Carmen Valdez is used to dwelling in the shadows in her personal and professional lives. When you're a queer, working woman in 1975, you learn to get cozy with compromise.
Carmen is the Cuban-American central character in Alex Segura's Secret Identity. It's a masterful 1970s literary mystery featuring this artist fighting against the patriarchy and dodging bullets in the desperate, male-dominated world of comics.
With artists like her routinely shunted to the sidelines, Carmen works as a secretary for third-rate Triumph Comics while plotting her big break in her spare time. So when a coworker, junior editor Harvey Stern, invites Carmen to team up on a pitch, she has a groundbreaking idea for a more realistic new female led series all ready to go. It's not an equal partnership — Harvey will be the frontman to Carmen's uncredited, secret coauthor — but it's the best (and only) offer she's likely to receive to see her words in print.
The collaboration between Harvey and Carmen is successful, even if she's pulling far more than her own weight. And Harvey is only slightly less shady than their sexist boss, Triumph's editor-in-chief Jeffrey Carlyle. But then Harvey gets a bullet in the head before they can reveal her true role. It forces the aspiring author to stay in the shadows even as their creation, the street vigilante the Lynx, becomes the company's top seller. That leaves Carmen scared and frustrated, but also determined to find out what happened to her friend and hopefully, finally, claim her rightful place in the sun.
Alex Segura is an award-winning writer of comic books and mysteries and it shows in this well-crafted and layered mystery-thriller that excels in multiple dimensions. For one thing, it's a brilliant homage to comics that comes with gorgeously rendered excerpts from The Legendary Lynx embedded in its pages.
Secret Identity also boasts a realistic and well-crafted plot that flows easily from the social history of the 1970s comic book industry and of New York. From the grimy yet vibrant atmosphere to the conflicts around gender inside and out of the workplace, the scene-setting is meticulous and vivid.
Well-steeped in cultural history, Segura draws his protagonist's life with subtlety and sensitivity. Carmen's layered backstory parallels the development of the Lynx character that she creates. The consistency of motivation and nuance that Carmen insists on giving the vigilante's alter ego Claudia are present in Carmen's story as well. Understanding Carmen requires knowing that she grew up in a conservative family, in which she "bided her time, saved her money," and eventually put distance between herself and her beloved hometown of Miami. Carmen carries that history with her throughout Secret Identity:
"The divide had created friction. Carmen's desire to carve out her own place — at the expense of what her mother saw as not only tradition, but akin to law-alienated her from Clara Valdez to the point where the two barely spoke."
It's partly why Carmen still dwells in shadows in some ways, even in New York City. On top of the double standards at work that force her into the role of unpaid ghostwriter just to see her ideas to fruition, Carmen settles for a secret romance with a closeted woman that will never quite fit or satisfy.
It's a letdown for Carmen to have to keep hiding. Who Carmen really is in her heart is as much of a secret as her fictional counterpart the Lynx. It's an apt metaphor, and Carmen gets weary when she considers her situation: "She'd been in the shadows too long. For so many different things."
Though the implications are clear, Segura wields these metaphors around shadows and secrets and the threat of unmasking (when one's secret identity is revealed) with a subtle hand. Plus, the darkness is well balanced with light in this scenario. Carmen's roommate Molly provides friendship and humor. And she finds several other true allies in the gritty city as well. Carmen even finds a true collaborator in a talented but troubled veteran illustrator Doug Detmer. So her burdens stack up. But instead of crushing her, they become Carmen's fuel.
Segura effectively balances the realities of Carmen's personal and professional challenges with the joy of creativity and friendship in a novel that manages to be thought-provoking and fun. The last ace in this deck is the consistent pacing and intensity of the plot; it's full of twists but free of red herrings. Secret Identity is a satisfying choice for lovers of comics, twentieth century historical fiction and mysteries that make you think.
A slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communication scholar focusing on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.