Exclusive – Mat Johnson on the Birth of Incognegro and Cover Reveal

We have an exclusive advanced look at writer Mat Johnson's Horsepower column that will run inside of all Dark Horse comics being released in February. Johnson is the writers of the Incognegro: Renaissance series along with artist Warren Pleece. In the column he talks about how he went from writing the Papa Midnite mini-series for Vertigo to finding the story for Incognegro.

We also have the exclusive reveal of Pleece's cover for Incognegro: Renaissance #3, which you can see at the end of the column below.


In 2006, I was just finishing my first run as a comic book writer after a lifetime of being a fanboy. My break-in was via a five-issue Hellblazer spinoff called Papa Midnite, set around the real events of New York City's 1741 slave revolt. I was a youngish professor at the time, and when one of my undergrads found out I was writing comics, he looked at me and said, "You're living the dream!" (Actually, he yelled it. Across a crowded campus. All the other professors stared at me. It was awkward.) When Papa Midnite was over my editors at Vertigo, Karen Berger and Jon Vankin, allowed me to pitch more ideas. Original ones. I was living the dream. I had dozens of ideas ready to go!

Unfortunately, they all sucked.

After months, we narrowed it down to the one idea that sucked a bit less—I honestly can't even remember what it was. But I was trying to bring it to life, trying to reduce its suckiness quotient. Trying to keep my comic book writing dream alive. But despite a twelve-page narrative description with detailed character profiles, diagrams, and all that, the project still didn't feel right. Because . . . it sucked.

And then, I took a break to go teach at a conference, The Callaloo Writers Workshop for Writers of African Descent, a program meant to position the next generation of black writers to thrive in the majority white world of publishing. And there I found it.

I don't know if you've seen my picture but the thing is, while I am African American, and I am the descendent of West African slaves, I'm also Irish. I'm also the descendent of Irish indentured servants. I'm mixed—with parents in chocolate and vanilla. And unlike most mixed African Americans, I appear to many people as white. (It's my personal novelty.) So when members of Callaloo's faculty came up with their new nicknames for the workshop—as per tradition, I was anointed Incognegro. (By future National Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway, no less!)

It wasn't the first time I heard this made up word, Incognegro, this comic combo of incognito and Negro. When I was a kid, my similarly pale mixed cousin and I would play a game we called "Incognegro, " fantasizing about using our pale appearance to go undercover and fight slavery or for the civil rights movement.

And so a story idea was born. To this vague personal narrative, I added the story of Walter White, a white appearing leader of the NAACP who pretended to be white to investigate the epidemic of racial terrorism in 1920s America called lynching. And on top of all that, I added the story of my own twins, one who came out looking whiter, the other looking blacker, though both share an identical ancestry.

Instead of the dragged out, dozen-page story pitch, the pitch for Incognegro was little more than a paragraph. A one-punch wonder. And it worked. Because when it's the right story, for the right moment, one page is all you need.

I never thought that, a decade later, we'd get the chance to start all over again, with a fantastic new edition of the original Incognegro graphic novel. And this isn't just a reprint either, but an enhanced version of the art by Warren Pleece, whose shading brings the characters to life while still maintaining the noir vibe.

And this time we're back with new characters, new drama, and a new backdrop as well, in a brand new storyline that will appear as a five-issue miniseries from Berger Books. Incognegro: Renaissance takes us to the cauldron from which Zane Pinchback emerged, the fascinating world of the Harlem Renaissance. It's a vibrant historical landscape at which we only glanced the first time around. But now we're migrating north.

Over the years, I've been haunted by these characters, this story, this era of human history. It was always clear there was more to tell, more to explore. It's a joy to be able to go back in time once again and find out more. Come with us and explore.

Mat Johnson


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Dan WicklineAbout Dan Wickline

Has quietly been working at Bleeding Cool for over three years. He has written comics for Image, Top Cow, Shadowline, Avatar, IDW, Dynamite, Moonstone, Humanoids and Zenescope. He is the author of the Lucius Fogg series of novels and a published photographer.
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