Tag Archives: Enigma

Daniel Clowes’ “Eightball” — A Personal Reminiscence, Part Eight

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And here you thought we were done —

To be honest, there were times when it looked like you were probably right. Having made it through the entire contents of the recently-published The Complete Eightball Issues 1-18 deluxe hardcover slipcase set, I felt like I was, for all intents and purposes, finished writing about this, my all-time favorite comics series. But as most of you are probably well aware, The Complete Eightball isn’t actually “complete” at all, and given that we (fair enough, I) talked incessantly in previous posts about the four distinct “phases” that the title went through during the often-sporadic course of its publication, it seemed a (low-level) crime to me that I had really only talked about two of them — the “Velvet Glove Phase” and the “Ghost World Phase.” So that leaves two more to go, and even though we’re pressing up hard against, and then surpassing, this website’s remit of covering ’90s comics and ’90s comics only, the simple fact of the matter is that I hate to leave a “job” unfinished, and I distinctly recall that I stated in no uncertain terms that we would, in fact, at least briefly touch upon the other two “phases” of Daniel Clowes’ sprawling masterwork anthology before we called it a day around here. And so, that day has arrived. If you’ve actually been waiting for me to get around to this I sincerely thank you for your patience — and if you’ve forgotten about this series of posts altogether, well, I can’t say as I blame you. In any case, here we are, so let’s get started with the task of getting this finished.

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The third “phase” of Eightball‘s publication and creative history is one we’ll unimaginatively title the “David Boring Phase,” because Clowes’ sole ongoing concern at this time was utilizing his publication to serialize the long-form (well, if you consider three parts “long form” — but they were each lengthier-than-average issues) graphic novel David Boring, The story was issued in annual installments (or thereabouts) beginning in 1998 and concluding in 2000, and to mark the shift in focus the comic also saw another shift in format, this time “graduating” to what’s commonly referred to as “Golden Age size” (think halfway between a standard modern comic and a “proper” magazine) and retaining the heavier cardstock covers and slicker, higher-quality paper that had wormed their way in during what we call “Phase Two” around these parts. It’s an impressive package, physically speaking, but as always, the contents of the comic itself were the real “star of the show” moreso than the slick, glossy production values. Hollywood, it seems to me, could take a lesson from this.

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Speaking of which, there’s a definite ethos of “Old Hollywood” (specifically 1940s Hollywood) in full display in the pages — and especially on the covers — of David Boring, and while the story itself definitely has a modernist — or even a  post-modern — overall “vibe” to it, the “Hollywood noir” influences on Clowes’ art are not only apparent in, but gradually come to dominate, the visual language of the tale as it progresses through Eightball  numbers 19, 20, and 21. On the literary side of the ledger, the “noir” tropes are also on full display, as the entire story is related by means of a very matter-of-fact first-person narrative that could very well have come from the pen of Raymond Chandler himself — if it were about a detective.

But it’s not, of course, It’s about a security guard. A young, affect-less, pathologically nonchalant one, at that, who is simultaneously driven to extremes by his very singular obsessions and, paradoxically, sick to death of them, as well. In a move that almost (and I say “almost” because I highly doubt Clowes read the book I’m about to name-drop) seems ripped directly from the pages of Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s classic Vertigo series Enigma (which was covered in wonderfully exhaustive detail on this very site some time ago, and which is a pretty remarkable read in and of itself), our protagonist is fixated on an old comic book called “The Yellow Streak,” but unlike in Enigma,  in this case he’s got a valid, concrete, Earth-bound reason for being so dangerously enamored with it — his dad used to draw it. If you think he’s OCD about the comic, though, you should see his single-minded determination when it comes to visualizing what he considers to be the feminine ideal. Let’s just say that he has very particular — and in the minds of many, I’m sure, peculiar — tastes, and is more or less resigned (as he is, seemingly, about all things in life) to the idea that the girl of his dreams just well and truly doesn’t exist.

And then, one day, he meets her. And that’s when his problems really begin in earnest.

