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Forever an Enigma: The History and Meaning(s) of Peter Milligan’s and Duncan Fegredo’s Postmodern Classic

“In measuring a circle,” the iconoclastic Charles Fort wrote, “one begins anywhere.”

With that in mind, then, considering the recursive nature of Peter Milligan's and Duncan Fegredo’s Enigma (DC/Vertigo, 1993; newly released in a hardcover “Definitive Edition” by Dark Horse/Berger Books), I don’t feel at all strange about starting at the end - not only because the story itself doesn’t, in fact, “end” per se, but because much of the (admittedly small-scale) “legend” that has sprung up around it came into being after the series concluded.

Anyway, about that ending - it’s equal parts muddled/unresolved and a bit too tidy for its own good, which means that tonally, at least, its an absolutely perfect way to wrap up a series that frequently finds itself playing with both polarities in self-conscious fashion. As we leave our trio of principal characters—everyman/nobody-special protagonist Michael Smith, “real-life” superhero The Enigma, and washed-up cartoonist Titus Bird, creator of The Enigma’s fictitious psychedelic comic book precursor/template—they are heading into a battle they may very well not survive with The Enigma’s monstrous Mother, but appear to be doing so with more spring in their step than circumstances might logically dictate. After all, Michael’s just discovered that he’s been manipulated (to put it kindly - mind-controlled might be more appropriate) by The Enigma to both fall in love with him and risk his life for him, Titus has just casually come to grips with the fact that his unrequited crush on Michael will never amount to squat thanks to his inability to compete with a goofball character that he himself invented over two decades previously, and The Enigma has been revealed to be the construct of a terribly abused child who spent most of his life imprisoned in a well - and not just any old construct, but a construct that said child actually became. Oh, and then we learn who the mysterious narrator of the series has been all along and he/it takes us right back to the beginning of the story...

As admittedly confusing as all this sounds, the genius of Enigma is that, by the time we reach this point, it all makes a kind of perfect sense within the context (whichever context you decide on that is, as there are some different options to choose from) of the series and, really, no other: Milligan and Fegredo have succeeded wildly at their task of creating a hermetically-sealed metafictional “world” governed by its own laws and internal logic. Michael should be furious at having his authentic self taken from him without his consent or knowledge, but instead decides his old life wasn’t worth a damn anyway and he’s happier as he is now; Titus should be a little bummed out, at the least, but instead contents himself with having a front-row seat to what may or may not be a happy ending for his “friends”/cohorts simply because “it’s been a long time since anyone looked that way” at him; and The Enigma quickly absolves himself of any guilt he might feel for his role in puppeteering the fates of others because, hey, they don’t seem at all pissed off about it themselves, and since he’s only marginally a “human being” in the strictest sense of the term anyway, the fact that his actions give him at least some pause is an encouraging sign that he could be developing into one.

Still, this is Michael Smith’s story first and foremost and, as such, it’s probably worth examining how a character who began “life” as a listless heterosexual telephone repairman literally sleepwalking his way through his existence became (notice I don’t say “ended up”) a comfortably gay nominal adventurer willing to accept any absurdities that came his way almost as a matter of course. But to do that we should all ask ourselves a perhaps-unanswerable question, namely:

Just who the hell are any of us, anyway?

The notion of identity is, all told, a pretty tricky thing to wrap one’s head around - axioms like “just be yourself” and “stay true to who you are” sound good on the surface of things, sure, but how many of us can well and truly put a finger on what they really mean? Most people’s personalities, beliefs, general outlook, and physical appearance change over time, often drastically, based on any number of factors from life experience to socioeconomic station to education to the simple reality of biological aging. No one is stagnant, and it probably wouldn’t be terribly healthy if we were. And yet, regardless of whether one subscribes to the concept of a “soul” or not, we are each of us without question separate and distinct beings. How much of what makes us who we are is the result of internal or external phenomena, though, is perhaps as ultimately impossible to fathom as the reason behind existence itself in a more general sense.

Enigma is, famously, an exploration of the nature of identity—both how it’s formed and what it means—but while the evolution/transformation of Michael Smith signifies the struggle of a person coming to grips with the self, the generally-less-commented-upon concurrent journey of The Enigma from terrorized kid trapped in a world of his own making and learning to “throw his mind” into the world writ large is that of an utterly singular self coming to grips with being a person. Two sides, one coin and all that. The fluidity of Michael’s sexuality provides a more obvious prism through which to examine his existential struggles—and marked the comic as being light years ahead of most of its contemporaries in the mainstream in regards to its depictions of both gay sex and, more crucially, love—but subsequent re-reads (of which I’ve engaged in several over the years) both lend some credence to the idea that Michael’s severe personality changes could possibly be every bit as much due a potentially traumatic brain injury he suffers as the result of a super-villain attack early in the second issue as they are to The Enigma’s mindfuckery or to any particular intellectual and emotional maturation that occurs, if you will, “naturally” - and that The Enigma’s comparatively understated “character arc” is every bit as compelling as the hapless Mr. Smith’s is. Hell, I’d almost go so far as to say that it is The Enigma who really represents—and functions as a borderline deus ex machina for—the major ideas author Milligan is expounding upon with this, arguably the finest comic of his now-lengthy career.

