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Inside The Secret Identity and Multiple Careers of Alex Segura

Comics, FYI
Inside The Secret Identity and Multiple Careers of Alex Segura
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #3 • View online
In which writer and Oni-Lion Forge marketing maven Alex Segura reveals that he’s literally doing the work of three people, and presumably doesn’t get much sleep.

When I started thinking about the newsletter, I knew that one of the first people I wanted to talk to was Alex Segura. I’ve known him since he was one of the publicity people at DC more than a decade ago; in the years since, he’s had two stints at Archie Comics – including becoming co-president of the company back in 2017, a position he held until last year – as well as a period as DC’s executive director of publicity. He’s also been an acclaimed crime writer since the 2016 publication of Silent City, the first in a five-book series featuring journalist-turned-detective Pete Fernandez, and that’s saying nothing about a comic writing career that’s seen him take on everyone from the Archies to contemporary noir creation the Black Ghost. (Not to mention KISS and the B-52s, but who hasn’t written them into comics, am I right?)
Alex’s 2022 plans are, if nothing else, ambitious. In March, Flatiron Books will publish Secret Identity, his latest novel – which just so happens to be set in the 1970s comic book industry (It’s a lot of fun); around the same time, new digital comics company Zestworld will be launching, with Segura co-writing one of its first titles, The Awakened, with Michael Moreci. (Dean Kotz is illustrating.) Oh, and he’ll also be working his day job, as head of marketing for Oni-Lion Forge, where he’s been since last May. 
Really, I just wanted to chat with him to see if I could give him something else to do, so that he didn’t get bored. 
Let’s start with the origins of your upcoming novel, Secret Identity. You’re crossing the streams, Alex! Mixing your novelist life with your day job! What were you thinking?!?
Ha! Well, I had the idea years ago – around the time I was writing Blackout, the fourth (of the five) Pete Fernandez Mysteries. I knew the series was ending, so I was thinking about what was next. Obviously, I love comics – I work in comics. But I also love the history of comics. and I find myself drawn to stories that weave themselves into history in such a way that they almost become real. So I had the rough idea of writing a murder mystery in comics, but along the way to a final draft, it became much more than that.
Like you said, it’s more than just a crime novel set inside the comics industry, it’s a period piece, set inside the comics industry of the 1970s, right between the Silver Age superhero boom and the birth of the comic store-focused industry as fans know it today. Why then, in particular? 
I wanted to pick a time that was in stark contrast to now, where comics, and the awareness of comics – characters, tropes, storylines – was not nearly as high as it is today. I mean, even for people our age, Graeme, this feels like a golden age of sorts. There were Ant-Man movies! A Peacemaker TV show! Hell, Green Arrow was on TV forever. When we were kids, I think we were excited about a Batman sequel, or the idea of a James Cameron Spider-Man movie. It was even harder to imagine that stuff further back.
In the mid-70s, the newsstand was dying, the direct market hadn’t really blossomed yet, and creators were either working in comics because they were passionate about the medium or because they saw it as a means to an end, something to do before you got your real job. There was no sense of “media” – not in the way it feels now. There were things like Batman 66 and so on, but I think it was still very much a small pocket universe – and one that many felt was going to disappear. I wanted to explore comics during a particularly low point, and then flip it by having the protagonist be this optimistic and passionate fan who just wants to be a part of it.
Okay, so about that passionate fan… Where did Carmen’s story come from? Not the murder element, per se, but “the woman wanting to break into comics and finding an industry entirely stacked against her” story?
I knew early on I wanted it to be about her – I wanted to explore what it might be like for a woman to break into comics around then. I had the rough idea that she hit a wall trying to break in, so she was forced to basically write a comic anonymously, and then put in the position of having to solve her collaborator’s murder to retain some control of her character. But I also really needed to know what it was like to work in comics back then, what it was like to be a woman in comics back then, and all the things. The big difference for me with this book was the amount of research I had to do. And calling it research makes it seems so serious, but it was fun. I got to speak to a ton of creators from the period, a lot of people who blessed me with their time, and that added so much context and color that I think is reflected in the novel.
