Yesterday I picked up a copy of Incognegro, written by author Mat Johnson (Pym, Loving Day) with illustrations by Warren Pleece, from my local library. It’s a quick read, so I chewed through it over lunch, and really enjoyed the tale. The subject matter is decidedly dark, but it’s also based on some real-life events, which gives an interesting gravitas to the graphic novel (or “comic book,” as some might have it…).
The title itself is a clever take on the subject of black folks in the U.S. “passing” as white, and that’s exactly what the title character does – though in this case, he passes in order to infiltrate white society as a defender of justice, exposing the men who are responsible for lynchings throughout the south in his (northern) newspaper column.
“Incognegro” is not a superhero, per se, though he does certainly pull off some Jedi mind tricks on white folks looking for trouble. He passes between two worlds, clouding his identity in order to get the information he needs to solve the case that has landed his brother in jail for a white woman’s murder.
Of course, he’s also constantly navigating a world that’s both familiar and strange to him, returning to the south after years spent up north in New York City, and the differences between these two worlds prove just as dangerous.
While I’m not typically a heavy reader of comic books or graphic novels, those that I have read tend to hook me with their presentation of historic moments through the visual medium. I’d liken this book to Maus in terms of its darker storyline and historic relevance, but it’s also an original tale that references the Harlem Renaissance – an era of black history and culture that could use its own graphic novels.
I wonder if perhaps one day Zane and his brother will return, with stories of the poets, musicians, and artists they mingled with after Incognegro was unmasked?
In the end, justice is served with its own black-and-white twist. If you can find a copy at your local library, I’d highly recommend picking this book up for Black History Month – or any month when you want to explore America’s racial dividing lines, past and present.