3/04/2009

Milligan & Fegredo's Enigma


"I’ve always regarded Peter as the best writer, in the grown-up, literary sense, to have graced the comic book business (as an adult exploration of the superhero concept, I believe his Enigma book is far superior to Watchmen in every significant way)."

-Grant Morrison


One of the more delightful meta-comics strands is Grant Morrison and Alan Moore's subtle and not-so-subtle critiques lobbed at one another. Be it through you'd-have-to-be-a-fan-of-both-to-catch-it references in one another's comics to harsh but even-handed quotes like the one above, the two are having some fun and taking this comics stuff kinda seriously. It's also fun because it just makes sense that these two wouldn't really see eye-to-eye and it's great that they recognize that on a like ideological or maybe even moral level.

This debate becomes more fascinating when you throw-in Peter Milligan's work, especially on his superhero deconstruction Enigma because although it's been praised by Morrison (see above and the Introduction for the trade), the series has about as much in common with Morrison's work as Moore's. The difference then, is that Enigma just does what Watchmen does way better. Milligan, as Morrison says, writes comics "in the grown-up, literary sense" better than anybody. This is key to approaching Enigma in the context of Watchmen because although it's a much better and more thought-provoking, it isn't any less formal and capital-M mature than Moore's mega-classic. Like all really good stuff, the difference is in the details.

The most notable aspect of Enigma is that, although it's an incredibly harsh, anti-Romantic sense of comics and superheroes, it never seems enamored with itself for being a harsh, anti-Romantic comic book. The same can't be said for Moore, who even today, seems to think that before Watchmen, no one had taken a sort of skewed, critical take on superheroes. Besides the simple fact that Watchmen isn't even the "first" of the big two, super-well-known comic deconstructions--starting 8 months after Miller's Dark Knight--there's an entire history of deconstructions that did it without yelling-out "Look! I'm attacking superheroes!"...stuff as mainstream as Iron Man--the entire premise, a play on superhero egomania and hidden vulnerability---to something like Spain Rodriguez's Trashman to the old Adam West Batman show.

Milligan wisely leaves comic-book comics behind from the start, less trying to parody or flip expectations than forget about them altogether. So, while the conceit of Enigma has to do with Super-Heroes, it's about heroes on the comic-book page and how the simple existence on the pages fucks around with the hopes and ideals and wish-fulfillment junk inside of our minds. Not Moore's high-falutin' what if... but a practical, humane application of one form of goofball un-reality media to our real-world.

But what it says about how these on-paper heroes we obsess over as children and teens is just as cynical. The basic set-up is Michael Smith, a guy with a life as ho-hum as his name, is suddenly confronted with the characters from some kinda crappy underground comics super-hero parody in "real-life" and it leads him to all kinds of questions about his life, sexuality, identity, and blah blah blah. It's really hard to describe without overloading you with spoliers--which nearly every write-up on the comic does--so I'm trying my best to be interesting and vague enough here...

Anyways, the point is, it's making some kinda obvious and even obnoxious points, about how being a boy reading comics about buff dudes in tights might be latently homosexual and about transferring our dreams onto fictionalized people that can't dream (so our dreams are safe), but Milligan does it with the right amount of confidence with his premise and comfort in absurdity. And there are two additional pieces of the Enigma puzzle that move it out of the "smart guy mocks comic in a comic book" sub-sub genre and into the category of masterpiece. The appearance of the creator of Smith's childhood favorite--a actual curveball in a sub-sub genre known for "curveballs"--and a game-changing "trick ending" switch-up that I'll only mention and leave it at that.

So, back to this whole creator-as-character thing. Milligan found a way to balance Moore's meta-comic philosophizing with Morrison's border-line obnoxious putting-himself-in-the-comic trickery, by incorporating a creator character that's not a stand-in for the creator himself and isn't an above-it-all satirical figure either. Although there's pathos and emotion in Watchmen, the all-too knowing politics of the endeavor, coupled with the overt satire of good ol' American comics, puts Moore and readers sort of above that which it's critiquing. Moore doesn't have a character to reflect him or the readers because the whole point of the comic is a kind of distanced condescension about media, politics, and the world at-large. This is of course, why it's so popular amongst intellectuals that don't normally read comic books. It's "smart" on that obnoxious Berkeley level.

Part of Enigma's thesis is indeed, the way that these small, frivolous pieces of media can have profound effects--often negative--on the reader. We see this play-out in excruciating detail as Smith moves away from his girlfriend and one-fuck-a-week routine towards a life of adventure and risk and eventually, a total revaluation of his sexual identity and beliefs. Titus Bird, the creator of The Enigma, Smith's favorite comic book as a child, which later comes to life and claims actual victims, is presented as an old and bitter homosexual who mainly created the comic as a lark, fitting into the goofy, quasi-philosophy of 60s underground comix and the counter-culture overall. That Moore himself is something of a product of that counter-culture might be another essay altogether, but Milligan does a clever comment on the responsibility of the creator and the need for integrity in one's creation, by taking the result of phoned-in, cash-in work to it's horrifying, illogical extreme. What if even your hack-iest, more played-out, cash-in work had real-world effects? That's a scarier, more precarious point than Moore's knee-jerk, angry 60s politics slapped onto 80s comics darkness.

And I haven't even gotten a chance to talk about Duncan Fegredo's art, which is as ugly and fucked-up as Milligan's story, eschewing the obnoxious formalism and pseudo-cinematics of Gibbons and Moore, for a fever-dream of lines, porous panels, and overall unease, that makes Enigma even harder to digest, as it should be.

6 comments:

david e. ford, jr said...

brandon-

i think one of the things that is most instructive about what you've written is that in crafting one of these superhero deconstructions, a writer can make faulty or problematical assumptions about how superheroes function in the world and still make an intellectually vibrant and entertaining book.

-d

BG said...

I've got to disagree on this one.

Fregrado is an awesome artist so I can't blame him. But dude.
Fucking Milligan. Between The Odyssey (the sell out no Alan Martin tank girl) and the bullshit that was X-Statix (a character into rap named Phat) this dude has a way of making every book he pens make you feel like walking on somone fucking your grandma.

And not in a nice way.

brandon said...

BG-
Ha. I though Phat was a joke? Like the whole series is kind of a joke about horse-shit marketing and stuff?

I'm not a big fan of Milligan, I like him enough, that thing he did 'GIRL' was cool and the Submariner thing that just wrapped was interesting, but I was sort of trying to make the point that Milligan's as bullshit and boring and all smart and shit like Moore but still made something that's at least like, not so self-satisfied

BG said...

Brandon,

Yeah I see your point and I enjoy reading you make it.
Mostly I just like to come on here and talk mad comic book shit.

Milligan has worked with so many amazing artists. On girl and that Rogan gosh book.

meter pilligan said...

If you're old enough, Milligan used to write some pretty good shit. Bad Company was kinda silly but fun, and went totally off the rails eventually.

Johnny Nemo was a fucking hilarious punk-rock future-noir. Since there's only about 100 pages of it total--and it flies totally off the rails, again, at the end--it's definitely worth checking out.

But you should really check out Skreemer, which is the best thing he ever wrote. James Joyce, post-world crash gangsters, wicked art, and even good characterization for once.

From there on it seems like hack word and acid-casualty-land for that dude.

Viagra said...

Enigma or Watchmen, to decide which is better is just a matter of taste. They are both written in very different ways, and you have to be fond to one in particular to make that call.