Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Going Incognegro

I'm a big fan of the comic book, or of what the slightly higher-brow of us would call the graphic novel. Anyone who poo-poos the comic book as a medium for rotting kids' brains, well, they've obviously never read them and are poisoned by the homophobic rantings of Fredric Wertham. On my shelf is a small collection of graphic novels that are theologically relevant (we own more than 2,000 in all, but this collection has less than 30 titles in it as of yet), ranging from Preacher (and ER, you might like this one, it's a Suothern-fried commentary on the fundamentalist view of God, done in a style that's a cross between Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and Kill Bill) to A Contract With God by graphic novel granddaddy Will Eisner to Art Spiegelman's Maus, a biography of a Holocaust survivor and first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.

So I have to say that I'm really excited about reading Incognegro by Mat Johnson. Incognegro is the story of a biracial African American man, Zane Pinchback, who goes undercover as a caucasian to investigate black lynchings in the American South. The idea for the novel comes from Johnson's life:

"Well, I grew up ethnically and racially black, but looking white. The other pieces came to me: learning about Walter White, the birth of my twins, one of which looks more European, the other more African. ... It just seemed like a natural story to tell. And I always wanted this hero to be out there. Someone just like me, who turned what many see as an oddity into something priceless." (from interview at Racialicious)

I read a teaser page for Incognegro in the latest Jack of Fables (which is another fun series, spun off from the widly imaginative Fables by Bill Willingham). It depicted the aftermath of a lynching, the moment in which the men involved would line up to get their picture taken with the body (I realize this is a very link-happy post, but if you follow one link today, follow that one. It heads to a site for a book called Without Sanctuary by James Allen that shows this terrible part of our history. Watch the Flash movie. Note, fellow Oklahomans, how many of these photos were made in our state.). Zane, the novel's hero, circulates the crowd and takes names of those involved, posing as the assistant to the photographer taking orders of the photos for home delivery.

Incognegro is commentary on the social construction of race and its impact on all of us. Johnson stands those constructions on their heads, especially those of "passing" and the "Tragic Mulatto."

The rest of Zane’s subterfuge can be chalked up to philosophy and role playing. “Race doesn’t really exist,” he says. “Race is just a bunch of rules meant to keep us on the bottom. Race is a strategy. The rest is just people acting. Playing roles. That’s what white folks never get. They don’t think they have accents. They don’t think they eat ethnic foods. Their music is classical. They think they’re just normal. That they are the universal and that everyone else is an odd deviation from form. That’s what makes them so easy to infiltrate.” (New York Times review)
"Well, I have a different concept of race, more distance. Yes, I wanted this to be a different story. This is not a Tragic Mulatto story. While I am interested in the form, I’m also interested in taking ownership of it, not borrowing it. I took the shame and judgement out of Passing, and tried to show it being used in a positive, practical light." (Interview on Racialicious)

Tomorrow is comic book day -- the day the week's new comics hit the shelves -- and I'm hoping my guy will have this so I can get read it. Personal review to come.

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