Author Mat Johnson writes “I grew up a black boy who looked white. This was in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, during the height of the Black Power era, so I stood out a bit. … I started fantasizing about living in another time, another situation, where my ethnic appearance would be an asset instead of a burden. We would ‘go Incognegro’, we told ourselves as we ran around, pretending to be race spies in the war against white supremacy.”
Walter White, who went on to become the head of the NAACP, did in fact use his ability to ‘pass’ to go undercover as a reporter in the South to expose the horror of lynchings which were never news in the mainstream white press. Incognegro is the story of a similar reporter, a gripping tale of KKK shenanigans, interracial love and moonshine, crazy town folk and crazier mountain folk. It’s got twists you won’t see coming even though I’ve warned you, and the bravery and huevos of the reporter will give you chills of pure take-that-you-racist-b——s joy. That it’s life and death (and there’s plenty of ugliness and death) only heightens this, it’s definitely a great book for the holidays.
It also plays with the constructions and meanings of race in fascinating and ultimately hopeful ways. Near the end you read
“So that’s it, I can just decide to be a whole new negro? So what Negro you going to be then?”
“That’s the best thing: identity is open-ended. Why have just one?
Ideas of race are shown socially invented yet with terrifying real-world consequences that shape all of our lives. Not many could combine that with a hell of a thrilling story.
I love graphic novels, love the way that pictures and words can come together to tell a story in ways that art or writing along could never manage. I still remember first seeing the books (and I’m still a fan of books and not flimsy comics, mostly because of their aesthetics on my shelf I’m afraid) with Los Bros Hernandez written down the sides and being like wow! Who are Los Bros Hernandez? Mexicans write comics? I was young, and lets face it, most people think of comics as being exclusive to white nerds. Nerds we may all be, if nerds means really cool kids who like to read a lot, but it definitely isn’t all white. Though yeah, pretty white I suppose.
Turns out Los Hernandezes wrote about my world too, a crazy combination of border culture and urban cool (well, we tried to be cool, no?) and awesome women and sexuality and family and music. They deal with race too, but more in the ways you live it every day someplace like LA. They even threw some SF aliens and monsters in there. What is not to love? Anything Love & Rockets is awesome. Their publisher Fantagraphics even has a little guide for navigating decades worth of stories and these awesome new huge collections (anyone feel like buying me a present of Locas? (They might be my favs)
But don’t get me wrong, these are both unarguably cool pieces of work, I like the stuff you can argue about too. I like superheroes, though I couldn’t really get into the intricacies of Marvel versus DC. I prefer things a little reflective, a little humorous, and that isn’t exactly par for the course with some traditional story lines, but there’s lots of good stuff out there. I can’t help but mention that time in 1946 when the Superman radio show had a KKK episode, and leaked a bunch of secret passwords and codes given to them by undercover agent Stetson Kennedy. Grant Morrison can write some of the darkest passages this side of Hammett and Caine, you can find many of them in his Batman stories, but I read Flex Mentallo over the summer and that thing blew me away. It’s a brilliant parody of superheroes and their golden and silver ages. Just look at those leopard-skin pants! You could guess he’s straight from L.A.’s Venice Beach and his superpower is his giant muscles. Joe Hill‘s Locke and Key is another I read recently that had me spellbound really, in an old creepy house with keys that unlock worlds and minds themselves, and the forces of evil ranged against a cool group of kids. Not quite superheroes I guess, but not really in the ‘alternative’ set.
I’ll wrap up with the cutting edge, China Mieville‘s Dial H. An out-of-work overweight hero victim to a crumbling economy, and a range of awesomely fantastical and imaginative transformations he goes through to fight evil. It’s surreal and subversive, an old-school combination in a whole new form. Check it out, though you have to go buy the paper copies as he’s still in mid story arc!