Review: Secret Identity
by Alex Segura
pub date: 15-March-2022
AMBER LOVE 15-JUNE-2022 This review is a courtesy provided by NetGalley. To support this site and my other work, please consider being a monthly donor at Patreon.com/amberunmasked; you can also buy my books through Amazon (or ask your local retailer to order you copies). I’ve also curated lists of books and other things I like on Amazon so you can shop through my lists of recommended products.
From Anthony Award-winning writer Alex Segura comes Secret Identity, a rollicking literary mystery set in the world of comic books.
It’s 1975 and the comic book industry is struggling, but Carmen Valdez doesn’t care. She’s an assistant at Triumph Comics, which doesn’t have the creative zeal of Marvel nor the buttoned-up efficiency of DC, but it doesn’t matter. Carmen is tantalizingly close to fulfilling her dream of writing a superhero book.
That dream is nearly a reality when one of the Triumph writers enlists her help to create a new character, which they call “The Lethal Lynx,” Triumph’s first female hero. But her colleague is acting strangely and asking to keep her involvement a secret. And then he’s found dead, with all of their scripts turned into the publisher without her name. Carmen is desperate to piece together what happened to him, to hang on to her piece of the Lynx, which turns out to be a runaway hit. But that’s complicated by a surprise visitor from her home in Miami, a tenacious cop who is piecing everything together too quickly for Carmen, and the tangled web of secrets and resentments among the passionate eccentrics who write comics for a living.
Alex Segura uses his expertise as a comics creator as well as his unabashed love of noir fiction to create a truly one-of-a-kind novel–hard-edged and bright-eyed, gritty and dangerous, and utterly absorbing.
As a huge comic fan (and occasional writer), I loved Alex Segura’s SECRET IDENTITY mystery. That being said, there were times when I paused to wonder how accessible it would be for someone who doesn’t know anything about comics to feel connected. There are several times when “famous in comics” names, characters, and publishers were referenced. Does someone not into this type of pop culture know what Marvel or DC even means?
Aside from those instances, I think Segura does a fine job of showing what the business was like in 1975 when most of American literary and comic book publishing was centralized in New York City. The cityscape details are vibrant enough to perfectly picture the grime of the the streets, the red light district, and the drug scene of the legendary CBGB’s. In fact that nightclub plays an important role which Segura details through loving, vicarious adoration of Patti Smith, The Talking Heads, The Ramones, and Blondie. It’s now a cliché to say the setting is also a character, but in the case of SECRET IDENTITY, I can’t imagine the story feeling the same if it had been set anywhere else in the US.
Carmen Valdez, an ambitious 30-year-old Cubana woman, lives with her roommate Molly in a one-room apartment. That alone is so incredibly New York. Studio apartments. How awful! Not even one-bedroom. Just one room for everything except the bathroom. Molly is a musician so she’s the link that brings Carmen to the CBGB scene. Their relationship is platonic, but essential. Molly is always there to scoop up Carmen after she’s been through some aggravation or trauma.
Carmen is the secretary to comic book publisher, Jeffrey Carlyle at Triumph Comics. Segura has been a stalwart comic industry professional for years. He did his research here to capture what it was like in the 70s when people could smoke in their offices; when women and people of color were rarely given a chance to climb the ladder; and even something that still happens across all industries today–the dead weight of people who coast along because they’re connected to someone in power.
Since she was a small girl in Miami, all Carmen could think about was creating her own comics. She gets a chance with a male peer who also wants to break in more substantially. The caveat is, since their boss Carlyle won’t allow Carmen to write, the duo have to keep her name off the project. This is the birth of the Legendary Lynx credited to writer Harvey Stern and art by Doug Detmer.
Harvey represents almost like an alternate universe version of Carmen. They both want the same thing – to become writers. But Harvey has the advantage of being a white man. Yet, Harvey is a walking disaster. Carmen is suspicious of him with good reason. When they connect over creating comics, Harvey makes a pass at her assuming it’s what she wanted. Carmen is a lesbian. We know she faces these kinds of come-ons all the time because she tells the reader or you get to witness it.
In Carmen’s case, she doesn’t openly discuss her relationships with anyone except Molly, but she doesn’t exactly hide them either. When Carmen goes on dates, there’s PDA. It’s another New York thing, one can suppose. The free love of the 60s still going strong in the 70s. So, other than out in public assuming no one she knows is around, Carmen keeps her private life just that – very private.
The most unique part of this mystery is that Sandy Jarrell and Taylor Esposito have created actual comic book pages that are key elements to Carmen’s story and her character’s comic book pages. These vignettes hint at her search for a killer and act as a tether into the world of comic publishing to make Carmen’s desires of writing a comic that much more real.
One thing that seemed noteworthy about Carmen being created as a lesbian WoC working in comics, was that it started to feel like all women in the book were lesbians except for Molly (and even then, it’s not clear if she isn’t). Not that there are many women in the book. It’s about the aggressively male-dominated world of comics. Carmen manages to make one female friend in the industry, Marion, who works at a different comic house; this leads to a potential romance. Some readers might find the situation as queer-baiting. However, we know both women are gay and into each other. But the crimes that need to be solved get in the way of the relationship.
While SECRET IDENTITY has a couple of nitpicky things as noted above, I think mystery fans with any interest in pop culture will dig it. Today we live in a world where some creative teams stay on a comic title for over a decade or others become successful enough in the mainstream that they can fund their own creator-owned properties. If you don’t know anything about how that works, you might wonder why this is important to the plot based in the 1970s. Back then, if someone made significant contributions to a character or title, they weren’t paid very well.
The man who really made Batman an icon died penniless and starving. His name is Bill Finger and it’s one of the industry names Segura brings up. This fight still goes on to a degree today though it has gotten better. Now in the movie credits of blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy, Batman, and the Avengers, there are long lists of contributors. I have no idea whether they are paid or simply given a credit. Big corporate ownership is at the deepest depth of Carmen’s struggles and sleuthing.
One final note: Please read the acknowledgments. Segura’s research was thorough and he lists every book source, every person, every documentary that helped Carmen’s world feel authentic.
Rating: 5 stars