Comics

The Letter

Back in 2012 we wrote Alex Segura an open letter. In the closing days of 2014, Alex wrote one of his own.

“I never write fan letters,” Alex Segura begins, “but your first issue was as close to a perfect comic as one can hope for. The setting. The characters. The plot. The first and last pages. I know we’re all in for something good and I can’t wait. Everything felt familiar and new at the same time. The mix of beauty, ugliness and menace created an almost palpable feeling of noir.”

Segura continues in a second paragraph, “The Fade Out #1 was the perfect antidote for the Fatale finale—which was also excellent, but left me with a heavy sadness that I couldn’t really shake. I didn’t want it to end, but I also realized it had to end, which is like getting dumped and understanding why but still having to deal with the rejection.”

Pause for a second and take in what Segura’s just said. If you process it, you’ll find yourself lost in what can only really be called that quintessential Segura magic. Just in a single moment there, in a moment that Segura crafts one of the most natural for any human interaction, Segura builds an emotional equation between something existentially bad, here, Fatale coming to an end, and something deeply personal and easily animated by personal experience for anybody listening, being dumped and understanding why and still needing to process the pain.

That’s the Segura magic. The same magic you’ll find in every chapter of Segura’s debut novel, and first in the Pete Fernandez series, Silent City. Segura takes the abstract, and makes it accessible by giving you the proper emotional cues. And beyond just his writing style, there’re traces of this same technique in how Segura leads his professional life. To whit, Segura is a novelist, a writer and an editor at Dark Circle Comics, a revamped subsidiary line of Archie characters and settings, plays in a band, the Faulkner Detectives, and to top it all, is Publicity Veep at Archie. But we’ll get into that, later. For right now, the letter, the idea of a letter like this, is just phenomenal.

Segura wraps up across two paragraphs. “I’m also not much for backmatter or DVD-extras style material, but you’ve kicked things off with a great piece from Devin that’s right in my wheelhouse. The Fade Out—where even the dressing is spectacular.”

And he concludes, “Congrats for putting out such a knockout first issue. I’m aboard for the entire ride and can’t wait for the next issue.”

With a convivial, “Best, Alex Segura” to round things out. By the time Segura’s letter does appear in the backmatter of The Fade Out, he would have had the chance to read the next issue in the newest series to come from the minds of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips.

The Fade Out isn’t Brubaker and Phillips’s first collaboration. In fact, counting just by project rather than collections falling within those separate projects The Fade Out is Brubaker and Phillips’s fifth new project. Brubaker replies to Segura, “Thanks Alex. As some of you may know, Alex is a novelist and comic writer, whose first novel Silent City is now out, and who also works for the newly revamped Archie Comics.”

I don’t even know how process what I’m reading. At one level it’s true social media. I don’t want to use the P word, but think of the original impulse that can be traced back to Roma in the ‘60s, Fellini’s Roma. The impulse that would want to photograph people, especially celebrities, out and about and enjoying themselves in a rejuvenated public life.

Not gossip, but an audience genuinely participating in the lives of the famous outside of the immediate scope of their fame. Segura’s letter, and Brubaker’s response, are laced with the true revolution of comics of the last 30 years—the rise of fandom. Think of what Stan Lee said on that episode of Dinner For Five, what made Marvel so successful, Back When (back in the’70s, I’m assuming), was that editors were having a “wink” at the audience. Even after that, there was still a little ways to go. Beyond letter cols and “check out the last issue -Ed,” comments in subscript caption boxes, comics needed to get to a place where fans could have a meaningful say in what was going down. A more significant voice than simply voting with their Dollars.

That change would come with Phil Seuling’s invention of the direct marketing system. A system which the legendary Joe Kubert, talking with the equal legendary Will Eisner in a 1982 Shop Talk interview, appraised as follows:

Well, I believe the biggest change to take place in the past two or three years is our audience. Our reader of 30 or 40 years ago was a cross section of the general population. That is, most of our material was sold at newsstands and most people had access to those newsstands or candy stores. The kind of material we were doing was of a general nature to satisfy and be of interest to that kind of audience. As you well know, our audience today is heavily fan-oriented.

There’s a genuine and an honest sense of community that emerges from the idea of a vocal and intelligent fanbase, and it’s that sense of community that invests Segura’s letter and Brubaker’s response with more meaning than just the words. And it’s that same sense that has created a market for the highbrow, artisanal neonoir that Brubaker and Phillips have crafted together now for more than 15 years. And it’s that same sense that Segura has used to develop his own artistic sensibilities in his debut novel.

