In a gripping detective story filled with well-earned reversals and revelations, the biggest surprise is a twist that doesn’t come.
Full disclosure: Mat Johnson, author of Incognegro and Incognegro: Renaissance is a friend of mine. Not to say we are on each other’s Christmas lists, but we were former colleagues and he’s just generally genial. I have also been mistaken for him by three separate individuals, which I think has more to say about the strangeness of the universe than about either of us, because neither of us look remotely similar to each other. But that’s a story for another time. He was on the Creative Writing faculty of the University of Houston when I was there, and though I was not a Creative Writing student, I did have him for a single course: a speculative-fiction-themed section of Writers on Literature. (In seven years of graduate study at two universities, and four years of undergrad at a third [first?], this was actually the only science-fiction-focused course I ever took.) This revelation is, in all probability, completely irrelevant.
I recently had the chance to read Incognegro: Renaissance, prequel to 2008’s Incognegro (both by Mat Johnson, with art by Warren Pleece). These graphic novels center on Zane Pinchback, a reporter in 1930s Harlem who writes for the black newspaper New Holland Herald. Being lighter-skinned, Zane is able to pass for white, and in the original Incognegro he uses this ability to travel around the nation infiltrating chapters of the Klan, whose members he then exposes in his anonymous column. Renaissance takes place several years before this–when Zane is a cub reporter, first learning to pass himself off as white and (more importantly) first deciding that this action can be a force for reform, and even justice.
Whereas the original Incognegro reads (to me) more like a spy novel, what with its emphasis on disguises and call-signs, Renaissance is more firmly in the genre of the film noir detective. (Of course, these genres are not so separate as I make them seem, as evident in the ease with which John Le Carre was able to straddle this line in his earlier works.) Here, Zane is trying to solve the murder of an author who turns up dead at a cocktail party. Since the deceased is black, the police are more than happy to write the death off as a suicide, so Zane determines to solve the murder himself.
From there, the novel has many of the ingredients necessary for a gripping mystery: an incomprehensible clue in the form of a waterlogged manuscript, a corrupt cop, shady businessmen, back-alley ambushes… and, of course, the femme fatale.
“There’s always a dame…”
Before I go much further, I will say that I will not spoil any of the big reveals–and there are plenty of them, including one toward the end of Chapter IV with an emotional impact I was not prepared for. I will not reveal the who behind this whodunnit, nor even why it was dunn in the first place.
But I must speak about our potential femme fatale. Her name is Bette Mignon, and though the description is perhaps not a fair one (I promise I’ll get to this in a moment), everything about how she is introduced and discussed in the story points to an eventual fatale-ity: she enters the narrative in a cloud of mystery, she is the last person seen with the murder victim, she has a hired guard who abducts Zane–and she tries to kill our detective on at least two separate occasions. In terms of the narrative shorthand of the detective novel, which Johnson alternately invokes and subverts throughout Renaissance, she should be the feminine manifestation of the detective’s undoing, using her famous wiles to sabotage the investigation or manipulate him to her own secretive ends. She’s Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. She’s Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon. She’s Marie Windsor in The Killing. (Okay, The Killing isn’t a detective story by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s still worth a watch!)
Lest it should seem I’m trying to pass off my own reactions as incontrovertible fact, a custom I lightly groused about in a previous post, this is an active assumption on the part of some of the characters themselves. Whereas Zane is new to Harlem, and still a touch naive (or idealistic), his friend Carl is a bit more world-wise. Carl is the same character who teaches Zane (and certain segments of the audience) everything he knows about navigating 1930s Harlem and passing for white. And if Carl is adamant that Bette cannot be trusted–and he is–his pronouncement must be considered in the context of his established role as sage.
Indeed, his warning seems particularly well timed. Do you remember that waterlogged manuscript I mentioned earlier? Bette is intent on getting it. It is the theme of their earliest conversations. It is her primary condition for helping Zane in his investigations. In short, her single-mindedness on this matter is well established. Zane has already furnished her with a few of the pages, but the rest of them are currently drying in a room down the hall from the room he rents and which, on the morning that Carl issues his warning, the room in which Bette had spent the previous night. All of the elements are in place for a classic noir betrayal in which she runs off with the manuscript, leaving Zane not only to track her down, but to figure out why the soggy pages are so important.
But, as you may have figured out already, that betrayal never comes.
Sidebar: A Benefit of the Graphic Novel Form
Before moving on to why I find this non-betrayal so interesting, I just want to comment on how well the graphic novel form fits Johnson’s story here, allowing for a nuance and ambiguity that could not be employed in quite the same way in a different medium.
This is immediately after Carl’s warning, so this is the scene in which the reader gets to see how Zane chooses to act on his friend’s advice. Results are… inconclusive. He’s questioning her, that much is clear even from the snippets of dialogue I’ve left in place. But how satisfied is he with her answers? How satisfied should we be?
