Faced with leaving her dream of writing comics in the dust or choosing an option that comes with caveats, Carmen chooses the latter. The protagonist of Alex Segura‘s Secret Identity, Carmen Valdez works at Triumph Comics. She co-creates a popular new superhero, Lynx, with a male colleague, but then he turns up dead. And none of his documents about Lynx feature Carmen’s name. Carmen wants to hold onto any piece of ownership of Lynx and also find out what happened to her colleague. And then, well, things escalate.
Secret Identity tells a gripping story that tackles layers of questions about self-acceptance and the cost of keeping secrets. Segura worked with artist Sandy Jarrell to add comics featuring the character Lynx throughout the prose. It all comes together to make an unforgettable tale. Nerdist talked with Segura over email about Secret Identity‘s unique format, Carmen’s conflicts, noir inspirations, and more.
Nerdist: Secret Identity blends prose and comics in such a cool way. Is that something you knew you wanted to do from the beginning?
Alex Segura: When I finished my Pete Fernandez PI series, I knew I wanted to do something singular, or close to being a standalone. I also didn’t want to just pivot to another procedural or PI novel. I wanted to explore an amateur detective, and I wanted to transport readers to an era and industry they might not be familiar with. One of my favorite parts about the Pete novels involved writing different settings—like the newsroom or working at a bookstore, and I love how some amazing noir authors, like Megan Abbott, take readers to these situations that they wouldn’t think of as noir, but can actually be noir as hell.
So the idea of a comic book murder mystery came to me quickly, and after that it became a question of who the protagonist would be. Thankfully, Carmen popped up in my head soon after, and the rest of the story built around her.
Carmen co-creates a popular character, except she leaves her name out of it, because ’70s sexism. It’s something she struggles with, obviously. How did you approach Carmen’s inner conflict and her (kind of) dual identities?
I wanted to really explore two ends of the creative spectrum that I think a lot of writers and artists are familiar with: what do you do when your dream is presented to you with caveats? Do you say yes? Do you ignore and hope for a better deal down the line? Or something in between? And what happens when that dream is stolen from you? I knew I had to have something really primal happen to Carmen to get her to go from being this driven, but generally law-abiding citizen, to someone willing to bend the rules to find out what happened.
I love exploring character arcs in my books. I want to really figure out the journey, which to me is more important than even the plot. Like, how would Carmen be different by the last page compared to the first? Those are the questions I ask myself before I write any book. And in this case, I wanted to also figure out what would drive Carmen to sidestep the law and take the case into her own hands.
In writing the comic book character Lynx, Carmen gets to express herself freely. Are there any qualities she gives Lynx that she wishes she had?
For sure. I think she adds a physicality and directness to her creation that she doesn’t have in the real world. There’s a moment in the book where one of the editors tosses a few dollars on her desk and asks her to get him something to eat. She handles it well, basically telling him to go to hell, but I’m sure she fantasized about taking a swing at him. Those fantasies can be realized through Carmen’s superhero creation—the Lynx—who suffers no fools, and is also powerful enough to take these kind of people down. Which isn’t to say violence is the answer, but there’s definitely a sense that Carmen is living vicariously through Lynx because she’s feeling inhibited by the world she lives in.
The story is beautifully noir. Where did you look for inspiration?
I feel like Patricia Highsmith is the book’s guiding light, in many ways. Her novels—particularly Deep Water, The Price of Salt, and Strangers on a Train—were top of mind for me. The way her characters are all complicated, not necessarily “good” or “bad,” but just human, and the way she crafts these gray, haunting stories that are never clean cut and easy to parse out. I wanted that kind of character-driven, tight story, where you’re in one person’s head and seeing all of this unfurl, but it’s not something that’s driven by bombastic action, like exploding cars or a barrage of gunfire. I feel like I’ve done that, and it can be fun, but in my head Secret Identity was always something more nuanced.
I also spent a lot of time thinking about Margaret Millar’s work. She wrote Beast in View, a book that feels like it could’ve come out in the wake of Gone Girl, but was actually published decades before—the kind of chilling noir that shocks you completely by the end. Just masterful.
You, of course, know the comics industry quite well. How did your experience influence and inform Carmen’s story?
It’s funny, because when I set out to write the book, I foolishly thought, “Okay, I know comics. This’ll be easy.” But because I’d also set the book in the 1970s, I soon realized I was writing about an industry that I may be familiar with, but I didn’t really know first-hand. So I had to spend a lot of time reading about it and also talking to friends and former colleagues who were there, particularly women who worked in comics and could speak to Carmen’s experience. I’m eternally grateful for people like Louise Simonson, Paul Levitz, Linda Fite, Stuart Moore, Kurt Busiek, Karen Berger, Laurie S. Sutton and so many more, who offered up their time and thoughts freely. It was a blessing, and it made the book much better.
The comics panels add this whole other layer to the story. What was your collaboration process like with Sandy?
It was such a blast! Sandy is not only a fantastic artist, full stop, but he is a student of comic book history. He really immersed himself in the era and did his research. I love working with him because he’s so detail-oriented and exacting, and I knew he’d be as focused on getting it right as I was. I didn’t want someone to come in and just imitate Frank Miller, or riff on Jim Starlin. I wanted an artist to evoke the era, and try to fit in alongside what was there. What was fun about the sequences is we worked “Marvel Style.” I sent Sandy a few sentences for each sequence, just a quick shorthand for what I envisioned, and he’d lay them out. Then I’d go over them, write a rough script and he’d tighten up the pencils and go to inks.
The end result was something that felt so much more collaborative, and really allowed Sandy to stretch his muscles and drive the “camera” for the interludes. I’m so happy with how they came out.
Secret Identity is available wherever you buy books.