A Riddle Wrapped In A Mystery Inside An Enigma- Peter Milligan’s Enigma

Alan Moore’s Watchmen forever changed the way superheroes had been perceived till then, and reams have been written regarding the same. But not enough ink, digital or otherwise, has been spared on Peter Milligan’s Enigma, an astonishing work of meta-comic philosophizing if there ever was one. In fact, Grant Morrison himself declared Enigma to be a far more ‘grown-up’  book over Watchmen (though, to be fair, Morrison and Moore have had a long-running rivalry that results in rather passive aggressive statements) . Part of it has to do with the fact that Milligan has never been able to capture the imagination of comic lovers the way Moore has, probably because he chooses stranger narrative methods than Moore to convey his message. Which is rather a sad state of affairs indeed, because personally, I consider reading Enigma a watershed moment in my love affair with comics.

What Enigma says about comic books, and our childhood adulation of superheroes, is quite some food for thought. The basic premise of the story is that Michael Smith, with a life as uninteresting and insipid as his name, is suddenly thrust into a maelstrom when superheroes from his favourite childhood comic book series, The Enigma, suddenly, come to life. The catch lies in the fact that these are not your run-of-the-mill heroes out to save the world- if anything, they claim lives and create their own version of hell on earth. As Smith teams up with Titus Bird, the bitter homosexual creator of the series who wrote the work during drug-fuelled binges, he is forced to confront not just the power of his childhood fantasies, but also his own self- who he truly is, and his purpose in life. Bird cannot be more invested in his long-forgotten series, but Smith realizes his nebulous connection to the strange happenings around him, and sets out along with a reluctant Bird to find these antagonists, to vanquish or understand them, as the case maybe.

Milligan’s work is preoccupied with the themes of sexuality and identity, and in combining a meta-narrative on comics, he presents a powerful take on what it means to take responsibility for one’s self and one’s creations. Primary amongst the superheroes who come to life in Smith’s world is the titular Enigma, the only one who is not an antagonist, though that in itself does not make him the saviour. It’s rather hard to really critique the series without getting away much of the plot, so here it is- Enigma is the true catalyst for the series of events in the book, and remains a mystery throughout.

Twenty-five years prior to the present events, he had been dropped and abandoned in a well as a baby, and grows up amongst lizards, able to understand their language. His entire existence is rattled when he is forced to move out into the real world, and in the process, begins to shape his reality to cope with things. By a long chain of coincidences, the world he fashions for himself also gives birth to the degenerate heroes of Bird’s work, and he constantly  reflects upon the harsh, ugly nature of the world which forces us to hide our true natures.

In the character of Enigma Milligan invests his entire range of thought regarding identity and sexuality that he tries to put across to the readers, mainly via his conversations with Smith.  He forces the latter to confront his true self – by turning him homosexual and embarking on a relationship with him, though offering to ‘make’ Smith straight again. This transformation and the subsequent offer to rescind it is rather problematic, as if homosexuality is a choice, but by and large, this is one of the best depictions of homosexuality in the mainstream comic genre. The undercurrents of Smith’s confusion at the crazy turn of events in his life coinciding with his sexual re-awakening provide for an endearing take on two people in love, as they learn to navigate the ways of a world which does its best to ensure that things are never easy for human beings, but especially those who challenge the status-quo, be it with their sexuality or even their stray thoughts.

Sex, love, death, imagination and lizards have been taken to their very extreme renditions in Milligan’s masterpiece, and one hopes that this cult book is soon brought to screen. It has great scope for a cinematic adaptation, and a greater exploration of the theme of identity, sexual and otherwise, which is paramount to it.