It was the summer of 1919. Just after the First World War, white supremacists, fueled by generations of hatred, began targeting returning African American GIs for violence. Meanwhile, more African Americans flooded into northern cities looking for job opportunities and an escape from the oppression of the American South. They, too, were met with violence in cities such as Chicago and New York. It was the Red summer, when blood flowed from battered skulls and from the trees like blossoms of the “Strange Fruit” of the old jazz standard. From the shadows emerges a hero, the Incognegro.
This graphic novel deals with the fictional story of Zane Pinchback, an African American man whose light skin tone allows him to pass as a white man. This trait, presented almost as a superpower in Incognegro, has helped him slip into the shadows and report on lynchings in the South. Suddenly, the work – always dangerous – becomes personal as his brother has been placed in jail for the murder of a white woman, and the sentence will be carried out by the angry lynch mob that sits outside the jailhouse day and night.
What makes the work unique is the ability of author, Mat Johnson, and artist, Warren Pleece, to blend various influences into one amalgam of striking literature. Incognegro has many parents: Harlem Renaissance writers, Nella Larsen and Jean Toomer, and hardboiled crime novelists, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler; the book traces its lineage to the ink laden stokes of Vernon Greene’s work on The Shadow, the elegant drama of Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock printing, the life and work of Walter F. White, the lyricism and vivid imagery of Abel Meeropol, and even the insane teachings of Charles Manson.
Incognegro is pulp. Like all famous pulp figures, from Doc Savage to Superman, Zane Pinchback has his signature cry:
I am Incognegro. I don’t wear a mask like Zorro or a cape like the Shadow, but I don a disguise nonetheless. My camouflage is provided by the Southern tradition nobody likes to talk about. Slavery. Rape. Hypocrisy […] Since white America refuses to see its past, they can’t really see me too well, either. Add to that a little Madam CJ’s magic [this is a reference to the claim that Madame CJ Walker created a straightening comb for hair] and watch me go invisible. Watch me step out of history. Assimilation as revolution.
Johnson uses the archetypes of the noir novel and subverts them in interesting ways. While the stereotypical hardboiled crime novel features a seductive, sophisticated femme fatale, Johnson spins this on its head, presenting a gun-wielding, rum-running woman from backwoods Appalachia for this role. While Chandler’s Philip Marlowe would muse on motifs of chivalrous knights, Johnson’s Zane Pinchback thinks about the nature of performance.
Incognegro is high art as well. Pleece’s black and white illustrations allow for amazing shadow work and gruesome details to pop from the page. In the panels from the aforementioned page, Zane examines himself in the mirror, seeing a black man. When he speaks of his camouflage, superimposed over his reflection is white man assaulting a black woman, that Southern tradition. He is buried by this disgusting history, and because of this, and because “white America refuses to see its past” after he has seen the American flag over him, he finally sees himself as a white man in the mirror, in his disguise. Pleece accomplishes this through bother blatant means, such as Zane’s suit and tie and straightened hair, and subtle means, such as the removing of Zane’s philtrum from the illustration, making his nose look more stereotypically European American. Incognegro is pulp and high art made one.
Because of this, the structure of the narrative informs a central theme of the novel, duality. Zane asserts that “American Negroes are a mulatto people,” a people of two origins, caught in a liminal space in this country, and this is reflected in everything in the novel: from the fact that Zane is a twin, the character of Deputy White, themes of duplicitous and mistaken identities, and even the fact that the antagonist is half blind. He can only focus on one thing, catching the Incognegro, and as a result, is unable to see anything else. This duality plays in the nature of the African American’s place as Johnson shows it — there are two worlds: the black world where the protagonist is respected for who he is, and the white world where he is in danger for who he is not. Zane straddles these two worlds; he must play pretend in one world in order to better the other. He points out: “Race is just a bunch of rules […] Race is a strategy. The rest is just people acting. Playing roles.” Because of this, Zane is able to put on the costume of whiteness and be both black and white. And to those who can see him, I mean truly see him, it is obvious he is exploiting the duality of the African American experience.
In my estimation, Johnson and Pleece fulfill the promise of the graphic novel. They tell an engaging, literary story about duality of the Black American identity through the lens of a noir crime novel, which is in turn told through the lens of a Harlem Renaissance era narrative. This is not merely a gritty comic book, nor is it just a historical fictional account of the rise of the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance. Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece have created a work that accomplishes both of these and more, by telling a story that strings together so many cultural influences to create one work, one story, one whole.
Kayla Chenault is an African American who resides in the northern Midwest region of the United States. She was published in childhood starting from age 7. She is currently completing a Master’s in Creative Writing from Eastern Michigan University.