This month marks the debut of Dark Horse’s new imprint Berger Books. One of the most influential figures behind the scenes of the comic industry, Karen Berger’s editorial work at DC was key to the production of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman which she followed with the creation of the Vertigo imprint (DC’s mature line) which lead to the publication of several modern classics including Y: The Last Man, Preacher and many more. She eventually left DC in 2012 and after some brief work for Image announced she would be starting a new imprint at Dark Horse comics which promises to see more examples of Berger’s great eye for talent along with some old favourites – one of those favourites being former Vertigo title Incognegro, now celebrating its tenth anniversary.
In the early 20th Century, when lynchings were commonplace throughout the American South, a few courageous reporters from the North risked their lives to expose these atrocities. They were African-American men who, due to their light skin colour, could “pass” among the white folks. They called this dangerous assignment going “incognegro.” Zane Pinchback, a reporter for the New York-based New Holland Herald, is sent to investigate the arrest of his own brother, charged with the brutal murder of a white woman in Mississippi. With a lynch mob already swarming, Zane must stay “incognegro” long enough to uncover the truth behind the murder in order to save his brother – and himself.
Incognegro is inspired by author Mat Johnson’s real life experiences. Due to his light skin, Johnson was able to pass as a white person and used this to act as spy in order to investigate hate crime against black people. The birth of his twins in 2005 (one dark skinned with afro hair and the other pale with European curly hair) would also serve as influence. What results is a highly authentic tale that gives a harsh look at the state of the South in 1919. It would be easy to depict a stereotypical Southern state, but Johnson takes a nuanced approach in order to present a realistic view of the type people that existed in that period. Outside of expertly capturing the time period, the story works as a great piece of pulp noir fiction. Zane is a particularly great protagonist whose staunch ideology fits right alongside other legendary pulp figures such as The Shadow and Doc Savage, whilst often pondering on the duality of African American identity as a result of the actions he has to commit whilst undercover.
Artist Warren Pleece is a natural fit for the story having dabbled in the noir genre in previous Vertigo titles such as Hellblazer. With all of the artwork being in black and white, he gets to be very creative – not only in his use of shading and shadows, but also in his depiction of Zane. His subtle approach gives Zane an unassuming presence which really helps the undercover aspect of the story.
With both creators on top form, along with a compelling plot in a turbulent period of American history, it’s easy to see why this title was selected to kick off Berger’s new publishing venture. Beyond being a worthy classic to kick off an exciting new comic imprint, there’s also a prequel on the way. So now is the perfect time to take a look at this modern classic in the noir comic genre.
Incognegro is published by Berger Books on 8 February (£16.99, h/b, 9781506705644)