August 11, 2011

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Incognegro A Graphic Mystery

Written by Mat Johnson
Illustrated by Warren Pleece
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The turn of the 20th Century has some really twisted dark alleys we prefer not to discuss. One of them was the commonality of lynchings of African Americans, almost always when they had committed no crime except being black. It was America's dirty little secret, and no one in the mainstream was terribly inclined to make it public. It was up to daring African Americans who could pass for white, who were said to be going "incognegro."

This is the fictional story of one such daring young man, who goes back into the field one last time on a mission of personal importance. It seems that a bootlegging naer do well is being framed for murder, and only our protagonist can save him. But with an aggrandizing friend in tow, a situation far more complicated than it looks on first blush, and a very determined opposition, can even he find a way to save a man who's far from innocent without shedding blood?

The answers might surprise you, but the story will definitely sicken you. That's not anything against Johnson or Pleece, who put together an amazing comic. It's just that it's extremely hard to get through a book like this that puts on visual display some of the ugliest facets of the American history book. These are pages that some would like to see dead and buried, but we must face it head on. That's Johnson's point in writing this story, I think, using the visual medium of comics to help show just how terrible what happened to so many African Americans in the beginning part of the 20th Century.

I am a bit disappointed that I didn't know about Johnson's work sooner. I read Dark Rain earlier this year, and after finishing this book, I now want to seek out his prose books as well. He has a very strong knack for creating characters that we are interested in without taking a long time to set them up. As in Dark Rain, the main character in Incognegro, Zane, is a man who is trapped in his situation. Though he has more control than those in the prior book, there is still a feeling that this is not how Zane envisions his life, as typified in the scene where he tries to quit. The fact that ultimately Zane is only able to keep his life because of the actions of others hammers it home as a final commentary. In this world of racial hatred, Zane cannot change what he does. To step down is to dishonor the memory of all those who died.

That's how you write a great fictional character, and Johnson nails it at every step.

The story itself is a familiar one if you know anything about the time period. (I know just about enough to be conversational.) There are terrible lynchings going on in the south, and Zane reports on them, using his light skin to blend in. This final mission shows just what dangers he faces first hand, and, in a great storytelling touch, adds a personal element as well. The subtitle is that it's a graphic mystery, and Johnson doesn't disappoint. Zane is so convinced of the rightness of the world, he actually tries to track down a real killer, nearly dying himself in the process. Johnson paces the mystery quite well, balancing it against the primary story of racial hatred and danger.

I don't want to give up too many of the details because to do so would spoil the thrill of reading this book, but I can say that you can tell Johnson has done his homework. The story is linked in so well with the time period I think you'd be hard pressed to find an anachronism. We not only have the Harlem Renaissance, we have the danger of illegal stills, small town sheriffs with their own agendas, the politics of the Klan, and other little touches that really make this book sing.

A large part of all this working so well is Warren Pleece. He, too, has clearly done a lot of research, as the scenes in this book look like photographs from the time period. Despite having to draw a fairly large cast, it's easy to tell who all the characters are. He even pulls off the trickiest visual element quite well, making two cases of identity both easy to recognize and easy to see why they are not. Working solely in black and white, which is quite appropriate here, Pleece takes advantage of shadow and light to bring extra depth to his scenes. I'm quite impressed with the artists they've teamed Johnson up with so far. That's a great job by editor Jonathan Vankin or whomever came up with the pairing.

I'm not going to lie, Incognegro is a hard book to read. The story arose partially out of Johnson's own identity issues due to the lightness of his skin, and it's a book that shows that anyone can make something of themselves, if they only try. Be aware that this book may sicken or even anger you at the cruelty you will read, but only by keeping these memories alive will we remain vigilant in the fight against oppression of all forms. Johnson gives us a tool, now let's read it and use it wisely in the fights we face today.