Incognegro weaves historical elements — lynchings, blacks passing for white, the Harlem Renaissance — into an entertaining, action-packed thriller that makes its points violently, so that they strike home.

Incognegro cover
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Zane Pinchback is a reporter for a black newspaper in the early 30s. He’s light-skinned enough to pass for white, so he ventures down south to report on the murders of black men that the white papers don’t bother covering. He’s tired of it, though, afraid of continuing to risk his life and disappointed he has to write anonymously. His choice is that of helping his people or helping himself.

That all changes when he goes on one more trip, this time to rescue his darker-skinned brother, who’s accused of killing a white woman. Pinchback is clever. He’s able to help out negros in trouble with outrageous claims like being a Klansman, leaps so ridiculous that no one thinks to question them. His thinking goes out the window, though, when his family’s involved, even though his brother is running moonshine. Instead of proceeding with caution, he bulldogs through a pulpy blend of gender-swapping, inbred hillbillies, bootlegging, kidnapping, vengeance plots, and casual murder. Writer Mat Johnson has won awards for his fiction, and he clearly knows his era and feels strongly about his subject matter.

Artist Warren Pleece has a clean, journalistic style that presents images straightforwardly. He captures the feel of a different time, although one that has similarities with ours. Some have criticized the unshaded pages for not giving a better idea of skin tone. They want whites that look pink and especially blacks that look dark. But that misses the point. Pinchback is able to pass because of his light skin tone. If colored “black”, his foes would look like idiots for mistaking him, which would undermine how dangerous institutional racism can be. If colored “white”, readers would forget the danger he was in and his true self. Comic book coloring, for the most part, doesn’t have the subtlety needed for this kind of exploration of societal boundaries.

Incognegro is an involving melodrama with serious undertones, a wild ride to make a point about forgotten history. Johnson and Pleece have been interviewed about the book. Brendan Wright has also reviewed the book. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)

8 Responses to “Incognegro”

  1. Pedro Tejeda Says:

    I understand the editorial and artistic decision to not choose to do coloring on a book like this. I don’t agree that comic book coloring doesn’t have the subtlety for what you asking. Digital coloring has advanced very well, and DC/Vertigo has some of the finest colorist in the world. Many able to render varying skin tones. It would not have been as binary as you make it sound.

    I still think it would have added greatly to the book. One amusing thing is to compare the front cover image to the book cover image of Mat Johnson. I remember showing that to my wife and she was going, those aren’t the same man.

    I’m still sad that I missed him at NYCC. I heard he was at the Vertigo booth but this was long after he left.

  2. John Says:

    I quite enjoyed this and loved the subtext of secret identities, such a staple in comics, brought into a real world situation.

  3. Johanna Says:

    Pedro, I’m afraid I wasn’t very clear. Yes, computer coloring can be subtle in depicting skin tones (assuming it’s used, the paper is right for it, etc.), but picking any one skin tone for this story would undercut it, since the protagonist is seen as different colors based on his role.

    John: Great point!

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