One aspect of Alex Segura’s latest novel can be traced back to his memories of being a 20-something reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon’s sprawling, Pulitzer-prize winning novel set in the golden age of comics. The protagonists of Chabon’s novel created the Escapist, a fictional comic book hero. While devouring the 2000 novel, Segura longed to read those Escapist comics, even though they didn’t really exist.
Twenty-two years after Kavalier & Clay, Segura and publisher Flatiron have just released Secret Identity, a novel set amid the 1970s comic book industry, complete with panels inspired by a fictional comic at its center.
“When I started thinking about this comic book novel, I was like, ‘Can we just do comic book sequences inside the novel and have those things be in conversation with each other?’” says Segura, who in addition to writing books and comics, is an executive at Portland, Oregon-based comic book publisher Oni Press.
Secret Identity centers on Carmen Valdez, an assistant at a struggling comic book company. She dreams of becoming a writer, and comes close when she secretly co-creates a hero called the Lethal Lynx, allowing a male colleague to take credit, so the comic can bypass sexist industry gatekeepers and get published. Her world is turned upside when her co-worker is murdered, leading her on a journey to solve the mystery of his death — and to hold on to her creation, even as a hack writer is given the reins to the Lynx.
Segura enlisted artist Sandy Jarrell and letterer Taylor Esposito to bring the fictional comic to life with panels published within the book.
“We had a nice shorthand. I could say, ‘This scene should evoke Frank Miller but not be you copying Frank Miller,’” recalls Segura of working with Jarrell. “Let’s give a sense that this could have happened in the ’70s, without trying to copy somebody’s style.”
Segura, who has worked at DC and Archie, has made a career in comics at a time when those characters dominate pop culture. But the pop culture landscape depicted in Secret Identity is very different.
“I wanted to do it in the ’70s, to really contrast the comic book world we’re in today. We have a Peacemaker show. We have Ant-Man movies. Fans know who the Guardians of the Galaxy are,” says Segura. “In the ’70s, comics were kind of a dying industry. People thought it was just a fading thing.”
Segura steeped himself in comics history, but notes the characters are not based on specific comic book figures of the era, though some are amalgamations. He worked with editor Zachary Wagman, who encouraged the writer to pull back just slightly on the comic culture references.
“We had the comic sequences, but then there were also comic book journalism outtakes. A Wizard interview, or something from the Comics Journal, that I thought was a blast, but he very wisely said, ‘Look, this is something you want for a general audience. It’s not just for the die-hards,’” recalls Segura.
Now, Segura is setting his sights on more in this world. Just as Chabon’s The Escapist became a real comic via Dark Horse in 2004, Segura and artist Jarrell are working on a Lynx comic that will debut via the digital platform Zestworld.
Says the writer: “It was such a fleeting thought when I read Kavalier & Clay, and now that I’ve been able to do that is amazing.”