Title: Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery.
Writer(s): Mat Johnson.
Illustrator(s): Warren Pleece.
Publisher: Berger Books.
Release Date: February 6th 2018 (First published February 6th 2008).
Genre(s): Comics, Historical Fiction, Mystery.
My Overall Rating: ★★★★☆.
The deep-rooted presence of racism within American soil is a tough-to-eradicate plague that has yet to leave the people in peace today. While white supremacists have greatly lowered in numbers over the past centuries, the role that racism plays in segregation continues to strive, even if it isn’t always explicit and tangible. In the early 20th century, lynching was a common practice throughout the American South. The act of hanging African-Americans and making a public show out of it was not frown upon by those assisting but rather served as a cathartic experience to alleviate all the racial tension garnered within certain White Folks. While many died from the experience, others were simply never found, leaving many to wonder how much terror actually took place in America during these darker times.
Incognegro is Mat Johnson’s and Warren Pleece’s almost-true-story based on Walter White, the former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who went undercover to investigate lynchings. Although he’s Afro-American, the fact that his skin was as pale as White Folks offered him the unique opportunity to “pass” as one of them and shed some light on the scandalous events that took place just about everywhere in the south.
In Incognegro, the story follows journalist Zane Pinchback, a pale Afro-American journalist who writes columns under the pseudonym of “Incognegro” for the New York-based New Holland Herald. With the ability to blend into the mass of White Folks thanks to his pale skin colour, Zane Pinchback is able to point fingers at all the individuals who participate in lynchings by writing stories for his journal. Following a disastrous mission where he escapes alive from a lynching, he is given a new lead that turns out to be much more personal, involving his own brother, but also derails into a whole mystery revolving around the murder of a white woman in Mississippi.
Although short, Mat Johnson has written a very revealing story on the state of white supremacy in America through a murder mystery fueled in themes of racism and identity. Sparingly using humour to alleviate the black and white tone of this story, the events that take place, as well as the assimilated culture of lynching that has become such an ordinary thing for many, reveal the rotten climate of an era that struggled to exit the grasp of racism and all of the stereotypes that come with it. While the story in itself is simple and easy to follow, it is the overall message and how it is delivered that truly establishes this graphic novel as a prime example of great story-telling. Unafraid to tackle these sensitive subjects, the story reminds us of the terror that permeated throughout America once upon a time, but also the remnants of that era that still exists today.
Warren Pleece’s artwork is also magnificent and conveys the right gravity to Mat Johnson’s story without ever faltering. Split in three chapters, the black and white artwork is consistent and is easy to follow without ever leaving its readers to second-guess what is going on. An issue that I however ran into is the difficulty to distinguish White Folks from Afro-Americans. While it was often easy to tell the difference, other times it was a pretty big challenge. This issue led me to wonder what Mat Johnson’s and Warren Pleece’s intentions were to neglecting the skin colour and made me filter it down to a desire to have readers determine the true skin colour of an individual uniquely based on their action and their words. This humble idea led me to realize how easy some people are able to fool others by their actions and words, making skin colours completely impertinent within society. However, today’s society leans more towards acknowledging the existence of the difference in skin colour in hopes of moving forward as a society. It sure does make you wonder what exactly would be the best path to take if we want a racism-free world.
Incognegro is a short, entertaining and thought-provoking story on the ideas of race and identity within America, with solid artwork to complement the story.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada and Berger Books for sending me a copy for review!