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03.12.08

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Phaedra

Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery

By Richard von Busack


It is the 1920s, and in the American South, lynchings are a regular occurrence. A brave but artistically thwarted crusading reporter for the New Holland Herald, Zane Pinchback, infiltrates the mob and reports on the murders to his readership in Harlem. This Harlem Renaissance man's witty nom de plume is "Incognegro." Pinchback's special power is an accident of birth: he's so light-skinned he can cross the color line without being detected. On his latest assignment, Zane is tangled in a Tupelo, Miss., murder case: a bootlegger's woman found on a hillside with her face blown off. The twist: the accused—slated to be a guest of honor at the next Saturday-night necktie party—is someone from Zane's past. And many members of the community don't want the full story revealed. Warren Pleece's handsome black-and-white graphics—simple, linear and unfussy—complement Johnson's sturdy storytelling. The downside: this graphic novel is flawed by the occasional anachronism in slang ("scumbag," is a real 1970s word) and by comic-book clichés, too. Zane's editor screams as if he were J. Jonah Jameson putting Peter Parker in his place, instead of a black editor addressing his most popular and daring reporter. Otherwise, Johnson demonstrates that he knows the period, including bits of KKK minutiae. The hero bears a most significant name: P.B.S. Pinchback was a biracial journalist and politician of the Reconstruction. And Zane's buddy Carl—a look-alike for Duke Ellington—gulls the Southern locals by pretending to be a British milord, just like the never to be forgotten Lord Buckley. I'm heading out to go get Johnson's earlier works, The Great Negro Plot, about the slave rebellion of 1741; the novel Drop; and a 2005 graphic novel spin-off of the Papa Midnight character from Hellblazer. And maybe Johnson will give us more Incognegro later on; Johnson has achieved what any mystery writer wants: a character who could really go sequelward. (By Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece; Vertigo; 136 pages; $19.99 hardback)


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