What the Hell Did I Just Read? Enigma: Part I by Emily Scott

Let me just get this out of the way to start – Peter Milligan’s Enigma is an aptly named comic. I know I will be tempted as this article goes on to make a lot of mystery-based puns, but maybe if I just say that right from the beginning, I can save myself some undeserved pats on the back and you lovely readers some groans. Dean, proprietor of this fine blog, who was kind enough to let me come back to talk about this brilliant and unique piece of work, kept asking what I thought of Enigma as I was reading it, and I kept responding, “It’s weird.” He wasn’t sure if that was good or bad, and at the time I couldn’t have said, no more than I mean it as praise or criticism when I tell you now that all I could do when I finished was stare at nothing in particular and mumble, “The hell did I just read?”

Before someone wants to throw the Internet equivalent of rotten vegetables at me, I will reuse two words from the previous paragraph: brilliant and unique. This comic is a staggeringly original and daring work of art, and I’ve honestly never read anything like it, but it is challenging and not always pleasant to read, and the pieces of the puzzle don’t all quite fit together till the end. Even then, it still takes some mental gymnastics to make sure you’ve put them all together, and even after multiple reads, you can never quite be sure. It defies easy categorization or summation. I could list all the things that happen in this comic, but it would be like saying Picasso painted a lot of pictures of people; it would be an accurate, but by no means adequate, way to get at the heart of the work.

Incidentally, painting superheroes in Picasso’s style must be a big thing because a Picasso Google Images search is chock full of them. This one’s for you, Dean.
Incidentally, painting superheroes in Picasso’s style must be a big thing because a Picasso Google Images search is chock full of them. This one’s for you, Dean.

In emphasizing just how out there and occasionally disturbing this comic is, I by no means want to detract from it truly being a masterpiece, but I feel like it’s important to establish right away that is no ordinary fare, even for a comic. I say even for a comic because, well, let’s face it: weird things happen in comics. We take a lot of them for granted because they have had ubiquity our whole lives, but come on, a guy who has the powers of a spider and a man-beast with metal claws who can’t die are a little surreal. And yet there are reasons why Spider-Man and Wolverine are on lunchboxes around the world and I had never even heard of Enigma till Dean asked me to read it for this blog.

Enigma will never be mainstream, and that might be the highest compliment I could pay it. (I may be refraining from patting myself on the back for mystery-related puns, but you guys who’ve like this comic for a long time go ahead and give yourselves one now. You know you like feeling smug about liking stuff other people don’t like. I do too. We all do.) This is not a comic for kids, and not just because it contains “adult” content. So much happens in its eight issues, not just in terms of plot, but in issues addressed, themes like identity and sexuality explored, and mindfuckery conducted that I’m starting to wonder if I’m not stalling as I write this because it’s hard to know where to even start.

Already you have to be wondering where this could possibly be going. I was worried it would be like the Phantom of the Opera...yeah, it’s not like the Phantom of the Opera.
Already you have to be wondering where this could possibly be going. I was worried it would be like the Phantom of the Opera…yeah, it’s not like the Phantom of the Opera.

Enigma opens on a farm in Arizona, the sort of place, we are told by a narrator whose identity only becomes more mysterious as the story progresses, “where you’d have sexual relations with your parents and end up shooting someone.” We are told something very bad happened on this farm 25 years and then are immediately taken to the present day and introduced to Michael Smith, the most boring man in the world. (Once again fiction teaches us that if you want something supernatural or fantastical to happen to you, the best thing you can do is be as ordinary as possible.)

Michael is the sort of guy who has to have a certain number of bath towels and only has sex with his girlfriend on the same day every week. These are our first clues exciting things will happen to him. He goes to work, which on this day is fixing the phone of a famous actor. The actor says he bets Michael wishes he were him, which is our first clue something terrible will happen to the actor.

Seriously, who the hell says that? Of course, the narrator is not being much kinder to our protagonist. What’s the point of YOU, buddy?
Seriously, who the hell says that? Of course, the narrator is not being much kinder to our protagonist. What’s the point of YOU, buddy?

Next we spend a bit of time with our Phantom of the Opera and are given a glimpse into his mind in ways that make absolutely no sense on a first read. Seriously, it does not matter how observant or analytical you are, much of this material defies even speculation until you know everything that’s going on, which is fine because this comic is like a Lay’s potato chip: I challenge anyone to be satisfied with just one reading. Part of what makes a second or a third read so enticing is that there are so many “a-ha!” moments, where the lines you either skimmed or puzzled over (and whichever you did will tell you a lot about yourself as a reader) finally fit neatly into place. This applies to pretty much everything you see involving the character Enigma until several issues in.

