At first glance, this brings to mind Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and Animal Man series, which appeared in the mid and late 1980s. With “Doom Patrol” and their opponents, the Brotherhood of DaDa, he opened one reference hell after another in the story of the pictures that ate Paris, and in “Animal Man” he introduced himself as a character in the plot to enter into a dialogue with the character he wrote … well, Cary Bates, among others, did that on “Flash” back in the 1970s.
But Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo, staged with empathetic colors by Sherylin Van Valkenburgh, are about something else. The authors used these set pieces, which a few years earlier marked a new narrative style in superhero comics, for a concern that seemed much more important to them: the homosexual coming out of their main character. An unusual portrayal of protagonists, not only within the genre, which did not meet with approval everywhere.
About the plot: Michael, who has sex once a week with his girlfriend Sandra, floats like a goldfish on his back in the glass ball that encloses his life. He does see everyone and everyone sees him, but there doesn’t have to be more togetherness.
All of this continues until, yes, until characters from a comic series he read as a child come to life and commit repeated atrocities. Which will soon be punished no less horribly, namely by the eponymous figure of his reading, the enigmatic Enigma, how and what else could he be with this name.
Together with the creator of the series, Michael is now going into a kind of exegesis, because the comic on which the disaster is based is not that far removed from the Holy Scriptures, as it provides the basis for the increasingly degenerating deeds of its characters and thus also represents a creation myth represent.
The fact that God is incarnated as a woman here does not detract in any way from the father-son dichotomy and the willingness to make sacrifices from God and Jesus to Abraham and Isaac, which are the subject of the comic, since this is staged as a critique of an outdated patriarchal historiography. Consequently, these positions throw a spotlight on possible representations that are not misogynistic in nature and do not correspond to the usual conventions of the genre.
Also, the authors never use their female characters as mere drivers of male action, and Enigma’s near-annihilation of Envelope Girls, despite their misdeeds, inspires sympathy for the violence endured by the title character. The brutality used by Enigma bears no relation to the rather playful-anarchistic gross nonsense of the protagonist being punished.
The premise of “Enigma” takes place in the “… sort of place where you have sexual experiences with your parents and eventually you shoot someone.” Using this foundation established from the very beginning of the storyline, the reader sees a space of great emptiness surrounded farmhouse and its solitude so defined. A well ruin, standing for dwindling springs, then appears in a duet with the caption, casting its shadow not ahead but back into an ugly past.
The fact that lizards are also continuously eaten in the course of the story brings to mind the attributed hallucinogenic effect of the animals’ back secretions if they are licked. Because even beyond the dream sequences, Fegredo’s drawing style is reminiscent of the expressive art of Horst Janssen, and not just in combination with Van Valkenburgh’s colours.
This is partly due to Janssen’s automatic association with Bill Sienkiewicz, who is stylistically close to him. The latter also helped the Art Nouveau pattern gain new popularity in US comics in the 1980s and 1990s, which Fegredo also used in “Enigma”.
And with a drug-satiated gaze, penetrating all patterns, the enigmatic Enigma can be read: as a constant desire to dissolve what is always threatening and smoldering in the self. The figure embodies a placeholder for suppressed longings, as well as flimsy lip service, which only through a same-sex kiss are able to escape from the tight-lipped self-imposed in the everyday mainstream of monotony and small-small, and perhaps even from a compulsively lived duality.
At least that’s how things are with Michael, who falls in love with a not-so-fictional title character, and it seems inappropriate to speak of a hero. Depicting all of this as a completely normal development process in the midst of a story escalating with tension is what makes this comic so relevant today, as it was when it first appeared.
Hopefully, The Extremist, also created for Vertigo in collaboration with Ted McKeever by Milligan, will be released in a similar vein, and Milligan’s weird X-Men interpretation, X-Statix - albeit for Marvel and co-authored with Michael Allred – right there. Incidentally, that would also be appropriate for another Vertigo series that has been completely unjustly forgotten, such as John Smith’s “Scarab”, which, as far as the poetry of the lyrics are concerned, can easily keep up with an exceptional writer like Milligan.
By the way, the German-Italian web and print comic artist Sarah Burrini has already worked twice with the Briton Peter Milligan for US comics: Firstly in 2019 for the sixth edition of the Ahoy Comics anthology series “Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter Of Terror, and in 2021 at Bad Idea as part of The Lot’s third edition.
Like “Enigma”, both stories are recommendable. Maybe that improved the author’s already profound knowledge of German, who knows. Milligan’s author biography, placed at the end of the “Enigma” complete edition, notes the following: “He lives in London and probably has problems with German separable verbs from time to time” – which, however, is whining at a high level.