The opening Pete Fernandez mystery, and the five Brubaker/Phillips projects (in order, Sleeper, Criminal, Incognito, Fatale and now The Fade Out) share little more in common, at least on the surface, than the categorization of “neonoir.” But beneath that scant and deeply insufficient label, lies something else—artists working to wrestle with the value of genres (“neonoir,” “comics”) in a world where social systems, social institutions are rapidly decaying. Or worse, proving to inadequate to the challenges of the present day.

One technique that appears and reappears in Brubaker’s storytelling is his protagonists being physically compromised in some ways. It takes the narrator in the opening arc of Fatale only a few pages before losing a limb to amputation. Jack Herriman, from Brubaker’s Scene of the Crime has a glass eye. Tracy Lawless from Criminal has the scars from third degree burns. But even in Brubaker’s non creator owned work, a masculine frailty at the physical level appears. When Bucky, Captain America’s intrepid sidekick from WWII returns as the Winter Soldier, it’s after having lost an arm only to have it replaced with a state of the art prosthetic. For all his hypersenses, Matt Murdock’s Daredevil is blind. What Brubaker always seems to offer readers is an image of a frail masculinity, one that’s lived through traumatic experiences and come out the other side.

When we encounter Pete Fernandez in Segura’s Silent City, he’s emotionally and psychologically crippled, definitely on his way down, and more likely than not, out. Fernandez is sports writer and middle management at a newspaper. Doling out his days like so much time in solitary, Pete is a man fast approaching being over the hill, in a dying profession, in a dying industry. Silent City is very much about reinvigoration through reinvention. Doing a favor for a fellow reporter leads Pete ends up moving from the personal dead ends of his life (rampant alcoholism, failed relationships, dying profession, dying industry) to reinventing himself as a kind of more-lucky-than-good P.I.

This resonates maybe more than a little with Segura’s own Renaissance Man-esque gusto for facing and achieving personal and professional milestones in his own life; playing in a band, holding down multiple roles at Archie (writer, editor, Publicist In Chief), working as a novelist.

More than just simply dealing with the personal anguish of Pete’s situation, as most neonoir, or even most crime fiction, would be wont to do, Segura leverages his character’s personal situation to examine the crumbling social edifice. Pete Fernandez is a product of his relationships, his social network, his hope and aspirations and more importantly, his expectations, legitimately imbued in him during his upbringing. And all of these are at odds with kind of world Pete actually finds himself in after being sufficiently educated to function in a professional world, turns out no longer exists.

What makes Pete Fernandez so engaging is not his personal vices, but how, very much so, even his vices are the result of the crumbling social edifice. And if anything, it’s Segura’s intelligence to recognize these tensions in the present day professional world, his compassion to goad his character to embrace change through personal transformation, and his skill at depicting Miami with a kind of psychological vividness, that make his fan letter to Brubaker and Phillips read as something other than brio. And it’s these exact same things, Segura’s intelligence, compassion and skill, that allows him to illuminate his own work with the 30 years of tradition built around giving fandom a unique voice in comics.

With a single, audacious letter, Alex Segura takes us back to a kind of comics, that if it was a movie, it’d have to be made by Brian de Palma. Remember that scene in The Untouchables? Where the reporter snaps a shot of Eliot Ness and the entire crew while they’re dining in a fine restaurant? It’s a dinner held after the Untouchables’ first big victory, and its shot long after the restaurant’s for the evening closed, a public space, privately owned, and repurposed by local celebrities (law enforcement, celebrities, I know, right?) for some quiet downtime. With a single, audacious letter, Alex Segura is able to create the same atmosphere by completely flipping that script. These are celebrities, sure, but there’re also Our Guys, who came up through comics, allowing us to enrich there experience of each others work, by sharing their appreciations in public. This becomes, what if that photo had been snapped amid a bustling restaurant, crowded with hungry diners. And yet, the magic is exactly the same.

ADDENDUM: Via Twitter, Alex Segura let me know that the Pete Fernandez follow-up Down the Darkest Road is forthcoming.

Splash image showing a detail from the cover of The Fade Out #1. First image in piece showing Alex Segura at a public reading of Silent City in Coral Gables, Florida.

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