Mat Johnson’s graphic novel Incognegro can be recommended to anyone who likes a good mystery, a great thriller or an excellent historical novel — or all three at once. The hero, Zane Pinchback, is a black man so light-skinned that he’s able to pass for white in the Depression-era South. As a journalist for the New Holland Herald in Harlem, Pinchback is able to investigate lynchings and even gull the participants into telling him their names and addresses, which he prints in the Herald under the nom de voyage Incognegro.
Johnson’s story, which gets as twisty as anything imagined by Chester Himes or Raymond Chandler, takes him to Tupelo, Mississippi, and a murder case that’s likely to provide some down-home entertainment for the local rednecks. Johnson’s ambition to ring as many changes as possible on the theme of “passing” for something or someone else starts to weigh things down a bit toward the end — after two readings I still find the central revelation borders on the incomprehensible — but the story stays tense and exciting, and Warren Pleece’s noirish artwork is perfectly suited to the narrative.
As a bonus, Incognegro introduced me to the exploits of Walter Francis White, an investigator for the NAACP of unfathomable courage, who actually did travel the South to gather information on lynchings. White deserves to be more widely known, and Incognegro deserves to be widely read.