Aabout once a month a package of comics arrives in my dad’s mailbox. We’ve been reading comics together for The Death of Superman, the high-profile 1992 story in which the iconic hero perished in an all-out battle against the monster Doomsday. (He got better.) The comic has sold over 6 million copies, including one to us. This event sparked a love of comics in 10-year-olds like me and reintroduced it to adults like my dad, who hadn’t bought a superhero comic since he was a teenager. Our local comic book store is reaping the rewards so far.
It is better to talk comics than politics. Him a conservative from Texas and me a neoliberal from Portland, DC Comics is a less controversial topic of conversation than DC politics. Superheroes remain a common touchstone for both of us, a reliable bridge between our cultural differences. I often thought about it while reading Secret identitya new noir crime novel from author and comic book writer Alex Segura.
Secret identity tells the story of Carmen Valdez, a young Cuban-American introduced to comics through her father, who instills a love of the medium through ritualistic trips to the neighborhood drugstore to peruse the shelves and choose a few problems to take home. Immigrating to Miami from Cuba, he tells Carmen that he learned to read English from superhero stories. After this brief glimpse into her childhood, the novel finds Carmen in 1970s New York, now an aspiring comic book writer herself and estranged from more conservative members of her family after discovering she was dating a woman.
Carmen lands a job as a secretary at Triumph Comics, a third-rate publisher struggling behind the DC and Marvel juggernauts. It’s a foot in the door, but despite his obvious passion for comics, any suggestion of getting into the creative side of the business is stymied by his old-school boss, who considers writing comics as a male domain. Enter Harvey Stern, an intermediate editor at Triumph looking for his own big breakthrough, who approaches Carmen with a proposal: create a superhero with only his name in the credits and wait to reveal Carmen’s contribution until it is printed.
The plan begins successfully when their hero, an urban vigilante named Lethal Lynx, debuts and shoots the best-selling slot on Triumph’s roster of titles. But things go tragically wrong when Carmen finds Harvey shot in the skull. This sets in motion the central plot of Secret identityas Carmen races to solve the mystery of who killed her collaborator, prove her role as co-creator of the Lynx and regain control of the character, and survive by becoming a target herself.
The novel is completed with interspersed pages from the fictional Lynx comic strip, drawn in real life by Sandy Jarrell but presented as artifacts in the world of Secret identity, with character beats and artwork styles varying with the creative teams taking control of the character. It’s a fun addition that adds to the immersion of the story.
Secret identity is firmly in the mold of a murder mystery, with an ex-lover suddenly returning with questionable motives, a no-nonsense detective working the case alongside Carmen, and additional deaths piling up as the story unfolds. towards resolution. The book is a love letter to comic books, filled with allusions to classic issues, like artist Carmine Infantino’s 1966 Flash cover in which the hero breaks the fourth wall to beg readers to buy the strip. drawn. At other times, the superhero connection comes as a metaphor, such as when a budding romance is described as “a seismic shift in the way things were meant to be — like Kang the Conqueror stepping back in time to prevent the Avengers to be born”. The allusions aren’t overdone, but the enjoyment of the novel will be at least somewhat commensurate with whether or not these occasional references arrive. (Kang was a deep cut even for me.)
Comic book fans will also see familiar hints of the medium’s history in the plot: the struggle for creators to retain control and credit for their characters, as well as how superheroes portray powerful fantasies. of the men who created them. . There are parallels here with Jack Kirby, Bill Finger, and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, all sons of Jewish immigrants and all of whom were long denied proper recognition for their roles in creating enduring characters such as the Fantastic Four, Batman and Superman. And just as Superman was a powerful male fantasy to the nebulous young men who wrote him, one can imagine the strong and capable Lynx springing from a creatively frustrated female writer struggling to break into a dominated business. by men.
While the book’s murder mystery is highly engaging, solving the whodunit is less important than Segura’s reimagining of comic book making through the experience of a young Cuban-American woman in the New York City of the 1970s. And while real-life drama in the comic book business hasn’t risen to the level of murder, it’s only fitting that in a story like this it has. For what is the role of superheroes if not to play our normal human conflicts with higher stakes and on a grander scale, envisioning the possibility of becoming our best selves? Set decades before the box office dominance of Batman and the Avengers, when comic book publishers struggled to survive by catering to children and the misfits, Secret identity is both an intriguing mystery and a fun exploration of why these characters have enduring appeal.
Jacob Grier is the author of The rediscovery of tobacco: smoking, vaping and the creative destruction of the cigarette.