Different Kinds of Powers and Responsibilities in Incognegro Rennaisance 1

by Drew Baumgartner

Incognegro Renaissance 1

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

Way back in August of 1962, Peter Parker learned that with great power must also come great responsibility. It’s an important lesson, though the fact that Peter’s “power” manifests as literal superhuman abilities seems to leave some readers confused about what their own responsibilities are. In the intervening years, our discourse on power has gotten a lot more nuanced than whether someone can or can’t stick to walls, which has in turn changed our expectations of individual responsibility. Of course, the predominantly white, predominantly male world of superheroes might not be the best place to explore the more subtle (but no less powerful) issues of power and responsibility that come along with race and gender, which is exactly what made Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro so remarkable when it hit stands in 2008. Indeed, the obvious differences between Incognegro and the superhero genre may make the comparison seem absurd — and it may well be — but their prequel series, Incognegro: Renaissance, takes on the familiar (and appropriate) form of the superhero origin story, complete with its own call to action about power and responsibility.

The issue opens with Zane and Carl on their way to a high society party in 1920s New York. The party is at the home of Arna Van Horn, a prominent (though perhaps past-his-prime) white author, to celebrate the release of his latest (though perhaps exploitative) novel set in Harlem. Blackness being fashionable, the guest list includes the most prominent of the black glitterati, though the white guests seem to treat them only as entertaining curios. Zane and Carl meet up with one of Carl’s friends, Xavier, an aspiring black writer who helped Van Horn “research” Harlem. It’s here that the notion of passing for white is first introduced as a matter of convenience and social mobility.

Xavier and Zane

Zane flatly rejects the idea — that’s not who he is.

But it’s only a little while later that Xavier turns up dead under suspicious circumstances. The police are callously disinterested in investigating the death as a murder, leaving Zane feeling utterly powerless. But Carl reminds him that he actually may have more power than he thinks — and that power may bring with it some responsibility.

Zane and Carl

It’s an Uncle Ben moment with a very different understanding of what power actually is. Moreover, it sets Zane on the trajectory we already know he’ll follow, but motivates it perfectly. We understand exactly what passing means to him, and why he’s starting to accept that power when he needs to. It’s just the first step of a long journey, but this issue perfectly draws us into it.

The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?

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One comment on “Different Kinds of Powers and Responsibilities in Incognegro Rennaisance 1

  1. The really interesting thing about looking at this as a ‘Power and Responsibility’ superhero origin is that it presents something that is generally ignored in many similar stories. Superhero comics are generally power fantasies, and therefore ignore the fact that the responsibility is not just about doing what is right, but doing what is hard. The whole point of a hero having great responsibility is that it is their duty to do something hard and unpleasant because they have the power to do it. It is just as much about doing something difficult as it is about doing something moral. But ultimately, Spiderman and derivatives always make being a superhero exciting. It very rarely hurts. No matter how well they show Peter Parker struggle to balance his life, Spiderman always seems fun. For all the problem’s that Peter Parker has, Uncle Ben’s advice has led to an exciting and cool life. But that responsibility you have exists even when it isn’t fun

    And that’s what this comic does so well. Zane isn’t just denying his Call to Action because he doesn’t yet understand ‘With Great Power comes Great Responsibility’, he does so because he knows that doing the responsible thing hurts. That it is a pain. And the reader feels that same pain.

    We see Zane pass by complete accident, and those scenes hurt. Seeing such casual racism being flung the moment that the white characters think they are safe hits hard, and we feel Zane’s pain at the experience of passing. Peter Parker gets to save the world, Zane gets to experience everything that white people don’t dare say to his face. Zane’s power to pass is torturous to use.

    With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility applies even when using the power is torturous to use. Because it isn’t about the power being fun to use. It is about having the responsibility to act for the betterment of society where you can

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