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.
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. Pleece has been interviewed about the book. Brendan Wright has also reviewed the book. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)
Update: Incognegro has been reissued in a new edition with grey-toned art (addressing one of the complaints above), artist sketches, and a new afterword by the writer putting the book in modern context.