Covering Cinema From All Across The African Diaspora

Book Review - 'Incognero' (A Graphic Novel)

I just finished reading Mat Johnson's graphic novel, Incognegro, about African American life in the early 20th Century, when lynchings were commonplace throughout the American South, and a few courageous reporters from the North risked their lives to expose these atrocities - African-American men who, due to their light skin color, could "pass" among the white folks. They called this going "incognegro" hence the novels title.

In the graphic novel, Zane Pinchback, a reporter for a New York-based newspaper, is sent to investigate the arrest of his own brother, charged with the brutal murder of a white woman in Mississippi. In order to achieve that end goal, Zane has to stay "incognegro" long enough to uncover the truth behind the murder in order to save his brother - and himself.

I was mildly disappointed with this actually. It's a rather simplistic presentation of historical record, but maybe that was intentional... I don't know. It's a graphic novel, so it's not a novel in the traditional sense, therefore, maybe I'm not supposed to expect anything deeply profound, rich, nor complex form it. Although I'm sure other graphic novel enthusiasts would beg to differ! Not that Incognegro is entirely lacking those specific traits, but it felt rather empty, despite the substantial subject it set out to tackle.

Mat Johnson is an award-winning novelist, so maybe this was just a pleasant momentary distraction - something different to do, unlike a straightforward literary novel. At least, that's what it felt like to me. I haven't read any of his novels, like Hunting in Harlem, but trusted sources have had very good things to say about him, so I have no doubt that he is as advertised.

Maybe I picked up the wrong work to acquaint myself with the man's writing, and I should have started with what he's best known for. Recently, I've become hungry for graphic novels (as well as comicbooks) that tell stories about black people regardless of time and location, so learning about Incognegro, the graphic novel by an author of his percieved caliber, excited me. Maybe my expectations were a bit too high from the moment I opened up the book's from cover.

It's not a bad read - far from it. It's just that there's a kind of levity to it that I didn't expect, which made any moments of gravity (and there were less of them) seem obviously deliberate and out of place.

Like I said initially, it's a graphic novel, and maybe I'm not the target audience for it. Johnson's intent may have been to tell this particular story in a format and language that today's youth will be able to connect to relatively easily, especially inspired by the birth of his children. If my assumption is correct, that's fine, I suppose. However, there are some rather complicated themes and gruesome scenes within the text that would need to be explained to a generation Y-er, with much more depth than his graphic novel provides.

My thinking - if you're going to write about something as labyrinthine as this, give it the coverage and tone it deserves or don't write about it at all.

So, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it. On one hand, I champion the writer for dancing outside of his comfort zone and attempting to teach a complicated history lesson in a medium not really known for dealing with such subjects. On the other hand, I think the piece is too thin, lacking in complexity, and sometimes unecessarily resorts to what feel like trite storytelling gimmicks that left me perplexed. There's a tonal inconsistency running throughout, which I found problematic given the issues it tackles.

I'll likely read it again for a second time. Maybe it'll register differently with me then. Maybe not.

For now, I'll stick to me intial observations... not bad, but not good enough to strongly recommend either. It's a short read at 136 pages, taking me about 2 hours to get through it - almost like an appetizer for something grander still to come.

If anyone else has read it, please do share your thoughts. Maybe I missed the boat entirely on this one, and need to be enlightened.

You can check it out yourself here: INCOGNEGRO THE GRAPHIC NOVEL.


  1. Ferocious Kitty said...

    I reviewed this for 3BC:

    Btw, that's Mat on the cover. ;-)

  2. Ferocious Kitty said...

    I would say that the thinness of the story has to do with the limitations of graphic novel format more than anything else.

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