One of the Vertigo launch titles, Enigma still delivers power and insight today. Michael Smith is a normal man, trapped in routine, who over the course of the book discovers a childhood comic book hero come to life and experiences a sexual awakening.
Since it’s written by Peter Milligan, readers won’t be surprised by the surreal way these elements are handled. Michael’s been dreaming about a masked man, a superhero called the Enigma. There’s also a mass murderer called the Brain Eater; the Enigma’s antithesis, the Truth; and floating, talking lizards.
When Michael is attacked by a villain, the Enigma appears and instantly fascinates him. This encounter is a life-changing event in many ways. It reminds him of the value of existence, as he recovers from his injuries, but it also takes him back to his childhood, when he read Enigma comic books and fantasized about a protective imaginary friend. Afterwards, Michael gets another chance to become who he should be as he makes a road trip to meet the writer of the comic.
All of this is told through revelatory narration made up of soul-searing phrases like “Sometimes he feels like a rumor drifting through a world of hard facts.” or “The truth is he’ll never be thirty again. Never be wanted by anyone thirty again…” Although the Truth is set up as the villain of the piece, Michael needs to meet him more than he needs the Enigma. The “bad guys” are antagonists instead of proper, traditional villains. They’re searching for experience and knowledge and destroying those around them almost as an afterthought, and the question of how one defines “hero” and “villain” underlies much of the latter half of the book.
Duncan Fegredo’s art is gorgeous, clear to read but with impressionistic touches. Stray lines suggest more to the world than what is immediately seen and give faces the impression they’ve been stretched over something and stitched back together. As Michael’s journey progresses, so does the art, growing in parallel. Sherilyn van Valkenburgh’s coloring supports it beautifully with a mature palette of darkened pastels. The undertones coordinate with the story in suggesting depth underneath the surface.
Situating the story in its original time period makes some of the symbolism more obvious. Consider that DC Comics, a publisher previously dependent on superheroes, was attempting to take a step beyond with the creation of a new publishing imprint. Vertigo was aimed at an older audience that was ready to try something different… but not, at the beginning, too different from the heroes they were used to.
Michael is simultaneously the ultimate reader, in total control of what happens, and an unwitting follower, waiting to see what happens next and unsure of whether he likes what he’s discovering. The Enigma, meanwhile, captures the frustration of those who are different when they must deal with those they consider not as smart.
Recommended for fans of Grant Morrison and The Watchmen, this book deals with many of the same types of ideas-made-flesh-on-paper and thoughtful explorations of the symbolism and intellectual purpose of superheroes. Milligan and Fegredo explore what it means to fall in love with superheroes, and the unexpected result is eye-opening.