How Writer Alex Segura Balances Crime Novels and Archie Comics

Alex Segura_Cover_Split - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Polis Books
The writer's book 'Blackout' hits stores May 8.

Alex Segura is taking time from his busy comic book schedule to fit in something else.

To comic book fans, he’s known as the co-writer of The Archies and writer of Archie Meets the Ramones, as well as the editor of titles including Betty & Veronica: Vixens, Josie and the Pussycats and Jughead: The Hunger. He’s also the co-president of Archie Comics, which serves as his day job — and then, in his spare time, he’s the writer of the Pete Fernandez series of crime novels, published by Polis Books.

With the latest in the Pete series reaching stores next month, Heat Vision talked to Segura about writing crime fiction set in his home state of Florida, how that crosses over with his comic book career(s) and more.

For people who haven’t read the previous Pete Fernandez mysteries, who is Pete Fernandez, and how does he keep finding himself at the center of these events? 

When we meet Pete Fernandez in Silent City, the first novel in the series, he’s hit bottom — he’s a hot mess of a drunk, he’s on the brink of losing his newspaper desk job, his fianceé’s left him and his dad has just died. He’s not doing great. But he has a reputation as an investigative sports journalist. So a colleague approaches him about finding his missing daughter, Kathy Bentley. Pete starts to poke around and find he has a knack for this kind of thing. But he’s still an active alcoholic, so with every step forward he takes a few steps back. That’s where he starts, and his journey has run on two tracks since then — Pete’s personal quest to get better, to give up drinking and cobble together a life, and the larger mystery he’s forced to solve.

The books are about Pete and pushing forward while dealing with the wreckage of his past — in Down the Darkest Street, the second book, he’s faced with a serial killer using the same methods as a killer that terrorized Miami years before. In book three, Dangerous Ends, he’s trying to solve a cold case involving an ex-cop serving time for murdering his wife, all while a Castro-funded drug gang is out to get him. Pete’s a curious guy, trusts his instincts and knows Miami — but he’s also not your typical, chisel-jawed PI: he’s flawed, impetuous and prone to pissing people off. That’s by design. I wanted to write about the origins of a private detective, as opposed to someone more entrenched.

The new book, Blackout, takes that to the next level by bringing up a case that Pete failed to solve years before because he was in his own, personal void. Blackout finds Pete trying to fix an old mistake, which is somehow tied into a long-dead, corrupt Miami cult and the political aspirations of Florida gubernatorial candidate Trevor McRyan.

Blackout feels, without spoiling anything, like the most ambitious in terms of scope and the world in which Pete works. Am I misreading, or was there a desire to go bigger and push the series and the characters further this time around?

You’re right — I want each book to feel different and meaningful. It’d be terrible if readers waited a year for a book and it just felt like another episode of Pete Fernandez, PI — without stakes, consequences or progress. I felt like the third book, with flashbacks to Castro-era Cuba and Cocaine Cowboys Miami, was ambitious, so I felt somewhat intimidated in following the scope of that. The solution came to me while I was doing research on some Miami cold cases — that’s where I latched onto the idea of a missing teen, one that Pete knew, and a case he failed to solve — and showing the contrast of the three eras: Pete as a disgruntled teenager, as an active alcoholic and in the present, as a man who’s left a lot of damage and trying to make up for his mistakes.

Once I had those tentpoles the story started to emerge, and it let me really cut loose on things that I’d been eager to write about: Cults, politics and, not to get too new age-y, but the fleeting nature of life, and how we need to maximize the time we have.

The political angle of this book: Was this the result of reading too much news in the last year, or something else? There’s a fascinating look into the social politics of party politics in Florida, for want of a better way to put it, with the Trevor McRyan character. 

It was and it wasn’t. I’ve had a political campaign novel in my head and I was reading a lot of conspiracy books — that, plus the nonstop barrage of terrible headlines in the wake of Trump’s election all morphed together to create Trevor McRyan. But I purposely avoided making him a Trump analogue, because I felt like that’d been done before and probably better. I wanted to spotlight someone who, on the surface, has the appeal of a Gary Hart or Bobby Kennedy, but also has demons and might be corrupted. Does the quest for power and prestige overpower your ethics and code to the point where you’ve compromised yourself? Those are the things I was thinking about when I created Trevor and his wife, Ellen.

From its title to the book’s focus on Pete’s past when he was an alcoholic who drank himself into blackout states on a regular basis — and at particularly inopportune times, not that there’s a good time for that — Blackout also addresses Pete’s failings in a more direct way than the earlier installments. Part of this is the commented-upon passage of time between books, but is there also an element of you wanting to get Pete in a different place for not only this book, but future books in the series?

Blackout is a turning point for the character and the series. He’s not a kid anymore, he’s not in his twenties. He’s an adult and he needs to get things together. The charm of Silent City was that you had this guy, this drunk reporter, stumbling around and solving a crime. But that’s not sustainable. He has to, at some point, decide what he wants to be. Whatever the next book is about — and I know, I’m just not telling yet — it has to feature a new status quo for Pete. It doesn’t mean he’s going to become an alpha PI or super-cop, but he will take the stuff and baggage he’s collected over the last four books and evolve.

Like you, when the book opens, Pete has left Miami for New York (New York state, at least), which made me wonder how much of the series is a chance for you to write about your hometown not only from the point of view of a native who sees the city beyond the tourist destination, but also from someone who’s left and goes back?

