INCOGNEGRO RENAISSANCE #1 / Writer: Mat Johnson / Artist: Warren Pleece / Letterer: Clem Robbins / Publisher: Berger Books / Feb 7th, 2018
Greetings true believers, Dexter the Drunk Comics Fan here. In the world of comics in 2018 it can seem to many that comics are no longer a form of escapism. Many fans are often critical of the medium’s themes of real-world politics, and there is an ongoing debate as to whether this is a new practice or has always existed. Regardless of where the truth may lie (likely somewhere in the middle), I personally enjoy stories that reflect and even dissect real-world issues, be they past or present. As such I was immediately drawn to a particular rag on the shelf today at my local comics store.
Incognegro Renaissance advertises itself as a Harlem murder mystery, but underneath that surface lies a deeper commentary on race from the perspective of its central protagonist, Zane Pinchback, a black man of a deceptive skin tone for the white characters of this story. Incognegro Renaissance takes place in Roaring Twenties New York, and writer Mat Johnson wastes little time immersing the reader into the world. Johnson also does not mince words on the views of race from both black and white characters.
Immediately thrusting the reader into the setting, Johnson introduces us to Zane as he accompanies his friend Carl to a party for a socialite and novelist Arna Van Horn, whose new book title I will allow to be a surprise for any potential readers for what will become obvious reasons. Carl introduces Zane to Xavier Harris, who refers to himself as Van Horn’s “Harlem research assistant.” Xavier questions Zane about his white skin tone and why he doesn’t pass for white in order to further his career, to which Zane replies “because I love who I am, and I’m not a traitor. Besides, you can’t have a career about telling the truth based on a lie.”
This is how Johnson presents the central themes of Incognegro in this prequel to a 2008 graphic novel published by Vertigo. Van Horn is portrayed as a writer coasting on mediocrity and theft of ideas from the black community. Xavier explains to Zane how he introduced Van Horn to “the best parties, the best people. I was the host. He was the parasite.” Much of this is lost on Zane , who’s seemingly star struck by being in the presence of the man who penned Firebomb, which Xavier explains was a long time ago.
Spurned by his experience with Van Horn and seemingly taken by drink, Xavier interrupts a speech by the party’s host and begins making a scene until he is pulled away by a mysterious woman who another as-yet unknown character intimates to Zane is a failed actress who “steals negroes like she wishes she could steal scenes.” From there we are treated to a scene of another partygoer mistaking Zane for a fellow white, Carl claiming to be in love with a woman he has walked home, and a room of guests singing “April Showers” before the ceiling collapses under the weight of a torrent of water which soaks folks and the piano alike.
This is where our murder mystery finally begins. Zane races up the stairs to find Xavier floating in a bathtub, wrists slit, and his manuscript soaked with the words faded into a grey nothingness. As police arrive and begin questioning guests it is made clear that they suspect no foul play and are more concerned about why blacks were allowed into the party to congregate with whites. Despite his clear skepticism of the situation Zane rebuffs Carl’s suggestion that this could be his opportunity for a real story, and he reiterates Xavier’s earlier mentioning of his ability to pass for a white writer and be published. As he leaves the party, Zane catches sight of the mysterious woman once again and tries to flag her down but is clipped by the car she climbs into as it speeds off, leaving him and Xavier’s manuscript spread across the pavement of a Harlem street on a dark, cold night.
Incognegro Renaissance is a social commentary wrapped masterfully into a murder mystery. Its characters are presented with clear and distinct identities, and its setting and themes are deftly laid out for the reader in a manner that is in no way subtle but manages to not feel heavy-handed. Johnson has a clear attachment to Pinchback yet allows the character to be as complex and flawed as the rest of the supporting cast. Coupled with the art of Warren Pleece, whose work feels reminiscent of Charlie Adlard’s on The Walking Dead, the panels carry you across this tale of a young writer surrounded by old money, corruption, egos, and malice. If you’re looking for a new series to jump on board with I highly recommend this release from Berger Books, a new line of creator-owned books helmed Karen Berger, previously of DC’s Vertigo line.
On the reverse sliding six pack scale I give it 1 beer, and only because I never leave a beer half drunk.
Verdict 4.5 out of 5, would dance the Charleston again.
Dexter Buschetelli thinks he is really clever, but you know better; don’t you? Do you? I dunno, I’m not your mom. Dexter can be found here on DYECB writing reviews and opinion pieces as well as on the website for his podcast, Let’s Get Drunk and Talk Comics.