It’s every budding comic author’s not-so-secret dream to finally make their mark on the industry and have their name emblazoned on the cover of their very own original book. But for Carmen Valdez, the protagonist of Alex Segura’s latest book Secret Identity: A Novel, that dream turns into a living noir nightmare.
An assistant working at Triumph Comics, Valdez is given the opportunity of a lifetime when she’s enlisted to help one of the company’s head writers create Triumph’s very first female superhero, “The Lethal Lynx.” All seems to be going well, until the writer turns up dead and all the scripts for the new hero are turned into the publisher without Valdez’s name.
Desperate to assert her claim to the Lynx and piece together what happened to her boss, Valdez finds herself drawn into a tangled web of secrets when a tenacious cop pays her a visit at her Miami home, presenting her with a mystery that feels ripped straight from the pages of pulp comic.
To celebrate the book’s release this week, we’re publishing an exclusive excerpt from Alex Segura’s Secret Identity here at Polygon. The book also includes bits of the actual Lethal Lynx comic itself, drawn by artist Sandy Jarrell with lettering by Taylor Esposito, which you can read below the excerpt.
“Just pretend it never happened.”
Detmer’s voice was haggard, each word crawling out of his cigar-chomping mouth. Carmen watched as the artist leaned over his drawing table, his left hand swiftly bringing to life a dynamic, lively sketch of the Lynx. She was swinging through the city, her face determined. Her original costume restored, her figure looking more fit than foxy. This was the Lynx they knew. The real Lynx, Carmen thought.
Detmer, on the other hand, had changed in the months since Carmen had last visited. His already thin frame seemed but a wisp now, his skin pockmarked and stretched, dark bags under his eyes, with a faint scent of one skipped shower too many. The studio was still empty — no sign of any new artists moving in to share the burden or keep things going. Bottles of beer had been replaced with bottles of liquor. Ashtrays overflowing. A thickness to the air Carmen didn’t want to place. Her mind flickered back to the envelopes she’d spotted stacked near the door — more past due notices than she’d ever seen in her life.
She knew that after his abrupt exit from the Legendary Lynx series, Detmer had been unable to find new work. Even with the buzz surrounding the series’s success, it wasn’t enough to get him steady employment. Sure, some offers came in — inks on an issue of Defenders, a fill-in on Sub-Mariner, a short story in House of Mystery. But nothing he could live off of. Nothing sustainable. He’d burned the final bridge, it seemed. Though the man was apparently unfazed by this development, it was clear to Carmen that comics — inasmuch as you could describe the fading industry in singular terms — had passed Doug Detmer by. Despite decades of work ranging in quality from superlative to solid, Detmer was now an artifact. A name that might come up at a convention or in conversation between two hard-core fans. A “Whatever happened to?” query that might go unanswered more often than not. He was a recluse — by default, not design.
“Just pretend what didn’t happen?” she asked, bringing the conversation back to Detmer’s earlier comment. “What did you mean by that?”
“I mean, we just pick up where we left off,” Detmer said, not looking up from his table, adding a few motion lines to the pinup before tossing it onto a nearby pile of pages. “We do a whole issue — script, art. As much as we can do. Then the second Jensen and Tinsler fall apart, we swoop in with it ready. Carlyle will have no choice. He’ll need the issue to keep the gravy train rolling, so he runs with it. Then it hits and people will go wild.”
Carmen paced around Detmer’s desk, fingers rubbing her temples. “But what if they don’t?” she asked. “What if they keep going? I mean, the book is selling well. Carlyle seems over the moon. They might not give this up.”
“They will, trust me,” Detmer said, grabbing a new sheet of paper and starting to doodle. “Those hacks can’t keep it going. They have two ideas that they rub together, over and over again, and eventually they burn out. Just be ready. Get a story going. Reference what they’ve done — but negate it. Tear it apart. Make it the bad dream we all know it is.”
Carmen smiled. She liked this. Having an ally. A coconspirator. She’d missed it, in the wake of Harvey’s death. Detmer’s plan was sound, too.
