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Comics You Should Own – Enigma

Big-time SPOILERS in this post! I apologize for it, but it needs to be done!

Enigma by Peter Milligan (writer) and Duncan Fegredo (artist).

DC/Vertigo, 8 issues (#1-8), cover dated March-October 1993.

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Peter Milligan has always been interested (some might say obsessed) with two grand themes: identity and sexuality.  His best comics (Shade, the Changing Man; The Minx; Human Target; X-Force/X-Statix; even his brief run on Detective) deal with these themes in varying degrees of depth, but in Enigma more than most of his other work, these two themes are linked very closely.  Milligan’s ability to create characters who seem absurd on the surface but turn out to be very human is one of the hallmarks of his writing, and in this series, he reaches for great heights and gives us a disturbing yet uplifting story about discovering who we are.  Milligan examines some tough ideas in the book, including the how conscious we are of ourselves, how we choose to believe in things that might not be true because they’re comforting, and how we can become something more than we are.

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The various themes are present throughout, but they really crystallize near the end, when we learn that, in fact, our narrator is a lizard.  The Enigma, who is not really a superhero at all, gives a lizard human consciousness, and the lizard attempts to tell his fellow lizards the entire story, but they simply don’t understand because, well, they’re lizards.  This is a fascinating device, because it leads us back through the story that is ending, and we come to new understanding about the Enigma and his place in the world, as well as Michael Smith’s, as well as ours.  Michael, the nominal hero of the book, has gone through a transformative experience, and he, like the Enigma, can’t explain what he has gone through to his fellow humans.  He is like the lizard with a human consciousness trying to explain to other lizards who are just lizards.  He has been changed (in a passive sense – the change might have come from an external source), but he has also grown.  Therefore, he can become something different, just like we all have to.

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The idea behind the plot is that we are all hiding something, something enigmatic, and only by bringing that to light and examining it can we own it and grow.  Michael is hiding the fact that he’s gay.  His sexual awakening is crucial to the story, and Milligan tells it in a fascinating manner.  At first, Michael is in the closet, but his sex life with his girlfriend is predictable and boring.  He meets Titus Bird, the writer of the old Enigma comic book, with whom he tries to discover the secret of the Enigma.  Titus is gay, and at one point makes a pass at Michael, who violently rejects him.  Titus is abject in his apology, and the scene earned the enmity of some letter-writers, even though it’s quite obvious that Michael is sublimating.  Later we learn that the Enigma made Michael gay, which is an odd twist, and when he offers to change Michael back, Michael tells him no.  This feels problematic, as it implies that someone can change their mind about their sexual orientation, but the interesting thing is that Milligan leaves it very unclear about when the Enigma exactly changed Michael.  It’s vague if the Enigma really did anything to make Michael “different” or if Michael came to the realization himself.  Of course, Michael and the Enigma become lovers, which makes the story even more problematic – the Enigma is supposed to be a fictional character come to life.  Michael is learning how to live in his new skin.  He has shed his old life and become something different, and his romance with the Enigma leads him to unexpected places.  The book has been, all along, about discovery and rebirth, and Michael has to go through the birth pains.  Far more important than Michael’s orientation is his newfound capacity for love – the Enigma knows nothing about social mores or “orientation,” and therefore can’t be called “gay” or “straight,” and Michael doesn’t love him because he’s gay, he loves the Enigma because this superhero offers the chance to be something different, to break away from the staid life he has known and experience true emotion.  Milligan manages to make a nice statement on how people become what they are with the Enigma, who grew up with absolutely no social influence one way or the other.  He simply is, and Michael falls in love with that dynamism.  The Enigma is dangerous, too, because of his lack of social restraint, but that danger is also attractive to someone like Michael.

