Incognegro by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece

incognegroIncognegro, set in the early 20th century, amidst segregation and racial violence, is the story of Zane Pinchback, a light skinned black man, able to pass as white, who goes undercover to report on lynchings in the South.

It is brutal. It’s a graphic mystery, so it was a quick read, but the plot definitely took second place to the horror depicted. In panel after panel, there is brutal and outright racism, graphic depictions of lynch mobs and lynchings, non-lethal but horrific violence toward black people, racial slurs, creepy depictions of the Klan…it just goes on.

Reading this, I felt similar to how I felt reading March–the graphic form heightens the emotional impact of the story because it bombards you from so many directions. It’s a visual as well as a narrative attack. It makes this book hard to read, but it also serves a purpose: it forces you to face the violence of the story in a visceral way.

I’ve been thinking a lot about visual storytelling as I’ve gotten more and more interested in comics, and Incognegro is a great example of a story perfectly fitted to its form. The visuals make it claustrophobic. Everything about the setting feels inescapable. Zane Pinchback, who is pretending to be white among Klansman and outright racists, is in a state of constant danger for his life. It was impossible not to feel that, taking in the story visually.

I wasn’t wowed by the story itself–or, more specifically, by the plot. But that didn’t feel especially important. For me, this book was more of an immersion than a story–an immersion into a brutal and terrible part of American history. The plot was secondary to an exploration of the American racism–both outright and subtle–that still informs far too much of our society.

I read the original 2008 edition, but a new 10th anniversary edition just came out, with an afterward by Mat Johnson, additional materials, and enhanced art. It’s definitely worth the read.

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