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Over the course of its three-issue “lifespan,” David Boring sees its central character shot in the head not once but twice, throws him into “winner-take-all” competition with an older suitor for the affections of his dream woman, places him at the mercy of his highly dysfunctional family, kills his oldest friend, and oh yeah — the world is ending, too. There’s very definitely a murder mystery and an almost-murder mystery at the heart of the proceedings here, but it’s buried under so many layers of existential ennui and faux-“hip” nihilism that you can’t help but take your eye off the ball on occasion — and that’s, of course, when you’ll miss out on all sorts of valuable clues. It’s a highly accomplished and complex work that wrestles with a number of weighty themes, but don’t let that dissuade the less than ambitious among you from checking it out if you haven’t, because it’s also wickedly, even sadistically, funny. And it lingers in the mind like nobody’s business — I remember that back when it was coming out, no matter how bogged down with “real life” events I may have been at the time (and I switched jobs a couple of times, bought my first house, and went through a couple of harsh break-ups during the three years it was serialized), my memories of what had happened the in the previous issue (which, as we’ve already discussed, would have come out 12 months — or more — earlier) always came flooding back within the first couple of pages of reading the latest one. That’s pretty damn remarkable when you think about how many comics you read where you seriously can’t even remember what happened  in them last month, let alone last year.

Fortunately for any of you folks out there who haven’t had the distinct pleasure of immersing yourself in David Boring yet, those interminable waits between installments are over and the whole thing’s been collected, in both hardcover and paperback formats, from Pantheon Books. Needless to say, it’s worth tracking down and reading faster than immediately. Some folks may find Clowes’ distancing of himself from his characters (an odd thing to say about a story told in the first person, I know, but trust me on this) again after getting a bit “closer” to them in Ghost World something of a “step back,” I suppose, but I find the clinical, even morose, set-up here to be a fairly accurate mirror-image of Boring himself’s “interior landscape,” so to speak, so all in all I’d say it not only works, it works beautifully. If coldly. But then that’s sort of the whole point.

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Which brings us, finally, to “Phase Four” of Eightball, which we’ll label the “Stand-Alone Graphic Novel Phase.” We’re into 2001 at this point, so I’m only going to touch on this last “phase” briefly. The two works in question that comprise this final stage of the series’ development/evolution, Ice Haven and The Death-Ray, are certainly worthy of far more exhaustive analysis than they’re going to get it my “short shrift” treatment here, but plenty of folks have written plenty of wonderfully astute essays about them already, and I would highly encourage you to hit up Google and check ’em out.

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First, though, I’d encourage you to check out the comics themselves. Eightball #22 mimics the “deluxe Golden Age” format utilized for issues 19-21, and for this reason (as well as, I’m sure, the fact that it’s also been re-issued in both hardcover and paperback by Pantheon — in a curious but effective smaller format this time around) Clowes and Fantagraphics have likewise omitted it from The Complete Eightball. The story here focuses on the mundane tribulations of a small town called — you guessed it — Ice Haven, where the disappearance of a local youth has set off a chain reaction of, well, various reactions, and is told via a purposely-disjointed series of newpsaper-style comic strips that give Clowes the ability to demonstrate his artistic “chops” in a number of different genres and also, I would assume, helped to prevent him from becoming  bored  with, or bogged-down in, the work as it progressed. It’s a conceit that he would refine and improve upon in both The Death-Ray and his later graphic novel Wilson, and while the tone of Ice Haven remains uniformly bleak and somber throughout — as we’ve no doubt come to expect by this point — the shifting visual look certainly ensures that it never actually becomes dull. Of all Clowes’ works this is, in many ways, the “heaviest,” but it also has an ending that could almost be classified as “upbeat,” and the various characters we meet throughout, from a frustrated would-be poet to a gaggle of precocious youths to some seriously twisted “funny animals” are all quite memorable indeed. And no, not even at my most pretentious and overbearing am I all that worried that I even sound, much less think, like Clowes’ fictitious (although based, I’m sure, on any number of folks he’d actually met) comic book critic, Harry Naybors. This comic came out shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, and while anyone who read it at the time would probably second my assertion that it added immeasurably to the sense of overwhelming despair and fear for an unknown future that was already thick in the air at the time, it also served to drag readers forcibly back down into the petty grievances and pointless minutiae that constitute so much of daily modern life, and I remember getting the uncannily accurate feeling upon first reading it that no matter how fucked up the world in general was, most people’s lives, including my own, were probably even more fucked up on a “micro” level than anything the “macro” level could throw at us. For some reason, this made me feel better. Go figure.

