Secret identities, pulp storytelling, and audio comic books with Alex Segura

Alex Segura has always been a busy dude, and since committing himself to writing full-time last year, he's only gotten busier. Still, he found a little time to chat with me about a burst of books that he has coming out, including Secret Identity (one of my favorite novels from last year, which came out in paperback on February 7) and the second season of his superhero noir comic The Black Ghost (which is out in paperback on February 23, with an audiobook adaptation to follow in April. Over the course of our conversation, we chat about adapting across mediums, as well as world-building with fictional cities, and as well as the charms and challenges of writing queer Latina women in different crime scenarios.

(This interview has been slightly edited for clarity)

THOM: First, I'm curious on Black Ghost audiobook. How did how did that come about? 

ALEX: I think at first blush, people probably wonder, like, how do you create an audio for something that's such a graphic experience? Comics are a graphic medium, you know, you're literally seeing the visuals as you turn the pages. But there's this company called Graphic Audio, and that's what they do. They've worked with Marvel and DC and Dark Horse. I first connected with them when I was working at Archie Comics, and I was really impressed with the work and they were really great to deal with. They already had a preexisting relationship with Dark Horse, who does the print versions of a lot of the Comixology Originals books, which Black Ghost is one of.

I'm a big audiobook listener, and I always hop between prose and audio. And knowing that we could have another version of the book out there felt like a really neat thing to do. So I reached out to Graphic Audio and said, "Would you guys want to do Black Ghost?" At that point, I knew we were going to have a second season of the comic. And they saw the benefit of having some runway and putting out both collections together. So it felt like a nice bit of synergy.

How involved were you in the adaptation process? 

My involvement was just general guidance on the story and what it is, but also like pronunciations. Not just like names in terms of Spanish, but, you know, like Creighton is a fictional city. So how do you say "Creighton?" And how do you say, is it "Laura" or "Lara?" Everyone says it differently, but like little things like that. But also, we'll get to review the playback and kind of give any notes once, once they're done. I know they're in the weeds on it now. 

What kind of changes do they have to make? Is it the adaptations of the text that need to happen to insert location cues, directional cues, things like that? 

Yeah, I think some part of the job is the director is also kind of a script writer in terms of like, well, what does the art show that the script doesn't show, or the captions and narration. So sometimes they interject some narrative voice, and we get to see that and give notes. And by we, I mean me and Monica [Gallagher] and George [Kambadais], the co-creators.  

Speaking of Creighton, let's talk about the bigger picture behind Black Ghost. How much of a kind of back story or long term vision did you have when you started volume one? 

When Monica and I and George were starting working on the Black Ghost, we knew that season one was going to be the origin story. It was going to be the ramping up, similar to the Fernandez books in that those five books are really his origin story. Like it's all about him getting to the point of being a P.I. We truncated that a little bit, and so Season One is about Lara figuring out that, yes, I can be the new Black Ghost and I'm going to do this.

We knew we wanted at least two or three more arcs in mind to at least kind of flesh it out. I think we' we're at a point in comics where you don't see the long running series as much anymore—like a big meaningful run so that, you know, like in terms of ten or 12 or maybe more issues. So we definitely wanted to explore that, but make sure it still felt contained. So we have two seasons in the can, and I think maybe we have one more, or if we're lucky, two more. We want to spend some time with her being the Black Ghost, but also to show that these things can be finite. We want to inject some level of realism and not have this feel like—no offense to The Spirit or any kind of classic vigilante hero—but it's not an endless thing. It's dangerous it is to be a crime fighter in that way. That's why you see the Black Ghost— the original Black Ghost—dies in the first issue. So we wanted to kind of bring that sense of like anything can happen. Which isn't to say Lara's going to die, but, you know, it ends. It'll end at some point. 

Yeah, that makes sense. And that was a neat way to start off the series and give it a lived-in history. 

Yeah, I was really happy with how many people were surprised because, you know, we show her in the costume on the variant cover. But I think people got so immersed in that first issue that they thought, okay, she's just going be the reporter chasing the Black Ghost around, and then the Black Ghost dies on that last page. 