In a non-graphic novel, the gestures that accompany this dialogue–the set of Bette’s eyes as she sips from her coffee, her glib expression in the fifth panel, her sudden seriousness in the sixth–these things would have to be conveyed through narration and description, if they were related to the reader at all. And each word of that description would betray not only the action, but the connotation of the action. We would see not only what was happening, but get a hint as to how we should feel about that. We would already have an indication of if Zane “bought” what Bette was saying here.
Or maybe that’s just me. You all can see I have difficulty with concision, so maybe I’m projecting a little here.
This isn’t just a matter of Bette being sly or cagey here. It’s more like we don’t know if she’s being sly or cagey. Which brings me to my next point: if this were a movie (hey, what a great idea!), these two actors would be making a thousand subtle decisions throughout the course of the scene: cadence, tone, intent… There would be more concrete indications, no matter how subtle, of how we are supposed to take this exchange.
But the graphic novel form allows Johnson and Pleece to present the action in a way that allows the reader (at the very least, me) to misread the scene without lying to them. (I’m looking at you, Mr. Brian “Oh we had a police officer dress up exactly like the killer and follow you around, allowing for a red-herring co-presence with the real killer, without telling you until the denouement” DePalma!)
As I have already said, Bette does not betray Zane. This scene works with that conclusion. This scene also works with the opposite conclusion, the familiar film noir reversal. I’m particularly fond of Pleece’s framing in panels three, four, and five: not only does it keep our eyes on Bette, but Zane’s face is partially but unobtrusively obscured. Not only do we not have tone of voice, we don’t have reliable facial cues. We can equally imagine a Bette who is unburdening herself of some long-held secrets and a Bette who is stringing Zane along until she can get what she wants. We can equally imagine a Zane who is grappling with the revelations being thrown at him and a Zane who’s only performing shock to lure Bette out into the open.
But I’ve digressed long enough.
Where I’m Going with This
As Tim Caron has previously pointed out, when the original Incognegro came out, much of the discussion was, understandably, focused on racial performance–Zane’s passing as a white man that justifies the novel’s title–but largely overlooked the novel’s gender performance–present in an additional character who passes herself off as a man through much of the novel (144). To put it another way, while the novel is centered on a conversation about race, it’s simultaneously (though less centrally) gesturing to the same conversation about gender.
I think Renaissance is doing something very similar.
At the end of the first chapter, we are left with Carl’s words about the significance of Zane’s passing:
Most white folks look at us and just see the reflection of their own fear. Nothing more. They enslaved us, forced themselves on the women, but then call us the thieves and rapists, right? They look at us, they see their own projections bouncing back. Just a mirror. So how hard can it be to break a mirror?
This is essentially the thesis of Incognegro–not just the novels, but the persona that Zane adopts within the novels. The act of passing is not just about infiltration, it is about exposing the myth of race and racial stereotypes. It reveals that the racial attitudes in these novels aren’t formed based on a reality or a lived experience as much as by limited perceptions shaped by stories–stories white people tell themselves about the other. Zane has the ability to leave the narrative set for him, and through this act of transgression reveal the arbitrariness of the narrative itself.
And while this narrative subversion is primarily explored through race, the novel’s treatment of Bette gestures towards a similar conversation about gender. She is not a femme fatale, despite being surrounded by so many markers for the character type. But none of those markers is conclusive, even taken in aggregate. Her eagerness for the manuscript, her odd behavior around the victim, her initial reactions to the detective–these all have innocent explanations. Even Carl’s sage warning isn’t final.
If we (I) are tempted to read Bette as a femme fatale, it isn’t Bette’s fault. It is more of an indication of how completely we have absorbed the noir tradition, how deeply we have internalized the misogyny that is common to the form. In short, we are not reacting to Bette individually; we are projecting on her based on the stories we have already been telling ourselves.
This is why as a white, male reader of this novel, I was struck by the absence of a classic betrayal. I think the sort of white readers who will settle down with an issue of Incognegro, let alone the hard-bound collections, are the sort who would like to think of themselves as “ahead of the game” when it comes to social justice questions. This can be a problem, as the reader’s basic awareness of the core concept can inoculate them against substantive reflection. The “what’s this behind your ear” subversion of a persistent noir trope, though, has a way of convicting the reader (me) of the central act of projection the novel works to expose in an unexpected way. It’s a very subtle touch, but a needful one.
Both Incognregro and Incognegro Renaissance are currently in print. I have included the Amazon links here, but if you have a local, independent bookstore, please consider purchasing the books there. Wherever you get them, though, leaving a review on the Amazon page is a great way to support the artists.
Caron, Tim. “‘Black and White and Read All Over’: Representing Race in Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery.” COMICS and the U.S. South, edited by Brannon Costello and Qiana J. Whitted, UP of Mississippi, 2012, pp. 138-160.
Johnson, Mat, and Warren Pleece. Incognegro: Renaissance. Dark Horse Books, 2018.