I use the term “expounding upon” with precision, I assure you, because, for all the twists and turns the story takes, for all the postmodern and metafictional tropes it trades in, for all the so-called “high weirdness” it helped to establish as a de rigueur feature of early-days Vertigo, in truth Enigma has a clear message and point of view from the outset - it’s just that Milligan is clever enough to save his full “philosophical reveal,” if you will, until the very end, and leaves one’s view of the events that led up to it open, as mentioned, to several possible interpretations. However—and this is what sets Milligan’s scripting apart from that of so many of his then-contemporaries—regardless of how one chooses to view/rationalize those events, the existential conclusions that he comes into the story with are inextricably woven into the metaphorical fibers of the plot itself. Really, it’s no reach to say this comic is a masterclass on how to intertwine subject and subject matter in such a way as to make certain they’re as utterly inseparable as they’re supposed to be in theory, but so often aren’t in practice.

Still, given that the “bleed-though” of a fictitious world into the real world is so central to the proceedings here, it’s perhaps both ironic and entirely apropos that the reverse is also true: a fair amount of the confusion, self-discovery and transformation that inform Enigma on the page came to inform (or maybe that should be infect, depending on how you choose to look at things) its actual process of creation. Sure, many a comic travels a circuitous path from concept to completion, but few can match the journey that this one took...

To date, the most comprehensive look at Enigma to appear online came courtesy of, believe it or not, Bleeding Cool, which posted a piece by David Dissanayake on December 9th, 2013 titled “Unsung Masterpieces – Enigma With Peter Milligan, Duncan Fegredo, And Art Young,” and appended a very engaging interview with the three gentleman in question. There were some small errors in there, sure, but even for a guy like me, who’d been fascinated with both this comic and the creative process behind it for two decades at that point, it offered up some new information - the most surprising of which was the revelation that, not unlike Watchmen, the series began life as a pitch to reboot a Charlton property... sort of.

Very early on, it would seem, Enigma wasn’t really Enigma at all - it was Art Young, then employed as Karen Berger’s assistant on DC’s pre-Vertigo “mature readers” subset of books, asking Peter Milligan if he’d like to have a go at re-working Pete Morisi’s Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt character, whose designation as “smartest man in the world” (and little else) provided the basis for Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbons’ Ozymandias. Milligan decided rather quickly that there wasn’t too much that interested him about this fourth-tier hero, but when Young temporarily split DC to helm an upstart imprint for Disney called Touchmark Comics (the name of which closely resembled, no doubt by design, the studio’s then-successful Touchstone Pictures division, which was responsible for such blockbuster hits as Splash and Down and Out in Beverly Hills, among others), Milligan was one of the first creators he solicited pitches for prospective series from, and much of what had been percolating away in his head with regard to Peter Cannon ended up making its way into the proposal that would eventually become Enigma.

These days, of course, the very idea that Disney would attempt to get into the “mature readers” comics racket, and that they were offering full creator ownership of the titles that would be going out under the Touchmark banner, seems amazing (even bordering on the unbelievable) on its face, given what’s transpired (and which companies they’ve acquired) over the years, but the comics landscape of the early 1990s and that of the early 2020s are, in many ways, as dramatically different to one another as the Michael Smith of Enigma #1 and the Michael Smith of Enigma #8 - not so different, though, that Disney couldn’t recognize a potential money pit when they saw one. Touchmark had the plug pulled on it before they’d published so much as a single comic and Young found himself returning to the DC fold - but as a full editor this time, given that Berger was very much in need of some extra help, what with her duties about to be greatly expanded.

She also needed more comics for her nascent imprint, of course, and Young just so happened to have a couple books that were fairly far along in the development process that suddenly found themselves every bit as much in need of a publisher as he was, and so it happened that Enigma became not only the first miniseries to go out under the Vertigo label, but the first creator-owned project to do so as well - the other creator being then-up-and-coming British illustrator Duncan Fegredo.

