Incognegro (DC/Vertigo)

incognegro-header.jpgIdentity, race, and prejudice mix with murder in this powerful new graphic novel, one of the best of the year so far.



135 pgs. B&W; $19.99 HC

(W: Mat Johnson; A: Warren Pleece)


With their new book Incognegro, writer Mat Johnson and artist Warren Pleece weave a tale that is at once thrilling in its plot twists and thought-provoking in its exploration of the racial divide in our country at the turn of the 20th century. It is an insightful look at the themes of identity and prejudice wrapped within a gripping story of murder and wrongful accusation, and it is easily one of the best graphic novels of 2008 to date.

Set in the 1920s and jumping between the very different worlds of Harlem and rural Mississippi, Incognegro adds depth to its mystery by placing the plot in a historical context based in truth. In his brief Author’s Note, Johnson details the story’s roots in fact: "I read about Walter White, the former head of the NAACP. White was an African-American even paler than I was. In the early 20th century, White went undercover, posing as a white man in the deep south to investigate lynchings."

Beyond that basic factual framework, Johnson takes the story into fictional territory. His journalist protagonist Zane Pinchback’s new undercover assignment forces him to get involved for once rather than simply observe and report when he discovers his own brother has been accused of murdering a white woman. Instantly, the stakes are raised for him, making what would normally be just another story into something much more personal indeed.

The cover of Incognegro. Click for a larger image.Johnson does a truly fantastic job of keeping the tone of the piece even, jumping between the disparate elements of mystery and race relations easily. It is unfortunate that often a graphic novel with "something to say" can quickly drift away from its story and become little more than a sermon, but Johnson avoids proselytizing by pairing his deeper message with a suspenseful plot. He expertly juggles his serious subject matter with the light touch of humor as well, so that the book is, within the span of a few pages, exciting, funny, and tragic.

One way he manages this feat is by framing big, impersonal issues within very real human drama. The people within the story deal with the harsh realities of what it means to pose as something you are not, both the damage it does to that person’s own sense of self and the terrible real-world consequences a pretender must face when discovered. The book’s message is delivered through the characters’ interactions rather than via heavy-handed narration, which makes it much more palatable to the average reader.

Similarly, Pleece’s realistic art style handles the subject matter deftly. A caricaturist might have exaggerated the features of certain people in the book, so the audience would always be better informed and more aware of which characters were of which race than the characters themselves were. Not so with Pleece, however, who downplays any differences in facial attributes so that readers are as confused about where racial boundaries lie as the characters.

The decision to print the book in black and white also subtly illustrates what an artificial construct "race" is in the first place, for there are no colors, not even shading to let the readers know who is "negro" and who is "cracker." Incognegro is a book about race in which, to the reader, all the characters have the same skin tone and have similar facial features, only appearing to be different to those characters in the context of the story. Pleece thus takes the concept at the heart of this graphic novel, the fear of the "other," and turns it on its ear, so the audience cannot help but be struck by the undeniable sameness of all the people in the story.

Johnson and Pleece have created a truly riveting story that transcends its historical setting, for it poses questions about race which have resonance with audiences of today. Incognegro is a graphic novel that, at its core, is about confusion and mistaken identity, both in regards to plot and theme, and it succeeds at every level. Fascinating in its examination of the irrationality of prejudice and enthralling in the twists and turns the story takes, Incognegro is a must-read. | Steve Higgins

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