Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Review - Incognegro: Renaissance #1 (@DarkHorseComics)


"So, we're just going to walk into this white man's house? And you're sure I'm invited? Better yet--are you even invited?"

Believe it or not, racism is still around. For all the strides that individuals such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln made in improving race relations, there are those who are insistent on tearing things apart and just being bloviating, racist, misogynists in general who just so happen to be President of the United States. There's still plenty of room for a story like Incognegro: Renaissance #1 from Dark Horse Comics to serve as a reminder that we've got a long way to go. The issue is written by Mat Johnson, illustrated by Warren Pleece and lettered by Clem Robins.

After a black writer is found dead at a scandalous interracial party in 1920s New York, Harlem's cub reporter Zane Pinchback is the only one determined to solve the murder. Zane must go ''incognegro'' for the first time--using his light appearance to pass as a white man--to find the true killer, in this prequel miniseries to the critically acclaimed Vertigo graphic novel, now available in a special new 10th Anniversary Edition. With a cryptic manuscript as his only clue, and a mysterious and beautiful woman as the murder's only witness, Zane finds himself on the hunt through the dark and dangerous streets of ''roaring twenties'' Harlem in search for justice.

The premise that an African-American reporter is light-skinned enough that he could pass as Caucasian is seemingly outlandish upon first glance, yet Johnson knows how to make it work. Much of Zane Pinchback's "ability" is contextualized within a party in the 1920s thrown by a rich, white novelist with a penchant for exploiting the African-American condition and Johnson uses that to his advantage. The entire issue is Johnson's way to remind the reader that racial equality is a nice idea that's flawed in its execution, primarily because Caucasian's can never seem to forego their sense of entitlement and superiority. Johnson could easily let Incognegro: Renaissance #1 devolve into a full-throated treatise on how races are treated by one another, but instead he more subtly presents a subset of the notion through the eyes Zane and how an African-American writer's death is trivialized because of the setting. The majority of the dialogue in the issue achieves this with startling efficiency as Johnson rather effortlessly sets the scene and enforces the narrative by emphasizing the discrepancies in how races are treated.

Illustrating the book in black and white is a fantastic move by Pleece as it further establishes the atmosphere for both the readers and the characters. It also adds a thinly veiled message in that it while even though the issue is black and white the nuances differentiating African-Americans from Caucasians is anything but. Pleece knows and appreciates this fact, defining the characters with familiar aspects of genealogy that ensures the reader can easily see who's slighting whom and better understand the problems that come along with discrimination. Pleece's panel layouts are very clean and formal, providing a simple means of allowing the reader to keep up with the party. And there's an old-school sensibility to the work when looking at Pleece's absence of color and the lettering by Robins.

There's a part of you as a reader who really wants to read Incognegro: Renaissance #1 and appreciate that it's a historic look at a time in this country's history when racial equality was a pipe dream before becoming a reality. Sadly, Incognegro: Renaissance #1 and what Zane Pinchback has to go through is just as relevant now as it was in the 1920s. Johnson's script is very cutting in its assessment of the situation in the sense that differences in individuals are emphasized as a shortcoming of others. Pleece's artwork is a great match for both the story and the era it's set in, rather brilliantly putting the reader in both the right place and time. Incognegro: Renaissance #1 is an origin story of sorts that doesn't require the reader to have any knowledge of the main players beforehand; rather, the issue (and presumably series) will stand on its own as a reminder that even though some like to think we're all created equal there are those who don't really believe that notion at all.

Incognegro: Renaissance #1 is available February 7.

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