Incognegro, by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece
Incognegro is a graphic novel written by Mat Johnson, inspired by the birth of his twin sons, one of whom looks white and the other black. In Johnson’s own words, taken from an interview here:
Incognegro is about a mixed race Negro journalist who looks white who investigates lynchings in the 1930s. The story is about when his own brother is framed for a murder, and he must go Incognegro to solve the crime and free him.
Carrying cover blurbs by Paul Theroux and George Pelecanos, Incognegro then is a number of things: it’s a detective story, an adventure story, a tale of daring exploits. But what it also is of course is a story about one of the uglier periods of American history, about the way in which concepts of race are constructed and about quite how artificial these distinctions can be – yet still real enough to get a person killed.
Incognegro opens with a flashback, it’s protagonist Zane Pinchback (the famed Incognegro) is recounting how he does his work. It’s the early 1930s and nobody’s interested in stories about lynchings anymore, so he makes it interesting by attending in person, masquerading as a white journalist and taking incriminating details of those involved. Zane can pass as white because, in the language of the time, he’s a high yellow – pale skinned – and when he’s dressed in a suit people assume he’s white because they can’t imagine he’d be black.
Put another way, he’s taken as white because his skin’s not so black as to make what he is obvious, and because he changes his own context by how he speaks and dresses. In this opening segment, when the lynch mob realise nobody knows who he came with, they suddenly understand that he’s a black man, the only thing that stopped them seeing it before was the impossibility of the concept of a black man in a suit at a lynching.
The opening scenes do something else, too, they show a lynching. They show what that term really means, the full horror. The victim is ritually humiliated, his body desecrated, men line up to have their photos taken with the corpse. It’s ugly stuff, and it’s clear if discovered that Zane will be tortured and killed.
After these opening scenes, the scene switches back to those he’s recounting the incident too – friends in Black Harlem, well dressed and sophisticated people, part of the Harlem Renaissance. Zane works for a black newspaper, his friends are black too, and in the main their concerns are the same as those of the whites. Zane struggles for promotion, too good at his current job for his own good, his best friend Carl is good looking and stylish, but has nothing of Zane’s seriousness – instead making his money with card games and rent parties. They drink cocktails, worry about settling down, and Carl being another high yellow sometimes they go to white hotels and enjoy the good life that they’d be denied if the whites knew what they were.
I’m not going to go into the plot too much, Zane heads South on one last lynching story, his brother potentially facing the mob, and Carl joins him hoping that when Zane gets promoted he can take his job and so impress his fiancée. When they reach his brother’s town, Zane poses as a senior member of the Klan visiting to check things are being done right, a ploy that soon gets undermined when a real senior Klansman turns up in town with the same purpose…
The story of Incognegro is a good one, and at times surprisingly brutal. Mat Johnson makes this an exciting read, but it’s also (and rightly) a disturbing one. When things go wrong, they go wrong in very nasty ways. The stakes couldn’t be higher, Zane’s brother’s life, his own, Carl’s. The whites in town are already willing to kill, what will they do to a black man they discover is pretending to be one of them? A man who by his existence subverts their beliefs?
Johnson packs a lot into his 135 pages, including some still very relevant observations. I can’t reproduce the relevant panels, but here’s Zane reflecting on how he does what he does:
Race is a strategy.
The rest is just people acting. Playing roles.
That’s what white folks never get. They don’t think they have accents. They don’t think that they eat ethnic foods. Their music is classical.
They think they’re just normal. That they are the universal, and that everyone else is an odd deviation from form.
That’s what makes them so easy to infiltrate.
And if you think he exaggerates, I once had a flaming argument with a girlfriend who was highly offended when I commented on her accent one day – she said she didn’t have an accent, she was middle class English, I had an accent sure and other people did but her’s was the baseline. She was serious. And I suspect few white people think of a hamburger or steak frites as ethnic food.
A graphic novel of course isn’t just words and story, it’s just as much (often more) the art. Here Warren Pleece brings a clean and spare black and white style, and black and white in this context makes style part of the point. You can tell some characters are black by their facial structure and the use of shading, but some you just have to know what they are through the story, if you weren’t told then as a reader you couldn’t tell.
Pleece has an attractive and simple technique, bringing uncluttered imagery which complements Johnson’s words without distracting from them. Pleece is particularly good bringing out facial expressions with just a few strokes, and I’d be interested in following up his work with other writers. Here’s some examples, taken from Incognegro, that I was able to find online:
Overall then, this is an intelligent and thought provoking work, well written and drawn, and an excellent introduction if one is needed to the graphic novel as a form. This could have been done as a novel (Walter Mosley, who provides a back cover blurb, has addressed similar territory), but the art underlines the argument and is a pleasure in its own right. It also enjoys (if that’s the right word) a definite continuing relevance, because although while as I write this America has its first black president, it’s fair to say that the race people say you belong to still determines much of the life you can expect to have.