Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
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BAKER'S DOZEN for 02/27/2008
Passing Time Down South
Mat Johnson on Incognegro
I've not had the pleasure of meeting Mat Johnson yet. But after conducting the following interview via email with him, I'm already looking forward to making his acquaintance. And while I'm unfamiliar with his prose work, a failing I plan on correcting in the near future, I have been really impressed with his ability to craft an engaging, engrossing and ultimately entertaining comic tale with his work on Incognegro.
That original graphic novel, which features art by Warren Pleece, was released a few weeks back by Vertigo. However, I'd been eagerly awaiting its release since Vertigo editor Jonathan Vankin showed a preview of it with me at last year's Wizard World-Chicago con. The basic concept of the book, which Johnson explains below, grabbed my attention, while the combination of Vankin's unflagging praise for the script and Pleece's fine line work and solid storytelling sold me completely. Now all I had to do was wait six months for the final product to appear.
So, was it worth the wait?
Hell yes, it was. Even better, it's a story that will prove its worth time and time again, with each rereading. And now, just in case my recommendation isn't enough, here's Mat Johnson's to seal the deal.
Bill Baker: How would you describe Incognegro to someone who's not familiar with it?
Mat Johnson: You got to buy this book. Every third reader gets a check for a million dollars. Go! Go!
Pale black guy pretends to be white to investigate lynchings in the 1930s, and gets wrapped up in a conspiracy involving his own brother's life.
BB: You're a successful prose author, having published fiction and nonfiction, as well as an educator. So why do comics? What does working on this kind of project give you that your other pursuits, be they literary or educational, don't provide?
MJ: I get to fuck with people's heads. They're all like, "Are you writing another novel in there?" and I'm like, "Sure I am," then--Blam!--I whip out a comic book and they're all like "No he didn't" but I did! You get it, right? You see me? Writing a graphic piece for me is just straight fun. I get to write an entire story in a month, instead of two years. And I get to reach an entirely new, broader audience. Next time they're going to think I'm writing another graphic novel, and then I'm going to build a car instead. It's going to be awesome.
BB: Well, why do this story as a graphic novel, rather than a prose novel? Is there a particular reason, or perhaps even multiple reasons, for your choosing to do it as a comic?
MJ: I didn't want this to be a treatise on race, or passing, or lynchings. I wanted it to be just a good, action driven story, something that takes the subject matter seriously but also doesn't need to define the era beyond setting. Prose is good for a narrator driven discussion on the story. I wanted to just present the facts or the era, and let the reader take it where they can.
BB: I got the impression, and please correct me if I'm wrong, that this was a story that you felt the need to tell, and that it was a world that you needed to explore. All of which made me wonder-despite that sense of destiny, if you will--if it was a difficult world to visit while working on the script? In other words, was this a difficult book to write?
MJ: No. It was more like when you really need to go to the bathroom. Like when the insides of your stomach turn to mush and start shooting towards your colon and you better get to the bathroom fast. Diarrhea is the easiest thing in the world. I wrote this in a month, in one draft, and not one detail was changed in editing.
BB: In your introduction, you mentioned three things which lead to the creation of the graphic novel: That you and your cousin played the game of incognegro as children; that you later learned there was a real-world journalist who actually used his ability of "passing" as a white man to report on the lynchings that took place in the US during the early decades of the 1900s; and, finally, that those memories later surfaced and blended with the birth of your twins--who mirror the appearances of the two brothers central to the story--to ignite the initial spark that became Incognegro. Where there any other truths, be they historical or personal in nature that you drew upon while writing this story?
MJ: My twins were a boy and a girl, but I changed that for the piece for obvious reasons. Besides that, nope, those were all the truths I needed. Why, is that not enough? I mean, we got a trifecta there. Don't be greedy.
BB: Did you have to do much research while preparing to write this book? And, if so, are there any particular books that provided valuable information for this particular project?
MJ: I've been researching and teaching about the era for years, so my subconscious was fully loaded. If anyone wants to check out the era, I would definitely look at Without Sanctuary, which collects postcards of lynchings. And to understand the Harlem Renaissance, I think When Harlem was in Vogue is a great read.
BB: One of the surprising aspects of the book is that there is a fair amount of humor--very dark, true, but still effective and telling--scattered throughout the book. How'd you come to include those moments of humor in the story, and why?
MJ: Humor keeps me awake. It keeps me from succumbing to the misery of human existence. Take this interview: this has got to be close to the 50th I've done in the last two weeks. So I'm punch drunk. Humor keeps it fresh so we can all get through. Even slaves told fart jokes.
BB: This tale seems like it'd be perfect for a film adaptation. Is that something that you'd like to see happen and, if it does, would you want to be directly involved with that process in some way?
MJ: Hell yeah. Vertigo bought the film rights with the book, and they'll probably make a killing on them (I didn't [not bitter, not bitter]). My agent has already started fielding calls from major studios. I don't have a huge preference. I think Wentworth Miller (Prison Break) would be good, as the reigning real-life Incognegro of the moment. Also, I think incognegro Jennifer Beales should be cast as a love interest. There's not really a part for her in the movie, but I've had a crush on her since Flashdance.
BB: Well, what's next for you? What else do you have coming out in the future, be it another comic or graphic novel, a nonfiction collection or prose novel?
MJ: I've got a novel coming out next year that's a sequel to Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe. And Vertigo and I are talking, so hopefully we'll be working together again.
BB: What do you hope readers get from reading Incognegro? I mean, is this meant as mere entertainment, or might you have a larger agenda you hope to serve with it?
MJ: I want them to have a good read that also opens their eyes to a pivotal moment in American history.
BB: How about you, professionally and personally? What did you get from making Incognegro a reality?
MJ: I've been a fanboy since I was 6 years old. I get to see my work in my local comic book store. I even get to have my face be one of those Vertigo covers I've been lusting over. Awesome.
BB: Anything else you'd like to add?
MJ: People can see more of my work at http://niggerati.com. I'm coming to NYC Comic Con, so if you want anything signed, bring it by.
If you've already read Incognegro, don't forget that Mat Johnson's previous comic work for Vertigo, the mini-series Hellblazer: Papa Midnight, is available as a trade paperback.
<< 02/13/2008 | 02/27/2008 | 03/19/2008 >>
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