I’ve talked plenty of times before about the delightful strangeness that was delivered unto comic fans by DC’s Vertigo imprint in the early 1990s; between Morrison, Gaiman, and the rest of the weirdos that made magical-realism-on-speed the genre of the era, readers were not wanting for bizarre concepts intended to make them think about their place in the universe. Peter Milligan was firmly at the eye of the Vertigo hurricane, with titles like Shade the Changing Man, Egypt, and The Extremist arriving from the imprint throughout its earliest days, each one filled to the brim with literary allusions and an arch, knowing attitude that questioned everything— even its own importance and relevance to the reader.
Perhaps the most prevalent themes in Milligan’s contributions to this era, however, were his fascinations with identity, sexuality, and the idea of fitting yourself into a world that doesn’t quite feel big enough for you. No one series handled these quite as methodically, or as deftly, as Enigma, which married all three into a story that is not only about the consciousness of the self, but the need for acceptance for becoming something new when we’re willing and able to accept the truth of who we need to be.
Enigma centers around Michael Smith — an everyday man with an everyday life in an everyday “we can’t go out tonight, it’s our sex night” heterosexual relationship — whose life is so predictable and miserable that, even for him, there’s no escaping the dullness of his routine. That dullness quickly fades as fictional characters from Michael’s favorite childhood comic book begin to invade his reality, including the titular hero, The Enigma.
As Michael sets out to discover the writer of the comic — Titus Bird, a gay man who’s life has been haunted by his former career as a comic artist, seemingly with hypnotic capabilities — to ask for his help, the city becomes plagued with increasingly bizarre serial killers that The Enigma must face, including The Head, The Truth, and Envelope Girl (the latter a terribly fun character borrowed from Milligan’s earlier run on Vertigo’s Animal Man).
First to appear is The Head, a personal favorite character simply because he is the striped-unitard nightmare whose gnarled, bloated appearance is only enhanced by Fegredo’s frantic penmanship and obscured angles. The Head — once a traveling salesman named Robert Cliff — is a mutated villain from Titus’ comic books whose preferred method of attack is assaulting victims with a metal straw through which to extract their brain matter. Why does he do that? Well, he wants to consume it, allowing him to acquire all of his victims’ emotions, knowledge, and experiences. A grotesque vampire of empathy and vicarious living, his eventual gruesome death at the hands of The Enigma stems from the hero’s lack of true identity. (Spoilers, I guess…?)
The second, and very telling, nemesis of both the true and the metatextual Enigma comic is The Truth. Larger than life and towering like a god himself inside of a cathedral, The Truth’s special supervillainy stems from seeking out and sharing the lies that rule peoples’ lives. Having already killed by the dozen —and nearly killing The Enigma, who appears to protect Michael in a surprise last minute rescue —The Truth also dies a gruesome death at the hands of the Enigma… a figure that, ultimately, contradicts everything The Truth believes that he is.
Finally, of course, there’s Envelope Girl — a supermodel supervillain whose powers allow her to swallow up her victims in her oversized envelope coat, transporting them far away to wherever she decides to send them. Michael, in this case, is sent to the place of The Enigma’s origin: a farm in the middle of Arizona, where The Enigma claims to have been raised on his own in a well among lizards. Curiously, although The Enigma is more than happy to put her in the hospital with the intent of finishing the job, Envelope Girl survives their confrontation… until an entirely new force intimately connected to The Enigma eviscerates her, and prepares to give him, The Enigma, the same treatment.
Though not the entire focus of the story, each monstrous supervillain plays an important part in building the meaning behind Enigma the comic book series, painting a picture of coming out of the closet that is not dissimilar to the steps of grief— living vicariously, denial of the truth, and transporting oneself into parts of one’s past. Each one is a representation of a part of consciousness that only really becomes unlocked once the person is willing to look into it. Fittingly, then, once these seeming threats have been dealt with, Michael finds himself with a closer connection with The Enigma — one that grows into not only a keener sense of self, but a sense of intimacy with others.
Intimacy and sexual awakening are undoubtedly some of the most key parts to Milligan’s story in the series, with the writer building upon earlier work like Shade or his 2000 AD series Freaks. As the reader can see from the series opening, in Michael’s beginnings — his closeted life — he’s bored and tired of sex with his girlfriend, but upon meeting Titus, who initially tries to make a pass at him, Michael immediately becomes enraged; vehemently rejecting Titus’ advance and insisting that he’s not queer. To any person who has grown up in the closet, this act of violent diversion is the most telling in knowing exactly how hard Michael does not want to admit to his budding sexuality.
