There will probably be spoilers. If you worry about such things on a thirty-year-old obscure Vertigo comic, well, I wonder how you manage to live in the modern world, but go off and read something else on the Internet instead.
I don’t think I read this the first time out. I think I’d remember it. But it also is very much the kind of thing I was reading in 1993: I followed nearly all of Vertigo, and was a fan of Peter Milligan’s writing. So I both don’t know how I missed it and can’t figure out how I could have read it and utterly forgotten it.
I’m talking about Enimga: The Definitive Edition , a spiffy new-ish edition of an eight-issue comics series from those heady early Vertigo days, when it was “superhero comics with adult themes” and not “HBO-style shows in comics form.” Ah, were we ever so young! It was written by Peter Milligan, in the middle of his Shade the Changing Man run, and drawn by Duncan Fegredo with colors by Sherilyn Van Falkenburgh.
And, to be reductive, it’s the story of an sociopath. A mass-murdering sociopath, who either has never been socialized at all or is the usual pulp-fiction mutant who is better than humanity and so entitled to treat us as we treat ants. (Or, perhaps, both.) We think he’s a superhero, throughout most of the story, because he wears a funny costume, because someone very much the same was in an old comic book, and because he seems to be killing villains. But we learn – and, if we’re any good readers at all, we suspected this much earlier – that he made every one of those villains, and so is both directly a murderer and someone who has deliberately created mass-murderers. I don’t think there’s even a word for that.
We are supposed to be on his side, because He Is Sad, and because he has a sexual relationship with the narrator. I say “has a sexual relationship,” clinically, because I doubt he feels anything like “love” – I’m pretty sure he feels no human emotions of any kind – and the guy he has sex with is in love with him for those same manipulating-humans powers that he used to create mass-murderers.
Yes, I’m talking about Enigma: our title character. This is the story of a young man with fabulous powers and a bizarrely impossible upbringing, whose interactions with the outside world are about 95% murder, but, on the other hand, he’s a tall attractive man with cool clothes. And apparently that is enough to make a mass-murderer into a hero.
I don’t even want to get into whether this was a positive or negative depiction of a gay man. (Wait. Am I kidding? A mass-murderer who literally turns another man gay to love him? I would struggle to find anything positive there, other than “it was 1993, and a gay man existed in comics. Yay!”)
OK. It is stylishly written, and even more stylishly drawn. Fegredo starts out scratchy, maybe even shaky, but he settles down, and the style suits the story very well. It is full of mysteries, and the reader does not realize how horrible Engima is until said reader is near the end of the book.
And our viewpoint character is, thankfully, not a mass-murderer. Michael Smith is instead one of life’s small losers: not very important, not very interesting, not very memorable. But he’s at the scene of a murder by a bizarre villain, and remembers that villain from his old childhood Enigma comics, and that sets off the whole plot, as he starts to think he’s central to all of the craziness. He’s not wrong, but he’s not exactly correct, either.
As I said above, he does find Enigma – the live person now using that name, as well as the crusty old writer who made the comics stories twenty-five years earlier – and fucks the former. He learns that Engima has massive, bizarre powers, but none of us learn why. Perhaps just because it was 1993 and this was a DC comic book; there had to be someone with superpowers in it.
This is a well-crafted, smart, intricate story that seems, at this distance, to be an apology for an appallingly horrible person. Enigma would be a villain in any other comics story, and rightfully so. A pitiable villain, and one that could potentially be redeemed, but, still, the mass-murder thing is hard to overlook.
I’m not sorry I read this, but all of the praise as a “lost classic” seems vastly overwrought to me. It was an attempt to have gay men in comics, yes, and it was not entirely a failure. I do have to say that, of the three gay men here, one is a middle-aged alcoholic failure, one is a mass-murdering sociopath, and the third was turned gay against his will by the sociopath – and that strikes me as not entirely a positive and loving and realistic depiction.
Such is Enigma. Consider yourself entirely spoiled.