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The Enigma, who remains somewhat of a mystery throughout the book, is more of a mirror in which we can see our world reflected than a real character.  He shows us the ugliness of the world and the possibility of it.  When he was a baby on a farm in Arizona, he did something to his father’s face – we never learn what.  His mother dropped him down a well and killed his father because what he did drove her insane.  In the well, he survived and thrived, until one day when the new owner of the farm discovers that he’s down there.  For the Enigma, it was as if the world ended, because for him, that’s what happened.  His entire existence had been defined by a set of rules, and he suddenly realized they were wrong.  It’s not surprising that he too is insane, like his mother, but his insanity becomes a creative force when he realizes he has the power to shape reality.  He finds Michael’s old house, which had been buried in an earthquake, finds his old comic books, and fashions his world after what he reads there, with himself in the hero’s role.  But what he does with his power shows us that reality is malleable and insincere, and when, as the Enigma, he creates “villains” from the old comic book, they strip away the veneer of rational thought that exists in the world.  The villains – the Head, the Truth, Envelope Girl, and the Interior League – show the people of the world the lies on which they have built their lives.  The Interior League, for instance, sneaks into houses at night and rearranges the furniture in such a way as to drive the occupants mad.  Milligan is making a sly point about how superficiality rules our lives, and because the Enigma created the League, he’s revealing through them his contempt for the “normal.”  Michael, who is part of this normality, must overcome that, and because he does, he is able to confront the Enigma and survive.  The Enigma is not in the book as a real character – he’s in the book to simply show the other characters what they have been hiding.  Only by standing up to the secrets and enigmas of ourselves will we be able to be happy.  Those who don’t spiral into madness.

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Tied into the idea of identity and discovering who you are is the idea of belief and how it shapes our world.  The Enigma is the model for this kind of thinking, as his beliefs about the world literally shape reality.  He has nothing on which to model his world, so he uses Titus Bird’s old comics as holy texts.  Milligan is taking a shot at our own holy texts and the belief systems we base on them – who knows what future archaeologists will glean from the remnants we leave behind, so who knows what people in the past were really thinking when they came up with so-called holy texts?  Titus Bird, as the author of these new holy texts, even becomes a figure of worship, by lost souls called the Enigmatics, who chase him down hoping for wisdom to spill from his lips.  Our lizard narrators demeans these worshippers, asking “Did these apes lose most of their brains when they lost most of their hair?” and pointing out that although they can’t wait to leave their parents, they just find new ones once they do.  The Enigmatics play a small but crucial role in the proceedings, but it’s interesting that the Enigma inspires a brand-new cult to spring up around him, and this belief of the Enigmatics changes reality just a bit.  Michael’s belief system, of course, undergoes the most radical change.  His beliefs about who he is are completely upended, and his reality changes accordingly.  In the beginning, he believes that he is a heterosexual male with a boring sex life – he and his girlfriend, Sandra, have sex only on Tuesday nights (why Tuesday?).  Once he encounters the Enigma, his belief system changes and he starts to remake his reality.  He is no longer a rather pathetic straight man, he is a dynamic gay man.  It’s fascinating to realize that Milligan is turning stereotypes on their head with regard to Michael.  When he is “straight,” he is ineffectual and the slightest bit feminine, which is a common stereotype about homosexuals.  When he comes out of the closet, he becomes more manly and virile, standing up to people, fighting for “justice,” and having wild sex.  Sandra comments on this change, which attracts her greatly, but Michael has changed too much to go back to her.  When he leaves her, she says she loves him, but he answers, “I don’t think you love me, Sandra.  I think you just hate the idea of me not loving you.”  The new Michael conforms to our stereotype of how a “real” man acts, and it’s ironic that all of this came about when he realized what he was.  The change in his belief system has changed his reality, mostly for the better.  Milligan does a nice job showing us how what we believe influences not only who we are, but how we perceive the world and even how the world changes for us.  It’s a step further than the usual idea of our beliefs simply coloring our perception, and it’s handled well.

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At its heart, Enigma is a love story.  As I wrote, Michael finds within himself a capacity for love, and this love is what allows him to change.  The question becomes: did the love change him, or did the change allow him to experience love?  It’s not really that idle a question, because Milligan is looking at what gives us the reasons to love, and how we express that.  Is it only through sex?  No, because Michael and Sandra have sex and they don’t love each other.  Even when Michael and the Enigma have sex, we’re not entirely sure they truly love each other.  Enigma is appropriately named for a variety of reasons, one of which is the idea that love can be examined and understood.  The Enigma is dangerous, as we’ve seen, but Michael loves him anyway.  It’s not rational, it’s enigmatic, and Milligan wants us to divine for ourselves why we love the way we do and if it’s true or not.  Michael and Sandra have a perfectly reasonable relationship.  She’s cheating on him, sure, but she doesn’t flaunt it.  But it’s all artifice.  Michael finds something different with the Enigma, and even if it’s not totally good for him, it’s definitely necessary for him.  In Milligan’s writing, love is often a shade dangerous, and that’s not bad, because we all need to make that leap into the unknown.  When the Enigma offers to “change” Michael back to a straight man, Michael realizes that the leap of faith he took landed him in his true self, and he is able to love now, whereas when he was “normal,” he didn’t have that capability.  Michael can’t explain his love, but that’s not the point.  Love shouldn’t be explained.  Love should be felt.

