Posted by: Brian Hibbs on March 1, 2008
I had reasonably high hopes for this one, but the result is pretty much the definition of a bad movie pitch in the form of a graphic novel.
The premise of Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery is very loosely based on the experiences of Walter Francis White, the executive secretary of the NAACP from 1931 to 1955, who passed for Caucasian–he was blond and blue-eyed–which meant that he could collect information on the KKK and lynchings, at a great deal of personal risk. (White wrote what sounds like a fascinating book of reportage about lynching, with the hasn’t-aged-well title Rope and Faggot; it’s worth reading both some horrifying letters from Time readers about a review of it and White’s deadpan response.) SPOILERS FOLLOW, got it?
The story, though, turns a potentially interesting premise into a bludgeoningly far-fetched potboiler. Zane Pinchback, the White stand-in here, decides to go out for one last lynching exposé to rescue his darker-skinned twin brother, who’s been charged with murdering a white woman in Mississippi. (The story is set at a time that the narrator describes on the first page as “now, since the beginning of the ’30s,” but would appear to be before the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.) Zane heads down from New York with a comedy-relief friend who might as well be wearing a bright red shirt reading “I AM GOING TO DIE VIOLENTLY SOMETIME AROUND THE END OF THE SECOND ACT THANKS TO A CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY,” investigates, and discovers that things are Not What They Seem. The allegedly dead woman was actually his brother’s lover, but actually the body dressed up in her clothes wasn’t hers at all, but belonged to a sheriff’s deputy who was actually a woman “pretending to be a man so she could live without limitations.” It’s all about the theme of Passing DO YOU SEE.
Also, at some point someone seems to have decided that, for a story in which color and skin tone are all-important, it would be perversely appropriate for the artwork to be black and white with no tones (and almost no cross-hatching to indicate shade). As it turns out, it’s just perverse. It might work if Pleece were much, much better at drawing facial features, but Zane and Alonzo, who are supposed to be identifiably brothers but have very different skin colors, both have vaguely defined features and identical skin colors on the page. Johnson’s dialogue is as creaky as his plot (“That weren’t no angel. ‘Least not the kind that comes from above“), and Pleece’s artwork is much too stiff and brittle to mask the creaks. So, yeah, Awful, I’m afraid. But it’s already been optioned as a movie, so mission accomplished.