I wrote the first book when I’d just moved to NY, homesick and eager to do something creative outside of my day job in comics. Miami was fresh in my mind. I wanted to give Pete the perspective of the native who’s also the outsider, because I do feel like that myself. I’m from Miami, love the city, was raised there, but I live in NY. Even though I visit often, I don’t live there. I don’t experience it daily. Having Pete leave, spend some time in New York and come back made it easier to have his perspective sync up with mine. It’s interesting to see Miami, warts and all, from the viewpoint of someone who knows it well, but can also notice the subtle changes.

It’s a book — and a series — that brings together many of your interests, from music — this is a book that has a soundtrack just from the tracks that you name, alone! — to politics, to journalism, to self-aware twists on thrillers and crime tropes … But there’s no comics in there. Are you trying to keep Pete separate from your day job?

Yes and no. There are tips of the hat that any student of comics will catch, like character names — Robert Harras, for one, and there’s a character named Chadwick in Blackout [Named for DC editor-in-chief Bob Harras and editor Jim Chadwick, respectively] — but beyond that they’re not connected. I think now, with a few books under my belt, I’ve toyed with the idea of Pete as a graphic novel. It’s not an intentional separation of church and state, but I know I didn’t want the Pete books to be classified as “crime novels written by that comic book guy.” I want them to be thought of as good crime novels, in the same way I want my comics to stand on their own merits.

Not to get too deep in the weeds, but what kind of interplay is there in your head between writing these novels and writing comics? It’s not just that the Pete Fernandez series is particularly visual — there’s one particularly arresting image in Blackout that Pete returns to over and over again, despite his otherwise unreliable memory from that era — but it’s also an ongoing narrative, which parallels comics to a degree. Do you plan the Pete books in a similar manner to plotting out a comic arc?

I feel like comics and novels work out different parts of my brain. A comic book script feels like you’re piecing something together and passing the baton — my scripts when drawn, look very different from what I visualized, but often better. For novels, you’re completely on your own, until you have a novel-length work to share with an editor or agent. But yes, comics feed my prose work and vice versa. I try to think very visually when writing prose. You want to give the reader just enough so they can form their own picture in their head. Comics have also taught me to be compact with dialogue and that’s seeped into my prose. Pete as a character does draw from comics, too, in that it’s a series that has recurring characters, plot lines and — like the best single issue comics — I want people to feel invested in Pete and eager to read the next one, in the same way as a comic reader I love a great ending that makes you want the new issue immediately.

Relatedly, you edited the Dark Circle books at Archie; did that experience — and some of the writers you worked with there — influence your prose writing?

Dark Circle was imagined as a more “cable TV”-like superhero imprint, with each book tackling a different genre and not necessarily interwoven with the others. I wanted writers who had a connection to comics but were also successful in other areas — novelists, video games, the stage, that sort of thing. It brought me into contact with old friends like Duane Swierczynski, who’s been a writing hero of mine for years, and writers like Chuck Wendig, Adam Christopher and comic vets like Dean Haspiel and Frank Tieri. Each of those guys approaches their work of crafting a script differently, and while I was on the editorial side, trying to usher these books out the door and handle approvals, it was also a great learning experience to see how these talented people broke a story, took notes and came up with new, exciting ways to portray these classic characters.

On a purely practical level, how do you juggle your Archie work and your novelist duties. Not just writing, but promoting, and so on. You’re Archie co-president, which doesn’t strike me as something that you can phone in when there’s a book to promote, or, vice versa, in terms of letting novel deadlines slip when there are Archie decisions to be made. Do you just never sleep? You have a kid, so the answer may be, “No, I never sleep, but for entirely different reasons.”

I do sleep, actually! Just not a ton, and I think writing — like any passion — is about sacrifice. I don’t play video games. I don’t see movies opening weekend. I don’t go to as many shows as I did years ago. We watch, maybe, a few hours of TV a week — and usually, the pop culture I consume is directly related to what I’m working on. The reality is, with a family, a busy job and a second career writing novels, the question becomes, what do I want to get out of this time? For me, it’s about the work — I want these books to exist and be well crafted, so that means I have to spend my free time on making that happen. Thankfully, Archie has been very supportive of my novel-writing and creative stuff, and on the flip side, my publisher, Polis Books, has been great and aware that I’ve got a pretty demanding job that is a priority.

Through Archie and your other pursuits, you’re a man with fingers in multiple media: comics, prose and Archie has TV projects. You mentioned the possibility of a Pete graphic novel earlier, but beyond that, have you been tempted to take the series outside of prose at all?

Well, I’m glad you asked because I have some exciting news to share! I can confirm that the books have been optioned by television writers Eduardo Javier Canto and Ryan Maldonado (Chicago PD, Code Black). They’re looking to develop the Pete books into a Miami-based crime series, and I couldn’t be happier. 

Miami is an amazing and vibrant setting, and I think the Pete novels look at it in a unique way, in contrast to how the city’s been portrayed onscreen in the past. It’s a complex city, sprawling, full of strange and conflicted corners and populated by such interesting people — diverse, colorful, different. I’m obviously biased, but I feel like the characters and stories in the Pete books could easily translate into highly entertaining and water-cooler TV, and I think Eddie and Ryan are the right people to make it happen. These guys have great crime show experience and they get Pete. They’re fans of the novels and they know Miami as well as I do. We all come from similar backgrounds and neighborhoods and it feels like the most genuine way to bring these books to life, which is a rare opportunity. I’m eager to see where things go, and I trust that Pete, Kathy and the gang are in great hands.

Blackout is released in hardcover and digitally May 8. More information about the book can be found here.