By Clyde Hall. In preparing this review, I first had to ask, “Is empathy enough?” As a white, male comic book fan of the Boomer generation, raised in a part of America where the Mason-Dixon line is truly an imaginary boundary, I might not be the ideal candidate. Would my view truly reflect reader reactions to the work, no matter that reader’s race or ethnic background? Especially an African-American reader? And herein lies the power of Incognegro: Renaissance. Because I’ve seldom asked these questions as earnestly or felt the need to work so intently to broaden my critical perspective until this book.
The first issue portrays a New York long past, at a time when racial inequality was a given, but we already know about that. It mirrors modern issues, but we’ve come to expect that, too. It’s the way writer Mat Johnson revisits the era and organically incorporates these elements into the story that sets it apart. In the original Vertigo series, Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery, beyond the simmering emotional turmoil of an African-American journalist ‘passing’ to get at the ugly, unvarnished truth behind mainstream news facades, Johnson constructed a terrific whodunit. In his first installment of Renaissance, he’s set up a completely different but no less intriguing mystery. It’s a prequel, so protagonist Zane Pinchback is not the seasoned investigative reporter we’ve seen before. Instead, this is the case that sets his eventual course.
Soon after his arrival in the Big Apple, Zane becomes involved in the death of another black writer, Xavier Harris, amidst a gala book launch for a renowned white author past his prime. The latter’s comeback novel is about life in Harlem, the event attended by a cross section of socialites, intellectuals, and revelers from north and south of Central Park, an assortment of suspects after the victim causes a scene.
Voicing his frustration that the struggles of a black neighborhood can only be marketed by a Caucasian writer while his own work goes unpublished, Harris also voices to Zane the irony of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s rich in African-American musical and artistic expression yet pilfered by white composers copying the jazz sound, and white artists lifting African aesthetics to promote their own ‘inventive’ styles. When Harris is discovered drowned in a bathtub at the party, the establishment is content it’s a suicide, meant to spite the host on his big night. Even an inexperienced reporter like Zane, however, notices inconsistencies with that theory, and the game is afoot.
Johnson reunites his creative team from the first graphic novel, namely artist Warren Pleece and letterer Clem Robins, and their collaborative skills have not diminished. Pleece’s style is a monochrome photo album of the period. Combined with Johnson’s unwavering, achingly honest prose, they construct a portal into a world where Gatsby pursues his Daisy, while Myrtle Wilson becomes collateral damage left broken and lifeless along a debris-strewn road.
Johnson doesn’t mince words, a crisp eloquence resonating through his dialogues whether it’s Harris railing against a maddening, marginalizing system, or Zane calling for official inquiry into his death, or Zane’s best friend, Carl, begging the young reporter to do the right thing rather than the honest one. His narrative outlines the injustices, the tragedies, the meanness of an era celebrating black culture while simultaneously robbing it. It’s a hero’s journey through a dangerous minefield of mores and social immobility to give Odysseus pause.
Reading the first issue, anyone can find in Zane Pinchback a very relatable hero. Not a fearless one, not an altruistic one, a very human one with talent, ambition, and the will to overcome trepidation for the truth. And just as in Fitzgerald’s depiction of the Jazz Age, that truth is never guaranteed to be convenient or gilded, nor its pursuit without sacrifice and heartache. But in the fading luster of pretense and the waning cheapness of veneer, it’s the only enduring treasure. This book has a solid twenty-four karat heart.
Dark Horse Comics/Berger Books/$3.99
Written by Mat Johnson.
Art by Warren Pleece.
Letters by Clem Robins.
Edited by Karen Berger.
9.5 out of 10
Check out this four-page preview of ‘Incognegro: Renaissance’ #1, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics and Berger Books!