Last post, I started writing about Zane Pinchback’s transformation into Incognegro in Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s graphic novel. Specifically, I focused on Zane looking in the mirror and having the haunting specters of the past superimposed over his reflection in the mirror. Today, I want to continue this discussion by looking at the rest of this seen, notably the next panel where the American flag waves in front of Zane’s reflection as he stares at himself in the mirror. This panel, along with the entire scene, plays upon superhero tropes and iconography, and the ways that the scene deploys those tropes is important within the context of the book.
Tim Caron notes that Zane “is not a superhero per se, he does have an alter ego: as ‘Incognegro,’ he uses his fair skin to investigate and report on lynching in the U.S. South for a large Northern newspaper.” Caron is right in his assertion comparing Zane to a superhero; however, I would argue that Incognegro is Zane’s superhero persona, because alter ego conjures up a superhero’s civilian identity. The visual imagery contained within the scene were Zane transforms into Incognegro plays on similar scenes of superhero transformations. Here, I’m thinking about Jefferson Pierce transforming into Black Lighting or even Curtis Metcalf transforming into Hardware. This is what Zane does. He transforms himself from Zane into the superhero Incognegro.
This connection linking Zane to superhero tropes occurs before this scene when Zane has drinks with Carl and Carl’s girlfriend. Carl, while holding a copy of the New Holland Herald in one hand and hold up a glass to toast Zane in the other, tells everyone, “Ladies and gentlemen, the famous Incognegro himself, death-defying undercover octoroon of the modern age! My buddy Zane, the high-yellow super Negro. Able to pass for a Nordic in the blink of an eye.” Carl’s opening statement is peppered with superhero rhetoric: “death-defying,” “super Negro,” and “blink of an eye.” Each of these could be read as characteristics of superheros such as Superman, Hardware, of others.
Zane downplays Carl’s boisterous proclamations, and plays up the fact that his lack of fame helps him, allowing him to become the undercover superhero. Yet, Carl’s girlfriend tells him, “Of course you’re famous. Everyone reads your investigations into the lynching problem. All of Harlem knows Incognegro.” Again, in this respect, Zane, Incognegro’s alter ego, flies under the radar just like Clark Kent does while Incognegro takes center stage in the public’s imagination. While Zane is different in he fact that he passes as white to report the stories, the mythological making of Incognegro as a superhero plays into comic book tropes of the superhero out to deliver justice and right wrongs.
Carl continues to play into this trope by effectively becoming Zane’s apprentice, a la Robin or other sidekicks. Carl tells Zane before they each go home after drinks, “I need adventure. I need to make my name too, then I’ll be copacetic.” He wants to show his girlfriend he is brave and that he can make a change in society. When he surprises Zane on the train South, he tells him, “This time I’m coming with you. Show me what you do, how you do it. Then when you quit, I can do the job.” He wants to learn and to prove himself, become a reporter, become Incognegro once Zane takes the desk job and becomes editor.
Superhero language runs throughout Incognegro, but it is the panel during Zane’s transformation that drives this connection home. In the first panel of this scene, Zane stares at himself in the mirror and says, “I am Incognegro. I don’t wear a mask like Zorro or a cape like The Shadow, but I don a disguise nonetheless.” With this statement, Zane firmly positions himself within the pre-Superman superhero lineage. The third panel on the page shows Zane looking in the mirror, and his reflection depicts a waving American flag in front of him. As he stares at the mirror, Zane states, “Since white America refuses to see its past, they can’t really see me too well, either.”
There are two things at work here. One is Zane’s narration where his superpower becomes invisibility and stealth, his ability to traverse the “color line” and report on lynchings. Passing and the idea of invisibility are not unique to comics, but they work hand in hand. This scene reminds me, in many ways, of a scene from Black Panther: Flags of Our Fathers where Azzuri tells Steve Rogers about he got information about Rogers’ identity as Captain America. He tells Rogers that there are benefits to being “invisible,” and a panel shows a Black man mopping the floor as Rogers is being examined for the experiment that will transform him into a superhero.
The other is the positioning of Zane’s reflection behind the American flag. This positioning needs to be read in relation to similar images such as Superman. When Superman holds the American flag or stand with it, he typically appears in front of the flag, with the cloth waving behind him. In this manner, he protects the flag and the ideals that the flag supposedly represents. By placing Zane’s reflection behind the flag, the Stars and Stripes limit him, hem him in. The flag becomes a barrier that he must exist within due to his “race.”
Caron argues that within this panel, “Zane becomes the unacknowledged but literal embodiment of American’s racist past.” I agree with Caron’s reading, but I would also add that this panel speaks to the history of whiteness in superhero comics. As Sean Guynes and Martin Lund put it, “From the creation of the first American superhero, Superman, in 1938 and onward, superheroes have been deeply informed and structured by notions and ideals of whiteness.” While Caron and others have looked Incognegro in relation to how Pleece’s artwork and Johnson’s narrative use image and text to destablize our perceptions of race, we must also think about the ways that the novel through Zane and even through Francis Jefferson-White challenges superhero tropes as well.
What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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