Also, someone is eating people’s brains. Unlike so much else in this comic, that’s fairly straightforward. Michael finds himself drawn to the scene of the latest brain consumption for reasons he can’t explain, though it doesn’t seem like anyone would be interested even if he could articulate them. His girlfriend may not care why he feels linked to the brain eater or the strange masked man, but she does care that it’s Tuesday, and the two engage in their usual weekly amorous activities in an unusual place.

I liked it better when I could tell myself guys just thought about baseball during sex.
I liked it better when I could tell myself guys just thought about baseball during sex.

Already it is obvious that one of the prominent themes in this comic is Michael trying to suss out his own identity. When we hear about someone committing a gruesome act, it might be natural for any of us to wonder if we are capable of such things ourselves, but someone whose sense of self is as shapeless as Michael’s is that much more more susceptible to contemplating what monsters might lurk inside. His search for his true nature is something I will by needs discuss at greater length in the second part of this article, but it’s worth noting now how much it’s a driving force in Michael’s actions and how he only seems to feel anything when in pursuit of the mystery of the brain eater and the masked man. He is compelled to seek out the truth and yet, as we will discover later, unprepared to face it when confronted by it. (None of us can identify with that, right?)

His curiosity causes him to follow a floating lizard (just go with it) to another crime scene, where the Head, also known as the thing nomming on everyone’s brains, has just supped on another victim and is contemplating dessert when the Enigma makes an appearance. Michael gives chase, feeling less like himself and more alive than ever before. So of course he promptly gets his brain slurped out.

In case I haven't used enough synonyms for weird yet in describing this comic, perhaps it will serve as a helpful visual aid when I tell you that this is a fairly typical looking couple of panels.
In case I haven’t used enough synonyms for weird yet in describing this comic, perhaps it will serve as a helpful visual aid when I tell you that this is a fairly typical looking couple of panels.

This might be as good a time as any to bring up Duncan Fegredo’s art and Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh’s colors, something I normally wouldn’t discuss at length, not because they’re unimportant but because I have not taken enough art history or art appreciation classes to feel like I have any idea what I’m talking about. The images in Enigma work in such pitch perfect synergy with the words, though, that I can’t imagine one without the other.

In lesser artistic hands, I honestly don’t know if this comic would have worked half as well, no matter how amazing the script. There are a lot of ways to draw someone’s brains being sucked out, you know? Not all of them would have permanently seared themselves onto my retinas the way the above page and many others did. Fegredo’s art allows Milligan’s script to achieve maximum effectiveness.

Then he took them to a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Then he took them to a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

What that often means is art that is in turns disturbing, nauseating, confusing, and beautiful, sometimes all of those things simultaneously. Just as the story is told in an off kilter and intentionally puzzling manner, the world as shown by Fegredo can be disorienting, and I found myself having to stare for a bit at some pages to figure out just exactly what it what it was I was looking at. As appropriate as that is, it also serves the dual purpose of making you pay careful attention to a work that deserves it.

The colors add another note to the harmony that is Enigma, the muted palette grounding the world in which it takes place and serving as a basis on which to contrast the surreal happenings and images. You will find no bright primary colors that comic books typically traffic in, which is further highlighted when we are introduced to the comic-within-the-comic Enigma, from which Michael recognizes the strange creatures who have been appearing. (Yes, there is a whole other meta layer to this. I told you there’s a lot going on. It’s like a clown car of concepts – no matter how much you unpack, there is always more.) The colors by no means render it dark or bleak looking, though, instead intensifying what is already intense imagery.

If the person who drew this has not done copious amounts of hallucinogens, I'll just eat my hat.
If the person who drew this has not done copious amounts of hallucinogens, I’ll just eat my hat.

While it might seem like I am harping on about how much happens in a scant eight issues, I promise if anything I’m underselling it. Look no further than the impressive rogues gallery Milligan creates, which is more thought provoking and memorable than those some super heroes accumulate over decades. In addition to the Head, we are introduced to the Truth, the gentleman in the corset above, formerly the actor with the world’s most inflated self-image. Oh, the irony. (I told you something bad was going to happen to him.) You can probably infer from his name what he does.

While it’s all deftly handled, as expected, I don’t know that the Truth requires much deep analysis. No matter how originally done, the idea that people do not care to hear the honest truth about themselves, even to the point that it is fatal, is nothing new to us. (My favorite example is Buffy’s musical episode Once More With Feeling. What’s yours?) Michael, however, perhaps not particularly pop culture savvy, remains determined to seek out the truth, both with a lower and upper case T, and discovers that no matter what else he might be, he is as human as the rest of us.