It was Young who’d paired Fegredo with Milligan on the comic-to-be during his short stint with Disney, and while it wasn’t the artist’s first comic, it was the first he was drawing in pen and ink; his previous work (most notably Kid Eternity with the writer Grant Morrison for DC, and some of the later segments of the strip New Statesmen with the writer John Smith for the Fleetway magazine Crisis) had all been painted in full color. With that in mind, it’s understandable that the art looks pretty rough around the edges at first—think of a rather low-grade and unfocused approximation of Bill Sienkiewicz on a tight deadline—but makes significant leaps forward as the series progresses, becoming tighter, more assured, and even downright cinematic in terms of panel composition. It’s still recognizably the work of the same hand—there’s a definite “scratchy” quality to the line work that persists from start to finish, for instance—but the amount of on-the-job learning that was taking place is clearly visible to even the most untrained eye. In fact, Fegredo's evolution was so noticeable that Milligan concocted a latter-day “reason” for it, and a damn plausible one at that.

At the outset I made brief mention of some of the small-scale “legend” that has developed around this comic in the years following its publication. One of the major aspects of said makeshift mythos is absolutely true: editor Art Young (who, curiously, appears to have no involvement with the new “Definitive Edition” at all, which is a shame; an afterword authored by him would certainly have been preferable to the two pages of Berger Books house ads we get at the back) was going through his own coming out process in real life at roughly the same time Michael Smith was in the story. One of the others is largely bullshit, but it might as well be true given the circumstantial non-evidence to support it. To drum up publicity for her new line of comics, Berger arranged something called the “Vertigo Spin Across America” tour in 1993, sending a number of her freelancers, Milligan and Fegredo among them, out on the road to comic shop store signings and convention appearances. It’s the kind of thing almost no publisher would sink money into today, but wasn’t altogether unheard of at the time, and at one stop along this “spin”—at a convention in Miami—someone asked Milligan (though, curiously, not Fegredo, even though he was part of the same panel) if his collaborator’s evolving art style was a deliberate creative decision. Milligan's answer was that yes, it was, and that Fegredo was intentionally refining his artwork as Michael Smith became more comfortable in his own skin and more defined in his own identity, in order to reflect the book’s larger themes. It sounded so good, in fact, that, as Fegredo declared to Dissanayake, “it became the truth at that moment!” So it’s like I said: an on-the-spot fabrication that not only does no harm, but creates a perception that is more interesting than the mundane reality of an artist simply getting better as he goes along. It’s about as Enigma as it gets, fiction becoming reality and all that.

That being said, for a comic littered with fantastical villains (The Head eats brains, The Envelope Girl takes people in the folds of her manila flesh and sends them off to parts far and wide, The Truth drives people over the edge by forcing them to face their own truths), most of which make the leap into it after “first” appearing in Titus Bird’s “Enigma” comic book series, one real-life villain bleeds into the story through the margins on a couple of occasions: Charles Manson. Not only does a TV news program Bird is watching in the background relate a story about Manson endorsing the cult of so-called “Enigmatics” who are hounding the washed-up former cartoonist—a number of whom end up meeting the same fate that many an actual cultist has when they commit mass suicide—but the strangest of the series’ strange bad guys, The Interior League, ape the Manson family practice of breaking into peoples’ homes nearly silently while everyone is asleep and rearranging all their furniture. The Mansonites referred to these dead-of-night excursions as “creepy crawls,” and would generally move everything an inch or two in one direction or another in order to give homeowners a distinct but indefinable feeling that something was off, which is fucked up enough as it is (I speak from experience given an ex-girlfriend of mine, presumably having read about this in one of the legion of Manson books that have been out there for decades, got some of her friends together and “creepy-crawled” my apartment back in my early 20s), but The Interior League takes it a step further: they rearrange everything in a fashion so subtle that it somehow invariably drives one member of the household mad and causes them to kill everybody else.

I don’t pretend to have any particular special knowledge as to why the Manson mythos came to be a factor in the Enigma mythos, but it’s strangely apropos - after all, it was Manson who said that he “create[d] his own reality” on a daily basis and who believed that, while imprisoned, he could “send his mind” out into the world to enact his will in a manner not unlike the kid in the well who “created” all those frighteningly oddball evil-doers just mentioned, as well as The Enigma himself, before subsequently assuming the latter identity. Hell, if we really want to stretch things, we could even go so far as to speculate that The Enigma creating a fictitious world of his own based upon the fictitious world created by Titus Bird mirrors Manson’s creation of his bizarre pseudo-philosophy based largely on the writings of earlier cult leaders Krishna Venta and L. Ron Hubbard. As with other aspects of this comic, it’s not explicit, but it’s there if you wish to read it that way, even if it’s only partially true. Rather like the explanation/justification/fabrication for Fegredo’s changing art style.

Anyway, according to postmodern thought—of which Enigma likely stands as mainstream comics’ most accomplished exemplar—truth is as subjective, perhaps even as self-generated as identity, so hey: go with what works best for you.

