Writer: Mat Johnson
Artist: Warren Pleece
Artist: Warren Pleece
What’s It About?
It’s the early twentieth century and Zane Pinchback is a reporter for the New Holland Herald, an African-American newspaper operating out of New York. Born with skin pale enough to pass as white, he works undercover to infiltrate lynchings and under the pen name Incognegro he works to expose the murderers who commit them.
His brother, his significantly darker-skinned brother, has been accused of murder. The murder of a white woman and in Mississippi, no less. The evidence is slight but the mob is ready and Zane knows its only a matter of time.
What’s Good About It?
Firstly, I would like to stress that this book is for adults only. This isn’t a book that shies away from its subject matter. There are depictions of lynchings in this book, not just images of African-American men being hanged from trees but the whole, disgusting business of what lynching is: humiliation, torture, mutilation, the awful fear of inevitable death, all are portrayed in the name of accuracy. It never seems gratuitous, however, every horrifying moment is there for a bloody good reason. This isn’t torture porn, this is a story about violence.
Incognegro paints a picture of a very dark time in American history and the people seeking to end it. It takes a look at all levels of prejudice: from the violent, murderous hatred of the Ku Klux Klan to the shallow, unthinking bigotry of institutional racism, as well as examining several other social preconceptions that I can’t mention here for fear of spoiling vital elements of the mystery.
The mystery itself is well-written with twists and turns surrounding realistic, believable (sometimes distressingly believable) characters. As sickening as it is half the time, Johnson and Pleece paint a compelling picture of this particular period.
This is one of those comics that a reader can point to as evidence that the comics art form has true merit: it is powerful, it is emotional and it is relevant. In one scene, as Pinchback “passes” he notes of the white Americans around him:
“They think they’re normal, that they are the universal, and everyone else is an odd deviation from form.”
What’s Bad About It?
Nothing to actually criticise. On a pure technical level, Incognegro is practically flawless. The only thing for me to mention here is a reminder that this is not a book for the fainthearted: brutality is not shied away from, racist actions and language are not softened to cater to readers’ sensitivities and this book contains more racial slurs than any other comic or most other books I’ve ever read (I think the record was nine on one page).
Having been warned, though, the reader has a powerful story to look forward to.
What’s the Art Like?
The art for the collection is black and white, purely line work with no grey-scale colouring. It might seem odd that a story about race would omit colour from its art but that’s actually to its benefit. It means that artist Warren Pleece can concentrate on conveying the race of his characters through their physical characteristics. This is sadly a not-uncommon problem in comics where, say for instance, African-American or East-Asian or Native American characters are all too often drawn just as white people with different colours used for skin tone.
Take for instance this scene between the “passing” Zane Pinchback and his more clearly African-American editor:
Zane is the young man standing in that central panel, his editor is the angry man with glasses. Look at the editor on that page and then at Zane in the example below as he “transforms” into his Incognegro guise by erasing his one evidently African-American characteristic: his hair. You can see the graduation of racial characteristics that allows Zane to work undercover as he does.
Note the images that ghost across the mirror as Zane changes and how the art here merges well with the internal monologue on how he becomes “invisible”.
Available from Amazon here.