Book Review: Graphic Novels
This graphic novel by writer Mat Johnson and artist Warren Pleece is a historical thriller set during the Harlem Renaissance of early last century
Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., March 14, 2008
Incognegro: A Graphic Mysteryby Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece
Vertigo, 136 pp., $19.99
This graphic novel by writer Mat Johnson and artist Warren Pleece is a historical thriller set during the Harlem Renaissance of early last century. Our protagonist, Zane Pinchback, is a young journalist, a black man who, pale enough to pass for white, sometimes leaves New York to go undercover in the Deep South and investigate and document lynchings. So: He's an intrepid young journalist, one lucky enough (so far) to have escaped violent situations without coming athwart a noose himself. This story's about what happens when Pinchback tries to uncover the tangle of death-stained secrets that have landed his older brother in jail for a murder he didn't commit, way down in the crackery sticks of Mississippi.
Pinchback's character was inspired by real-life "incognegro" (and former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Walter White, and this lends credibility to an idea that might seem too outlandish. Also upping the verisimilitude is the wealth of societal and racial details provided, in action and discussion, by Pinchback and his associates; the author uses these to form a solid human foundation upon which to erect a multileveled plot, and the story trucks along briskly. The dialogue crackles, the situations compel, a few wacky bits of humor leaven the gallows atmosphere even while straining disbelief. Two-thirds through and a few revelations still uncovered, though you can feel the narrative's machinery falling into a sharp Hollywood pattern where each problem and its fallout will be as neatly resolved as a puzzle savant's Rubik's Cube.
Now, some people like that sort of thing; they must, or America's box-office favorites wouldn't be the ones they are. But we felt a bit cheated here, figuring such a gambit of tidiness more in line with less ambitious pop-culture offerings and not quite worthy of the thoughtful background and characterization Johnson's wrought here. Still, it rankles only near the end, and this is a tale worth reading. Also for the stunning, perfectly directed artwork of Pleece, had we mentioned that? A treat for the eyes, a marvel of illustration arranged in the service of narrative.