What did he think was going to happen if he went in there? That he would learn the truth about the Colonel's secret recipe or where Jimmy Hoffa's body is buried? Come on, man.
What did he think was going to happen if he went in there? That he would learn the truth about the Colonel’s secret recipe or where Jimmy Hoffa’s body is buried? Come on, man.

We are also introduced to my favorite, The Interior League, an idea that sounds ludicrous, almost laughable, at first but grows more insidious the more you think about it. Basically, they break into houses and rearrange the furniture in such a way that a member of the household goes insane and kills everyone. (Someone who is really into feng shui is nodding solemnly right now.) Home is an increasingly important concept in Enigma, and there are few things more profoundly distressing than the idea that someone would violate such a sacred space as your own home, not necessarily destroy it, just fundamentally alter it, make it not yours anymore.

Rounding out the rogues gallery is Envelope Girl, a character who does not grow any less ludicrous the more you contemplate her but is an awesome concept nonetheless. In the simplest terms possible, she mails people somewhere else. They approach her, are enveloped by her (*wink*) and end up in a box in a completely different location from where they started.

In slightly snootier terms, I believe Envelope Girl illustrates some of the maternal abandonment issues that will later be addressed in ways that go even more off the rail that a lady who mails people from her abdomen. (I keep telling you, so much to unravel. So very much.) We learn that Michael was Punky Brewstered by his mother, and much like he faithfully waited on a curb for her for days, people give themselves over completely to Envelope Girl, entrusting their fate to her completely through a sort of reverse birth, back into the womb act.

Do you think Envelope Girl gets mad if people ask her to send their regular mail, like their gas bill or grandkid's birthday card?
Do you think Envelope Girl gets mad if people ask her to send their regular mail, like their gas bill or grandkid’s birthday card?

So what is this all adding up to? So far we have a lot of dead guys, some lizards, and a protagonist who only feels alive now that he is seeking the comic book characters sprung to life all around him, who he may or may not be summoning forth with his mind. What’s a guy to do but seek out Titus Bird, writer of said comic-within-the-comic, rescue him from his new throng of unwanted followers, decide to move in with him while you investigate his creations, and deck him in the face when he makes a pass at you?

Say, remember how in very recent memory, you could punch a guy for having the audacity to find you attractive and HE was the one who had to apologize to YOU?
Say, remember how in very recent memory, you could punch a guy for having the audacity to find you attractive and HE was the one who had to apologize to YOU?

If this comic is a puzzle, Michael’s questioning of his sexuality is, I promise, the last edge piece we need to identify before we can begin putting them together in any discernible fashion. This was the last place I expected this comic to go when I started it, but its ability not just to surprise but to pull so many disparate elements into a sort of highbrow Exquisite Corpse is one of its greatest strengths. (For those who don’t know, Exquisite Corpse is a drawing game, not a necrophilia thing. It is possible thinking too long on this comic has made me feel that disclaimer is necessary.)

…and then what?

 

And then what? Come back next week to find out!
And then what? Come back next week to find out!
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Life Happens and We Are Sorry!

Just wanted to let y’all know that we are sorry there was no post this week.  Angel ran into trouble with her entry.  Be back next week for more 90’s greatness, and in the meantime, enjoy this Sandman Mystery Theatre Cover!!!

Sandman Mystery Theatre #10 - Page 1

The World You Have Always Known Is Born MC2-Part 4 Featuring A-Next Continued!

Welcome back to The Unspoken Decade!  I hope all of you have been enjoying our MC2 summer!  If you haven’t been enjoying it, then get ready to not enjoy it some more because we’re continuing the journey today with another look at A-Next!  But have no fear, there are only two more entries after today’s look at A-Next! The reason I decided to split up the entries on A-Next was because I wanted to take a quick look at a new round of Avengers that showed up on the scene of A-Next very quickly – too quickly, if you ask me.  Also, we needed lots of space for the original Defenders! A-Next continued one of the most beloved Avengers tropes in history, which is the shaking up of the lineup!  I know many of you have seen issue after issue of Avengers with one of those great covers that usually has a giant question mark or a group of faces on the cover with the copy “Who Shall Be The Avengers?” or something similar.  You know, like this:

George Perez is the man.
George Perez is the man.  When he draws The Avengers, I always wish there were 23987389479843789 members in the group.

