"Incognegro" | Black, white and injustice all over
Special to The Seattle Times
Sometimes words alone are inadequate. Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece's powerful new graphic novel, "Incognegro" (Vertigo, 136 pp., $19), combines words with pictures to depict African Americans' resistance to the murderous reign of Jim Crow. Traveling between glittering 1930s Harlem and small-town Mississippi, "Incognegro's" hero, black journalist Zane Pinchback, pretends to be white in order to report on the country's lynching epidemic. In the book's opening pages he races a locomotive to escape an angry white mob suddenly wise to his masquerade.
But Pinchback's no radioactive mutant or caped crusader, though he does have a secret identity; "Incognegro" is solidly rooted in historical reality. In an author's note, Johnson reveals two of the elements that inspired his novel: his boyhood fantasies of putting his own light-skinned looks to some constructive use, and the real-life exploits of former NAACP head Walter White, who took advantage of his Nordic appearance to investigate Arkansas' 1919 Elaine Race Riot.
Johnson, a writing professor at the University of Houston's creative writing program, read about White's exploits when taking college courses on black history, but his lessons in racial violence began much earlier. At age 7 he learned that his own great-grandfather had spent a long, anxious night with a shotgun across his lap, waiting for a lynch mob to attack. The story gave Johnson recurring nightmares for years.
The author's personal involvement and scholarly research make "Incognegro's" settings especially vivid. Authentic Harlem Renaissance slang ("pinktoes," "dicty mustard seed") fills the characters' word balloons; suspenders and saloons, chicken coops and roadside vegetable vendors cover the pages. Artist Pleece renders it all in stark black-and-white, with expressionistic shadows and highlights that heighten the story's inherent tension.
After escaping the mob he angers at the novel's beginning, Pinchback reluctantly endangers his life once more to rescue his ne'er-do-well brother from a Southern jail cell. The brother (dark enough never to be taken for anything but a "Negro") is being held for the murder of a white woman. He's innocent, but that doesn't matter to the bigoted majority of Tupelo, Miss.; his life expectancy is a matter of mere days. Pinchback poses as an out-of-town Ku Klux Klan official and attempts to find the dead woman's killer, but the situation is complicated. More than one person is "passing" (pretending to be a white man), and there's a backwater tribe of crazies who Pinchback suspects know more about the murder than they're saying. Then the real KKK official arrives.
"Incognegro" has its humorous moments — Pinchback's best friend's impersonation of an English lord, a sly aside about marriage and a woman's ability to shoot — but the subject's basically a somber one. Graphic representations of the era's violence against African-American men, no matter how well drawn, aren't at all pretty.
They're necessary, though, if we're going to remember the past and avoid repeating it. Another, even grimmer book on this subject, "Without Sanctuary" (Twin Palms, 2000), collects the souvenir postcards sold at 19th- and 20th-century lynchings. The beatings, tortures, burnings, hangings and mutilations they depict actually did happen.
Art Spiegelman dealt with equally disturbing material in his 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel "Maus" (Pantheon), a two-volume graphic novel chronicling Europe's Holocaust. To its credit, "Incognegro's" publisher (Vertigo, the "adult" imprint of DC Comics) appears to have realized that like "Maus," this book merits a hardcover release. A dust jacket mimicking the front page of the 1930s newspaper Pinchback writes for increases the book's air of sophistication, and blurbs from Princeton's Cornel West and best-selling writer Paul Theroux signal that you're reading much more than a comic book.
Those looking for sympathetic white characters here will come up empty-handed. The South of "Incognegro" is nothing like that of Harper Lee's classic "To Kill a Mockingbird." In an interview, Johnson acknowledged that some whites were "good decent people," though they were "shaped by the realities of their eras." Johnson's story focuses on African Americans as the people at the heart of the struggle against racial oppression, the people fighting powerful forces that would deny them their humanity, their dignity and their lives.
A strong case can be made that race is an artificially constructed category, that it's meaningless in biological terms. Johnson and Pleece use the sequence in which Pinchback assumes his white identity to illustrate that argument clearly, succinctly — graphically. With its savvy comments on racial politics and privilege, "Incognegro" is a valiant and successful effort to redeem the past without rewriting it.
Nisi Shawl reviews science fiction for The Seattle Times. She is co-author of "Writing the Other: A Practical Approach," with Cynthia Ward.
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