“What if it is a bad dream? Like you said?” she asked.
“Too easy,” Detmer said, starting the preliminary lines that would eventually make a person. It was a villainous pose — a tall figure with a hand outstretched. “Too trite. You can’t have her just wake up and it’s all gone. Even to hacks like Jensen and Tinsler, it’d be a slap in the face.”
“What if it’s a dream caused by a villain? Someone who has an ax to grind with Claudia?”
“Now that’s something,” Detmer said, nodding. “Some kind of mental trick.”
“That’s her name — that’s the villain.”
Detmer smiled as he erased some of the lines around the figure — deftly turning what he’d envisioned as a man into a woman. He started to play with details. A black cloak, white; pupil-less eyes; a pale, angular face.
“Mindbender . . . I like that,” he said, more to himself than to Carmen. “I like that a lot.”
Carmen picked up her pace, walking along the office’s long center aisle. It was a crisp November afternoon. Thanksgiving was right around the corner. Carmen avoided thinking about where she’d spend it. She was avoiding a lot of things, she realized. A lot of people, too.
“She’s a crime lord, a psychiatrist, maybe? Someone professional and skilled who takes a dark turn,” Carmen said. She could see Detmer continuing to sketch out of the corner of her eye. “She wants to step in to fill the, ahem, void left by Mr. Void’s defeat.”
“Why, though?” Detmer asked.
“What is the question,” Detmer said. “What made her go from a professional career, maybe a family, to being a psychopath? Someone who suits up and uses their knowledge for ill gain? And don’t tell me her parents are shot outside of a theater.”
They shared a brief laugh.
“I mean, why can’t it just be greed?”
She saw Detmer raise an eyebrow. It wasn’t critical. He was intrigued.
“She wants to make money?” he asked.
“Maybe she’s tired of always having to answer to anyone, to have to be a cog in the machine,” Carmen said, walking up to Detmer’s art table. “But instead of choosing the path of good — like Claudia — she decides she can use her knowledge of medicine and the human mind to cash in. She snaps. Maybe she gets fired or sees the underbelly of her industry, or something makes her doubt herself to the core. Then she goes the other way, and the Lynx just happens to be blocking her path.”
“I hope you have a good memory.”
“Why?” Carmen asked.
“Because this is good,” Detmer said.
He lifted up the piece of paper he’d been doodling on. There she was. Mindbender. Standing tall, her look ethereal and menacing. A mix of the evil queen from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and a street-brawler — dark, sinewy lines surrounded her. Her eyes seemed to stare right into you.
“How did you . . . just do that?”
“It’s what I do,” he said.
Carmen thought she heard a slight catch in his throat on the last word. Carmen didn’t respond, so Detmer spoke, as if trying to push the conversation away.
“Think we’ve got enough for you to get started,” he said, sliding a stack of sketches into a drawer near his large drawing table. “Think you can get me a plot to start sketching out this week?”
“Sure, I’ll bring it by tomorrow,” Carmen said.
“Great,” he said, slapping his drawing table gently. “Then I’ll put the visuals together and we’ll have a book. With your damn name on it this time.”
Carmen felt her eyes well up. She hadn’t expected that. She hadn’t expected this moment. This life. She imagined opening the book Detmer had yet to draw. Her fingers sliding across the flimsy cover paper. The loud reds and greens and blues of the image — the Lynx hunched over, hands on her skull, as floating versions of her closest friends and enemies hovered around her, taunting her. What lurks inside the Lynx?? the cover text would read, two large, italicized question marks capping off the query. How could you not open the book? she thought. She imagined a dynamic, panels-shattering image of the Lynx kicking off the issue. Drawn by Detmer — in his crisp but quirky style, no line or shadow wasted, a perfect balance of light and dark — a fluidity of action that was mesmerizing and deceptively simple. A master at work. And he was drawing something Carmen wrote.