A-Next did a little differently, though, and while I have been somewhat hard on Tom DeFalco here and yon, I can say I liked this twist on the trope.  Instead of a dissolution of the existing A-Next squad, Mainframe, the mysterious robot that appears to be a Vision/Iron Man hybrid, just decides to bring in a bunch of new heroes. The youngsters comprising A-Next are taken aback by this, and rightfully so.  Remember when you were young and you finally got some sort of brass ring, whether it was getting to be in Gifted and Talented class or you were named starting shortstop for your school baseball team or you even finally caught the eye of that young lady or fella you had been pining for since the first day of homeroom?  What a fantastic feeling!  Now remember when you found out others were coming into GT, that your coach wanted to start working out your arch-enemy, Tyler Kensington at SS, or your new belle or beau is all of a sudden captivated by their lab partner?  That feeling was a little less delightful in the same way that having leprosy sucks a smidge. Well, that’s pretty much what happens to our pals in A-Next, although I don’t find it to be all bad, mostly due to my favorite A-Next character aside from J2.

Meet the aptly-named American Dream, the inspiration for all those "sexy Captain America" Halloween costumes some of you hate so much.  I am ok with those, myself.
Meet the aptly-named American Dream, the inspiration for all those “sexy Captain America” Halloween costumes some of you hate so much. I am ok with those, myself.

But what the hell is up with those sexy “Brian the Dog from Family Guy” costumes?  Is that some guy’s fantasy?  He wants you to be a cartoon dog?  Or the lady dressed up wants to be a cartoon dog?  I find this befuddling and the root of the decay of America. I kid.  Mostly.  But I really do like American Dream.  I like the name, the idea, and the costume.  The creative team does an outstanding job making her impressive.  While she is obviously a derivative of Captain America, she grows into her own character that holds onto many of the same ideals and traits that we have come to know and love in Steve Rogers.  Of course, she didn’t meet the original A-Next group on great terms, though, as it was a total surprise to them that Mainframe was talking to any other teenage heroes to take up the mantle of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. So you can only imagine the dismay that J2, Stinger, and the rest of the gang must have felt when they waltzed into their HQ and saw this!

The one with the French villain mustache looks smug, but I don't know if he is actually trying to be smug so much as he just has a French villain mustache.
The one with the French villain mustache looks smug, but I don’t know if he is actually trying to be smug so much as he just has a French villain mustache.

 

His name is Freebooter, and we are shortly introduced to all of them.  We also learn that whatever things Mainframe has been programmed to do, one of them is not dealing with teenagers well.  He’s basically dismissive of their feelings and concerns, much to the delight of every cantankerous old neighbor on nearly every sitcom ever.  Why coddle the kids when you can just talk down to them in a mean robot voice?

A-Next #4 - Page 6

A-Next #4 - Page 7
Wow, that wasn’t awkward for anyone. Bluestreak has been on the team 7 seconds and has essentially already violated whatever sexual harassment clause The Avengers have.

Seriously though, is that the best Mainframe and Jubilee can do as far as integrating this team?  This is such an awkward position for both groups of teens here, and they are handling it with all the care that a bulldozer gives a pile of debris.  You’d especially think Jubilee would be better due to her history as a teen superhero.  Then again, maybe when she got demoted from the X-Men to Generation X she took it really hard, thus influencing her callous nature toward the young A-next squad here.  Of course, she is Mother F’n Goose in comparison to Mainframe, who epitomizes everything we fear about the imminent robot takeover of mankind.

One of our heroes is especially hit hard by this turn of events, and J2 takes off to sulk.  Remember taking off to sulk when you were young?  Man, I don’t know if it was just the 90’s or not, but when I was a teenager, if we gathered in groups of more than three, someone would have to get upset and go off to sulk.  Sometimes, that sulker was me.  These teenagers, despite their powers, are no different.  Dibs on being Juggernaut, though.

"Come back inside and be sexually harassed.  For once, it's happening to the boys!"
“Come back inside and be sexually harassed. For once, it’s happening to the boys!”

When A-Next shines, I feel like it shines due to moments like these, where I can actually recall my own similar personal moments, where I separated myself from groups for slights both real and imagined, but also for just feeling out of place.  I always treasured those moments when someone would come to check on me and make me feel like I belonged; I am sure J2 felt the same.  If you want to recall those days, read A-Next, Spider-Girl, and J2.  You will recall what it was to be young.  In three weeks, we’ll tackle Wild Thing as part of the MC2 summer!

Next week, Angel Hayes returns with a great article on Animal Man, and the week after that, Emily Scott ventures back into Vertigo as she looks at Enigma!