Monday, January 31, 2022

Review: Secret Identity

Secret Identity Secret Identity by Alex Segura
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I won a free advance copy of this from the publisher.

It’s hard to believe these days when multiple blockbuster movies and popular TV shows are based on superheroes, but there have been several times over the years when it looked like the comic book industry was swirling the drain.

1975 was such a time, but that hasn’t stopped Carmen Valdez from pursuing her dream of being a comic book writer in New York. Unfortunately, the closest she’s come so far is working as a secretary for the publisher of struggling Triumph Comics, and her boss has made it clear that he’d rather buy work from washed up male writers then give a young woman a chance. When a friendly colleague named Harvey asks her to help him come up with a new hero to meet a deadline, Carmen works with him to quickly develop a female superhero they call the Lethal Lynx. Harvey promises that if the publisher likes the new character he’ll give Carmen her share of the credit.

However, Carmen is shocked to learn that Harvey misled her and submitted several scripts she primarily wrote under his own name. Before Carmen can confront Harvey about this, the young man is murdered, and Carmen can only watch helplessly as the character she’s created becomes popular and is handed off to hacks. There’s a suspicious police detective who thinks Carmen knows more than she’s saying and another personal problem when a former friend she has a complicated history with shows up in New York. Eventually, Carmen thinks the key to figuring out who murdered Harvey and proving that she co-created the Lynx lies in Harvey’s shady history in the industry.

I started reading comic books as a kid in the ‘70s, and I’m a fan of the mystery crime genre so no surprise that this book hooked me immediately. This feels like an authentic look at the comic book scene of the ‘70s, and the vibe that this is a grungy subset of publishing that isn’t respected, even by most of the people working in it. Alex Segura has worked in comics so the details feel right, and the references all come across as part of the detailed background rather than cheap wink-and-nudge references to make fanboys giggle.

There’s also a cool feature with actual comic book pages featuring Carmen’s Lynx stories scattered throughout the book, and artist Sandy Jarrell does a great job of making these panels have a cool ‘70s style. If they actually wrote and published a Lethal Lynx comic book, I’d be very interested in reading it.

The thing that really makes the whole book work is Carmen as a character. She’s the daughter of Cuban immigrants, a woman trying to break into an all male industry, and she’s got another big secret that makes her feel like an outsider. All of these factors drew Carmen to comic book superheroes in the first place, but she’s also just a fan as well as a writer with a natural instinct for what makes a compelling character. This is as much a story about a young woman struggling to make her dreams come true as it is a murder mystery, and I very much cared about what happens with Carmen. Since it's well known how various comic book creators were cheated out of credit and money over the years, I was sometimes more worried that Carmen might never get her rightful recognition than I was that she wouldn’t find the killer.

It’s a quality mystery novel as well as a love letter to comic books, but even if you don’t care about superheroes, I think a lot of people would find the story of a young woman trying to become who she’s meant to be in ‘70s New York enjoyable as well.

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