Previously in The Last War in Albion: The early 1990s produced a deep body of cringeworthy trans writing. It’s fine, we’ll be back to comics within the first sentence.
“I didn’t want to find out that instead of getting my powers from a transcendent scientist-mentor, I was grown from the DNA of Aryan super-athletes and Hitler’s personal sex midgets! I didn’t even know Hitler had personal sex midgets!” -Warren Ellis, Planetary
All of which is to say that Milligan’s inadequate account of acquired womanhood, rooted in his perspective as a heterosexual cis male as it is, remains a real and in its own way valid element of early 90s trans culture, just as the differently bad treatments of trans identities in Sandman and Doom Patrol from around the same time were. Flawed and cissexist accounts of trans women were always a real part of developing trans identities, and it’s certain that among the tens of thousands of people who read the “Shade the Changing Woman” were some for whom it was a crucial step on the way to their own transitions. Like the Nifty Archive, the fact that it’s excruciatingly cringeworthy does not change the fact that nothing like its treatment of trans identities had existed in mainstream comics since the pre-Code era. Whatever else might be said of Shade the Changing Man, that’s a significant legacy.
The “Shade the Changing Woman” arc was followed by a short two-issue story in which Shade met James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway that culminated in Shade the Changing Man #32, in which Shade deliberately got himself killed so that he could investigate the madness from the other side. The reason for this was both straightforward and metatextual; that issue came out in December of 1992, and the next month was to be the launch of a new DC Comics imprint called Vertigo.
The point of Vertigo, as explained by Karen Berger, its executive editor, in the promotional Vertigo Preview, was an act of self-definition. “Most of you already know,” she writes in the introduction, “that DC currently publishes six monthly titles that aren’t quite like any others in the industry: Sandman, Hellblazer, Doom Patrol, Animal Man, Swamp Thing, and Shade the Changing Man. But, despite producing comics that are challenging, disturbing, and creatively singular, we’ve been an ill-defined lot. We’ve been called horror, mature, sophisticated, dark fantasy, cutting-edge and just plain weird. Tired of tired misnomers, and not even having a collective name, we decided to define ourselves.” The common elements in these six titles were clear enough. It was not quite the presence of Karen Berger, who had nothing to do with Doom Patrol and had by 1993 departed from Hellblazer, Animal Man, and Swamp Thing. But all six books had been defined by writers out of the British scene, although by this point Swamp Thing was in the hands of American horror writer Nancy A. Collins, and the transition to Vertigo coincided with Doom Patrol passing from Morrison to the American Rachel Pollack.
In terms of Vertigo’s self-definition, meanwhile, the core element was clearly Neil Gaiman, and more specifically his work on Sandman. The six core titles were joined by seven new titles—a mix of ongoings and miniseries. Three of these had at least some connection to Gaiman; he penned a three-issue Death miniseries, while Matt Wagner and Guy Davis launched a Wesley Dodd book Sandman Mystery Theatre and Dick Foreman and Jill Thompson launched Black Orchid, which Gaiman had revived back in 1988 as his first project for DC. And the Vertigo Preview itself contained a short Sandman story entitled “Fear of Falling” as its only original piece (the rest of the book was two-page previews of the various titles), making it clear what the marquee attraction of the new line was. (Although in fairness, Morrison was almost as central, albeit less present; they largely took 1993 off from comics, and so their only actual contribution to the launch of Vertigo was a three-issue miniseries they’d completed some years before. But with Animal Man and Doom Patrol in the lineup along with an ongoing Kid Eternity series following on Morrison’s 1991 three-issue miniseries with the character, they arguably just as represented as Gaiman.)
Three other new titles, meanwhile, were wholly creator-owned miniseries edited by Art Young—Mercy by J,M. DeMatteis and Paul Johnson, Sebastian O by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell, and Enigma by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo. These three titles were inherited from a failed Disney imprint called Touchmark Comics, which had poached Art Young from DC and been announced with great fanfare in 1991 before petering out. This was, rather farcically, cited by Morrison as evidence of Alan Moore’s unimportance when they seized upon Moore’s entirely reasonable if reductionist conflation of Berger’s 1987 scouting trip to London and the starting of Vertigo, which, as the list of core books and writers makes clear, was a straightforward consequence of that trip, huffing that “much of the material that fed into early Vertigo was originated by the creators and by Editor Art Young for the proposed Touchmark imprint” and stressing that Moore and Berger had nothing to do with this. This would be rather more convincing if the three Touchmark refugees were not accompanied by a book defined by Moore’s run, a book starring a character Moore created, four books in the orbit of Moore’s protege Neil Gaiman, and one (Animal Man) written by Moore’s good friend Jamie Delano.
For current purposes the most interesting of these titles was Enigma, which saw Milligan collaborate with Duncan Fegredo, who’d broken out with two installments of New Statesman and two more Third World War in Crisis before making a startlingly rapid jump over to the US to work with Grant Morrison on Kid Eternity. And one need only look at that book to see why he made the jump so fast. Fegredo belonged to the same vividly expressionist style as Dave McKean, but took a slightly clearer and more straightforwardly representational approach, which meant that he had all of the striking appeal with none of the obscurantism.
