Andrew A. Smith
Tribune Content Agency
The Archies is a fun, funny comic book miniseries focusing on the Riverdale gang forming the band everyone knows from the song “Sugar, Sugar,” and the 1960s cartoon from which it sprang. Blackout is a hard-hitting crime noir, the fourth novel about a troubled private detective who investigates a cold case that dredges up the squalid skeletons in his closet and the worst experiences of his horrific alcoholism.
They represent two poles on the spectrum of writing. And in between is Alex Segura, the co-president of Archie Comics, who wrote them both.
How can one guy write two such diverse projects? This week seemed like a good time to ask Segura that, since the final issue of The Archies (from Archie Comics) and Blackout (from Polis Books) both arrive in May.
There’s not a lot to ask about The Archies, though. This seven-issue series is so much fun to read, it had to be equally fun to write. While inventing an origin of sorts for The Archies, Segura allows the would-be band to meet a number of famous musicians.
In other words, I asked Segura, did this series scratch every childhood itch you ever had?
“Oh, it’s a blast,” Segura said. “I pitched the book to our CEO, Jon Goldwater, as basically Archie’s Avengers – you have every major character in one book, plus music. It’s a dream. I used to love Archie Comics growing up, particularly the band stories, so getting the chance to partner with my good friend Matt Rosenberg on scripts and see the art come in from Joe Eisma and Matt Herms has been spectacular. The ability to also weave in real-world guest stars is a great way to make each issue an 'event,' too, without losing the ongoing drama and fun we’re building with each single issue. So you have that narrative and you get to weave in people like CHVRCHES, The Monkees and more. Fun is an understatement.”
And then comes Blackout, which requires an entirely different set of muscles. How does a writer shift back forth from the brightness and innocence of The Archies to the bleak, shadowy world of Segura’s P.I. protagonist, Pete Fernandez?
Blackout, the fourth “Pete Fernandez Mystery,” arrives this month from Polis Books.
“They’re kind of palate cleansers for each other,” Segura said. “While Blackout was a dark, immersive thing – a book that required me to really research the worst in people, from cults to Miami cold cases to addiction – The Archies is just fun, and you could write an issue in a week or two. While there is some drama in the comic, it’s very light-hearted and often resolved in an issue. So it was a nice gear shift, and they kind of informed each other in ways I hadn’t realized until I was done with both. Comics move so fast, and novels are big glaciers, so sometimes it was nice to speed along and finish something, and that allowed me to dive back into the book with more energy – and be able to see the whole project in context.”
Which means Blackout was by no means as pleasant a job as The Archies.
“I’d be lying if I said writing a novel was fun,” he said. “It just came up on Twitter briefly, and my response was ‘you love your writing before you start and once you’re done.’ It’s just a massive undertaking and involves so many moving pieces. But it is rewarding, and we do it because we are compelled to. We write these stories because we need to get them out. All that said, I love Pete, I’m proud of him as a character and I’m curious to see what happens to him, which spurs me to write about him and Miami. If I wasn’t curious, I’d write something else. I’m glad readers seem to still be intrigued by what’s happening in his world.”
Alex Segura is the author of both Blackout and The Archies.
And writing about Fernandez means writing about the worst depths of alcoholism. That aspect informs Blackout at a cellular level, and almost becomes the story’s true villain. That alone can’t be fun to learn about.
“Research is a big part of my writing, so everything that’s in the book has filtered through my mind in some way,” Segura said. “When I first introduced Pete – and when we meet him in [the first novel] Silent City, he’s a hot mess, passed out in his apartment – I knew he was going to go through this journey of addiction. And that’s not particularly new to private eyes – the hard-drinkin’ detective is tried and true. But I didn’t want it to be this open-ended thing. I wanted him to come to terms with his life and try to fix it, and so that involved figuring out what those steps would be, so they could feel genuine to the reader and realistic in terms of the story. Pete doesn’t wake up one day and feel cured, for example. The cloud of alcohol hangs over him to varying degrees throughout the series – so it becomes a question of ‘how does he deal with it now that he’s progressed this far?’ Answering that question honestly took a lot of time and research on my part, but it was something I wanted to ring true.”