This is, of course, nonsense, and as the story heads into its final act, The Enigma and Michael become lovers. (The splash page to the series’ seventh issue, with the two men nude in a post-coital embrace, is still one of the most remarkable scenes in comics I’ve ever set my eyes on.) Their relationship grows as The Enigma reveals the truth about himself and his background — a twisted tale of heartbreak and whimsical hurt and also lizards— opening up Michael to a whole new way of thinking; and in the process, more importantly, showing Michael that it’s possible, crucial, even, to shed one’s life and become something new from it.
As a young person trying to figure out whether it was okay to feel something new and vulnerable and questioning my feelings as I did so, this message is one that resonated incredibly hard, opening me up to the possibility of the most true version of myself being something to embrace rather than shun away.
Let’s face it though: this was a queer narrative written in the 1990s, and it wouldn’t be a truly queer touchstone of the times without an entertainingly problematic twist. Despite all of the vulnerability and intimacy shared between both The Enigma and Michael throughout their journey of discovery, it’s revealed that not only were the monsters — The Truth, The Head, and Envelope Girl — created by The Enigma in an attempt to get Michael to unfold himself, but that Michael’s “newfound queerness” was itself the result of Michael touching The Enigma’s mask, with Enigma admitting that he had “made [Michael] that way”. Had this book been written today, the writer would be drawn and quartered by every queer with half a mind and access to a local comic store. Within the history of comics — as well as the incredible emotional weight that comes from the story’s resolution— the narrative is one that feels satisfying in a greater, more obtuse sense.
It’s incredibly easy to read Michael’s ending as “you’re not born gay; you’re made gay by a fictional masked vigilante with a hot bod and long hair”— which may be true for some, in all fairness— but it’s just as easy to see the story conclude from a place of “sometimes you just need someone to be willing to start with you from the beginning, and meet you where you are in your journey of finding yourself.”
Milligan, I assumed very purposefully, makes it unclear exactly when Enigma “changed” Michael, allowing Michael, and subsequently us as readers, to see the greater story about Michael’s new capacity not just for sex, but for love and security within himself. The true story all along, whether queer or not, is one of rebirth, and that includes the birthing pains and awkwardness that comes from finding the person, or community, willing to give you patience as you unfurl your truth.
For many stories throughout life, and this can be seen acutely in the story of Enigma, the point is not about sex or love, but about being given the chance to reach as wide as you can, to just exist as you need to survive a little bit happier in the world. That message, regardless of how uncouth it’s delivery may seem, is brought home by Enigma confronting Michael to give him a choice to return to being heterosexual, which Michael promptly declines. After years of hurt and confusion, Michael is happy because he has found the people — both in reality and in a comic book— who are happy to sit alongside him as he untangles the messy interiors of himself.
I should point out: Michael’s evolution doesn’t just come from Miligan’s bold, swelling narrative, but also from the artwork of Duncan Fegredo and Sherilyn Van Valkenburg as well. Though the series is only eight issues long, the artistic journey that Fegredo takes the reader on is one that belongs in the all-time comic book hall of fame — beginning the series with sketchy, violent lines that, while seemingly messy, manic and unstructured, create a larger, more chaotic, image that mirror the experiences of Michael’s pre-Enigma life. As the story progresses, Fegredo’s line becomes smoother and more confident; it doesn’t lose the frenetic energy of the earlier pages even as it is filled with a new calm matched by Van Valkenburgh’s vibrant swathes of color. Van Valkenburgh’s coloring on the series is stunning, even today, bringing coherence to chaos in the story’s beginning, and then becoming more impressionistic and atmospheric as Fegredo brings clarity to his line; there are pages of breathtaking beauty produced between the two.
As Michael resolves his internal conflict, so do Fegredo and Van Valkenburgh ever so subtly connect the dots and resolve the visuals, making Michael, Enigma, and their connection fully formed and coming into a clear focus, literally and figuratively. If there is nothing else to be gained by new readers to this series, I promise that the artwork alone is truly and utterly astonishing.
Enigma is something that is both fun and difficult to revisit for all of the reasons I’ve just offered above. Reading the series gave me such clarity the first time I read it, with hope in my heart that the birthing pains of coming out as queer would leave me as understood as Michael. Re-reading my single issues in bed at night, taking them one at a time after nearly 15 years of the series going untouched, awakened new things once again, as I found myself getting comfortable with the idea of my questioning gender fluidity— proving that self-actualization really is an ongoing process, and one that takes messy experiences, love, and support to continue moving forward.
Enigma, while it may seem to have aged poorly for some, gave me the love and support I needed in such a way that I can never be grateful for enough. After 25 years, the story continues to open doors, ask important questions, and insist that fiction can be transformative in almost any way that we need it to be in order to grow.