the darker corners of their shared world, the combination makes for a diverting read about how many chances these real-life heroes and villains get at comics immortality.
Growing up in Miami, Carmen Valdez learned English from comics, even if she didn’t see herself reflected in the pages. At 28, she’s achieved her dream of moving to New York City and working in the industry that created some of her most treasured childhood memories… even if she still doesn’t see people like her among the writers, artists, and editors who pass through Triumph Comics’ offices. In the thankless role of assistant (but really more secretary) to Triumph’s sexist editor-in-chief Jeffrey Carlyle, Carmen occupies the tricky space of “no longer a fan, but barely a professional”—achingly familiar for anyone who has taken a job out of genuine love for the art and thus been exploited for that emotional investment.
Add the fact that it’s 1975, and comics seem to be on a slow slide to obscurity. After all, who would want to keep picking up monthly escapist superhero stories when the world is ending? Even the bigwigs at Marvel and DC are worried about no one remembering their iconic characters a generation later, which means that lower-tier operations like Triumph are just limping along, having second-string or has-been talent turn out derivative superheroes until the lights get turned out. Someone like Carmen doesn’t stand a chance of writing something that will actually matter… at least, not as herself.
Carmen’s shot comes in the form of Harvey Stern, a prototypical gentle nerd down to the distinctive glasses and shy affect. A junior editor at Triumph, he has the access to pitch a new series to become the company’s new flagship superhero, as well as a mysterious pressing need to do so immediately. She has the talent but will have to settle for being uncredited, lurking in the shadows and metaphorically masked even as their (her) creation the Legendary Lynx looks to be a game-changer.
But when Harvey is murdered before he can publicly acknowledge Carmen as his collaborator, it transforms her fledgling double life into a noir mystery. Because someone didn’t want the Lynx to exist out in the world, and it’s only a matter of time before they connect the panels to her. Add in a New York City detective who can see through Carmen’s amateur alibis, and a femme fatale from her old life back in Miami, and the Lynx’s monthly “deadline” takes on a much more sinister meaning.
Not surprising for someone who regularly sees how the sausage gets made, Carmen has a tendency to observe her own actions and interactions from a remove, as if editing a comic book script—which is only exacerbated when she finds herself stalked and endangered on the already-threatening streets of ‘70s Manhattan. Segura’s writing reflects that with Carmen frequently noting how she “felt” everything from a menacing grip on her arm to the chill of being watched from afar by a stranger, instead of fully inhabiting that moment. Unfortunately, that often translates to a similar distance for the reader. It’s difficult to become entirely emotionally invested in Carmen because she has worked her entire adult life to keep anyone from doing so.
Carmen’s Miami exists entirely in memory, evocatively described in contrast to seedy yet compelling New York City. Try as she might, her life in the Big Apple doesn’t yet have the sentimental roots of her childhood, primarily through the monthly ritual of buying a new comic book with her papi. Seeing a father-daughter relationship beginning in the 1950s and based on a shared love for an industry that has historically blocked women from participation is incredibly touching, especially as it makes their later estrangement that much more heartbreaking. It’s rare for a hero’s origin story to be so relentlessly sunny, yet Segura aptly illustrates how even the most carefree-seeming place casts deep shadows.
For all that Carmen and her collaborators create comics out of love for the medium, I was hoping for more sequences lovingly describing the experience of making these stories. Being a writer, Carmen has the less dynamic half of the job, but we don’t even witness her bringing the Lynx to life with the clacking of her typewriter keys; she presents Harvey with a half-dozen fully-formed scripts that need only a quick dusting-off. While this makes a keen point about good ideas just waiting for their moment, it lacks the same transporting feeling as, say, Michael Chabon’s own ode to comics in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
Yet allowing Carmen to see the finished pages at the same time as us readers does tap into her original identity as a fan. In a lovely touch, the book includes selections from the various Legendary Lynx issues, timed to the rapidly rising stakes surrounding Harvey’s unsolved murder. Featuring art by Sandy Jarrell and lettering by Taylor Esposito, the finished product makes the case for why this comic is worth killing for.
Both the novel and Carmen herself circle around the issue of Harvey’s culpability without assigning real blame. In some tellings, he’s a nice guy who meant well, who simply overstepped personally and professionally. In others, his every move was premeditated and cold-bloodedly strategic, climbing the corporate ladder in single bounds, not unlike Superman leaping over skyscrapers. What seems an attempt at exploring the moral gray area of authorship instead comes across as constantly hedging, even as the book name-drops the then-contemporary Jack Kirby credit controversy.
Though Segura throws in a number of red herrings in the form of various editors and artists representing potential friendships, rivals, and/or love interests to Carmen, the resolution to the mystery errs more on the side of the unsurprising for anyone who has followed comics controversies over the decades. Yet that in and of itself is an incisive commentary on how little has changed: how powerful personalities are granted numerous second chances, while outsiders like Carmen dare not waste the one opportunity for their perfect shot at being part of comics history.
With this thoughtfully researched and lovingly crafted novel, hopefully Segura is doing his part to turn the tide in the direction it should have been moving all along.
Secret Identity is available now from Flatiron Books.
Natalie Zutter is a Brooklyn-based playwright and pop culture critic whose work has appeared on Tor.com, NPR Books, Den of Geek, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.