I’m really curious: Who did you talk to? What did you learn that you didn’t already know, and did it find its way into the book?
Lots of people! I’m worried I’ll forget someone, honestly. I was really grateful that so many generous friends I’ve come to know in comics over the years were able to share some time with me. I split up the work a few ways – some were research interviews, where I tried to get a better handle on working in comics right before, during, or around that time. So I spoke to people like Linda Fite (who wrote The Cat for Marvel), Gerry Conway, Louise Simonson, and Marvel: The Untold Story author Sean Howe, Karen Berger, Laurie Sutton, to name a few. 
Others were just generally helpful – Paul Levitz, for example, pointed me in the right direction on a few things and gave an early draft a top-line read. He and Kurt Busiek were immensely helpful and saved me from some glaring errors. 
Longtime editor and writer Stuart Moore was an essential beta reader, and gave me a lot of spot-on historical and real-world context that really helped make it feel genuine. It was a challenge, because on one hand I wanted to just write an entertaining story, but on the other I wanted to make sure as much as I could that every little detail was right. If I did get anything wrong, though, it was my fault - and everything I got right was thanks to people like Linda, Karen, Louise, Paul, Gerry and co.
What’s the feedback been from comics professionals who’ve read the book? Has anyone been “you’re painting the industry in a bad light!” as if they’re the comic book Grinch? 
There haven’t been any Grinches, thankfully! No-one said it was a downer look at comics, which I took as a compliment. I tried my best to have Carmen’s passion offset the dark setting – it’s literally her love of comics that pulls her through the story, and Sandy’s illustrations are really the star of the book, adding that meta aspect that I think really helps it land.
Has anyone wondered if you’ve written in shady analogs of them to vent your feelings? Have you written in shady analogs?
A few comics folks who read it early asked questions along the lines of “is this person supposed to be a riff on so-and-so?” and honestly, it’s never one-for-one. Each character is an amalgamation of ideas and people, so, while I may have been inspired by the real world, I tried my best to carve out a space for this book to exist.
You just mentioned Sandy Jarrell, and I’m curious about his involvement, as well as using elements of Carmen’s comic in the book itself – and not just because I found myself wanting to read more of the (non-existent) Lethal Lynx comic. Was there a point where the two of you thought, “Wait, should we actually do this as a comic instead of putting in these interludes in the book?”
I think that feeling was immediate. Part of the process of creating the Lynx in the book included, well, creating the Lynx. So I had all this backstory and world-buildng stuff on paper, and it felt really fun in and of itself. When Sandy came into the process, I sent him the novel draft and my rough notes for the interludes. 
Now, Sandy is amazing. One of my favorite artists working in comics and one of my best pals in the industry. We’ve known each other a long time and have wanted to work together on something for well over a decade. But not only is he great, he’s a student of comic book history, so I could speak to him in a great shorthand, like “hey, let’s try for a real Miller Daredevil look here” or “this page should really evoke Gene Colan,” or whatever. I also know he’s just a genius, so I made sure to give him the wiggle room to cut loose and evoke the period and be Sandy. So he did layouts based on the interludes, we went back and forth on notes, and then I scripted and Taylor [Esposito] lettered. 
But before all of that started, when I pitched the novel, I had a partial manuscript and a detailed outline. So I had Sandy do a sample page of what the interludes would look like. We ended up doing the final interludes in black and white, because it just made more sense from a production perspective, but that sample page was in color. Which is to say, I’ve had an idea of what Sandy drawing a full Lynx comic would look like in the back of my mind for a while, and it is something we talk about all the time. 
