Greetings! Before we get down to business, I’d like to thank Dean, The Unspoken Decade’s incomparable proprietor, for letting me come back and talk a little more about the wonder that is Peter Milligan’s Enigma. I’d also like to thank you fine readers for coming back for more after Part I. If you missed Part I, everything I’m about to say will make zero sense; if you read Part I, well, you’ve probably already figured out it will make only a little sense. Like one sense, two sense tops.
I have done and will continue to do my best to impose some order on this brilliant comic’s chaos, but a good portion of its beauty lies in many of its mysteries never being thoroughly teased out. Answers are given, but they grant no true resolution, and each one has the potential to beg a thousand more questions. This is definitely a comic where what happens is not nearly as important as why it happens, which is my justification for trying to get as much exposition as I could out of the way in Part I. Laying all the groundwork to put all of this comic’s many pieces into place seemed essential because the picture only starts to become clear when viewed all together. Halfway through, say, a Batman comic you could probably articulate what is going on, where the story is likely headed, and why it’s headed there; the best you could do with Enigma is shrug, if you’re honest, and be a blowhard if you’re not. Enigma must be viewed from a bit of a distance, and even then, like a twisted Magic Eye picture, you still have to squint and bullshit a little to make heads or tails of it.
Let’s get the rest of this silly action out of the way, shall we, so we can to the fun stuff: the in-depth analysis. When we last left our protagonist, Michael, he had just left his old life of anal retention and once-a-week sex behind. While his city is filling up with dead bodies due to a sudden rash of villains sprung to life from his favorite comic book, Michael has never felt more alive as he investigates how he is connected to the mysterious masked man who battles these foes. Brains have been eaten, lizards have flown, and grown men have been mailed through a lady’s stomach. With me so far?
With a little good ol’ fashioned bribery, Michael learns that the 25-year-old murder in Arizona that frames the story is connected to one of the Enigma’s foes and makes up some of his bribe money in saved airfare by traveling to the farm via Envelope Girl Mail. It is there he realizes why the Interior League seemed familiar to him, the pattern on a costume a match for the wallpaper of his childhood home, which was destroyed and buried in an earthquake, his father buried along with it. Upon returning to his destroyed home, Michael discovers Enigma, who, rather than actually explaining anything useful, takes Michael to Envelope Girl, attacking and attempting to kill her before Michael intervenes.
Michael tries to explain to Enigma why it’s distasteful to wantonly kill anyone you feel like; Enigma has no idea what he’s talking about and insists that Enigma’s gotta Enigma. They are his foes, his creations, and taking them out of the world he brought them into is what he does. We finally reach the ‘tell’ portion of history’s weirdest Show and Tell, and Enigma reveals he was abandoned down a well by his mother. When it’s Michael’s turn, we learn that despite his recently decking a guy for hitting on him, he shortly thereafter let another guy take him home, lending credence to the notion that the fastest way to prove you’re closeted is to lash out at a gay person.
Michael also admits to having a thing for Enigma, which leads where you’d expect, though it’s nowhere I would have expected this comic to end up when I started reading it. If you’d told me that the comic that starts out with a brain-eating monster and some floating lizards would turn out to be a heavily symbolic and nuanced exploration of identity and sexuality, I would have had zero idea how it could get from Point A to Point B, but it’s nonetheless earned. It’s like boarding a random train in Pittsburgh and ending up on Pluto: you weren’t sure where you were going, but it sure as hell wasn’t where you ended up, and you appreciate the destination all the more for its unexpectedness.
After fulfilling a fantasy he didn’t even know he could let himself have, Michael finds that sharing physical intimacy with Enigma has done little to help his lover understand emotional intimacy or empathy, further demonstrated when he can’t comprehend why Michael would want him to use his powers to undo the damage he has done to the former Envelope Girl. Neither sex nor guilt may move him, but the impending arrival of his mother is enough to finally get a real reaction, along with the rest of his backstory, out of Enigma.
It turns out that the well Baby Enigma was dropped into was his mother’s reward for using his powers of manipulation on his father’s face, which caused his mother to shoot said face so many times it was unrecognizable. Mama Enigma went insane while Baby Enigma thrived in his well, what could have been a prison becoming a god’s playground where he can eat and befriend and give consciousness to as many lizards as he likes. His world is perfect till it is shattered by his discovery by the world outside. When Enigma finds he can no more relate to the people in that world than his smartened up lizard can to regular lizards, he retreats to the closest thing to his well he can find, the subterranean former home of Michael Smith.
Enigma finds Michael’s old comic books and decides that since life is beyond absurd, he might as well base his around these absurd stories. (For Michael this has got to be like finding out your favorite Star Fleet Captain thinks science fiction is dumb.) Since any good hero needs adversaries, he creates his foes from ordinary people his mind seeks out, but his greatest foe is the one seeking him. Enigma senses that his leaving the well has awakened a terrible echo of his power in his institutionalized mother. Knowing that his own power will eventually destroy him, Enigma throws his mind out to influence and entice the man who was once the boy whose beloved comics became the basis of his existence. It is his hope that Michael’s love will make him more human and in turn manifest that humanity in the creature who gave him life and give her cause to grant him life once again.
