Incognegro: Renaissance #1
Mat Johnson (Writer), Warren Pleece (Artist), Clem Robins (Letterer)
Dark Horse Comics
7 February, 2018
2018 celebrates the 10th anniversary of the original Incognegro graphic novel, the hard-hitting story about an African-American journalist who uses his light complexion to go incognito among white people and uncover the truth behind the murders of people of colour.
In celebration of the anniversary, Dark Horse Comics has released a prequel mini-series to the graphic novel by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece, Incognegro: Renaissance.
Set in the roaring 20s, Renaissance’s protagonist Zane Pinchback is a cub reporter trying to make his way up the journalism ladder. His friend, bartender Carl, is taking him along to a dinner party hosted by literary legend Arna Van Horn. Pinchback is to cover the event and the launch of Van Horn’s new book for his local newspaper. When they enter the party, both Pinchback and Carl are taken aback by the racially diverse guests. As rare as that sight is, what amazes the pair is the relative calm among the guests, considering the host, Van Horn, is a white man. For Pinchback, this is a particular surprise, considering he grew up in the intolerant American South.
Carl has been invited by Xavier, a writer who has worked with Van Horn. Xavier is the life of the party, but Pinchback soon realises Xavier holds a great deal of resentment towards Van Horn. It turns out Van Horn’s latest book is set in Harlem. The research for the book was done mainly by Xavier, who isn’t being given the credit he is due.
While Pinchback tries to do his job among these strange surroundings, something happens that will change the way he perceives the world he lives in – a black man is murdered at the party. The only clue is a manuscript, partially destroyed by water damage, and a beautiful woman who refuses to answer questions. Pinchback must get to the bottom of the truth, even if he has to pretend to be a white man to do it.
Considering the mess that 2017 turned out to be for race relations on a global scale, Incognegro: Renaissance has been released at the perfect time. By looking at racial inequality through the eyes of a protagonist who can occupy both worlds, the comic gives readers a unique perspective into events. And, different perspectives are just what the world needs right now.
What a lot of comics often try, and fail, to do when focusing on race relations is to acknowledge the micro-aggressions that people of colour face. Fortunately, with Mat Johnson, a writer of colour at the helm, this comic gets it right. When a policeman approaches Pinchback and Carl, Carl immediately alerts his friend and the two pause their conversation to politely greet the officer. It is a very short, tense moment in the comic but so relevant in the current climate in the USA.
Later, when Carl leaves Pinchback and Xavier to get acquainted, Xavier tells Pinchback that Van Horn is one of many white men who has come to Harlem “to steal”, and alludes to the cultural appropriation by white musicians, artists and writers. Van Horn’s new book is written on the back of research by African-Americans from Harlem. But, it is when he, and his publisher, refuse to respect the people they are writing about, that things get ugly.
The condescension of some of the white guests, fleetingly shown, is painful to read but also very true to life. The policemen who arrive later in the book are more interested in protecting the interests of the white guests, rather than solving the mystery behind the death of a man of colour. Minute provocations pepper the panels; it is the combination of such provocations that lead to Pinchback’s final decision to do something about the death of a man he hardly knew. The murder is the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The set-up of this first issue is mysterious and intriguing. Pinchback is a fitting protagonist – he has a strong moral centre but is reluctant to get involved. His ‘power’, as Carl describes it, to straddle both worlds is one he never asked for, nor does he want to use it. The reluctant hero is usually the most compelling and Pinchback shows great promise as the series lead.
As a prequel, Renaissance is well on its way to setting up the events of Incognegro. It has already begun to lay the foundations for what drives Pinchback to go undercover, often at great risk to himself. The fire and brimstone Pinchback we know from the original graphic novel must have been motivated somehow, and this prequel series shows us the beginning of his change.
However, readers coming into this series need not have prior knowledge of Incognegro, as Renaissance stands on its own. One does not need to have met these characters before to understand their circumstances and their motivations. In fact, if not for the cliffhanger at the end of the issue, this book could easily have been a self-contained story.
The art is similar to the graphic novel from ten years ago, but I would have liked a bit more detailing in the characters’ faces, such as the original novel had. Almost all the characters have elongated faces here, which gives them a sort of distorted look but, I understand that it is the artist’s stylistic choice. I also would have liked for this series to have been in colour but I assume it remained black and white for consistency’s sake.
The first issue of Incognegro: Renaissance is packed with mystery and intrigue but what makes it such a gripping read is its uncompromising look at the racial divide that continues to haunt the world. This is already shaping up to be an excellent murder mystery with a real-world twist.