She smiled at him. She knew she was crying. That her face was wet with tears. But she didn’t care. This was going to happen, and the rest didn’t matter right now.
Detmer nodded. An odd silence followed before he spoke again.
“What do you think happened?” Detmer asked. “To your friend? To the Stern kid?”
Carmen’s brow furrowed.
“He was shot.”
“I know that,” Detmer said, trying to rein in his incredulous tone. “But what else? Why? I knew Stern a bit. He was harmless, mostly. A nice kid who wanted to make a name for himself. Why would someone kill him in cold blood?”
“I’m not sure,” she said. “I’ve tried to figure it out. To talk to people he knew. I feel like there’s something else — something about him just beyond my reach. I know he upset someone, and that’s what I’m trying to figure out. But I keep drawing blanks. It still feels so extreme. For someone to do that to someone like Harvey. But then I also feel like I didn’t know him all that well to begin with. That there was — ” Detmer raised a hand. Carmen stopped talking and watched as the lanky man stood up and walked across the large office space to a set of file cabinets. They looked rusted and broken, and had probably not been used in years. A loud screeching sound confirmed it as Detmer opened the bottom drawer. He seemed to find what he was looking for quickly, then shut the drawer and returned to his seat. He handed Carmen a small piece of paper with a number scribbled on it. “Give that number a call,” Detmer said. “Friend of mine. Woman by the name of Marion Price. Works at Warren now. Know her?”
“A bit, we met at a volleyball — ”
“She knows everyone — Marvel, Charlton, DC, you name it,” Detmer continued. “Smart. Personable. Great editor. She’s too good for our world, honestly. She gave me work when I needed it, but not because she felt bad. Because she knew I could deliver. She might know some of the skeletons in your friend’s closet.” Carmen took the paper and slid it into her purse. She saw Marion’s face for a moment, warning her about Harvey several months back. Here she was again.
“There’s always more to people than what we know,” Detmer said, his voice hoarse. He reached into a drawer and pulled out a faded, chipped silver flask. He took a quick swig before continuing. “Secrets. Vices. Darkness. Tap that vein — that takes you to their heart. And the truth.”
Detmer looked at Carmen, his eyes dark and hollow. She didn’t know what to say. She started to make her way toward the studio door.
“Don’t look so worried, okay? The industry’s done anyway,” Detmer said, changing gears. “I can see your face. I’ll find work. Maybe I’ll be a janitor, but I’ll find some work.”
Carmen ignored Detmer’s lie. She’d seen this happen to many men in her life before. Her father included. The long fade-out instead of the burst of flame. Her tolerance for it was gone, she realized, even if she did feel some fleeting sympathy for this once-great talent.
“What?” Detmer asked, meeting Carmen’s expectant gaze.
She shrugged sheepishly. She couldn’t believe she was going to do this.
“What is it?”
“Nothing, it’s just — this is silly,” Carmen said, her nose scrunching up for a second. “But would it be crazy if I asked you to take a photo . . . with me? I just want to — I guess, remember this?”
Detmer couldn’t hide the smile sneaking onto his face. He got up fast, his movements swift and mechanical. He stepped toward a nearby desk and pulled open a large drawer. He found what he was looking for immediately: a large, bulky camera that couldn’t have been less than a decade old. He set it up in front of them — balanced on Detmer’s own desk rather precariously. He walked over to Carmen and draped an arm over her shoulder. His skin felt clammy and hot at the same time. She tried not to think about it as the bulb flashed, blinding her momentarily. She hoped she was smiling. He didn’t bother to take another shot.
“I’ll send you the print when it’s ready,” he said, not meeting her eyes as she started to move toward the door.
“I’ll bring by the plot tomorrow,” she said, opening the door and looking back. But Detmer was working. His pencil feverishly pistoning up and down the page.
He must have heard her, she thought.
He didn’t look up as she left.
And now, here’s a glimpse at some of the Lethal Lynx comic pages featured throughout the novel!
Secret Identity is available now wherever books are sold.