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Quarterly reviews of sequential art about
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Gutterfags is sponsored by Sticky Graphic Novels, an imprint of gay character-based, sex-positive graphic novels published in hardcover by Bruno Gmünder GmbH and in digital format by Class Comics.
by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo
reviewed by Bruce Asbury for Gutterfags
Part One: Is Enigma A Good Story?
When you’re a child, the characters of your favorite media oftentimes seem as real as people in real life. In your imagination, they are your friends, your confidants, your playmates, perhaps even your first love. Best of all, they will never disappoint you, nor hate you, nor leave you: they travel with you in your mind, ready to be pulled out into existence at your desire. But what if a character you loved as a child, one that you kept as an imaginary friend, suddenly did pop into existence, but wasn’t exactly what you thought he was?
This question is at the heart of Enigma, a 1993 limited series that was a founding title for DC’s Vertigo imprint. Written by Peter Milligan with art by Duncan Fregredo, Enigma follows Michael Smith, a telephone repairman living in Pacific City. Michael lives an ordered, neat life, where he never takes risks nor deviates from his scheduled routines -- much to the chagrin of his unfaithful girlfriend, Sandra. Michael’s status as the platonic ideal of normalcy is threatened, however, when he sees a lizard flying through the air. He follows it to an apartment, where he finds a couple being attacked by a grotesque creature that calls itself “The Head”. For the past couple of weeks, The Head has been terrorizing Pacific City due to his nasty habit of eating people’s brains via a straw-like instrument that is inserted through the victim’s nose. Michael almost becomes The Head’s next victim until he is rescued by a mysterious masked man who kills the monster. Upon recovering from his injuries, Michael realizes that he recognized both The Head and the masked man from his favorite comic book as a child: The Enigma. Feeling that he is somehow connected to all of this, Michael seeks out the comic’s creator, Titus Bird, a gay ex-hippie who is upset that the appearance of The Enigma’s hero and villains has caused a large group of people to view The Enigma as some sort of sequential-art bible, and Titus as a modern-age prophet. Michael and Titus decide that they need to figure out what’s causing Titus’ characters to come to life, but delving into the secret of The Enigma will cause Michael to look into his own past, as well as into the secrets of his own desire, and he might not like what he finds.
Enigma is one of those rare books where I honestly couldn’t tell whether or not I enjoyed it. Like most other creative works that inspire such ambivalence, Enigma is incredibly uneven. The ideas behind the book captured my imagination but the execution left me frustrated. While I was reading it, I would be completely enraptured for a few pages, and then I would find it a bit of a struggle to get through other parts. This is particularly noticeable in the artwork and the way the story unfolds.
Fregredo’s artwork for Enigma isn’t necessarily bad, but it often doesn’t seem conducive to effective sequential storytelling. It’s mostly a problem in the first few issues, where his work is sketchier and more chaotic. While this may help set the mood for the story, I often found it hard to follow along with what was going on, especially with the way he frames the villains -- you never get a clear look at them. As far as the character designs go, I really do like them, as Fregredo manages to make them look realistic and yet also highly stylized. Michael’s design in particular made me think of Egon Schiele (or, if you want to go for an artist who was big in the early 90s, Peter Chung), with his gaunt face, pouty lips, thin frame, and dramatic poses. The design for the villains is also really great as well, like Envelope Girl (a woman who can transport people to other places), whose postage-inspired dress manages to mix two of the campiest types of fashion sense (supervillain costume design and early 90s couture) without looking idiotic. It’s just a shame that Fregredo’s panel layouts obscure his great character designs.
When I say that the story for Enigma is uneven, I don’t mean that the plot itself is bad, because I think the plot is an interesting one, but the story is definitely rushed. Milligan tried to put way too many plot points for an eight-issue limited series. The characters who suffer the most because of this are the villains. Milligan created some great villains for this series, from the relatively normal comic book-type monster like the aforementioned Head, to the truly original Interior League (a group of villains who drive people insane by rearranging a person’s furniture in a certain way). It would have been great if these villains could have been the focus of an issue or two, but for the most part only show up for a few panels, only to be killed (rather quickly I must add) by The Enigma. In a similar fashion, the Enigmatics (people who view The Enigma as a religious text), who could have provided a compelling plot point as well as a fascinating exploration of religious fervor, are pushed to the background . While the story for Enigma can only work as a limited series, expanding the number of issues from 8 to at least 12 would have not only let Milligan focus on the villains, but also let him explore the themes of the book more completely, as well as giving Michael and Titus time to have more gradual character development.
One thing I definitely appreciated is Milligan’s treatment of Titus Bird, the creator of The Enigma who happens to be gay. Forget progressive for 1993, this character is more progressive than a lot of gay characters in modern media. He’s a paunchy middle-aged man, whose grooming (handlebar mustache, hair that’s kept long despite a receding hairline) and fashion sense (black t-shirt and jeans) don’t give away any obvious gay coding. Milligan also managed to find the sweet spot on emphasizing Bird’s sexuality, neither hiding it, but also not pushing it to the forefront of his every action or conversation. All too often, it seems like authors feel like either they should totally desex their queer characters, or have them mention their sexuality with every other sentence, and Milligan never falls into that trap.