It’s gonna happen, just a question of when and how. I remember reading [Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay] in my twenties and falling in love with the book, and I was so fascinated when Chabon curated those Escapist comics and kept it “in world.” So that’s probably what we’ll go for when we get there. So, to answer your question – yes, we immediately wanted to do more with The Lynx, and I think we will.
Seeing as we’re already crossing between you writing novels and comics, I have to ask: just how do you even balance your duties as a novelist – not just writing, but promoting the damn things – with your day job and your freelance comics work, and everything else that you do? How do you find the time? You have a family, after all! I’m curious, in part, because I’m in awe. 
I have this really bad – or great, depending on the day – habit of making my hobbies turn into jobs. I mean, as you recall, I first started writing my debut novel when I was at DC, as kind of a way to blow off steam from my day job in comics. It ended up becoming its own thing – it’s own career. So, honestly, I just feel really blessed; I’m doing so many things and I love doing them. 
The other side of the coin is, I don’t really have time for other stuff. I don’t watch much TV or movies, I don’t play video games or stuff like that. I’m either working – day job, writing job – or spending time with my wife and kids. And it’s great! I cannot complain and would never think to complain. The only advice I can give people is to stay nimble and be able to pivot – which is to say, if I find five minutes to write, I write. I don’t over-ceremonialize the process, because that pocket of time? It’s finite. I remember the days when I could take an entire weekend day to write and I was honestly less productive than I am now. I think the key for me is to keep moving, otherwise I lose it.
So, how do you choose what to work on at any given point? When do you know “This is the time to work on the next novel,” versus, say, The Awakened? Is it as simple as “this deadline is looming” or “I need to get pages to someone”? Is there a different muse that strikes at different times?
It’s a mix between deadlines – “oh, I need to approve this Dusk script so Taylor can letter it,” and desire… Like, over the holiday break, I didn’t really have any pressing, actual deadlines, but I was excited about my next crime novel, so I outlined it and was able to really dive in and get it done. The upside of having so many plates spinning is that I often get to choose, if the deadlines are close together, and focus on whatever fits my mood in that moment. But who am I kidding? It’s often a deadline that’s motivating me. [Laughs]
One last “how do you juggle” question before I move on, but it’s not about time, this time: how do you deal with being a comics industry exec in your day job, and also a comic creator? Does it change the way that peers interact with you?
It’s tricky, I won’t lie, because you see the business from both sides. A lot of freelancers I deal with on the business side are contemporaries on the creator side, so there’s some nuance to it. I just… try to treat people the way I’d like to be treated if I was on the other side of the conversation? I don’t think anyone ever bats 1,000, but that’s what you aim for. It’s a good rule for life, honestly.
We’ve covered the novel, we’ve mentioned the comics, but how’s the Oni gig working out? Can you go into specifics about what you’re actually doing there?
Oni’s been great, honestly. I was with Archie for so long, and it was such a comfortable fit, I didn’t really think about going anywhere else, but sometimes opportunities are presented to you and you realize it’s time for a change. 
My title is SVP - Sales and Marketing, so I oversee all of the company’s sales, marketing, communications, and external efforts. I’ve got a great team of people – just experts in their fields – so that made the transition so much easier. It’s just a really great atmosphere, really wonderful people, and I love the books. I love that Oni really cares about the creators they work with and actualizing their vision. It’s nice to be in a partnership with talented people, and to help them see their books come to life.
Can you talk about how the gig came about? I have to admit, I was surprised when it was announced, and I doubt that I was the only one. 
Sure! I’ve known Oni Press publisher James Lucas Jones forever, since I first started in comics. It was a nice mutual admiration society type thing. We’d always talk shop and compare notes when we’d see each other at shows, and I think there was a strong desire to someday work together, but you know… the stars don’t always align. From afar, I’d always admired Oni’s aesthetic and creator-first mentality, and from my perspective, as someone who’d worked at IP-driven places my entire career – DC, Archie – it felt like it could make for an interesting challenge, and one that would align with a lot of stuff I deal with and think about as a creator myself. But those are just fleeting thoughts you have while immersed in your usual day to day. 
