Looking at The Enigma: A Love Letter

Originally published October 13, 2016

Original link: http://comicsbulletin.com/enigma-essay-love-letter/

Disclaimer: The below was initially conceived as a love letter for someone dear to the author.

Dear You,

The Enigma by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo is a twisted comic book, to say the least. Fegredo’s inks are so heavy you can sometimes barely tell what’s happening on the page, but the grotesqueries are always clear. The characters’ horrified expressions, The Head’s ass, Mother’s two-backed design. Then there’s Milligan’s words, especially his captions: sarcastic, witty, and often metaphorical. Sometimes between Fegredo’s panels and Milligan’s narration it seems like The Enigma is two stories at once, the words and pictures angrily contradicting one another. These disagreements sometimes make it difficult to discern which elements of the comic to trust, sharpening the psychological thrill of each issue and deepening the modern ideas of the superhero with very little heroics present. Reading The Enigma isn’t necessarily fun so much as it’s unpredictable. Perhaps that’s what twistedness really is at its core: Unpredictability.


Unpredictability saves Michael, The Enigma’s protagonist, in the end. Before then, we see how

his mother’s abandonment and her last words of, “Be a good boy” leave him paranoid and neurotic, winding up his life so tight that he has no room to live. Every day the same, every week the same. He’s not happy because as life trickles by, he mentally remains on the sidewalk where she left him, reading comics and awaiting her return. Only when The Enigma, the superhero in the comics he reads, comes to life and pulls him out of his routine does he grow into something better. Deep down Michael desired that change, but he certainly did nothing to move toward it and did not anticipate it.

Unpredictability is also likely why Vertigo editors permitted The Enigma to have queer protagonists, which is how most people think of the book today. It’s the queer 90s Vertigo superhero comic; nothing in The Enigma was traditional, so why not make the sexuality untraditional too? Queer, at the time, was unexpected. Queer, at the time, was largely associated with the unreal or wrong or the kind of dizzy aura Fegredo’s pencils and Milligan’s impatient words spit out. In a heteronormative society, no one expects to realize they’re queer, either. Did you when you picked up this comic for the first time? Were you surprised to open up the pages and find yourself within? You must tell me some time… because I was.

I read The Enigma for the first time long before I met you. At the time, I was Michael. Milligan and Fegredo probably intended that on some level we are all Michael. Granted, Michael seems more pathetic than we are with his one orgasm a week as the ultimate signifier of his life’s lack of flexibility and excitement. However, most of us have that job we hate, that celebrity we envy, and that relationship that’s become too comfortable to either fulfill us or empower us to cut loose.

Now I reread the book knowing you and unable to get through most days without my thoughts spinning in circles around you. I’ve become The Enigma.

The Enigma is more what we think of as mutant than superhero. He is born with his abilities, spends much of his life living alone at the bottom of a well, and eats lizards for sustenance. This makes him more similar to a creature from a fairytale than those many colorful characters invented by impoverished Jews, pressed into existence by desperation and cheap printer inks. He could also be compared to a Greek tragic figure. That is how Fegredo draws him when he’s pulled into civilization. He’s in a world too large and abstract, filled with paint strokes of grays. Then he’s the little man, pencilled and inked into a physically ideal body, but rigid and cowering beneath the sky.

from Enigma #7 by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo

The Enigma is also unlike a superhero because he does not possess a distinction between good and evil actions. He does not start as The Enigma, he makes himself into The Enigma. But in order to fully fashion himself into the superhero, he must recreate the villains as well. So he takes completely innocent people and transforms them into The Head, The Truth, and Envelope Girl, then kills them, or attempts to. He equivocates humans with the lizards he eats, massacres, and changes.

And yet for all his pain and anger–caused by the agony of having a God-like brain in a world of humans–he still seeks love. That’s how he finds Michael–from the love left on the pages of the comic books left in the rubble of Michael’s childhood home. The mutant shapes himself into the image he finds on the pages because he wants the love it receives. Based on the post-coital scene between The Enigma and Michael, wanting and moving toward that love shows that even a seemingly amoral, unhappy person is capable of feeling love, and finding belonging through it.

When I was Michael, The Enigma’s ending disturbed me. Not the part where The Enigma turns Michael gay, of course. I agree with the text in that there is no moral issue there. It was the part where Enigma made Michael fall in love with him that disturbed me.

It seems very similar to rape, doesn’t it? A person starts out as the result of genetics, nurture, and learning from life experiences, like any other. Another person crosses their path, violates a very personal boundary, and changes them internally forever by doing so. The first person then becomes something altogether different, something they didn’t desire and likely would have rejected if given the option.

But then again…

Is love ever willing?

From Enigma #1 by Peter Miligan and Duncan Fegredo

Many people stay in relationships that don’t work, based on the love they have for their partners. A lot of people date others who seem perfect on paper, but can’t make themselves fall in love with them. Love can’t be turned on. Love can’t be turned off. It just happens.

I truly did not intend to fall in love with you.

You probably will never fall in love with me.

I would like to say I’ve accepted this. Instead, I’m writing this letter.

There’s no evidence to suggest you would be your happiest and best self with me, but I believe it with all my heart. My heart, which leaps whenever it sees you. Which stretches toward you until it strains. Which I hold back along with my lips as my eyes travel over to your mouth. This belief is not factual. This belief is a delusion.

I don’t care.

The Enigma tells Michael of all his ugliness: The horror from which he originated, the pain he had inflicted, all the wonders he had created. The truth does devastate Michael, but he’s quick to see that everything The Enigma did was for love of him. They embrace. They go to fight The Enigma’s final battle together, bound by their hands.

You know not what I would make myself into, the people I would hurt, all the wonders I would give to you. To have you smile at me. To make you laugh again. To feel our eyes burn and our throats close in sync.

This is the ugliness who loves you. I have removed my mask.


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