With a highly evocative setting, great dialogue and a compelling protagonist, “Incognergo: Renaissance” #2 is a timely and topical look at racial identity, with a hardboiled twist. (Warning: contains minor spoilers).
Written by Mat Johnson
Illustrated by Warren Pleece
Lettered by Clem Robins
Cub reporter Zane Pinchback almost witnessed a murder. Now, the only true witness thinks he’s the prime suspect. What could she be hiding? Zane will have to go ”incognegro” and sneak into a Harlem jazz club to track down the truth. In a time when looks could kill . . . Zane’s skin is the only thing keeping him alive.
Fictitious African American reporter Zane Pinchback made his first appearance ten years ago in the original graphic novel “Incognegro.” Set in the 1930s, that book centers on Pinchback’s ability to pass, or move through the world as a white man. Using his pale complexion to pose as a white journalist, he travels from New York to Mississippi to investigate the brutal murder of a white woman, a crime that has implicated his darker skinned brother.
It’s a fascinating look at privilege, access, power, and the construct of race artfully wrapped in a murder-mystery with historical fiction overtones and occasionally pulpy, hardboiled tropes. Now, a full decade later, in a decidedly post-Obama, thoroughly Trumpian world in which virtually every aspect of the bodies we inhabit and the public space we occupy seems to be hyper-racialized, the unique perspective of a protagonist who can and does move freely between two distinct racial identities feels more vital than ever.
Interestingly, while the real world has moved forward in time since Pinchback first appeared, this series is a sort of prequel, exploring a younger, more naive iteration of the original character. In fact, this version of Zane Pinchback is still very much finding his way, grappling uneasily with his ability to use his racial ambiguity to move between very different worlds. Upping the ante even further, the story is set in 1920s, in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, when the younger Pinchback is still a lowly cub reporter working for the New Holland Herald. Narratively, it’s a brilliant dynamic and writer Mat Johnson mines it for everything it’s worth, mixing straightforward drama, biting humor and pathos to brilliant effect. Yes, there is a dead body. Yes, there are leads to follow, clues to be uncovered and a mystery to be solved, but the real story lies within the notion passing, or “code switching,” to use a similar, but more modern term. And the effect is utterly gripping.
One moment, this phenomenon yields a troubling exchange full of palpable unease and discomfort. The next minute, the scene is bitterly comedic and scathing. When Pinchback tells a prominent white book editor which newspaper he’s with, for example, the editor derisively calls it “one of those little darkie rags,” dismissively adding moments later, “we only talk to the real press.” When Pinchback’s black friend Carl helps him to get ready to go to the Cotton Club in search of a white female witness who may yield a crucial clue, however, Carl commands, “You got to get that strut under control . . . . Head up, no sway! Buttocks in! Not white enough!” concluding sarcastically once Pinchback is fully dressed for a night on the town, “I feel like you about to raise my rent just looking at you.” It’s the tension within – and between – these moments that fuels Johnson’s narrative, making us acutely aware of Pinchback’s continually fluctuating role as he continually morphs from one version of himself to another.
Visually, artist Warren Pleece’s grayscale illustrations are simultaneously lush and realistic, with great attention to detail that very much roots the story in a well-defined time and place. Harlem’s distinct brownstones, as well as the iconic Cotton Club, are rendered simply and cleanly, but with an unmistakable style and understated elegance. Pleece’s character designs are similarly clear-cut and effective: simple but never boring. One glance at a character’s hairstyle, skin tone, wardrobe and facial expressions and we find ourselves quickly assessing who they might be and where they might come from, much like our protagonist as he tries to navigate the various social situations and public spaces in which he finds himself.Continued below
Ultimately, in terms of the paneling and composition, the visual storytelling is remarkably straightforward. There are no bells and whistles; no gimmicks or splash pages. Then again, that’s the point. The story flows with ease, letting the dialogue shine and work on multiple levels. In fact, I don’t think there’s any exposition or other narration apart from the dialogue. Everything unfolds right before our eyes. As a result, the story feels highly immersive, deeply personal and often quite unsettling, such as when a stranger unabashedly drops the N-word in casual conversation with Pinchback, callously othering someone he believes to be outside of the duo’s select racial group.
That, right there, is the power of Mat Johnson’s story structure. It could be merely voyeuristic, but it’s not. Instead, it’s a look behind the curtain, a peeling back of the veil, a glimpse at the inner workings of discreet, cloistered worlds that often remain hidden from “the outside world,” whoever that may be. With Pinchback as our guide, we are able to transcend these boundaries and travel back and forth, experiencing these various worlds from his perspective and it’s a fascinating view. Not to mention the fact, there’s still a murder to solve.
Final Verdict: 8.6 – Though it’s deeply rooted in the Harlem Renaissance almost 100 years ago, “Incognegro: Renaissance” #2 is a timely and topical exploration of race in America told through the lens of a murder mystery.