The dust jacket for “Incognegro,” written by Mat Johnson, says it’s “a graphic mystery,” which is kind of misleading when you think about it. It actually works as two mysteries. Part of it involves a potboiler plot with memorable art and tense dialogue. The other part involves one man’s struggle with racism in the 1930s. The hero, Zane Pinchback, is a mixed-race reporter with an awkward gift: He can pass for white, allowing him to observe lynch mobs in the Deep South. Afterwards, he goes back to Harlem and writes about them for the New Holland Herald.
It’s a sign of the book’s obscurity that you have to hunt around for it – it’s unavailable at Bulletproof Comics and sold out at Forbidden Planet. That might be because of its content, which is pretty much automatically taboo.
Or maybe it’s the style. The art by Warren Pleece is drawn in black-and-white, as if it were a movie from the Golden Age of Hollywood. It looks even older than that, in fact – “Incognegro” feels like a crazy combination of D.W. Griffith and early Hitchcock.
This is a book that deals with racism head-on, with hardly any censorship or reservations of any kind. Consider the part where a doomed black man is victimized by a lynch mob. His death is gruesome and humiliating: He’s emasculated by a Klansman and dressed in a clown’s outfit, in that order. After he dies, people start lining up to get their picture taken with him.
Zane stands among the crowd, appalled and wounded – but he manages to keep his cool and blend in from one lynching to the next. Nobody can deny his bravery, but we get the sense that Zane cares little about the deaths he sees. (“I’m not that mad enough anymore,” he tells his editor.) That all changes after he finds out that his own brother might be next: Suddenly, what was once an odd job is now a terrifying rescue mission.
Johnson and Pleece made the right choice when they illustrated “Incognegro” in black-and-white: In this chaotic race war, you can’t even tell which is which. That’s the point. We see the world through the eyes of a hero who talks about race as a concept, not a fact. “That’s one thing that most of us know that most white folks don’t,” he says. “That race doesn’t really exist. Culture? Ethnicity? Sure. Class too. But race is just a bunch of rules meant to keep us on the bottom. Race is a strategy. The rest is just people acting. Playing roles. That’s what white folks never get.”
Maybe he’s right, but: “That’s what makes them so easy to infiltrate.”
It’s hard to find stories that can be entertaining and fearless at the same time, but it’s not impossible. “Incognegro” is genuinely rewarding, but be forewarned – it looks frankly at a sad time in American history and holds no punches. We get the same feeling President Woodrow Wilson had after seeing Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” years ago: “It is like writing history with lightning,” he said. “And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”