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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?