Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Identity politics

I admit I've been a little slow to embrace the graphic format. Somewhere deep down, the term "comic book" is lurking and, with it, the idea that comic books are not real books. Of course, thanks to Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, we know that, in fact, comic books often have a most positive influence on the lives of young people. Still, the prejudice lingers. Never mind that Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for Maus: A Survivor's Tale (originally published in 1986) or that all the book clubs are reading Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. Books are books and graphic novels are ... well, something else.

So it was only recently that I had to call on my second hand to count the number of graphic works I had read. Yep, number 6. That's as far as I've come. But this one had such an interesting back story, I just had to check it out.

Mat Johnson, the author of Incognegro, is a self-described "white-looking" African American. When he was growing up and feeling unhappily different, he wished his appearance could be put to use, that he could somehow serve as a "race spy" in the war against white supremacy. He later forgot those fantasies until his college days, when he learned about Walter White, the former head of the NAACP, who, in the early days of the twentieth century, went undercover, posing as a white man, to investitgate and expose the lynchings taking place in the South. That was when Incognegro began to take shape in Johnson's mind. Then, he reports, in 2005, his twins were born: one brown-skinned and one palest pink. "Two people with the exact same ethnic lineage destined to be viewed differently only because of genetic randomness. From there the story found itself."

The story begins with a narrow escape for the reporter who is publishing his "Incognegro" articles on lynching in a Harlem newspaper. Though he believes the work he is doing matters, he also longs for recognition, to see his real name in print. And, as a witness to lynching, he knows full well the price he will pay if ever apprehended. He resolves to give up the undercover life when news comes that makes it imperative that he become 'incognegro" one more time.

This is fast-paced and gripping historical fiction. The artwork is black and white, with a chiaroscuro effect which serves the bleak subject matter well. I did sometimes get a little confused, the characters seemed to look much alike and I found myself flipping back the pages, thinking, I'm sure that was an African-American, but now it seems like it's someone else and

I got it! Incognegro, written by Mat Johnson, drawn by Warren Pleece and offered to the reader in the only possible way: a real book in graphic format. Check it out - it's at your library!

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