Although it didn’t come out until 1991, Kid Eternity was among Morrison’s earliest pitches—they mention it in an interview published in January 1988 and conducted early enough that it contains a postscript announcing the expansion of Animal Man into an ongoing series. It was an example of the default setting: an old, obscure property revamped for the late 20th century. In this case the character was not even originally a DC character—Kid Eternity was originally a 1940s creation from Everett M. Arnold’s Quality Comics, best known for the creation of Plastic Man and their involvement in Will Eisner’s The Spirit. His first appearance came in the cover feature for Hit Comics #25 in 1942, from Otto Binder and Sheldon Moldoff. Kid Eternity was a young boy is out on a boat with his grandfather when it’s unexpectedly sunk by a Nazi submarine, killing them both. Upon arrival at the Pearly Gates it is revealed that there’s been a mistake and Kid (his only name apparently) was not supposed to die. In order to fix the error he’s returned to life, accompanied by the jovial Mr. Keeper (the heavenly bureaucrat responsible for the mixup) and given magic powers whereby he can speak the word “Eternity” and turn invisible or summon historical figures from the past to aid him. When Quality Comics went under in 1956 in the post-Seduction of the Innocent implosion of the market the bulk of their intellectual property was bought up by DC, who in 1977 decided to add him to the supporting cast of another one of their acquired characters, where he made sporadic appearances before being written out of continuity in Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Morrison does not strictly speaking discard the previous continuity, although they don’t especially follow it either, taking a broadly deconstructionist approach that revels in transgressive and deliberately edgy reworkings of the concept. In many ways Kid Eternity feels like a parody of the excesses of this sort of reboot. Kid’s “grandpa” is revealed to be a pedophile, while the entire “pearly gates” setup was revealed to actually be a charade by a bunch of demons, with Mr. Keeper’s true form being a hideous beast with an obvious visual debt to H.R. Giger’s Xenomorph design for Alien, and the historical figures he summoned just other demons in disguise. As Morrison enthusiastically put it in 1989, “People are going to feel really bad when they read this. This guy has absolutely no redeeming moral features at all.”
Elsewhere, however, they were offering more highminded accounts of the book, asserting that it was their attempt to apply Joycean techniques to comics after reading Ulysses and explaining that the affiliation of Kid Eternity with the forces of hell was an attempt to complicate the DC Universe’s standard treatment of order and chaos, arguing, “It’s so simplistic to assume that Order means good and Chaos means evil. I’m trying to show things from the Chaos side and show that Chaos is the well-spring of creativity and change, whereas Order is the concept behind all totalitarian regimes. It’s going to be a genuine occult book, based on my own research and experiments in that area.” Perhaps their most straightforward account of the book, however, came when they simply explained, “What I wanted to do was do a horror comic. I mean, everybody else in Britain has done one, so I thought it was about time I did one using all the occult I’m involved in.” And indeed it is on this axis that the comic found its most straightforward success, with a number of genuinely unsettling sequences, including one of the finest of Morrison’s career in which a man walking into hell meets his childhood teddy bear that he lost when he was nine. “Why am I in hell, Jerry?” pleads the bear, rendered by Fegredo as a horribly stitched together thing with maggots crawling out of one of his legs. “It hurts. It hurts all the time. Why am I in hell? I just want to go home and lie on the bed the way I used to.”
Kid Eternity is decidedly a minor work, with by some margin the least impact of any of Morrison’s early works. (Even the Vertigo ongoing—the final one of the original books—was notable mostly for being the first Vertigo series to be cancelled, news Peter Milligan responded to by suggesting that the book “wasn’t good enough” and that “Nocenti seems like an intelligent person; she has read a lot and it shows… but who is interested in it? Not me.”) It has some significance within Morrison’s career—most notably, it is the first instance of what would eventually become a go-to trope for Morrison in which the world of the superhero (or more generally the fantastic) is explored through the eyes of an everyman, in this case a middling standup comedian named Jerry. Ultimately, however, what the book is most notable for was the American debut of Fegredo.
The defining early work by Fegredo, however, was Enigma, which also stands out as a career highlight for Milligan. On one, desperately oversimplified level, Enigma is a superhero book. Certainly it has a superhero in it, the eponymous Enigma. Enigma is a literal comic book hero—the star of an obscure old comic who inexplicably begins appearing along with a swath of his rogues’ gallery. The villains, at least, appear to be ordinary people who are being swept up in whatever is happening, while Enigma is an altogether more mysterious figure, and in many regards a more troubling one given the way in which he coldly hunts down and kills the villains. The only seeming clue to what might be happening is the fact that everything appears to be centered on an aggressively ordinary and frankly downright boring man named Michael Smith.
All of this becomes the springboard for what were by now recognizable as Milligan’s usual fascinations: the fragile and contingent nature of identity, the inherent instability of “reality” and “normalcy,” and of course rampant and unfettered surrealism. But Enigma formed something of a perfection of the approach—a creative zenith of Milligan’s career. Much of this is because Milligan weds the weirdness to the character based approach he’d been developing for Shade the Changing Man. For all the high concept craziness whizzing around Enigma, it stays close to Michael and, in subsequent issues, his friendship with Titus Bird, making the story as much about living with the absurdity as about the absurdity itself. Describing it in Supergods, Morrison praised the way in which “Autistic, omnipotent, bereft of role models, the character known as Enigma spoke of the strangeness and isolation of being special in a way that Doctor Manhattan could not match,” and while Morrison is (ironically) being a bit uncharitable to Milligan’s innovativeness by defining him primarily in terms of Watchmen it’s hard to argue with the underlying point.
The culmination of this tight focus on character and the psychology of having fantastic strangeness intrude into your ordinary world comes as Michael, over the course of the story, finds his sexuality changing to where he’s gay, something eventually revealed (in a plot development that has not aged entirely well) to be something caused by Enigma, leading to a touching if strange scene in which Michael, when offered the opportunity to change back, decides that “this is how I am now. And I like myself this way.” It’s awkward queer representation to be sure (though better in basically every way than the “Shade the Changing Woman” arc), but it was still groundbreaking for 1993, and the connection between homosexuality and cosmic weirdness has things to say about queerness that still hold up decades later. [continued]