By Leroy S. Douresseaux
April 9, 2008 - 09:51
WRITER: Mat Johnson
ARTIST: Warren Pleece
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1097-7; hardcover
136 pp., B&W, $23.99
Award-winning author Mat Johnson has drawn acclaim for his books, including the novel, Hunting in Harlem and the non-fiction work, The Great Negro Plot. His entry into comic books was the six-issue miniseries, Hellblazer: Papa Midnite (now a trade paperback), published to coincide with the 2005 Hellblazer comic-to-film, Constantine.
Vertigo, the DC Comics imprint, released Johnson’s second comics project this past February as their offering for “Black History Month.” This Black History graphic novel, entitled Incognegro, is an absolutely terrific graphic work of detective fiction. Just to get this out of the way: the art by Warren Pleece doesn’t reach Johnson’s heights. The black and white composition is inconsistent from one page to the next, and the juxtaposition of dark and light and warm and cool space is erratic. This is peculiar considering that Pleece is a seasoned and respected professional.
Set in the 1930’s, Incognegro has as its heart, Zane Pinchback, a Harlem, NYC-based reporter for the New Holland Herald. Although Zane is a Negro, his skin complexion is so light that he can pass for a White man. In fact, he does. Zane occasionally leaves the relative safety of Harlem and heads to the Deep South where he infiltrates the local White populace – going “incognegro.” This colored version of going incognito allows him to take pictures of the lynching of black men (portrayed here as a civic event like a county fair or church picnic, which was often true in real life), as well as learn the names of the respectable folks attending these ghastly, all-too-human events.
The novel opens with a lynching, during which Zane’s cover is blown. After barely escaping with his life, Zane returns to Harlem and demands a new and safer job from his boss at the Herald. The boss wants one more column written by the mysterious “Incognegro,” and he’s sure Zane will be interested in covering this next case. It’s in Tupelo, Mississippi, where Zane’s estranged brother, Alonzo “Pinchy” Pinchback, is scheduled to hang for the murder of a white woman.
Zane races to Tupelo, once again passing as a White man, but this time, his aimless friend, Carl, a light-skinned Negro who can also pass, is coming along in hopes of learning how Zane does it, so he can take over when Zane quits being “Incognegro.” In Tupelo, however, Zane and Carl discover that this murder is set in a place where a Black person’s life is always in mortal danger. A labyrinthine mystery, with a huge cast of shady, inbred crackers, confronts Zane, and to make matters worse, someone quite deadly has arrived in Tupelo right behind Zane. This new arrival is no stranger to the famous/infamous newspaper columnist, “Incognegro,” and he plans on putting an end to the faux-White man.
As a murder mystery, Incognegro is just as good as any crime/detective comic book series or graphic novel published by an American comic book company. Stylistically, in terms of setting, plot, mood, atmosphere, and to a certain extent in the way the characters behave, Incognegro has the flavor of the work of brilliant African-American writer and mystery novelist, Walter Mosley (in fact, a quote from Mosley is on the front of Incognegro’s dust jacket). This is a riveting tale of a man in mortal danger, doggedly determined to find out who the real culprit is before his brother is lynched. What adds to the drama and conflict is that all of Zane’s efforts, regardless of if he solves the case or not, may earn him a rope around his neck.
If Incognegro makes a great statement about that misnomer “Race,” it’s that a person, who can be identified as “Black” or “Negro,” even if he has a light complexion or skin color, will face the same horrors of prejudice and racism as a man who obviously looks “Black.” It’s a matter of status as much as it is birth. People like to believe that there is always someone beneath them. Perhaps, it is a group of people that they believe they are better than and always will be better than. In the time in which Incognegro is set, dirt poor ignorant white trash has something in common with respectable white people – as white people they were better than niggers.
Someone born a nigger being able to pass for White must have terrified White people (and probably still does for some). If it’s so easy to stop being a Black man and become a White man, then, being White may not really have as much value as Whites believed. Still, in the context of this book, being Black meant a mob of White devils could, on a whim, decide to murder you – as the villain learns in the end.
Congratulations to Mat Johnson for presenting a graphic novel that is as riveting as it is ingenious. Incognegro is a thoughtful mystery tale and a nasty reminder of the kind of violence and hate that has left a lasting wound on our beautiful nation.