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Book review of "Incognegro"

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Incognegro

a graphic novel written by Mat Johnson, illustrated by Warren Pleece

(Vertigo, February 2008)

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Review Copyright Deesha Philyaw, 2008

With his latest book Incognegro, Mat Johnson delivers an engrossing mystery set in the 1930s when blacks throughout the American South lived under the constant threat of lynching. It is a tale of shifting identities and of racial hatred at its deadliest extreme.

Johnson's previous works include the novels Drop, Hunting in Harlem, and The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Conspiracy and Murder in Eighteenth-Century New York, and a graphic novel, Hellblazer: Papa Midnite. For Incognegro, he pairs his sharp writing with Warren Pleece's detailed period artwork to tell the story of Zane Pinchback, a light-skinned black reporter whose character is based on real-life black journalists from the North who went incognegro in the early 20th-century, "passing" for white in order to brave the lynching beat.

By going incognegro, these reporters exposed the South's ugly ways--and risked their own lives in the process. Understandably, Pinchback prefers the safety and comfort Harlem where he writes for the New Holland Herald, especially after a close-call with a lynch mob during his last assignment. But he must return to the South after his brother is arrested for the murder of a white woman in Mississippi. Zane's buddy, Carl, a restless ladies' man who can also pass, follows Zane, further complicating matters.

In Mississippi, Zane uncovers a tangled web of lies, brutality, and insanity. To save his brother, Zane must race against the clock--and the Klan.

Some reviewers have complained that Incognegro's plot was too complicated. But certainly an engaging, complex tale is preferable to a story whose ending can be guessed half-way through, and I had no problem following the twists and turns Zane encountered. Johnson's brisk writing style keeps the story moving, from the hit-the-ground running opening flashback, to the I-didn't-see-that-coming ending, with no lulls in between.

Pleece's artwork enhances the book's noir feel and presents the horror of lynching and other violence in full measure, but with an appropriate solemnity.

Despite the book's somber subject matter, there are some well-timed comedic moments which fit naturally with the tone set by Johnson's text and Pleece's images.

While Incognegro deals with the tragedy of lynching, it is not an entirely tragic story. In this way, the book mirrors the historical experiences of blacks in America--the subjugation, the perseverance, and the hope. Incognegro is not a primer on lynching in the U.S., but any reader who comes to these pages unfamiliar with this shameful and violent era will definitely get an unforgettable history lesson.

I can't comment on Incognegro specifically as a graphic novel because this is my first time reading one. But by crafting a smartly-written, fast-paced, well-illustrated story, Johnson and Pleece have certainly peaked this reader's interest in the genre.

Developed by Francis Doody

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