Interview with Mat Johnson, author of graphic novel Incognegro

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Mat Johnson is winner of the prestigious Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction and currently teaches at the University of Houston, Creative Writing Program. Read more about him at Niggerati. Click the thumbnails below to read full-size pages from his new graphic novel, Incognegro.

Carmen: Mat – congrats on all the great media coverage your new book is getting! (New York Times, Seattle Times, San Francisco Chronicle)

Mat: Thanks. It’s a hell of a lot better than watching a book tank, I’ll tell you that.

Carmen: LOL I’m sure. Well you’ve been a co-host on our podcast, Addicted to Race a couple times (episode 57 and episode 61)…

Mat: I miss that. We had fun.

Carmen: …and longtime listeners will remember that former co-host Jen and I used to do a segment called “Racial Spy.” Your book takes the racial spy concept to a whole new level – can you explain to our readers what Incognegro is all about?

Mat: Incognegro is about a mixed race Negro journalist who looks white who investigates lynchings in the 1930s. The story is about when his own brother is framed for a murder, and he must go Incognegro to solve the crime and free him.

Carmen: As soon as I read that synopsis, I was hooked.

Mat: So was Vertigo. I sold them the idea based on the synopsis. [Note from Carmen: Vertigo is Mat's publisher, they're an imprint of DC Comics.]

Carmen: How did you come to make Incognegro a graphic novel?

Mat: I have read comics since I was 6 and still read them. I thought this story had the elements of the comic hero, but had the chance to do something new in the form as well. With my prose, the work is character based, prose based. Graphic writing just let me focus on the story and the dialogue.

Carmen: I think the format really works well – as I was reading it, I kept imagining what an awesome movie it would make. Speaking of… I hear there is interest in turning Incognegro into a film. Anything you can say on record about that at this point?

Mat: Nothing I can say on record. But I can say I sold Vertigo the rights and they are very actively fielding offers, trying to find out who is the right creative team to go with.

Carmen: That’s great – I hope it all works out. Anyone you have in mind that you’d like to see play the protagonist?

Mat: I want Wentworth Miller, but who knows? Hey, maybe if nobody buys it, I’ll shoot a crappy low budget version in my backyard with me in the lead. Richard Wright did that!

Carmen: LOL and then put it up on YouTube. Web 2.0-style! How did you come up with the concept for the story?

Mat: Well, I grew up ethnically and racially black, but looking white. The other pieces came to me: learning about Walter White, the birth of my twins, one of which looks more European, the other more African (my wife, Meera Bowman Johnson, has written about it on your site Anti-Racist Parent). It just seemed like a natural story to tell. And I always wanted this hero to be out there. Someone just like me, who turned what many see as an oddity into something priceless.

Carmen: There’s been a long tradition of passing stories in American literature (and pulp fiction). How do you see Incognegro fitting into that tradition, if at all?

Mat: Right. And Passing narratives where in their height with Nella Larsen in the Harlem Renaissance. And of course they go before that to the 19th Century slave narratives. Yes, this fits within that literary mythology.

Carmen: But it seems like the passing story in Incognegro really turns the tables on the genre. A lot of the passing stories, at least those that made it big in pop culture, were essentially cautionary tales, right? The person doing the passing always seemed to get their comeuppance for daring to defy racial hierarchy.

Mat: Well, I have a different concept of race, more distance. Yes, I wanted this to be a different story. This is not a Tragic Mulatto story. While I am interested in the form, I’m also interested in taking ownership of it, not borrowing it. I took the shame and judgement out of Passing, and tried to show it being used in a positive, practical light.

Carmen: What kinds of reactions has the book received so far? Are people scared that a movement of racially ambiguous folks are going to get together to expose white supremacy everywhere?

Mat: LOL… No, it’s been largely positive. The critical reviews have been great, and the personal ones interesting. There have been many whites, particular males, who had no idea that these lynchings ever took place, or if they did didn’t know it happened in the 20th Century. Some thought I was trying to shock, or that the painting of the white in the environment as highly racist was unfair. But that was just the era. They might have been decent people in other ways, but the issue of white supremacy was a given.

Carmen: And I think that’s something that gets lost in the way race is discussed in this country. Racism is still seen as evil – something that only extremists dabble in. But at the time your book was set, racism was the norm. It’s just how things were, and otherwise normal and decent people participated in it because nobody questioned it.

Mat: Right. But there is a cultural amnesia on the part of some. So this book is jarring to them. The San Franscisco Chronicle gave it a nice review but said it was angry. I thought that exemplified that sort of thinking. I assume he means it’s angry because it brought up the topic at all.

Carmen: Right – it’s the “he who smelt it, dealt it” approach to race. The one who brings up racism is the true racist. I get that a lot too.

Mat: Exactly.

Carmen: So what’s next for Incognegro? Do you think there will be a sequel? I can definitely see potential for this becoming a series.

Mat: Next, I try to write something entirely new. I’m working on an idea with Vertigo right now, so we’ll see. But I might have more to do with these characters down the line. It’d be interesting to pick them up in a different era. We’ll see.

Carmen: Oooo – maybe time travel, Lost-style! (Notice I find any excuse to weave in a Lost reference.)

Mat: No problem. Somehow this will have something to do with Linus and the Others.

Carmen: Hehe. Well Mat, where should folks go to learn more about you and your other work?

Mat: I have a site at www.niggerati.com. That has all my books and info. Or they can just look me up on Amazon.

Carmen: Great – well thanks for taking the time today, Mat! And best of luck with Incognegro!

Mat: Thanks, always nice to hang out. Call me when you get those podcasts going. And check me out next year when I do my next project: setting up an online nation for American Mulattos, to be called Mulattopia.

Carmen: LOL sounds good. :)