The Enigma by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo is a superhero comic, although it hardly resembles anything of the genre. It’s a bizarre tale about a man who embarks on and journey of self discovery and sexual awakening as he attempts to solve the mystery surrounding a series of murders and possessed people that revolve around his favourite childhood comic book.
Our story begins with Michael Smith, a repairman leading a quiet, unremarkable life in a California with his girlfriend, when a spate of unusual murders appear in Pacific City in which the perpetrators are dressed as characters from a comic book Michael obsessed over as a child: Enigma. As Michael learns more about these murders, he begins to suspect that he is himself, implicated in these crimes.
The Enigma’s artwork is a far cry from the photoshopped slickness I associate with superhero comics. Wild and kinetic line work is paired with a moody, desaturated palette, resulting in an underlying sense of agitation and unease that compliments the writing well.
As for the writing, Enigma’s story leaps all over the place both spatially and temporally. Almost every new scene is as unexpected as the last, but the narrative remains easy to follow, guided as you are by the comic’s omniscient, Brechtian narrator. The narrator’s voice is also unpredictable and is in turns, snarky, philosophical and poetic with a touch of existential angst, serving up curious similes and caustic commentary throughout:
“It was an ordinary sort of farm in Arizona. The kind of place where you’d have sexual relations with your parents and end up shooting some one.”
“His mind assumed the proportions of an industrial revolution unaware of the ecological damage it was causing.”
“Sometimes he feels like a rumor drifting through a world of hard facts. What’s the point of you, Michael?”
There is much to the story that is absurd, I imagine to highlight the absurdity of the superhero genre. But even if you are unfamiliar with superhero comics, as I am, it is still accessible and the strong character development and playful narrative easily seduce you into suspending your disbelief.
I’d first read Enigma in my undergrad upon the recommendation of a friend of mine who knew I was watching a lot of glbtq films at the time (Enigma’s main cast features gay men). Upon my initial pass, the comic brought up ideas of how how meaning is constructed and interpreted, and how reality and notions of selfhood are shared and co-created between people. Reading it years later as someone interested in the structure of the comic and the methods by which this story was communicated, I took a different slant. It seems to me that Enigma highlights experiences of male disempowerment and the defeat of traditional patriarchal power wherein the resolution lies in extricating oneself from female influence, even by means of homosexuality. This stands in contrast to superhero comics which often pander to patriarchal power fantasies and has very different representations of women. I don’t know if there is any intentional commentary on the nature of the male superhero reading audience, but I think it’s safe to say that portraying the superhero character Enigma as something of a mother-fearing sociopath who happens to beat the crap out of a runway model and having gay male main characters was intentionally subversive.
Originally released by Vertigo in the early 1990s, I believe Enigma is now out of print. However, it should be readily available used. I can’t for the life of me remember where I bought my copy, but I’m guessing it was at the Silver Snail.