Wednesday, February 20

Race, intrigue, and 'Incognegro'

Cracking open Incognegro, the new graphic novel from writer Mat Johnson and illustrator Warren Pleece, I was a bit unsure what was in store. The provocative title dripped of race and mystery; frankly, it made me a little uncomfortable. That may, to some extent, have been the point.

Incognegro is what the title implies -- a noir mystery in which Jim Crow era racism plays a central role. Protagonist Zane Pinchback is a New York reporter who has made a career of investigating lynchings and other maltreatment of African-Americans, particularly in Dixie. He also happens to be Black, though his skin tone allows him to blend with white society. The story sees him about to leave this risky behavior for a desk job when he's pulled back in for one last assignment. His own brother, Alonzo, has been arrested and imprisoned for the grisly murder of a Caucasian woman in Mississippi. Pinchback, of course, fears the worst.

From there the story takes unpredictable turns, with Zane and companion Carl quickly caught up in a thrilling murder mystery with corrupt officials, mistaken identities, and well-deserved revenge. The story threads are woven together seamlessly, though perhaps not always as the reader would have hoped. Without spoiling the story, I'll add that the end is priceless.

Incognegro is a fine work. I will admit that the repetition of racial slurs and depiction of bigoted white characters is jarring, but it probably fits the 1930s setting more closely than one can now imagine. That the girlfriend of the imprisoned Alonzo is a white woman speaks to Johnson's readiness not to categorize all Southern whites as racists, though I'll let future readers judge her otherwise. The story's social commentary is, notably, about secrets and class as much as race -- those who fail to behave as society dictates, whether subservient Blacks or "hillbilly" whites, are put in their place.

The art of the book is black and white, with Pleece delivering clean and realistic drawings rich in period detail. The characters are distinct and recognizable despite the large cast, an achievement doubly impressive given the lack of color at Pleece's disposal. His art adds a great deal to the mood created by Johnson's tale as the two complement each other nicely. Definitely a recommended read for fans of noir fiction, particularly those with interest in race and class issues in the Old South.

Incognegro was released February 6 by DC's Vertigo imprint, and is available from Amazon.


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