My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A cult classic, Enigma was originally published as an eight-issue miniseries in 1993 as part of the kick-off of DC’s Vertigo imprint. Its writer, Peter Milligan, then best-known for Shade the Changing Man, was part of comics’ British invasion following the mid-1980s breakthrough of Alan Moore. Though Milligan never attained the fame of his fellow Vertigo writers, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, he wrote comics that were equal to theirs if less obvious in their aesthetic effects and meanings.
Morrison himself pronounced Enigma better than Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen—considered, that is, as a revisionist and relatively adult approach to the super-hero narrative. But the two works are so different that there is little point in comparing them. Watchmen is a crystalline high-modernist construct in disguise as pop culture ephemera: it mounts a grand-narrative critique of twentieth-century geopolitics, promotes a visionary experience of time and consciousness, and attains a new formal language for its art-form. The more intimate and surreal Romantic-postmodern Enigma deliberately rejects such ambitions. Instead of taking place in Moore’s “real world,” it is set in a skewed reality where a tawdry-looking Pacific City, usually shown at twilight or night, doubles as L.A., and where Arizona is a near-mythical mental space, a primal scene. Instead of Gibbons’s détournement of classic Silver Age comics art into grainy realism, we get Duncan Fegredo’s delirious line-crazed visuals, seemingly influenced by Undergrounds and Métal hurlant, with its oblique camera angles and bleed-heavy layouts.
Enigma tells the story of the sad-sack everyman Michael Smith. a telephone repairman in Pacific City, whose mundane life is suddenly invaded by weirdness when the villains from his favorite comic book as a child come to life and begin terrorizing the city. Eventually, the hero himself—the Enigma—comes on the scene, leading Michael to seek both his fictional idol and the writer who created him, a burnt-out gay hippie named Titus Bird. What follows is an investigation into identity, sexual desire, and the influence of art on life and vice versa.
The story’s strangeness and unpredictability are echoed in Fegredo’s wild lines, seeking the edge of the page in all directions, while Milligan, with his understanding of reality as a human projection upon a meaningless void, shows super-hero stories to be only one set of ideas and affects through which one might organize the world. Though shot through with ’90s cynicism and cruel humor, Enigma is saved from postmodern glibness by its moral concern for the well-being of individuals—see Titus’s anguish over the deadly influence of his artistic creation—and by its argument for the necessity of love, even, or or not “even” but especially, in a meaningless cosmos.
Fegredo’s art only looks better with the passage of time, in my view, and Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh’s painted colors—which beautifully unify each page around a theme and the whole book around a mood, but which are also effectively nausea-inducing in their muddy, vaguely execratory palette—are exceptional.
But the most memorable and surprising aspect of Enigma is its narrative voice (the identity of the narrator is not revealed until the startling final page). Avoiding the generic standards of the time—either the breathy lyricism of Moore’s Swamp Thing, reprised by Gaiman in Sandman, or else the hard-boiled first-person noir stylings of Frank Miller—Milligan opts for an amusingly verbose, seemingly neurotic, sometimes hectoring narrator, one who produces genuinely surprising sentences, a rarity in comics. I will end with my favorite of these: it is both funny and moving, and contains the entire book in miniature (ellipses in original):
His hand moves slowly…and Michael remembers the first time he stood naked in front of a strange girl…because that’s what he feels like now. A strange girl.