I think the big thing for Monica and I with the story was, we're fans of superhero comics and we wanted to like tip our hat at the things we liked, but also kind of to flip the script a little bit on some of the tropes. Like I love legacy heroes, and I love obviously street level crime fighters, but I also love novels and noir, and I wanted to kind of mix those two together in a way that felt different. Which which was hard to do because those things have been blended together before. It's not the first time that that Venn diagram has been played out—look at Denny O'Neil's The Question or Wild Dog. But we wanted to play with the idea of legacy and the weight of legacy and what it means to, you know, kind of shake off your demons and become something else. 

Let's talk a bit about the city a character, as a choice. With the Pete Fernandez books, you're so rooted in Miami. Secret identity is so rooted in New York. In both of those, the streets feel lived in in a different way. Why did you choose to create your Gotham equivalent in this case? 

I think for us it was a little bit about the love letter to all superhero comics like the Gothams, the Hub Cities, Metropolis to some degree. Monica's from Baltimore. And she had just moved or was about to move away from Baltimore [when we started working on the book]. So part of it was like a little bit of homesickness to reflect her hometown. And also this this kind of mid-Atlantic burg, I think, is what we describe it as, like this forgotten city. Plus we just had more leeway to be creative, as opposed to being locked into locations and things.

Once you're writing about a real city, at least the writer in me will want to research everything and make sure it's accurate, which was the challenge for Secret Identity. Making sure that, yes, that existed in 1975 in New York, because you don't want to get that angry email saying, "well, this didn't happen." Creighton just gave us a little more wiggle room in terms of crafting a fictional place for our fictional legacy hero. 

How much of the world-building around Creighton did you break down before you started writing the first Black Ghost book? Did you have a big plan to get this story moving, or did you just kind of take these pieces of Baltimore / Bridgeport / Gotham / Hub City and just let it all mutate together? 

I wish it was as strategic as you make it sound!

The way Monica and I work is, we'll get on the phone at the beginning of a season and kind of map out thematically what we want to talk about. I think we teed up the second season a little bit at the end of Season One, when you see Commissioner Le Grand basically setting himself up to be a version of the Big Bad. So our conversations leading up to Season Two were about, well, how can we talk about creating a secret history? Like the the power players in the city, and what happens when a new player comes in and starts disrupting that Old Guard? Or what happens when the city's history starts to bubble up and attack the Black Ghost and Lara and all the institutions that are there now. So I think I think it was less of "Let's put together these pieces of different cities" and more like "Let's evoke it as very much a Baltimore-ish city and with a little bit of Gotham and Hub City mixed" — this idea of a very corrupt city that is just resigned to being corrupt, where the only beacons of light pushing against it are the newspaper which continues to be like ethically "okay."

How does the experience of writing Lara the Black Ghost as a queer Latina woman compare to writing Carmen in Secret Identity, who's also a queer Latina woman? Is there a certain overlap there that you're exploring, or is that just a coincidence? 

I don't want to like, cop out, but I think it is a coincidence. I think for Carmen and Lara, they each kind of showed up at different times in different ways. You kind of craft the story and set the table and wait for the character to, like, "walk in." So yes, I think it is a coincidence. But it's also important, I think, to have diverse protagonists and have people you wouldn't normally see starring in these roles, as long as you do your homework and make sure they're represented properly. 

Similarly, was there any kind of creative overlap in your mind in that in that same regard of between like the Black Ghost and the Lynx [the fictional comic book character within the world of Secret Identity]

You know, I always joke that they all kind of exist in the same universe. Like if you read Secret Identity, you know that they reference like the Black Ghost in the reference to task. And there's little nods to each other. But I think they're different enough that, you know, how do they overlap? I think just the idea of these characters that are cornered and trying to overcome their challenges to achieve their next evolution is kind of a theme. In the stories we try to tell, like to show these hard luck characters becoming their best selves by overcoming their challenges. 

The paperback edition of Secret Identity (one of my which I loved!) came out February 7. Season Two of The Black Ghost is out in paperback on February 23, with an audiobook adaptation to follow on April 3.