Secret Identity draws up a murder mystery in the world of comic book publishing. Although such fan-hallowed bullpens are, in all actually, a mundane yet stressful industry, it is one ripe for imaginative settings and author Alex Segura jumps on in. The business is also one that probably has not been fictionalized since Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), which similarly dramatizes the comic world with two characters hiding their own secrets. However, that is where all comparisons should stop as referencing Secret Identity to Kavalier & Clay is akin to measuring Rob Liefeld’s mis-proportioned handling of Captain America with Alan Moore’s seminal Watchmen. Secret Identity is a plodding mystery enveloped in a disappointing read with only significant comic-book namedrops to keep things semi-interesting.
Title: Secret Identity (2022) Author: Alex Segura Publisher: Flatiron Books Book jacket: It’s 1975 and the comic book industry is struggling, but Carmen Valdez doesn’t care. She’s an assistant at Triumph Comics and is tantalizingly close to fulfilling her dream of writing a superhero book, the Lynx. But her colleague is acting strangely and asking to keep her involvement a secret. And then he’s found dead, with all of their scripts turned into the publisher without her name. Carmen is desperate to piece together what happened to him, to hang on to her piece of the Lynx, and the tangled web of secrets and resentments among the passionate eccentrics who write comics for a living. Joe says: This should have been an easy win: a murder mystery linked in the comic book industry. Instead, Secret Identity is a disappointing read written in a bland matter-of-fact style with a barely-interesting mystery. Truly, the story of women in comics deserves better.
Set in 1975, Carmen Valdez works for Triumph comics, a small contender in a market dominated by DC and Marvel. Carmen has an idea – the Lynx – but Carmen is a secretary, not a comic writer, a status her boss wishes to maintain. Her idea may not die but Harvey, an assistant editor and supporter of the Lynx, does. Drastically. Carmen, like the crimefighters she dreams of, sets out to find who killed Harvey, and why, while also struggling with an industry set against her to keep the Lynx alive.
Although aptly named, there are many struggles within Secret Identity. Contextually, Carmen Valdez struggles to be a woman in comics in the 1970s. She struggles to find a creative voice; one she must keep hidden to retain her job. Carmen struggles with the murder of her friend and co-worker and what this means for the life of her character. She struggles with her sexual identity.
Stylistically, the book presents as many issues as there are Justice Leaguers. Alex Segura struggles to maintain a setting of 1975; outside of the ongoing reminders of New York’s crime problem, Secret Identity could occur in 1985, 1995, or in some timeless, uncaring limbo. Other than the aforementioned victim, and Carmen’s boss Carlyle, Segura struggles to maintain the personalities of most secondary characters, all of whom have forgettable, interchangeable names. While the mystery is genuine, there is no priority; no threat. Segura’s matter-of-fact writing style prohibits any thrills and all but stops the ticking clock in the race for a solution.
Carmen is an interesting character, and one the reader wants to see succeed in her work, in her life, and with her love. Carmen is also handed an incredible convenience in her love for comics. She owns comics featuring the first appearance of Galactus (Fantastic Four #48), Flash #163 (where the Scarlet Speedster implores help from the reader of the comic), and Batman’s return-to-relevance post Adam West (Detective Comics #395). This is not entirely impossible but in a pre-comicbook shop 1975, rather improbable. To digress, this is one of the few, totally fun steps in a mostly bland march.
Other than those classics? Jim Starlin’s work on Warlock was mentioned but Segura confusingly goes all cricket silent with any other contemporary-for-the-time shout outs. In 1975 alone, comics saw the debut of Moon Knight; a new Green Goblin (the original’s son) terrorized Spider-Man; Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson continued to generate weird, sophisticated horror in Swamp Thing; and, oh yeah, an upstart writer named Chris Claremont introduced an all-new, all-different X-Men team with characters named Nightcrawler, Storm, and Wolverine.
Segura no doubt wants to world build but does so by shutting out any pre-existing IP that could otherwise be used as a historical mile marker, as well as a treat for dedicated fans. There are plenty of name drops – he tags The Eternals and Doom Patrol knowing their movie and streaming show would provide relatively-easy name recognition – but most references are openly-generic (descriptors include “as strong as Superman” and “goofy like Spider-Man”) and miss the “in-the-know” winks that made something like the pop-culture heavy Ready Player One such a fun read.
However, Secret Identity does contain a small treat within. Certain chapters end with comic pages “ripped” from Triumph’s Lethal Lynx series. Illustrated by comic artist Sandy Jarrell, the art is gorgeous black-and-white with Zip-a-Tone highlights and cinematic panel layouts. Unfortunately, and yet another infuriating point of contention, is that Lynx totally looks like an indie comic from the mid 1990’s: narration captions; inverted word balloons to white on black; tight focus points. None of these styles were in motion in a time when draftsmen such as Sal Buscema, George Tuska, and Dick Dillin ruled the bullpens.
Secret Identity succeeds in dreaming up a real and recognizable woman in comics – both behind and between the glossy cover. The book might also succeed as a long-desired love letter to comics themselves. As a compelling narrative and deep mystery, Secret Identity simply cannot keep pace with its four-color idols.
Many thanks to Flatiron Books for thinking of me and sending out the advanced copy. I truly wish this one had met my expectations.