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Duncan Fegredo’s art is astounding throughout the series, as it is a rare instance of an artist changing his style over the course of the book not simply because he’s getting better, but as a complement to the story itself.  Early on, Fegredo’s art is sketchy and full of what appears to be superfluous lines.  This coincides with the time in Michael’s life during which he himself is sketchy and full of redundancy.  Michael is vaguely rendered because he doesn’t know who he is, and his identity is uncertain.  He wanders through a haze of life, and Fegredo’s art reflects this nicely.  As Michael begins to form and take hold of an identity, Fegredo’s art becomes much tighter and clearer.  He is bringing the world into focus because the characters are coming into focus, and Michael is resolving the conflicts that tear at him and keep him from becoming a fully actualized human being.  It’s really interesting to gaze at the book, because in some early issues, it’s difficult to figure out what’s going on – it doesn’t help that a character like the Head is truly grotesque.  That’s the point, however, and Fegredo makes it with his art as much as Milligan makes it with his writing – as long as we are conflicted over love and the truth about ourselves and our reality, we won’t be able to tell what’s going on.  It takes a while for the art to shift, but if we contrast Michael in the first issue with Michael when he leaves Sandra for good in issue #4, we see that he is beginning to have more focus.  Finally, by the end of the book, not only is Michael a fully drawn character (both literally and figuratively), but so are the other participants.  The Enigma, even though he remains slightly mysterious, has come more into focus, and he and Michael can see each other clearly.  This shift in art is deliberate (it’s mentioned in one of the letter columns) and brings some of Milligan’s points nicely to the forefront without being too obvious.

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Enigma is a tough book to get into because it is so weird early on.  I read it originally in installments, and it’s definitely better as a complete whole.  DC, surprisingly enough given their short-sighted policy concerning older works, especially the early Vertigo stuff, published a trade paperback of this.  It’s apparently still in print (you can find it on Amazon, for instance), and it’s well worth a look.  Milligan can be one of the most interesting writers in comics, and this is a book that shows off the reasons why.

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23 Comments

I loved Enigma when it first premiered, but I seem to remember that Fegredo’s ink line changed significantly over the course of the series. It seemed to get less detailed and more chunky (perhaps because of artistic development or perhaps because the series was concluded hastily after a huge lead time for the first few issues?)

The weirdest thing about this series is that it was ORIGINALLY supposed to be published by Disney as part of their Touchmark line (along with Sebastain O and some other stuff). Can you imagine if this had been a Disney comic?

Yo Greg — I’m so happy to find Enigma on the list of Comics You Should Own! And pleasantly surprised to hear that the trade is still in print.

Enigma was (is) indeed fantastic. Peter Milligan misses the mark so often; but when he gets it right he’s easily as good as, if not better than, any of his 2000ad/Deadline contemporaries (which include Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Mark Millar, etc. etc)

Milligan’s stuff, while very good, always leaves me cold, with the exception of the X-Force issues he did (X-Statix sucked until the final arc, with the hilarious Mr. Sensitive vs Iron Man battle in a field full of flowers).

Finally, a comic I do actually own. Enigma is brilliant stuff and I agree with Dave up there that this and parts of Shade are some of the best comics (surprisingly little) money can buy: Milligan has a way with words which can really leave a mark. As with many of the 2000AD alumni, it’s definitely worth trying to get a hold of his earlier work: the TPB of Bad Company should be fairly easy to get hold of and there’s a reprint of The Dead on the way.

Enigma is indeed fantastic!

Milligan’s stuff, while very good, always leaves me cold, with the exception of the X-Force issues he did (X-Statix sucked until the final arc, with the hilarious Mr. Sensitive vs Iron Man battle in a field full of flowers).

