Jeff Mariotte

On Alex Segura’s “Secret Identity”

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I firmly believe that the 1970s was the most outstanding, most innovative, and most interesting decade for American comic books. The big two were primarily focused on their superhero characters–Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman at DC, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers at Marvel–but they were trying new things with them. Some worked (the Skrull-Kree War by Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, and the Bros Buscema), some not so much (the new, hip, white pants-suited Wonder Woman–though that era brought us some memorable Jeff Jones covers).

Wonder Woman comic book

But aside from their most well-known characters, those publishers were also experimenting with sword & sorcery, horror, science fiction, etc., some of which–like Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian and Tomb of Dracula, were successful artistically and commercially. And the talent roster working in the 1970s has never, to my mind, been matched. Between the majors, the undergrounds, and the “ground-level” comics, you had folks like the aforementioned Buscemas, Adams, and Thomas, as well as Denny O’Neil, Barry Smith (later Barry Windsor-Smith), Jim Aparo, Bernie Wrightson, Michael Kaluta, Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Gene Colan, Howard Chaykin, Steve Gerber, Trina Robbins, Harvey Pekar, R. Crumb, Wendy Pini, Gilbert Shelton… the list could go on for days. Point is, people were coming into the industry and doing brilliant work in it, and there were places to publish the most experimental stuff as well as the most mainstream work. The publishing industry had not yet been subsumed by massive multinational corporations, and the people running publishing companies didn’t answer to stockholders.

So when I heard that Alex Segura had written a novel set in the world of the 1970s comic industry, I had to read it. Alex has a day job–and presumably a work life–much like mine once upon a time–I was VP of Marketing at WildStorm Productions/Image before I became a senior editor at DC and the first editor-in-chief at IDW Publishing. Segura is currently VP of Sales and Marketing at Oni Press, and on nights, weekends, and probably other odd hours, also like me, he writes comics and prose fiction.

Here’s one place we differ. Despite my years in the comics biz, I’ve only written one novel that deals at any length with comics (my thriller Empty Rooms, in which Detective Frank Robey reads Superman comics to civilian partner Richie Krebs while Krebs is on the road hunting a horrific killer, to help keep Krebs grounded). But Segura has written Secret Identity, a noirish mystery that is, from start to finish, a look inside (and a love letter to) comics, the creative urge behind all art, and the comic book industry of the 1970s. The protagonist is Carmen Valdez, a Miami transplant to New York who wants to write but finds herself (shades of Segura–and me) working for a comic book publishing company. And eventually trying to solve a murder and creating a beloved comic character, the Lynx (snippets of the Lynx’s adventures appear throughout the book, a comic within a novel and an excellent bonus for the reader).

Segura brings the industry in those days alive, in part through the judicious use of name-dropping of characters and creators, some real and some fictitious, in about equal measures. Many of the people I mentioned above appear in passing in the book, and it was always a little thrill to see someone who I’ve worked with or come to know as a friend pop up on the page. If you can separate the real from the fictional, the book functions almost as a history of that unique era in the business. And you could take it to comic conventions and use it as an autograph book, to collect signatures from those legends still with us.

Whether you love comics, or mystery fiction, or both, you need to pick up Secret Identity when it’s released in March (but which you can pre-order now from your favorite bookstore). You won’t regret it.

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