Michael is understandably perturbed that his new lover has manipulated his mind, but when Enigma offers to put him back the way he was, Michael refuses. Whatever he was before, Michael likes who he is now, so whether Enigma fundamentally changed him or merely awoke something already there is a moot point, as moot as what does or doesn’t happen to resolve the conflict with Enigma’s mother. Our story ends on Titus, Michael, and Enigma, mask now discarded, going to face her, but we never learn of their fate, as our mystery narrator, revealed to be the changed lizard, is not privy to such information. (If there is a more perfect way to end this comic than an ambiguous outcome relayed to us by a supernaturally enhanced raving messiah lizard, I can’t think of what it could possibly be.)
I have been promising for two weeks and thousands of words that when the whole story was laid out, I could make something resembling sense out of it for you. Something else I can promise is that it made very little sense to me when I finished. I felt like I was in a fugue state. It has taken me multiple readings and an article and a half’s worth of stalling to tease substantial meaning out of it, but the more I pick apart all its different threads, the more it weaves new and unexpected patterns rather than unravel. My final promise is that this comic has been worth every bit of me wanting to clutch my head like a Monty Python Gumby and bellow, “My brain hurts!”
Enigma has so much going on that it’s not immediately obvious how its many disparate elements fit together, abandonment and idealization, identity and sexuality, the dangers of truth and secrets all vying for attention and analysis, a story in a story in a story. If it were any more layered, it would be a cake. What makes it all come together is keeping in mind that no matter how complex or meta or just flat out bizarre, this is a story about a man coming to terms with what happened to him in the past, discovering who he wants to be, and letting that past go so he can embrace that new identity. Everything else is window dressing, just the sort of window dressing the Interior League might subtly shift: beautiful to look at but liable to drive you crazy if you contemplate it too long. So let’s not stab anyone with a table leg as we proceed, all right?
In the research I did for this article (That’s right, research. I don’t just wing these things.), I was hard pressed to find an essay about Enigma that didn’t at least mention Alan Moore’s inestimable Watchmen. (And yet of the many things I’ve read about Watchmen, not a single one mentions Enigma. I wonder why.) It’s easy to understand why they would be part of the same conversation, as they are both comics that deconstruct comics, but one is macro, the other micro. Where Watchmen looks at the impact superheroes would have on a realistic world, Enigma is really only concerned with their effect on one man. Our glimpse beneath the mask in Watchmen shows us that sometimes they are worn for good reason. In Enigma whether the mask disguises unpleasant truths or comforting lies, it is most detrimental to the one wearing it.
Watchmen is also more focused on the hero part of the superhero idea; Enigma is far more concerned with the super. Both Dr. Manhattan and Enigma posses godlike abilities, but only the former evidences any struggle with that responsibility. Dr. Manhattan, whether through retention of a small part of his lost humanity or not, can contemplate the consequences of his actions and initiates a conversation about the rightness of his choices; Enigma wouldn’t even understand there is anything to discuss. We don’t know the fate of the life Dr. Manhattan eventually leaves to create, but I would wager it’s kinder, whatever that might mean, than that of the lizard Enigma leaves to rant for the rest of his days on uncomprehending ears. However selfish or vain the motives the various Watchmen have for taking up the mantle of hero or questionable the morality of the results, they often pay more than lip service to that role. Enigma is an idea who takes up a role because it is there.
Ultimately, though, Enigma’s motives or character development or lack thereof are only important as they pertain to Michael’s. Early on in their investigation, Michael and Titus entertain the notion that Michael is projecting all the strange happenings from his favorite childhood comics into the real world, and while that’s not literally what is happening, it might as well be. Enigma and all the rest of the motley comic crew are segments of the struggles Michael has gone through his whole life and must make peace with to come to a peace within himself. The Truth can be deadly to those like Michael who hide behind layers of self-deception and repression. The Interior League demonstrates that even a small shift in your safe haven can have devastating consequences, much like the literal seismic shift that tore Michael’s world asunder. Envelope GIrl, who Michael does not fear, attracts unconditional adulation from those who would seek to crawl back into the womb until that womb is ripped to shreds by Enigma’s nightmare mother creature, who Hulks out even upon hearing the word ‘mother,’ a manifestation of his own worst fears about the mother who left him waiting on a curb, signifying that Michael must let go of the idealized version of his mother to truly let his abandonment go.
While these are all meaningful themes to explore, they all culminate in that moment when Michael declines Enigma’s offer to undo his influence on his mind and essentially de-gay-ify him. While it still comes across as a monumental decision for a character to make, I can only imagine how strong a statement that must have been over 20 years ago, when this comic was released. In arguments about whether sexuality is a choice, when all of my appeals to common sense have been exhausted, I have sometimes fallen back in frustration on one point: why would anyone chose to be gay? Why would anyone chose what is inarguably a harder life, where something as fundamental to life as who you love can be used as an excuse to ridicule you, exclude you, even harm or kill you, when it would be the easiest thing in the world not to? Why, unless that is the truth of who they are and therefore no choice at all? It can be quite stirring when we see analogies for these ideas played out, such as mutants in X-Men comics deciding they’d rather not be “cured,” thank you very much, but it is that much more powerful to see it is as a literal choice. While I believe Enigma should be a little less unsung for many reasons, for this moment alone I am surprised I do not hear Enigma mentioned more. Perhaps it was ahead of its time, but when we discuss art, all that really means is it was necessary regardless of the time it was created.
So did I keep my promise to make some sense of this daring and different piece of work? If you think you need to work through it a little more, it would be completely understandable, but this time I’ll let my pal the lizard have a crack at it.