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Fast-forward , now, to 2004, which is when, much like this series of write-ups, Eightball appeared again, seemingly out of nowhere, and long after most readers had consigned it to the history books.  But it wasn’t just back, it was bigger — the format for issue #23 was seriously oversized (it was also much more expensive, but in this case we can forgive that), and indeed looked very much like some of the gigantic issues of Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library that Fantagraphics had published in then-recent years (I also think Clowes’ art style in this one betrays something of a Ware influence at times, as well,  but maybe that’s just me), and for the first (and, as it would turn out, only) time, the book was also printed in full color from cover-to-cover (Ice Haven was almost all full color, it must be said, but some of the strips were presented in a two-tone color scheme). The “stand-alone graphic novel” this time around was The Death-Ray, a decidedly intriguing revisionist superhero tale that definitely takes some cues from the author’s earlier Black Nylon, to be sure, but is much more straightforward in its execution even though, once again, it’s relayed by a series of stylistically-different-to-each-other short-form comic strips. I’ve reviewed The Death-Ray previously — specifically in its later hardcover iteration from Drawn & Quarterly — and so won’t dwell on it much here except to say that you should read it and re-read it and re-read it because it’s a multi-layered work that reveals new details to the careful and considerate eye (and, I suppose, mind) on each pass-through. It was the first comic I picked up when I got home after spending nearly two years abroad and , being somewhat at “loose ends” at the time, I was able to sit and devour it for a couple of days — which may just be what it takes to get even a semi– full grasp on all that’s going on its pages. I would refer any interested parties to check out my full review of the book here , as long as you know going in that I still don’t come close to doing it proper justice : https://trashfilmguru.wordpress.com/2012/06/14/tfg-comix-month-daniel-clowes-the-death-ray/ .

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And with that, we really are done here. I promise this time. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this series as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it, and I also hope that’s it’s (not to be too fucking grandiose, but) inspired at least a few of you (hell, I’d settle for one of you) to either give Eightball a go for the first time, or to re-visit your back issues and once again appreciate their greatness. I know that I gain new appreciation for the breadth and scope of what Clowes was able to achieve with this series every time I even so much as skim though it for the cliched umpteenth time, and when I sit down to actually read one of the longer-form stories again, or even just a selection of the short-form works, it consistently blows me away. Some of that is down to nostalgia value and always will be, sure, but this became “my comic” in the first place because of how great it was, and it remains “my comic” because of how extraordinarily well it not only “holds up,” but continues to present new ways of looking at it as the years go on. Clowes’ highly-anticipated (and aptly-titled) new graphic novel, Patience, will finally be seeing the light of day this spring, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I end up giving Eightball another complete re-read in the weeks leading up to its release.

 

 

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Lizards and Mothers and Wells, Oh My: Enigma Part II by Emily Scott

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.

Seriously, though, has anyone ever actually seen anything in one of these pictures? I have never even come close, and I've been convinced since the 90s that they're all just one big prank on me. I have rarely identified with anyone more than that guy in Mallrats.
Seriously, though, has anyone ever actually seen anything in one of these pictures? I have never even come close, and I’ve been convinced since the 90s that they’re all just one big prank on me. I have rarely identified with anyone more than that guy in Mallrats.

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.

Why is she bleeding Rainbow Brite's blood?
Why is she bleeding Rainbow Brite’s blood?

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.

They yada yada'd over the best part! (Here at The Unspoken Decade, we strive to bring you not just the best analysis of 90s comics, but also the finest in 90s references.)
They yada yada’d over the best part! (Here at The Unspoken Decade, we strive to bring you not just the best analysis of 90s comics, but also the finest in 90s references.)

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.

Just goes to show that straight or gay, regular person or godlike manifestation, men are still men.
Just goes to show that straight or gay, regular person or godlike manifestation, men are still men.

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.

Huh, trying to explain this story makes me feel the opposite.
Huh, trying to explain this story makes me feel the opposite.

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!”

Last week I snuck the Punisher in for Dean; this week it's Monty Python for me!
Last week I snuck the Punisher in for Dean; this week it’s Monty Python for me!

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.

Another example of how these comics differ: To this day, I think the fake alien monster Ozymandias makes in Watchmen is too ridiculous looking and strains credulity to the point that it takes me out of the comic and is its lone fault. If this thing showed up in Enigma, I wouldn't bat an eye. (If you are livid at me for profaning Watchmen, you are not alone. Dean and I have exchanged many strong words on this very issue. Agree with him how wrong I am in the comments.)
Another example of how these comics differ: To this day, I think the fake alien monster Ozymandias makes in Watchmen is too ridiculous looking and strains credulity to the point that it takes me out of the comic and is its lone fault. If this thing showed up in Enigma, I wouldn’t bat an eye. (If you are livid at me for profaning Watchmen, you are not alone. Dean and I have exchanged many strong words on this very issue. Agree with him how wrong I am in the comments.)

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.

I'm not sure where the Head fits into this. At this point, I'm so full up of theories and symbolism that I'm fine saying that brain eating is just cool, no matter how much the Head himself thinks there's more to it.
I’m not sure where the Head fits into this. At this point, I’m so full up of theories and symbolism that I’m fine saying that brain eating is just cool, no matter how much the Head himself thinks there’s more to it.

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.

Enigma End

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!