And that, I would suggest, is that definitive point of view Milligan takes into the project that I alluded to earlier - he answers the question of “who are you?” with a simple reply of “whoever you feel like being, so try to be someone you actually like.” For all this series’ plot complexities, narrative twists and turns, and deliciously tongue-in-cheek pretensions, at the end of the day it’s not just an exploration of one of the central philosophical queries of postmodernism but also a refreshingly glib, no-nonsense answer to it. As such, it stands as one of those rare works from the self-consciously clever subset of “British Invasion” comics (think Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol, Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, or even Milligan’s own Shade, the Changing Man) that’s actually every bit as ingenious as it believes itself to be.

I don’t mean to denigrate other creators or other projects by phrasing things as I just did, either - it’s just the plain truth that being genuinely clever is a hard enough thing to pull off on its own, but doing so at a time when comics writers were consciously engaged in out-mind-fucking each other is even more difficult. Enigma wasn’t Milligan’s only attempt to weave his interests in postmodernism into some semblance of a perspective-shifting narrative, but it was undoubtedly his most successful; subsequent attempts at grappling with the themes raised in this series bore diminishing (though almost always at least interesting) returns over time.

Milligan and Fegredo would team up again on a couple of Vertigo projects—the one-shot Face (1995) and the three-part Girl (1996)—that are engaging enough reads on their own merits but never quite manage to replicate the creative “lightning in a bottle” that was Enigma. Hell, if this comic can truly be said to have something like “spiritual successors,” they’re to be found in a pair of comics Milligan did with other artists: The Extremist (1993), drawn by Ted McKeever, and Egypt (1994-95), penciled first by Glyn Dillion and later by Roberto Corona, both of which are predicated upon the malleability of identity to one degree or another and collectively comprise a loose thematically-linked de facto trilogy that some fans refer to as the “Three Es” (there are those who even extend in to four by including Milligan and Dean Ormston’s 1995 one-shot special The Eaters, as well). They’re all worth a look if you can find them, but honestly, Enigma probably works best when considered entirely on its own, as its overall character, tone, and temperament stand apart from not only anything else its author ever wrote, but from anything else Vertigo ever published. Like many an imprint, they took their biggest risks early on, before settling into a definite brand identity, and so in that respect this is a title that can now be seen as something of a historical outlier, or perhaps even a glimpse at an alternate path Karen Berger could have pursued more vigorously had this series been more commercially successful.

It would appear, however, that Berger herself is among those who feel this is an unjustly overlooked work, as she has brought it back to print under the auspices of her Berger Books label at Dark Horse despite the fact that there doesn’t appear to be overwhelming demand for it - and it's back in a fancier and more comprehensive package than fans of the series likely ever could have hoped for. Which isn’t to say the newly-released Enigma: The Definitive Edition hardback doesn’t have its flaws: it’s printed in standard comic-sized dimensions rather than at the larger size most readers are accustomed to from “deluxe” reprint collections these days; the slick, glossy paper does a real disservice to Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh’s rich color scheme (particularly the pages where she employs watercolors), which almost demands some sort of matte finish paper; and much of the bonus “process material” in back is reproduced at a size too small to really enjoy with the naked eye. But on the whole it’s probably fair to say it does what it can with what was no doubt a limited production budget, and there does seem to be some genuine desire on the part of the publisher to promote the book, unlike Vertigo, which cranked out a reprint of the long-out-of-print trade in 2014 almost silently, and then wondered why it didn’t even manage to sell 800 copies.

Also worthy of note when it comes to the new edition is its almost insanely reasonable cover price - it may not be as “deluxe” as many a Deluxe Edition, but it’s also only $24.99, and given that fact I almost feel like an asshole for even complaining about it any respect or for any reason. This will still be a tricky book to find an audience for, no doubt, but at that price point it at least stands half a chance to not only please longtime fans but to find its way into the hands of some new ones as well. The wave of 1990s nostalgia may have crested some years ago now (thank goodness), but given this comic’s status as something other and apart from damn near everything else in the mainstream canon, it’s no reach at all to say it has a genuinely timeless quality that really doesn’t allow it to be pigeon-holed as the product of any one era in particular.

All told, then, apart from those halcyon days when the series first saw print, there’s probably been no better time to be an “enigmatic” than right now. As contrived as it sounds, this is nevertheless a comic that is every bit as imaginative, insightful, relevant, and revelatory in 2021 as it was in 1993, and while re-reading it has been an absolute joy (a term I assure you I never involve lightly), I’m actually envious of the people who will be discovering it for the first time. It’s cliched to say “something like this only comes along once,” but in this case it’s absolutely true. Too often incorrectly lumped into the category of “superhero deconstruction”, Enigma is actually a work of reconstruction: of perception; of identity; even of reality itself. It tells us there are no absolutes, and then disproves its own thesis by being absolutely magnificent.

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