“Secret Identity” brings the world of comics to life; ‘Violin Conspiracy’ hits the right notes – Sun Sentinel

“Secret Identity” by Alex Segura. Iron, 368 pages, $27.99

Comics — especially those involving superheroes — are definitely fun and can be a diversion for kids and teens, especially those struggling with their identity or feeling alienated. There is a comfort and a kind of refuge in reading characters who are strangers themselves, but who have become heroes.

Miami-born Carmen Valdez — the 28-year-old heroine of Alex Segura’s scintillating Anthony Award-winning “Secret Identity” — knows the power comic books can have. They can show a child another world, with a different kind of storytelling, make reading exciting, or even help someone learn English because they have experienced each of these situations.

Now living in New York, Carmen sees the potential of comics “beyond four-color stapled stories.” Carmen desperately wants to write a comic, and even has an idea for a strong female character. But that’s unlikely to happen as long as she’s working as a secretary for Jeffrey Carlyle, the misogynistic owner and editor of Triumph Comics, a third-tier corporation not even close to DC or Marvel Comics. Jeffrey refuses to even listen to Carmen, believing that a mere secretary cannot know good storytelling, especially since female comic book writers were rare in 1975, the setting of “Secret Identity”.

Then, Carmen’s colleague, junior editor Harvey Stern, wants her help launching a new series. She will write a series, but he will submit it under her name until they can publicly acknowledge his involvement. The series will be the company’s first female superhero – the Lethal Lynx, a character Carmen has been thinking about for years.

Lynx is an instant hit, but Carmen can’t admit it’s her creation, especially when Harvey is murdered. Who would believe her? Especially since all his notes and storyboards were in his apartment. When another colleague is attacked, Carmen taps into her inner Lynx to investigate. The Lethal Lynx panels scattered throughout “Secret Identity” give voice to Carmen’s vision.

“Secret Identity” works well as a story from the comics – did you know that black master Patricia Highsmith wrote comics? – as well as a look at New York in the mid-1970s and Carmen’s quest for her own identity

Segura’s respect for the comic book industry shines when he shows how this medium evolved into the more sophisticated graphic novel. The comics remind Carmen of a “one-time connection.” . . an intangible thing that helped her through her own daily life. She’s no longer a wide-eyed fan because working in the industry she sees “how the sausage is made”. But Carmen still wants a career in comics and enjoys the medium on its own merits, not as “a lesser art.” She believes there “was more to do in space”, a chance to create “a piece of mythology”, as other comic writers have done. Carmen also feeds on the “hustle and bustle” of a publishing office, “how things seemed to spiral into chaos only to gel at the last minute and produce art.”

“Secret Identity” also delves into 1975 New York, a pivotal year when the city “seemed particularly out of balance” with myriad vacant buildings and rising crime. “The nation’s most beloved city was falling apart, and all they could do was look inside.”

Segura, senior vice president at Oni Press and author of several comics including “The Black Ghost,” brings a sense of authenticity to “Secret Identity.”

Segura isn’t the first to wrap up a plot around the comics industry, but “Secret Identity” is as engaging as Michael Chabon’s 2001 Pulitzer winner “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” Segura’s sense of authenticity will inspire readers to welcome more thrillers set in the world of comics.

Meet the author

Alex Segura will discuss “Secret Identity” in a free virtual interview on Crowdcast, starting at 7 p.m. March 24 via Books & Books in Coral Gables. Visit livreetlivres.com/events/ to register and for more information. Copies of “Secret Identity” will be available and will be posted after the event.

Brendan Slocumb's first novel is

“The Violin Conspiracy” by Brendan Slocumb. Anchor, 320 pages, $28

Brendan Slocumb hits all the right notes in his gripping debut about a young black man whose natural talent for music has become the only way to secure his future. “The Violin Conspiracy” functions as a well-traced heist novel, a look at racism, the world of music, and a coming-of-age tale.

Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, Ray McMillian discovered his musical talent at an early age, although he received little support for his gift. His single mother demanded that he quit high school and find a job to help support him and his twin siblings. His high school music teacher refused to recognize his talent, forcing him to use the school’s most old-fashioned violin. When he landed a few jobs performing for weddings and other functions, he was often humiliated by the racists who hired him without knowing he was black.

Only his grandmother and a university professor, who arranges for him to receive a full scholarship, support his ambition. It’s not just about music, the professor tells him, but about what he brings to music. Ray’s playing reminds his grandmother of his own great-grandfather’s playing, so she gives him his great-great-grandfather’s violin, which had been hidden in his attic for nearly a century. The instrument turns out to be a Stradivarius violin, worth around $10 million.

Suddenly, Ray’s family is very interested in his talent, demanding that he sell the violin and give them most of the money. They are ready to sue Ray, claiming that his grandmother never wanted to give him the violin. Ray faces another legal battle – his ancestor was a slave; the descendants of the Marks family who owned it claim that the violin belongs to them.

As Ray’s lawyer put it, “Think about the optics – the family of the slave owner making a claim against the family of their former slave. It doesn’t get any weirder than this.

But Ray’s most pressing setback comes when his violin is stolen from his New York hotel room, weeks before he is due to perform at the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition. The thieves demand a ransom of $5 million for his return.

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Slocumb, a music teacher who has played with orchestras, explains why music and performance are important to artists. Readers can almost hear the symphonies that Ray plays. Slocumb’s affinity for realistic characters elevates “The Violin Conspiracy.” Ray is young and impulsive, prone to making mistakes but also a man of integrity with a deep appreciation for music. The scenes in which he endures racist situations are as heartbreaking as they are realistic.

“The Violin Conspiracy” features new talent.

Brendan Slocumb (“The Violin Conspiracy”) will be among the authors participating in the annual literary celebration sponsored by the Broward Public Library Foundation scheduled for April 1-2. A welcome reception with all the authors followed by literary dinners will take place on April 1st.

The free LitLive panels will be held April 2 at Barnes & Noble, 2051 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, 954-561-3732. The fiction panel (moderated by Oline Cogdill) begins at 11 a.m., featuring Xochitl Gonzalez, “Olga Dies Dreaming”; Jennifer Haigh, “Mercy Street”; Danya Kukafka, “Notes on an Execution”; Peng Shepherd, “The Cartographers”; Brendan Slocumb, “The Violin Conspiracy.”

The non-fiction panel (moderated by Gail Bulfin) begins at 11:45 a.m., featuring Cynthia Barnett, “The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans”; Julie K. Brown, “Perversion of Justice: The Story of Jeffrey Epstein”; Nicholas Griffin, “The Year of Dangerous Days: Riots, Refugees and Cocaine in Miami 1980”; The Standifords, “Battle for the Big Top: PT Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus.”

Along with sponsors, dinner hosts and guests, the Literary Party raises money for literacy programs and services at Broward County Libraries. Visit bplfoundation.org/a-night-of-literary-feasts for more details.

Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at olinecog@aol.com

Alycia R. Lindley