But despite the very different styles between comics like The Archies and novels like Blackout. The latter, for example, is a series of books, which means it is always “To Be Continued!” in a way.
“I love serialized storytelling,” Segura said. “When I created Pete, I knew I wanted him to evolve from book to book, and I also wanted to engage readers in the books as a series. While Blackout is a functional standalone novel – and I write them all that way – there are elements that carry over, especially the ending. The goal is to have the reader experience the same feeling I did when I read a cliffhanger in comics – that need to run to the store and get the next one. Hopefully it worked.”
Another comics influence on Blackout is the unobtrusive introduction of information for the reader. Called “exposition,” comics writers in particular must struggle to bring readers up to speed each month without “expository dialogue” or huge captions that are both hokey and boring. Blackout brings Segura’s mastery of exposition from the comics world to novels.
“It is totally a comics thing,” Segura said. “I’m always turned off when I read a series and you’re yanked out for pages and pages because the writer needs to tell you everything that came before. In comics, you get a caption, maybe two, if that. I really strive to keep my recaps brief and fearless – meaning, I don’t worry about spoilers because if you’re on the fourth book, you’ve either read the first three or are willing to go read them after this one because you know it’s a series. The current books trumps all, basically. My goal is to make that as compelling as possible, so I try to keep recaps or big plot expositions smooth and painless. Definitely something that made me think about comics.”
The dialogue in Blackout may be reflective of Segura’s comics experience, as well, being lean and taut – which works perfectly in the world of the private investigator. But that’s not the only influence.
“Comic book dialogue is tighter [than novels],” Segura said. “There are word counts you should hit per page, per panel, per balloon, so you don’t clutter the artist. They’re not hard and fast rules, but you have a ballpark to work in. With prose, it’s really up to you. I lean more toward dialogue over description because I’m from the Elmore Leonard school in that regard. If I’m describing something, it’s because it’s important and because those details matter. Otherwise, I paint a general picture and let the reader take the rest. That’s the creative contract, as novelists, we form with the readers. So, novel dialogue is where you get your color, your personality and give literal voice to the characters. It’s the most effective tool of the novel, and often overlooked.”
The first of two volumes collecting The Archies arrives this month, along with the final issue of the miniseries.
But sometimes the real world can intrude, such as in The Archies. I asked Segura how he managed to snag so many bands for the series, and whether that directed the series.
“When the series was greenlit, we made a shortlist of bands – pie-in-the-sky groups. We reached out to a bunch. Most were interested. Some said yes immediately, others demurred. Only one or two passed outright. There are a few acts I’d still love to get, maybe if we revisit the concept down the line.”
As to the writing, Segura said, “Matt and I built an over-arcing story that had built-in wiggle room depending on the band. We knew the kids would need to do certain things – go on tour, lose their financial support, make a record, some romantic tension, some creative disagreements – so then it became a question of which band fit where and we also had to juggle that based on what bands had said yes at the time. We lucked out with CHVRCHES because they were one of the first bands we reached out to … coincidentally, I’d met them in person years ago at a show, so that connection was much closer than other groups. It worked out perfectly because we got to put CHVRCHES in a mentor-type role, where they can give Archie and his friends advice as they embark on this crazy journey. Having The Monkees as a trippy dream sequence issue was great, too, because it just wouldn’t have worked in the present, especially with Davy [Jones] gone. We really didn’t want to rely too much on time travel or magical stuff, two things that served us well with The Ramones and KISS stories. We wanted to keep the main Archies story grounded, with some targeted detours.”
And being able to make a series with four famous rock bands in it “grounded” is reflective of how facile and flexible a writer Segura is. That’s a lucky thing for both Archie Andrews and Pete Fernandez – and the readers, come to that.
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