Interestig point of view. For me, X-Statix was better than X-Force except for that last Avengers storyline which was a bit crap

Tim – check out Fegredo’s work on the scans – the early issues seemed sketchier. The art was definitely busier, but the art got tighter as the series went on. It MAY have been because he was working faster and didn’t have time to obsess over things, which certainly works for Bachalo these days. But early on, the art was definitely more vague, for whatever reason.

I vaguely remember Fregredo commenting that that was a result of him getting more confident as the series progressed

Yeah, one of my favorite superhero books ever. Maybe my single favorite from the past two decades.

(And a very nice write-up.)

I actually do own this series (found most of it in a discount bin!), but I haven’t read it yet. I can’t wait!

Mmmm.

I thoroughly agree that Enigma is a great comic, and that it stands up to rereading (which is unusual)…

… but I’m not sure that writing “You should read this comic, it has one of the best surprise twists ever – and this is what it is” is the best way to sell this comic to the uninitiated. And that goes double for putting it in the opening sentence.

~ Gil

Gil – yeah, that’s true. Whenever I do these posts, I spoil a lot, because these are comics that have been out for a long time and it’s like giving away the ending of “Citizen Kane.” The identity of the narrator, I think, has a lot to do with what Milligan is doing in the book, so to discuss the book in great detail without revealing it is kind of impossible. These comics, to my mind, stand up even if you know the revelations, and although the lizard is an important revelation, I don’t think it destroys the reading of the book at all.

And I didn’t spoil what happens to our three main characters, did I?

True. I suppose it’s down to whether the column is a dissection of what makes the comic great, which you’d expect would target people who’ve read it and would like to know about the extra layers – like the excellent 31 Days Of 7 Soldiers – or whether it’s doing the comic a public service by trying to sell it to some brand-new readers. I appreciate it’s tricky, though… it’s just that this comic in particular made me stop and boggle at its audacity, and that, sadly, just doesn’t happen with enough comics. Good article, anyway.

~ Gil

I think the book works even if you know the identity of the narrator. Great stuff is like that – the twist is fun, but it has to be able to draw you back. I hope people who haven’t read this will still check it out, because there’s so much interesting stuff going on.

This is like my favorite mini-series ever, and I bought it just as I was discovering my sexuality. It helped tons. Great art. Great story. Great characters. Great twist that I didn’t even understand first time around.

I read this when it first came out and just reread it a couple months ago actually. Makes me wish Milligan gets back to doing more Vertigo stuff, I liked all the stuff he has done for them. Remember Egypt and Extremist?

Ah…….finally, some love for Enigma. It just might be the most underappreciated comic book of the century.

superb comic!!! my most favorite!!!
does anybody know where i can get all 8 series?
had it just borrowed from library….
want to own it!!!!
pls, let me know.

Marcela: I’m sure you can get it at Amazon.com. It’s still in print.

hi!!!
yeah thanks, i just checked it and found few!! they are not in .co.uk. where i was looking before.
but im still a bit confused.
there is one comic – enigma – in purple color and just a mask with lizards displayed on the cover.
is this like an ultimate version where all these parts are together??
or is it completely different story??
please let me know – if they are different im going to order the separate parts immediately!!
i love that comic!!
and ….do you know any chance about similar ones?

thanks!! marcela

That sounds like the collection of all eight issues. It’s the same story, all in one place. I’m not positive, but it sounds like it.

o.k.thanks for all the information!!
the separate parts must have been pretty thin though.
thanks again!!

Jonathon Riddle

May 31, 2012 at 10:05 pm

So it seems to me our dear Greg has a noticable weakness for Peter Milligan. This piece, in conjunction with his articles on The Extremist, Dark Knight Dark City, Human Target, and Milligan’s run on Detective Comics, proves this. There has been a promise of a Shade the Changing Man article when Greg gets up to letter S in this wonderful series of articles.

I wonder then, Greg, do you plan on writting about either Milligan’s run on X-Force or the Skreemer limited series?

Also, if no one here has read it (and even if you have) I would like to recommend The Eaters. It was printed (reprinted?) by Vertigo circa 1995. It’s about a family that eats human flesh (but don’t call them cannibals!) and like many of Milligan’s stories, it works on multiple layers and is rich with symbolism.

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