Sunday, May 04, 2008

Race Relations in Black and White: Mat Johnson's Incognegro

From the Houston Chronicle -- May 4, 2008

By Edward Nawokta

Texans might recall that in 1959 Dallas journalist John Howard Griffin darkened his skin and traveled through Louisiana and Mississippi for six weeks, passing himself off as an African-American. His resulting book, Black Like Me, reminded America of the racism then endemic in South.

Griffin wasn't the first journalist to conceive of passing for the sake of a story. From 1918 to 1928, NAACP activist Walter White went undercover to investigate lynchings and race riots across the country.

Though African-American, White had blond hair and blue eyes, which gave him the appearance of a Caucasian. He used that to gain the confidence of racist mobs who boasted to him about their crimes — accounts he then published in the New York papers.

His mission was risky, and White had a few close calls of his own when his identity came to light.

White's heroic acts inspired Mat Johnson's latest project, the graphic novel Incognegro (art by Warren Pleece, published by Vertigo, a division of DC Comics). Johnson is a recent addition to the faculty of University of Houston's Creative Writing Program.

Incognegro tells the story of the fictional Zane Pinchback, an intrepid reporter for the New Holland Herald, who, in the mold of White, travels undercover through the South to report on lynchings.

When the book begins, Zane is back in Harlem, angling for a job as managing editor of the paper.

Then he learns of yet another lynching about to take place, in Tupelo, Miss.

A black man is accused of murdering a white woman, and what compels Zane to risk his life once again is news that the man scheduled to hang is Zane's own darker-skinned brother.

If this sounds like the setup for a preachy history lesson, fear not.

Johnson has used this historical material as the basis for a classic noir crime story, one that includes satisfying doses of deceit, moral ambiguity and plenty of R-rated violence.

Along the way, Zane will face down the Klan, greed, ignorance and a family of separatist hillbillies fomenting a religious race war.

Johnson, who moved to Houston from New York in 2007, is best known as a conventional fiction writer.

The author of two novels, Drop (2000) and Hunting in Harlem (2004), as well as the novella The Great Negro Plot (2007), he turned to writing graphic novels in 2005, with a short run of comics starring Papa Midnite, a character developed from the Hellblazer series.

"I've been preparing to write this particular story all my life," Johnson said in a recent interview. Like Zane, he's often taken for a Caucasian. "I grew up looking very European — my father is Irish and my mother is black — so I've been fascinated with those who've had similar experiences in the past." Johnson so closely identified with the main character that Vertigo photographed him to use as the cover image.

Johnson delights in the challenge of writing graphic novels. "You have to ask yourself odd questions," he said, "such as how do I structure the story so that all the big 'reveals' — key events — appear on even-numbered pages, so a reader sees them only after turning a page."

A novel, he said, is much more fluid; with comics "you're fitting the story into the form."

Increasingly, authors are using the graphic format to reinterpret nonfiction storylines. Recent years have seen graphic versions of the Sept. 11 Commission report and biographies of Ronald Reagan and Malcolm X.

As it happens, the Incognegro character and the graphic novel form, which is most often associated with superhero characters, are perfectly matched.

The pen name "Incognegro" is essentially a superhero's alias: "I don't wear a mask like Zorro or a cape like the Shadow, but I don a disguise nonetheless," says Zane while straightening his hair and tie before setting off for Tupelo.

In the black-and-white panel drawings by Pleece, a UK artist, African-American and white characters are not shaded differently to indicate race.

Yet through efficient visual shorthand (hair and clothing styles) the novel manages to comment on both racial and class differences.

"It's interesting to consider the different ways people look at the literary stuff and the graphic stuff," Johnson said. "People expect literary stuff to be smart and sophisticated, but not necessarily a good read, while the graphic novel is supposed to be a good read but not smart and sophisticated.

"In recent years, graphic novels have been gaining respect. Jonathan Lethem has a graphic novel out. Michael Chabon published The Escapist, which came out of his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The thing I like most about graphic-novel readers is they are really passionate."

In the future, Johnson said he's likely to juggle conventional fiction, graphic novels, teaching and raising his family — he's brought a wife and three children with him to Houston.

And somewhat to his surprise, he'll be making a home here in Texas.

"Before I moved, I was teaching at Bard College in upstate New York and wasn't at all certain I was going to like Houston. I heard it was hot and there wasn't much of a literary scene. But there's a lot more here than I initially thought — writers and artists especially. It's affordable to live."

And he added, "The people here are genuinely nice."

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