By EDWARD NAWOTKA
Special to the Journal Sentinel
Posted: April 12, 2008
Incognegro. By Mat Johnson. DC/Vertigo. $19.99.
In 1959 Dallas journalist John Howard Griffin darkened his skin and traveled through Louisiana and Mississippi, passing himself off as an African-American for six weeks. His resulting 1961 book, "Black Like Me," reminded America of racism that was then endemic to the South.
Griffin wasn't the first journalist to conceive of the idea of passing oneself off as a member of a different race for the sake of the story.
From 1918-'28 NAACP activist Walter White went undercover to investigate lynchings and race riots across the country.
Though African-American, White's blond hair and blue eyes gave him the appearance of a Caucasian, a trait he used 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 became the inspiration for author Mat Johnson's latest project, the graphic novel "Incognegro," published by Vertigo (a division of DC Comics).
"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, when 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 the news that the man scheduled to hang for the crime is Zane's own darker-skinned brother.
If this sounds like the set-up for a preachy history lesson, fear not. Instead, 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, a family of separatist hillbillies fomenting a religious race war, and simple-minded ignorance and greed.
Johnson is best known as a prose writer. The author of two novels, "Drop" (2000) and "Hunting in Harlem" (2004), as well as the novella, "The Great Negro Plot" (2007), he's also no novice at penning graphic novels, having already published a short run of comics starring Papa Midnite, a character developed from the Hellblazer series, in 1995.
Referring to Incognegro, Johnson remarks, "I've been preparing to write this particular story all my life." Like Zane, he is often confused for being 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." He so closely identified with the main character that Vertigo took a portrait of Johnson for the cover photo.
As it happens, the Incognegro character and the graphic novel form - which is most often associated with superhero characters - are perfectly matched. In the panel drawings, done in black and white by UK artist Warren Pleece, the African-American and Caucasian characters are not shaded differently to indicate race. The drawings still manage, through efficient visual shorthand (hair and clothing styles), to comment on racial and, in particular, class difference - something that would require long, descriptive prose passages to convey in a conventional novel.