So is Enigma worth the read? Despite its flaws, I would have to say so. Though the art can make the story hard to follow at times, and the story isn’t long enough to explore the issues it raises in depth, I still found the series to be a fascinating read. Milligan has a talent for creating engaging characters, and stories that will compel you to push through any difficulty or confusion, and while it’s a bit frustrating that the ideas behind the book are only truly explored in your own mind, that may be because that’s where the ideas really belong.
Hey guys, I know that some of you may be upset that I really didn’t talk about the eponymous Enigma much in my review. That’s because this review is a two-parter. A big draw of the book is the mystery of The Enigma himself, and I really didn’t want to go into a lot of detail about the character in my general review, since everything I want to mention about the Enigma is full of spoilers.
Part Two: Is Enigma A Queer Story?
While I wanted to keep the first part of my review as spoiler-free as possible (forcing me to be vaguer than I would like), it almost seems like this may be a futile measure, since most reviews and press for the book seem to be upfront about a plot point which should have been a twist: Michael and The Enigma become lovers. In fact, the blurb at the back of the trade talks about “Discovering your desires”, and the series’ editor, Art Young, mentioned that the story reminded him of his own discovery of his homosexuality. Just about everything that promotes Enigma promotes it as a story about discovering one’s self. It’s all very inspirational and feel-good.
It’s a shame that the text doesn’t support that perspective.
First, I suppose I should explain the nature of The Enigma, since I’m sure there are plenty of readers who are unfamiliar with the story, and aren’t afraid of spoilers. The Enigma is a man who was born with the innate ability to control matter, and bend people’s mind to his will. He first uses this power as an infant when he (possibly unintentionally) does something to change his father’s face. Terrified, his mother drops him down a well, where he somehow survives, and uses his power to bring him lizards as food. Eventually he is discovered, and he leaves his well and finds his way to the ruins of Michael’s old house. There, he finds Michael’s old copies of The Enigma, and decides to give his life purpose by turning the old comic into his life. He does this by transforming people, both mentally and physically, into the villains of the series. However, The Enigma knows that his mother is coming for him; she herself has become monstrous, and The Enigma believes that the only way he can beat her is by showing that he has some sort of humanity. Unfortunately for him, The Enigma has no human attachments, but he does feel the love that Michael has imprinted onto his old comics. So The Enigma manipulates the Michael into falling in love with him, transforming Michael from a heterosexual into a homosexual through supernatural conversion therapy.
Milligan doesn’t hide the fact that The Enigma is amoral at best, and a sociopathic monster at worst. Michael even mentions that he’s “in love with a monster”. And yet, people view Enigma not as a horror story about a man who is forced to fall in love with a being beyond his understanding, but instead it’s presented as a story about a man who discovers his sexuality. However, I didn’t see anything in the text that supported that he was heterosexual beforehand. Any inkling of gay feelings that Michael has happened well after The Enigma appears on the scene, and in the finale, The Enigma basically admits that he turned Michael gay. To make matters worse, while Michael is horrified (and rightly so) that The Enigma forced people to become villains because of a need for identity and meaning, he doesn’t seem to have any problems with The Enigma turning him gay.
Now I could get behind Michael deciding he wants to stay with The Enigma, if there was enough character development to warrant that ending, but the relationship doesn’t start until the end of the series. There isn’t enough time to delve into the relationship and why it would want to make a formerly straight man want to stay gay. Instead, Milligan chose the easy way out by making Michael’s heterosexual relationship a sham. I understand Milligan probably wrote the straight relationship as a poor one to make the gay one more palatable to an early nineties audience, but it truly is to the stories detriment that he traded the possibility of a true dilemma over Michael’s decision to stay gay, instead of making it an easy choice that’s presented and chosen within the last three pages of the series. The aggravating thing is, if Milligan didn’t want to address the problematic aspect of Michael and The Enigma’s relationship, he didn’t have to. It would have been easy for Michael to be a repressed homosexual who had a crush on The Enigma as a child. The Enigma could have still felt a desire to seek out Michael based on the love the boy had for the comic, and the story could have truly been about Michael discovering and coming to terms with his homosexuality.
So why do people want to romanticize a relationship that is -- in all honesty -- a rape? I think it’s simple: there wasn’t much queer content being published by a mainstream publisher in the early 1990s. In 1993, Wolverine and Hercules would have never hooked up (not even in an alternate universe), Batwoman would have never been a lesbian, and Archie wouldn’t have even known what being gay meant -- let alone die to save a gay friend. In short, people had to take what they could get, and they could do a lot worse than Enigma. I know that in my earlier years, I felt empowered by plenty of problematic stuff so I can’t judge people for feeling empowered by this comic.
- About the reviewer -
Bruce Asbury is just another Creative Writing major who isn’t using his degree. After graduating from Pittsburg State University, he wandered around Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma before succumbing to the siren song of the Chicago winter. When he isn’t reading or writing about comics, you can find him practice kissing on his mirror while he dances to Grace Jones.