Monday, September 9, 2013

Superb Heroes: Enigma

Superb Heroes is a semi-regular column celebrating comics that are exemplary and/or exceptional in their treatment of superoheroism.

The story of Enigma is the kind where everything that happens leads to a single significant event at the end. I don't mean to suggest that the journey isn't wonderful, just that the destination is really the point. The closing pages of the closing issue of this series see a comicbook character, creator, and fan join forces to battle a superpowered evil together in the real world. That's a fantastic final beat, and all the insane and earth-shattering events that build up to it exist so that the ending can feel earned and real and important. It could have been a comical conclusion, played for laughs, winking at the audience with a "Do you see what we've done here?" attitude. Instead, Peter Milligan, Duncan Fegredo, and Sherilyn van Valkenburgh craft a narrative that, while acknowledging its own outlandishness, also takes itself seriously enough to have significant stakes and a lasting impact.
     Enigma is also a thoughtful look at superheroes as icons, questioning their positions as moral guides, and the very idea of morality at all. Enigma (the titular hero) doesn't just use lethal force against his opponents but, it is revealed later in the series, he's also responsible for their existence. He transformed random people into supervillains using his immense powers, simply so he'd have something to do. He had decided to become a superhero, and that required bad guys to fight. Forcing people to do something evil and then killing them for it is pretty rotten, as protagonist Michael Smith emphatically points out when he learns what Enigma has done. But because of how vast his abilities are, Enigma sees himself (perhaps accurately) as being more than human, and therefore operating outside of our concepts of right and wrong.
     Enigma the book isn't really about Enigma the man anyway, or at least it's not focused on him. Michael is the story's center, the person we follow and relate to the most. He's as everyman as a character can get, a point Milligan's script drives home immediately and in no uncertain terms. The omniscient narrator of Enigma has a fabulous voice, sarcastic and sometimes even bored with the story, yet at other times openly concerned that it's not telling the story well enough. There's also an amazing reveal about the narrator's identity in the last issue (which I won't bother spoiling here) that makes its attitude throughout the series ten times more amusing in hindsight.
     Anyway, the narrator explains right away how commonplace and insubstantial Michael's life is when everything begins. His dead-end relationship with its scheduled sex, his lack of ambition or energy, and similar details of his overall in-a-rutness are laid out clearly. He's shaken loose when he gets attacked by the first of Enigma's villains, The Head, a hideous creature with a cartoonishly swollen cranium from the brains it sucks out of its victims. Enigma kills The Head just in time to save Michael's life, and that encounter is the first major step toward Michael leaving behind his old self and replacing it with a more adventurous, passionate, active version. When he wakes in the hospital and sees on the news that Enigma is battling a new bad guy named The Truth, Michael recognizes both characters from his favorite childhood comicbook, and senses that he is connected to these mysterious events in a significant way. He's not wrong, and his journey leads him to become more than just a fan of Enigma, becoming his closest ally, his confidant, and his lover.
     At first Michael pushes back hard against his homosexuality, but when he and Enigma finally meet face to face, he can no longer resist the feelings that have been bubbling up for so long. He falls rather madly for his childhood hero, and at first it's all he's ever wanted. Eventually their romance is twisted, tainted a little when Michael learns that, just like with all the supervillains, Enigma used his powers to make Michael fall in love with him, as opposed to it being a wholly natural attraction. Yet even in this knowledge, Michael chooses his new life over his old one, preferring to feel excited and self-confident and deeply in love than to return to his previous stagnation, even if it means allowing himself to succumb to a sort of lightweight form of mind control. This decision is the end of the character's personal arc, and pretty much the end of the entire series, because, as I said, this is Michael's story. Once his new life is firmly established, and he officially decides to stick with it rather than allowing Enigma to undo the changes he made to Michael's psyche, there's not much left to tell. Enigma's own story is left open-ended, but the book still reaches a fitting conclusion, and one that satisfies completely.
     As for Enigma, he's not literally a fictional comicbook character come to life. He's a hyper-intelligent and superpowered human being who chooses to model himself after a comicbook hero after the real world almost ruins him for good. Thrown into a well in his infancy by his crazed mother, Enigma never had a name (that we know of) or a childhood or anything resembling a normal life. But he did not die down there on his own in the darkness. Using what were already impressive mental abilities, he was able to sustain himself by psychically asking the world for food and receiving lizards and bugs and other such critters to live on. This was his perfect existence for decades, contentedly living underground with no sense of the world above, not even truly aware that he was human or what that meant (if, indeed, it means anything). Finally, he was discovered and "rescued" from the well, brought to a mental institution that tried to make sense of his condition. Right away, Enigma was overwhelmed and mightily depressed by what he encountered, from the vast openness of this surface world to the ignorant and idiotic efforts of the humans around him. To him, they were no more intelligent or impressive than the lizards he used to eat, and so he used his powers to free himself and return to the only home he'd ever known. Sadly, his well was spoiled now by his knowledge of the reality outside it. Unable to truly get back the life he'd lost, he set out to invent himself a new one. More or less arbitrarily, he chose to transform into a long-forgotten 1970's cape-and-mask crimefighter named Enigma, and began turning other people into his foes and friends.
