Today, Archie Comics is turning its amps up to 11 with the release of The Archies – a one-shot comic set in the publisher's recently reinvigorated line starring the titular teenage rock band.
But for Archies co-writer Alex Segura, the gig is just his latest stop on a tour through the world of comics, novels and dark, mysterious storytelling. Aside from his day job as Archie Comics' PR maestro, Segura just released Dangerous Ends, the third novel in his series starring Miami private detective Pete Fernandez, and continues to edit superhero titles for Archie's Dark Circle imprint like The Black Hood.
CBR caught up with the writer on the eve of The Archies' release for a discussion on how musical dynamics affect the formation of comics' teen sensations, what his collaborators Matthew Rosenberg and Joe Eisma bring to the mix, how life as a mystery writer compares to comics and what the next phase of the Dark Circle journey will look like.
CBR: Alex, your latest comic story is a new origin for the iconic supergroup of this world: The Archies. I think everyone expected that this concept would become a part of the relaunched universe that Mark Waid has been building at some point, but what made now the time to tell this story?
Alex Segura: It was just a nice confluence of events, I guess. The company wanted to test the waters worth some key concepts with double-sized one-shots and Matt Rosenberg and I were coming off the success of "Archie Meets Ramones," so we threw our hat into the ring for "The Archies." I had been following Mark Waid’s run, and it seemed to be treading and slowly building toward The Archies forming, so we picked up that thread. We were lucky enough to get Joe Eisma, coming off a stellar run as the regular artist on Archie, to draw the book - which, to me, added a lot of validity to the story. We tried to honor the tone of Mark’s stories while adding our own spin.
You yourself have been playing in bands for years, so you know that embarking on a musical project is like being in a relationship with five people all at once. What kinds of classic "let's put the band together" drama did you draw on to make the humor of this story work – particularly with a band where the leader is making everyone take his name?
The main lesson I learned from being in bands, at least when it comes to personalities and musical dynamics is that, well, it’s a lot harder than you’d think to get four or five people in a room together on a regular basis playing music. Nevermind egos, posturing and how that kind of intense relationship can affect friendships. So I think Matt and I wanted to tell a human story that was very heartfelt and genuine, but also hit the right notes for an Archie story - meaning, funny, some romance and lots of friendship. The story has the big beats that people want - you see the Archies really come to life - but also tells an honest story that I think a lot of people can relate to.
As for the band name - well, that just struck me as the kind of thing that was a placeholder but never got replaced. Maybe we’ll explore that if we get the chance to tell more The Archies stories!
For a lot of young artists, starting a band is the first time in their lives they experience full creative ownership of a project they make. How does this story explore some of those more universal teenage themes?
You’re absolutely right - writing a song as a teenager is a great feeling. You finished something! Not only that, but it’s liker your adding to the pantheon of musicians you listen to. It’s a very heady feeling. But like any kind of creative process, songwriting is full of peaks and valleys, and those peaks can lead to fits of ego. We see a bit of that in The Archies. Archie is slaving over these songs and finally decides that he wants a band to help him get them out there, but he’s not fully ready to collaborate, or let go of his songs enough to really create something new, which is what you want from a band. You all add something to the song, even if you’re not the writer or lead singer. So, in a lot of ways, the story is about letting go, how friendship can overcome our own thick-headed behavior and the value of creating new things with the people you love. It also features Archie walking into a tree.
In terms of your collaborators here, I think the band metaphor extends out to the idea that you've got a veteran group playing along with you in Matt and Joe. How did you guys push each other to do something a little different with this story? Were you trading mix tapes with each other as you worked on it?
I’ve known Matt a long time and we got a good feel for working together on Archie Meets Ramones, so this was more like our confident, more mature second album, haha. Having Joe on art was a huge boost, too, because we’re all big music fans and our tastes overlap a lot. I know Matt and I threw in a ton of band references in the script, but also left it open to Joe to riff on whatever he wanted to include. Just in the preview pages we’ve debuted alone, you can catch a basketful of Easter eggs. I think we all wanted to tell a big, must-read story, but also to explore these characters a bit and add to the mythos. This is the first time The Archies have revealed their origin story, and it’s a big part of Archie canon, so we knew we had to make it feel special.
While your day job is at Archie, your "side gig" is a whole career unto itself as a mystery novelist. Your latest is Dangerous Ends – another hard-boiled tale starring Miami PI Pete Fernandez. For readers not acquainted with the series, what was the big hook that made this the next story you had to tell?
Dangerous Ends is the third Pete Fernandez Mystery - all of which are set in my hometown, Miami. The latest book finds Pete, after two intense, supremely challenging adventures, finally coming to terms with his role as a PI, and kind of embracing the mundane side of that job. But just as he begins to settle down - as a PI and as a person, dealing and managing his own addictions - he’s roped into a long-disputed case: that of Gaspar Varela, an ex-Miami cop spending life in prison for the murder of his wife. His daughter, Maya, has hired Pete and his partner Kathy to try and find any sliver of evidence that might help get her dad a new trial. His interest piqued, Pete goes in on the case, but soon finds that he and Kathy are being hunted by a deadly, pro-Castro street gang known as Los Enfermos. The gang doesn’t want Pete delving into the Varela case, and it all somehow ties into Pete’s own past - namely the life of his grandfather, Diego Fernandez, a former Cuban government official who escaped the early days of the Castro revolution. It’s a bit wider in scope than my first two novels and was a blast to write, so I hope people enjoy it. It really explores some topics that are important to me, namely, the Cuba-Miami dynamic and how it affects the children of those people directly dealing with escaping the Castro regime. I think it made for an interesting story and hopefully provides a unique perspective to people living outside of Miami - while also telling a fast-paced mystery story!
