When I read the solicitations for Dark Horse’s re-release of Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery, I was instantly intrigued. Written by Mat Johnson and illustrated by Warren Pleece, Incognegro stars a light-skinned biracial journalist named Zane Pinchback who passes as white in order to report on and expose the culripts of lynchings across the south during the 1930s. In the novel, Zane (with the help of his friend Carl) heads to Missisisppi in order to save the life of his brother, who has been accused of murdering a white woman. It’s a heavy premise ripe with opportunity for exploration of racism in America, but is the finalized novel good?
The writing throughout most of Incognegro is strong. Zane and Carl are both great characters, and their dialogue and narration are fantastic. Johnson frequently touches on race, racism, and the concept of passing in poignant ways. One notable scene involves Zane staring at his own image in the mirror while he dons what he dubs his disguise. Though he straightens his hair and changes clothes, it’s abundantly clear that there’s more to the act of passing than just altering one’s appearance. Zane reflects on how it’s his light-skinned appearance that enables him to pass in the first place, and that said ability comes with heavy historical baggage (namely, the rape of slave women by their masters). This scene takes place early on, and is important in setting the novel’s tone. Zane acts heroically, but his “costume” is not like that of Superman or other traditional comic book figures. The novel’s exploration of how identity can be both innate to oneself and outwardly defined by other people’s perceptions strikes right at the heart of the tense subject matter.
Incognegro is dubbed “a graphic mystery” and in some ways it wears that title well. When the pacing is at its best, the panels are perfect. Chapter one, for instance, ends with a shot of Zane walking toward the reader, oblivious that the man behind him is about to strike the back of his head with a chair. Pleece does a really good job composing pivotal shots like this, and when he’s at his best he sharpens the story’s pacing successfully. Unfortunately, the novel’s second half isn’t paced as effectively. This is largely due to the speed with which major plot events are revealed. It’s hard to feel invested in a succession of twists when each one gets unveiled before the reader has a chance to digest the one that came before it. As a result, the novel’s narrative seems to spiral toward the conclusion too rapidly for the experience to remain entirely enjoyable.
Pacing issues aside, Incognegro’s second half still has some great moments. This is largely due to Pleece’s character work. When the facial expressions are at their best they capture specific emotional moments perfectly. Without entering spoiler territory, there is a pivotal scene involving Carl that is just gut-wrenching. The art’s main downsides occur when faces get rendered in less detail, and thus lose their ability to convey instantly recognizable motivations and reactions. These issues further hinder the already weak falling action, as we get several pages of less effectively rendered characters standing around and discussing rushed plot events.
Overall, Incognegro is a solid read that I would recommend to anyone. Johnson and Pleece handle the heavy subject matter artfully, and there’s a lot of poignant character analysis here. This is further helped by art that, when at its best, truly makes the characters and their world feel painfully alive. Unfortunately, the novel’s second half is significantly hindered by pacing issues and an inconsistency of detail in the artwork. Nonetheless, this graphic novel isn’t one to be missed.