The Light Skin and Dark Shadows of Incognegro

by
Incognegro
By Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece
DC Comics/Vertigo – hardcover, $19.99

DURING THE SEEMINGLY ENDLESS Democratic primary in which we as a nation are reduced to arguing which is worse, racism or sexism (answer: it’s a stupid question), Incognegro makes for an interesting read.

As part of writer Mat Johnson’s efforts to stay historically accurate, and perhaps to avoid making his protagonists too perfect, he writes them just as condescending to women as are the white characters, with no apparent authorial commentary, or any reaction at all from anyone in the book. Essentially, women are treated poorly and no one cares, while black men are treated far worse, but some people object. Not much of a choice there, really. Most of the cast of Incognegro go with option (c): passing as white men.

Incognegro has been getting attention both outside and inside the comics press, with The New York Times raving, while Douglas Wolk deems it “Awful” (spoilers). Like I usually seem to in these circumstances, I come down somewhere in between. The premise, a light-skinned Harlem reporter named Zane Pinchback passing as white to report on Southern lynchings, has a lot of potential, and it’s attached to a murder mystery for which the locals want to string up an innocent man, a natural fit for the material. And, or course, the whole transformation/secret identity thing feels pretty familiar for comics.

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There are several twists that exploit the themes of passing and identity, some very effectively, others somewhat ham-handedly. I found that I had no problem with the inclusion of a woman passing as a man in the story, since I tend to enjoy the variations-on-a-theme approach, but I did find the language used too similar to that describing the black characters passing for white, as though I might miss the parallels otherwise. On the other hand, the cases of mistaken identity are helped by fitting in thematically, which helps them feel less clichéd than they might otherwise.

Ultimately I found the notion of America as a place where people can try on several identities, as exemplified by Zane’s brother’s visit to Harlem and Zane’s desire to work as both Incognegro and a bylined columnist, more compelling, if fairly familiar. The contrast between the Harlem Renaissance and the strict identity politics of Tupelo, Mississippi make the point well, without being as overt as some of the other themes of the book.

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As for the mystery, I got into it. The pacing is wonky in a few places, as when the sheriff asks his prisoner, “What did you really see happen up on that mountain?” and 20 pages pass before we return to them. However, the mystery generally works and the growing threat of the lynch mob creates a ticking clock that feels organic. The main problem with the plot is Zane’s friend, Carl, who could have felt more important to the story, beyond simply adding to the danger by taking exactly the stupid risks that Zane announces early on that he will make.

The revelation of the murderer and the immediate aftermath don’t necessarily tie in thematically, but they work on a story level. In truth, the whole thing works better when its “relevance” is acknowledged, but sublimated to the more immediate need to set a story like this in a dangerous place, which the lynching South definitely is. The rest comes through osmosis.

Warren Pleece’s art sells Zane’s subtle transformation and his resemblance to his darker-skinned twin brother. It was a bold decision on someone’s part to run his less-detailed style in black and white without any tones, but I think it pays off, removing exact skin tones as a barrier to the suspension of disbelief. After all, characters in the book aren’t supposed to see beyond what they’re told they’re looking at, and this way that never really comes into question. The decision also allows Pleece to fill the pages with lots of solid black shadows, which compliments the tone of the book perfectly.

Pleece draws both black and white characters distinctly, but without resorting to caricature. Backgrounds and settings are present but minimal, and it’s the clothes and especially faces that sell the period. Pleece’s faces look like the ones in old, high contrast black-and-white photographs. It’s always interesting, when watching something like a Ken Burns documentary, how the faces and headshapes you see seem to have been so different just a few decades ago. Pleece captures that well.

Basically, Incognegro ends up being middle-of-the-road, occasionally heavy-handed and reaching a little beyond it’s grasp. Some of the dialogue and characterization could have used another pass, but the mystery and setting are solid enough, and it works best when those are in the forefront and the message is just showing through around the edges to strengthen them. It’s entertaining, but not one I’m likely to reread often.

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