     What works so well about this idea is that it acts as its own excellent superhero tale and as criticism of superheroes in general. Because Enigma is not a part of regular human society, and his mind does not operate at all the way anyone else's ever has, his interpretation of a typical superhero comic is quite different than the usual one. He does not see in the main character a beacon of righteousness and justice, because those words have no value for him. It's just a collection of costumes and names, people fighting one another as a way to pass the time, less-than-mindless entertainment with no morals to teach or lessons to impart on those who read it. At the same time, Enigma inadvertently becomes a legitimate hero, saving Michael from an existence he hated, bringing a bit of happiness where once there was gloom. And he does everything he does in an attempt to prepare himself to battle his mother, the woman who tossed him down a well all those years ago, and is now a horrible monster, a distorted reflection of her son with the same level of power he possesses but none of the intellect. She's a mindless beast, determined to finish what she started and finally kill her child, and Enigma knows he'll need help to stop her. It's a classic hero-villain dynamic, and not an entirely unusual mother-son relationship either, so while his methods are perhaps not the best available, we still root for Enigma in the end.
     Milligan's writing is a big part of the reader ultimately siding with Enigma is spite of his more unlikable actions. The character has such a matter-of-fact voice, a detached outlook that makes it difficult to be angry with him. He's not coming from the same viewpoint as we are, we're not supposed to understand or even necessarily connect with him. For that we have Michael, and through Michael's choice to love and forgive Enigma we are able to do the same.
     But even if you don't land where Michael does, even if the existential/nihilistic overtones of this series rub you the wrong way throughout and make you angry with the ending, there's some seriously breathtaking art in these issues. Duncan Fegredo brings a dreamlike quality to much of the series. Things move strangely and feel like they are barely held together, but it's not a sketchy or uncertain style at all. Some of the strongest panels are the smallest, tiny moments Fegredo includes to greatly enhance or add to a scene. These are usually quick, close shots of someone's face, a brief flash of emotion that adds a lot to whatever page it's on. It's a carefully composed piece, even if the overall effect is one of out-of-control energy and madness.
     The designs for Enimga and, more than that, his villains are all exceptional. Even in this comicbook, they feel like characters from a comicbook, so much broader and more bizarre than everything else we see. They are less restrained than their actual 1970's comicbook selves, which we also get to occasionally see over the course of the series. Michael still has his old issues, and we get glimpses of pages here and there when the story calls for it, when something happening in real time is a reference to something from the fictional original book. Fegredo switches up his style in these places so the comic-within-the-comic is always distinct and immediately recognizable. It looks and feels like a series from its era, whereas the real-life Enigma is very much a contemporary piece (and I say that now, even though it's twenty years old). Fegredo clearly has a reverence for a well-done superhero story, and brings all of that admiration to this book, taking his time to craft the super-beings as appropriately impressive, terrifying, awe-inspiring figures.
     If Fegredo is responsible for the surreality of Enigma, it is colorist Sherilyn van Valkenburgh who brings things back down to Earth, though not in a way that at all dampens what Fegredo is doing. The coloring is dark and moody, more a reflection of Michael's internal life than Enigma's. It has its bright spots, plenty of harsh oranges and reds that can at times dominate the page. But these tend to come from fire and blood and the like, colors that accompany violence and danger, not necessarily meant to brighten the title's darker general tones. What van Valkenburgh does best is striking a balance between panels with realistic coloring and those that are more exaggerated or drenched in a single hue. When things are ordinary and/or the gravity of a scene brings reality crashing down, her palette reaches further and colors everything more or less as it would be in our world. Then in the most heightened scenes, a single shade will often take over, more starkly disconnecting the images from what the reader knows. So while Fegredo's work as a whole is less interested in realism than van Valkenburgh's, the two artists still collaborate well, playing into one another's strengths and weaknesses in equal turn as needed to deliver a strong final product.
     Besides, the mash-up of things from reality and from someone's imagination is what Enigma's all about. The superhero Michael adored as a child becomes his flesh-and-blood boyfriend as an adult. Enigma takes characters invented by someone else and brings them to life so he can combat the real-life mother who wants to end him. The fictional and actual ram up against one another all throughout this series, until Michael finally picks one over the other and makes them into the same thing.

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