I was very entrenched and content with my Archie gig and it was always something new. Whether it involved helping to create big partnerships with places like WebToon or Spotify, or working with so many amazing creators, or dealing with marketing and PR, it was certainly never boring. But when James and Oni reached out and talked me through the job, it felt like the right time to make a change, and looking back on it now, I don’t think it’s a coincidence it parallels my own writing career a bit, as I diversify the things I’m working on and try to carve that out into its own, ongoing career path. 
Oni is based here in Portland, Oregon, and you’re all the way on the East Coast. How is that working? Are you making trips over here all the time?
I have not done any travel since this all started! At least not flying anywhere. We have two little ones, only one of which is vaccinated, so we’re still running under “first wave of the pandemic” protocols, in terms of what we do and who we see. So we’ve taken a few road trips, but nothing bigger than that. No plans to now, either, not with Omicron going nuts. 
The workload has been okay – it’s just a little more challenging working from home, but I felt ready for that because we were all working remote at Archie for the year or so leading up to me making the move. You’re just… at home, so your co-workers are your kids and spouse, which is nice, but is also a different set of challenges. But I think we (as in the world) have done our best to adapt. I’ve got it down to some semblance of a routine.
Okay, so talking about the COVID of it all… what with the world being what it is right now, are you just extremely active in terms of networking and socializing online? I’d assumed that the Zestworld thing had happened because of some social connection at a convention or something, but now I’m wondering in light of what you just said. How did you hook up with Zestworld? 
I knew Chris from Zestworld via social media – we’d chatted a few times and I knew he was starting this platform, which sounded very exciting. At first we were just talking the way friends do: he asked a few general questions and I gave him some insight. After a bit, he asked if I had anything that might be a good fit, content-wise, and I immediately thought of The Awakened.
What, if anything, can you say about The Awakened right now? I feel that details are being kept under wraps on Zestworld projects until closer to launch…
Mike [Moreci] and I have been wanting to collaborate for some time – we’d announced a Dick Tracy series at Archie that got entangled in a rights issue a few years back, so it had to be shelved, and that was a bummer for us, but we had a great time working together on those scripts. I’d edited Mike on a few things at Archie, like Vampironica, so we were simpatico and we both have this shared passion for a certain kind of superhero story. 
I realize that’s very vague, because who doesn’t like superheroes, but the kind of comic we want to create is a blend of our passion for big-picture superhero stuff, like Astro City and Black Hammer or The Golden Age, blended with more grounded, noir stories rooted in crime fiction and conspiracy thrillers like Six Days of the Condor
We wanted to create something that showcased our love for the genre without defaulting to being needlessly grim and gritty, but still keeping it grounded and part of this bigger, epic world. It’s definitely a challenge, to evoke the wonder and cool-factor of superheroes while still making them believable, but also not veering too far into hyper-realism and all that entails. 
 The short version is The Awakened is a superhero murder mystery, co-written by Mike and myself, with art by the amazing Dean Kotz (The Butcher of Paris). It’s a noir superhero tale, focusing on a team of beloved heroes that look impervious on the outside, but who are actually falling apart on the inside – that’s the cleanest description I can give it. It’s about the pursuit of power and the lengths people will go to get it, or to keep it, and what defines a hero. Spoiler: it’s not a costume or powers! 
 We’re having a great time with it, and I’d like to note that we’re being very mindful about format. While we’ll be debuting sections via Zestworld, we’re already figuring out a print component that will mirror what we do online, so readers can experience it in sync, or as close as we can make it.
To wrap things up, the most important question of all: what’s it like being one of comics’ true multi-hyphenates? I’m really asking, just how tired are you?
I’m always, always tired. But it’s worth it. I have a lot to be grateful for and very little room to complain.
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Graeme McMillan

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