One thing that fascinates me about this series and this entry in particular is its incorporation of history of Miami. I'm not sure I can think of a major American city that feels so different today than it did in the middle of last century. Or maybe I'm wrong on that! How did you view the evolution of Miami as a place when you wrote this story?
I think you’re right. Miami has evolved at a faster clip than most US cities, I think, and a lot of that has to do with it serving as basically a gateway to Latin America and the world. Miami is unlike any other part of Florida, much more of an international city than you’d think. For me, setting the series in Miami was a given, and it’s as bigs part of the novels as Pete or Kathy. While I could set a Pete story elsewhere, it’d always point back to Miami - the culture, history and people. It’s a never-ending well of ideas.
Writing a series is both a crime writer's dream and a major challenge. While the drastic action of the last book obviously has an impact on Pete as a character, did you work to establish a baseline in this book for his world and PI agency for any first time readers? What's it like having to strike that balance book-to-book?
It’s tough, because as a writer, you want to dive in and just tell the next story - but you always have to keep in mind that your third or fourth book might be the first one someone picks up. I try to recap as organically as possible, so if you’re reading Dangerous Ends first, you have a general idea of what’s come before. That involves some level of spoilers, but not enough that you’d feel dissuaded from picking up the first few books. The second novel, "Down the Darkest Street," really put Pete through the ringer and left him at his lowest, so I wanted to take a minute to build him up a bit and really start him off as a private investigator. The first two books were building up to this moment, and now we get to see a more in control Pete deal with a pretty daunting case.
As much as I love, as a reader, crime series that feature evergreen protagonists - where each book is more episodic and less serialized - as a writer, I’m only interested in a series if I can push the characters forward. I want each book to be not just about the case, but also the people. How do they change? How are they different from when it starts and the last page? As interesting as it is to write about the crime, I’m equally, if not more, interested in how Pete grows or stumbles.
While there are people who work in both prose and comics, I'm not sure I can think of someone whose work in those two media have been as different on the surface as yours. How have your novels informed your comics writing and vice versa?
I love alternating from one to the other, because they work different parts of my brain. Comics are all about collaboration, thinking visually and, in a way, putting a puzzle together. You have X amount of space for Y amount of words and you have to keep your “team” in mind - what does the artist like to draw? When is it time for a splash page and how much space do you have to do what you want to do. Prose is much more solitary and not as boxed in in terms of word count or your role. I love comics because you get to jam with people you respect and are fans of. My novels are much more personal and, well, mine. I can kill Pete if I want to - he’s my creation. With the Archie stuff, I have to play in a certain sandbox. Which is creatively fulfilling in its own way, too. Thinking visually has helped my prose and I think my diligence in terms of banging out a novel a year makes writing a comic script seem much more reasonable. Both "The Archies" and "Archie Meets Ramones" were written at a fairly fast clip, and that was mostly because I that’s how I’m wired to write. With a kid, job and everything else, I try to maximize any time I have.
On top of all this other work, you also run Archie's Dark Circle line of superhero comics. I know that The Black Hood is sadly wrapping its run with the next issue, but things seem to be coming full circle with the return of original Hood Kip Burland to the book. How did you and Duane Swierczynski work to both give this book its own sendoff but also leave the franchise open for future stories?
Yeah, I’m sad to confirm that The Black Hood #5 will be the finale for the series for a spell. That book has been a highlight of my comic book career, I have to say. Duane, Michael, Greg, Howard, Rachel, Kelly, Jamie and everyone involved in the book really put in their absolute best, and the end result was, in my opinion, one of the best crime comics ever. It was really an honor to work on, and I can’t say enough good things about Duane and Greg - two absolute pros who made each page sing. It’s gonna be one of those books, years from now, that people will point to and say, “Damn, I wish we’d supported it more when it was coming out, because it’s excellent.”
When we knew the book was ending, it was fairly early enough that Duane was able to rework his story to make not only a fitting conclusion to the arc, but a nice ending to the series and the Greg Hettinger Black Hood. The way it ends, without spoiling too much, leaves the door open to a lot of story while still providing fans of the book a nice, meaningful last note. The Black Hood has been some of Duane’s best work in comics, and I’m really lucky to have had him writing the series.
But I get the impression that things are not over for Dark Circle. I know a while ago there was a Web series in development. What are the plans for the future of the line?
Dark Circle will continue, for sure, and we have two projects that are moving forward that we’ll hopefully be able to announce as we get closer. The challenge, as anyone can guess, is that we are in the midst of a very busy superhero market. It’s tough to introduce new properties and compete with Marvel and DC. That hasn’t stopped us, though. I think in terms of quality, books like The Black Hood, Shield or Hangman really hang in there with the best of the other companies. It’s now just a matter of continuing to get new ideas out there and seeing what sticks. We’re in this for the long haul.
The Archies is on sale today from Archie Comics.