Thursday, July 9, 2009


by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece
Vertigo 2008

Hillary Brown:
Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece's Incognegro actually came out in 2008, but it's still worth covering, especially considering that "timely" isn't exactly the middle name of this blog. It seems like something more graphic novel-y and less comic book-y--much as I hate to make that distinction--especially for Vertigo, and if I were going to compare it to anything, I guess it'd be something like Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby in its examination of prejudice and historical change that nonetheless is driven by a strong narrative. Incognegro is definitely a good read that way, and I've seen people say it might end up as a movie, which seems like a good fit. It doesn't have to be a comic by its very nature in some ways (for example, the pacing of the plot twists is more classically novelistic or cinematic), but in others, it's hard to imagine it being done realistically as a movie. I mean, it can be done and it has been done. It's just... more difficult. And this is where it gets very difficult to talk about the book without ruining it for anyone, so maybe I should steer away from the whole "how do you adapt it into a movie" thing.

I think it's a pretty well-crafted book, and because it is, and because it's a compelling subject, I feel doubly guilty that it didn't grab me as much as it could have. Sometimes it feels a little stagy, you know? What did you think?

Garrett Martin: Oh yeah, it’s definitely stagy, and kind of predictable. Okay, there are a few major plot twists I did not see coming, but by the end of the first act I could pretty much tell which major characters wouldn’t make it to the end.

So. I don’t want to sound like a mouthbreathing superhero guy. There should be more comics set in the ‘30’s. There should be more comics about normal people. There should definitely be more comics that deal with serious real-life issues without being overly sentimental or narcissistic, and that don’t involve aliens and/or unsightly mutants crying. So I applaud Incognegro’s intent and existence. And it’s not bad, really. But it’s also not what it could have been, what it maybe should have been. Which is a movie. Or a TV show. Or something where the imagery of lynching would be more resonant, more impactful. Lynching photos are the most shocking, bracing, depressing artifacts of American history. They are exceptionally powerful. Somehow that power doesn’t carry over to present-day drawings of fictional lynchings. As disturbing as those scenes are in Incognegro, they aren’t as disturbing as they should be. There’s an immediate visceral reaction to one of those photos, from both the gore and the usually gleeful participants. It’s heightened by realizing that, as a Southerner, those participants could very easily have included some of my ancestors. I’m shocked at how little I felt during those scenes in Incognegro compared to photos of real events. I’m often surprised at how emotional I get over certain comics (see our George Sprott review, or talk to me about Nick Abadzis’s Laike), but Incognegro left me unmoved. Why is that? Who should I blame? Myself? The form? Johnson or Pleece?

HB: I'm really glad you brought up this point because I felt similarly. There's an emotional impact that's missing from this book, and I'm not sure why that is or even if it's a bad thing. Some of it is, as you point out, a hazard of the form, but it may also be Johnson's reticence when it comes to melodrama. His characters aren't the type to freak out over much, or maybe we don't get to know them well enough to get teary. It's not a book that grabs for your heart, though. Its concerns are more historico-political, I'd say. Maybe we're a couple of cracker assholes, but I don't quite think so. It's much, much harder to wring emotion out of something that's already got a lot there, at least when you're hardened by mucho media consumption, as I know I am. It's almost easier to make some pathetic lonely person's simple, miserable life sad than to get the same kind of response to a Holocaust story, and that's not to fault the creators, even, so much as to point to a fact of human nature, which is that we compartmentalize and desensitize ourselves to survive. Photographs of lynchings manage to breach that wall of nonresponse (or do for now; Susan Sontag argues, in On Photography, that one of the problems with photography as a medium is that it exposes us to a much wider range of images, to which we then become desensitized), but I think it's much harder for drawings to do so.

GM: Maybe it's the distance or abstraction inherent in a drawing, and maybe it's Johnson's avoidance of melodrama, but I'm pretty sure Johnson wants to rend our guts and consciences with those scenes. There are at least two two-page lynching spreads with all the details of a photograph, the cheerful white people and their children taking photographs and selling momentos, etc. So even without the melodrama Johnson and Pleece are still aiming for an emotional weight that I just personally don't feel. I'm glad I'm not the only one!

I guess the personal miseries of the George Sprotts and Jimmy Corrigans are more powerful because we can see more of ourselves in them? Or at least their situations? I'm not naive or optimistic enough to say that something akin to lynchings or the Holocaust could never happen again, at least not in the part of the world we were both amazingly lucky enough to be born in, but the possibility feels so outrageously remote that their interest and importance is solely historical. And very little art of any kind can beat actual historical documents when it comes to making us feel like all kinds of shit.

That's kind of why I don't necessarily agree with Sontag. Photographs of lynching might have inured me to Incognegro, but that doesn't mean I don't consistently recoil from those photographs on sight. If she's saying photography desensitizes us to non-photographic images, then yeah, she's maybe got a point.

HB: Well, right. That's where Sontag's argument breaks down or is maybe more of an academic exercise than a broad description of reality. Theory only goes so far, and it deals in generalities. My guess is that I could become desensitized even to photographs of lynchings, but I'm not about to try to get to that place. In the meantime, either I'm desensitized, because of photography, to cartoony drawings of same, or Pleece just can't capture the horror, or something. It's very difficult to be able to get the desired emotional reaction without crossing the line, PETA-style, into just grossness, isn't it?

GM: Johnson could've gotten us there if he made us care more about the characters. Maybe if the book was longer, or a part of a series, with more time to establish and develop characters beyond symbols, Incognegro would've been more successful. I guess it's obvious that the emotional component should begin with the writing, at least in a book like this where you can clearly delineate the writing from the art.

HB: Yeah, I think you're right, but people still might want to read this. Just because we're being picky doesn't mean it's not a worthy topic or a pretty good and speedy telling of the tale, right?

GM: Oh, right! Incognegro is well-scripted, well-plotted, and finely drawn, but the lack of subtlety and character development in either the script or art dulls its impact. It's a good concept undercut by a lack of depth.

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