Thursday, March 6, 2008

Review: Incognegro

I purchased Mat Johnson's Incognegro at my comic book shop yesterday and gave it a read-through between Keith Olbermann's deliciously snarky comments on on Tuesday's turnouts and reading through various postcolonial theologies for school and personal edification. That divided attention span may or may not play in to my first thoughts.

The Good: It's a gripping story, a detective story/social commentary on not only race but gender and human failings. It puts the spotlight on what has been traditionally hidden in our muddy mainstream, not just that lynchings were a regular part of American life until just a few decades ago, but also the blurred edges of identity that we would do well to wrestle with except that we're too busy trying to ignore it. Warren Pleece's art is exceptionally good for the task, as the clarity of the black-and-white drawings obscures the racial differences between the characters, which is the whole point. Even though race and gender are the two things that people allegedly notice about us when they meet us, they are not absolutes and not concrete and can be changed or developed as needed or desired. This is why passing -- either into another race, another class or another gender -- has been such a horror in a society that revels in the comfort of uniformity and categorization, even as, or especially as, it pays lip service to diversity.

The Not-So-Good: The weakness of Incognegro is in what I've called the John Grisham effect: an author writes a book (in this case, collaborates in a graphic novel) with an eye toward the silver screen. Ever noticed how much movies made off John Grisham novels stick to the book so closely? It's because Grisham writes books that are easy to turn into scripts. The pacing in Incognegro has that Hollywood feel to it, with each section a scene rather than a chapter and comic characters appear at the right time to lighten the heavy moment. The graphic novel/comic book is a medium in and of itself, with plenty of creative room for dramatic and incredible storytelling. It would have been nice to see Johnson to push the boundaries of the graphic novel format to tell his story, rather than just using it as a vehicle for his story. Also, as suitable as Pleece's art was, I think he could have gone into more graphic detail to present the violence and horror of what the protagonists were experiencing.

The main character, Zane Pinchback, the Incognegro, also suffers from what I call the Det. Bobby Goren effect (from Law & Order: CI). Like Goren, Pinchback is all-knowing, all-sure, in-control, where he notices every little detail, understands more than anyone what's going on, has the inside track. He's got enough flaws and makes enough mistakes to keep from being a Mary Sue-type character, but I think this might be part of the script-like flaw of the presentation. Once the story gets going, we no longer get a chance to see what's going on in Pinchback's interior, his thoughts, feelings, rationals or understandings of what he's experiencing, and I think the dialogue-only format robs the reader of a deeper experience.

Overall: I should come up with some sort of rating system, huh? What, four-out-of-five stars? Six-ouot-of-seven communion shot glasses? Whatever. Incognegro is a good, important book that I'd recommend to just about everyone to read. Hopefully it will spur discussion, not only about America's history that needs discussion, but also about the present issues of identity, race and gender that we call inappropriate for polite society. Fuck polite. Let's get upset for once. And if they do make a movie/TV show based on Incognegro, you can bet I'll be there to watch it.

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