Review: Secret Identity by Alex Segura


By Philip Schweier
July 25, 2022 - 15:57

I love a mystery, and when the mystery is set in the world of comic books, all the better. Alex Segura has crafted a novel that captures the world of comic book publishing, c. 1975. Secret Identity is filled with nods and references to actual publishers Marvel and DC, as well as lesser-known companies such as Atlas, Warren and Charlton. Sprinkled liberally are names fans of the Bronze Age and before will recognize, often with affection.

The story begins with Carmen Valdez, a Miami transplant to the Big Apple. She works as secretary to Jeffrey Carlyle, head of Triumph Comics, a lower-tier publisher barely staying above water. Like many office workers in the industry, her ambition is to some day create the adventures of the costumed crime-fighters.

When Harvey Stern, one of the junior editors, approaches her to collaborate on an 11th-hour project, she is happy to seize the opportunity, even if it means not receiving immediate credit for her work. The Lethal Lynx is a huge hit for Triumph, but matters turn ugly when it becomes apparent Harvey never intended to share the glory. And uglier still when she discovers he’s been murdered.

Her position as administrative assistant to the publisher enables Carmen to peel back layers of corporate structure and creative bookkeeping to reveal the true identities of those who may have wanted Harvey dead – creative talent jockeying for their shot at the big time, or veterans simply holding onto whatever remains of their career. When someone from Carmen’s past steps out of the shadows, she can’t help but wonder if Harvey’s death more personal.

Alex Segura
Carmen’s history seems to mirror that of author Alex Segura’s in many ways, and their combined love for comics shines through. Not just for the tights-and-fights aspect, but also for their impact on helping an immigrant family adjust to life in a new home.

As mysteries go, Secret Identity hits a lot of familiar notes: misdirection, unlikable characters who deserve to be arrested, likeable personalities whom we hope are innocent, and people from the past whose motivations are suspect at best. It’s not entirely “play fair” by Ellery Queen’s definition, but that’s okay. Murder mysteries aren’t always about proving you’re as smart as the sleuth in the book.

In this case, it was about sitting back and enjoying the scenery – that of the world of mid-1970s comic books, “loosy-goosy” days when they were still printed on cheap newsprint and only cost 25¢. Fans of the Bronze Age will recognize familiar names (my personal favorite was a tip of the hat to Legion of Super-Heroes artist Dave Cockrum). Maybe it’s a form of fan service to those of us who recall a time when today’s A-list characters – the Punisher or Wolverine, for instance – were infrequent supporting players in the pages of B-list titles.

Many fans who read comics off the spinner rack back then eschew the digital components of today’s comics. There’s a lot to be said for an era when super-heroes were pre-adolescent pablum, rather than “intellectual property” to be mined for film and video games. Back then, there was nothing “intellectual” about comics, as any elementary school teacher would be quick to tell you. Comic books were mindless, junk entertainment, and that exactly what we loved about them.

That affection is apparent in the pages of Secret Identity. In addition to being mostly a mystery, but partly a history, it’s also a bit of a love letter any comics fan will enjoy.
I give the book 5 out of 5 stars.

Last Updated: August 31, 2023 - 08:12

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