W.B.’s Book Report: Secret Identity

Before Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ray Bradbury stole my heart, my passion for reading was fueled by comic books. It was a casual thing until the day in July 1963 that I stumbled across The Amazing Spider-Man #4 and for 12 cents my life was changed forever.

For the next decade or so, I followed Marvel Comics and an occasional off-brand magazine religiously. When I came out to Wisconsin for college, my first happy moment was when I found that the Piggly Wiggly in Ripon sold comics, so I could keep up my habit. 

It’s been a while since I purchased comics regularly, but I retain my fond memories and excitement for the characters, and when Sam Raini’s Spider-Man obviously used Amazing Fantasy #15 as its storyboards in the opening minutes — followed by the explosion in the popularity of Marvel movies over the ensuing two decades — I could hear my childhood self screaming in redemptive glee, “I told you! I told you these characters were great!”

Obviously, then, I identified with the hero of Secret Identity by Alex Segura, a murder mystery steeped in the culture of the comic book industry in 1975. Carmen Valdez is a secretary for the publisher of Triumph Comics, a little company operating in the shadows of Marvel and D.C., but she has always loved comic books and wants a shot at writing them. Women in comics — beyond the secretarial pool — were very rare in those days, so her interest in creating comics fell on mostly deaf ears.

She gets an opportunity when an editor, Harvey Stern, recruits her to collaborate on a new character, the Legendary Lynx — actually it’s Carmen’s creation with the editor tweaking things here and there. Two terrible things happen next. First, Carmen discovers that the editor has submitted her scripts but signed it with only his name. Second, when she goes to his apartment to confront him for stealing her work, she finds his body.

The Legendary Lynx turns out to be Triumph’s biggest selling comic, and excerpts from those immortal early issues are interspersed throughout the book. The plot keeps thickening as Segura weaves a tale that involves office politics, a mysterious other comics company, now defunct, an ex-girlfriend, and a dogged police detective who shares Carmen’s desire to figure out what happened to Harvey.

The book is sprinkled with familiar names of comic book legends and other references intended to delight comics fans, including a scene set at a New York comic book convention at the Commodore Hotel, a real event that I happened to attend. Maybe I passed Carmen Valdez in the aisles? The big final showdown with the bad guy even features one of the all-time great and annoying of comic book tropes — the villain who just has to keep talking too long for his own good. At first the scene irked me until I realized Segura probably did that on purpose.

This one goes next to The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay on the very short shelf of great novels about the comic book industry, and I’ll go one step further: This is the most fun I’ve had reading a novel since The Martian, so yeah, probably 10 years. Yes, it’s that good.

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