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Friday, December 2, 2022

Book review: Secret Identity by Alex Segura

 


Book links: Amazon, Goodreads

AUTHOR INFO: Alex Segura is the SVP - Sales and Marketing at Oni Press and the author of Star Wars Poe Dameron: Free Fall and the acclaimed Pete Fernandez Mystery series. He has also written a number of comic books, most notably the superhero noir The Black Ghost, the YA music series The Archies, and the “Archie Meets” collection of crossovers. A Miami native, he lives in New York City with his wife and children.

Publisher: Flatiron Books (March 15, 2022) Length: 336 p Formats: ebook, paperback, audiobook


I grew up with comic books, and I still love them. I’m constantly on the lookout for adult novels inspired by comics. Secret Identity sounded like something I would enjoy. And I did. In a way.

It’s the kind of book that’s praised by “serious” critics and widely applauded. Sometimes I agree with these voices, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m torn, and that’s the case here.

Secret Identity revolves around Carmen Valdes, a queer Cuban-American woman and a lifelong comic book fan who dreams of making it in the industry. The year is 1975, and she moves from Miami to New York to work as a secretary at the third-rate publisher Triumph Comics. Male writers and assholes who hit on every woman dominate the industry, so she needs to learn how to set boundaries. 

Her colleague Harvey Stern needs help to launch Triumph’s first female superhero series and asks Carmen to co-write it with him, but anonymously. She agrees because the temptation is too high. The Legendary Lynx, created by the duo, becomes a huge success because it’s different. Before the world learns about Carmen’s involvement in the project, things take a tragic turn. First, Carmen suspects Harvey used her to advance his career. Shortly after, she finds him dead in his apartment. With a bullet hole in his head.

Carmen investigates Harvey’s murder to figure out what happened to him and to reclaim this character that means so much to her. The narrative contains actual comic book sequences from The Legendary Linx comic, drawn by Sandy Jarrell, with letters by Taylor Esposito. 

It’s clear that Segura loves comic books and has done much research. He plays with the narrative, adding quirky characters who become Carmen’s friends, rivals, or potential love interests. At first, the mystery is mysterious, but it soon becomes relatively predictable.

As a lead character, Carmen lacks charisma. I understand that the industry in 1975 was challenging for newcomers, especially women with no connections. Getting a foothold in the industry and finding success (and money) was hard. Unlike her boss, Carmen has a true passion for comics. She’s a real nerd, and I respect that. Unfortunately, Carmen lacks agenda and often acts mindlessly. Of course, I can’t tell you everything, but the book would be much shorter if Carmen communicated effectively with people and trusted those she should.

I understand she comes from an unprivileged background, is vulnerable, and has to fight for things others get through connections. But I always have difficulty connecting with characters who lack direction or a willingness to fight for themselves. Sure, the reality of the business in 1975 was different, and the story and its protagonist are plausible. High praise for that. Still, I can’t say I liked Carmen as the main character. Not all the time.

The nods to the world of comics are fun, especially because Segura doesn’t explain things. He just puts them in the background, and it works. Some readers will have fun deciphering it, and others will just see it as background. Secret Identity finds a balance between character work, murder mystery, personal drama, and love for comics. However, it works against it in a way. Secret Identity is neither a fast-paced noir nor a superhero novel or history lesson. 

As a result, the pacing is sometimes off. Different readers will read the book for different aspects of the story, and I’m not sure anyone will be completely satisfied. I enjoyed Secret Identity and appreciate that it pushes the boundaries of the genre. It’s a good, well-thought-out book, just not as suspenseful as I, a genre reader, had hoped it would be.






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