A Body Eclectic

I'll stack Mike Mignola's body of work up against any other in the comics medium. Which isn't an intentional pun, honestly, but as it turns out this post exists to sing the praises of a delightfully odd fugue composed by the Hellboy creator called The Amazing Screw-On Head. It began life several years ago as a one-shot comic book; now, finally, its titular tale has been reissued with like material by Dark Horse in a $17.99 hardcover [ISBN 978-1-59582-501-8].

Front of the 'Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects' hardcover, with title character standing under the title itself amongst a variety of both esoteric and mundane items, such as a globe of the world, a skull with a light bulb inside, a phonograph horn, and a snake.

For a long time, I despaired of ever seeing such a collection or, indeed, much "like material" at all despite the (very) occasional Mignola efforts along similar lines in terms of tone if not detail.

One recurring bit planned for Comicology before its demise would've had regular contributors, folks we interviewed, and readers alike sharing books they hoped might come to be — possible (say, The DC Covers of Nick Cardy), not impossible (The Next Hundred Issues of Stan Lee & Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four), although that's a fun idea too. High on my own list was an omnibus of Mignola's non-BPRD/Hellboy stuff, much as I love that, and much as some of the quirkier, self-contained Hellboy stories approach the feel of "Screw-On Head". I was thinking "Abu Gung and the Beanstalk" from the anthology Scatterbrain and some stray Dark Horse Presents offerings like the Dr. Gosboro Coffin story drawn by Ryan Sook or Mignola's team-up with Steve Purcell on "Rusty Razorclam, President of Neptune".

magician in stereotypical wizard's hat and robe with moons and stars gesturing at small cube, sphere, and pyramid blocks in the air ('And now...'), then a close-up of his hands with the blocks gone amidst short thin action lines ('Poof')

The new hardcover, whose full title reads The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects everywhere but the copyright page, casts not quite so wide a net. Its array of new and reprint material is pure Mignola, his only collaborators being the usual support crew — editor Scott Allie, colorist Dave Stewart, former letterer Pat Brosseau, and current letterer Clem Robins — and, on "The Magician and the Snake", daughter Katie Mignola. Katie became the youngest Eisner Award winner to date when that 6-page fable took Best Short Story in 2003; the initial Screw-On Head one-shot won for Best Humor Publication that same year.

Screw-On Head, an entirely metal man, saying 'Mister Dog, I need Emperor Zombie's current location.' Mister Dog, a brown dog (perhaps a beagle or basset hound), in a glass cube atop a scientific contraption, saying 'Woof Woof -- 687 miles southeast of Castilla La Mancha'. Mister Groin, an older man in a suit with white hair and beard, sitting at the controls of the contraption, saying 'He's moving fast.'

If ever a 27-page yarn that ends abruptly and is followed without explanation by portraits of "three horrible old women and a monkey" deserved a prestige rerelease, that yarn would be "The Amazing Screw-On Head". Plot: Screw-On Head — who is a sentient metal, um, screw-on head, twisted into bodies as needed for adventure — is alerted by President Abraham Lincoln to the theft of the mysterious Kalakistan Fragment. With his trusty aides Mister Dog (a dog) and Mister Groin (thankfully, not just a groin), Head speeds to an ancient tomb where Emperor Zombie and his associates have used the Fragment to locate the tomb of Gung the Magnificent and its dangerous treasures. Sample dialogue: "It's a turnip, but my instruments indicate that there's a small parallel universe inside!"

Face of Abraham Lincoln in shadow, declaring 'Godspeed, Screw-On Head.'

That and the beguiling art on display here have already sold you on this collection, or I'm not sure I want to be your friend. Yet, since 31 pages plus credits feels undercooked for a hardcover no matter how brilliant, there's more. We start with "Newly Unearthed Curiosities from the Secret Files of the Amazing Screw-On Head" — portraits again, each suggesting a macabre tale waiting to be told, but only suggesting; as Mignola says in the sketchbook section, "There are no untold Screw-On Head stories. Everything I wanted to do with him I did in that one comic." Then come five further fantasias that make my reference to this volume as a fugue particularly apt, under the heading Other Curious Objects.

Caption: 'The Devil was waiting.' Fat, naked, red demon with horns and tail, apparently the Devil, sitting atop a beanstalk in the sky with a bat flying above, the crescent moon and the stars out, saying 'Hey, boy. What's your name?' Young boy, Abu Gung, barely clothed with dark hair, reaching the summit of the beanstalk, saying 'I won't tell you that, but I know who you are. You sold that girl magic beans!'

Living up to that heading by virtue of not just its contents but its very reconstitution from a dozen years gone is, wonder of wonders, "Abu Gung and the Beanstalk". Mignola writes that he wasn't satisfied with the way he drew it the first time around, so he's tinkered with the dialogue and expanded it to 9 pages of entirely new art. While it remains a spin on the familiar parable of Jack the Giantkiller, a folkloric excursion that could easily have been adapted for a short Hellboy story like "The Corpse" or "The Troll Witch" (and features an incarnation of the Devil who resembles a corpulent cousin of the big red guy), it now reveals a connection to the above-mentioned Gung the Magnificent.

Lithe caped, horned figure in all gray appearing in puff of smoke ('I'm the devil.') in front of two live puppet boys, one yellow and one blue ('? -- I don't think so.'), who then changes his appearance to more traditionally Satanic red with horns and fangs ('Poof') so they get it ('Oh. What do you want?').

Next is "The Magician and the Snake", that elegiac interlude written by young Katie Mignola, newly colored by Stewart from its black-&-white debut in the anthology Dark Horse Maverick: Happy Endings. It's an insanely touching study in economy of style. The 6-page "The Witch and Her Soul" follows, more humorous but still with a hint of melancholy, again hearkening to some of the Hellboy shorts (with another version of the Devil). "The Prisoner of Mars" switches gears from the occult to an absurd riff on Victorian science fiction in the vein of H.G. Wells, proving that Mignola — whose oeuvre is mostly influenced by Lovecraft and world mythologies — can do pretty much anything. "And last I heard the sultan hadn't received his airplane and Cosgrove was still married to the ape," begins (yes, begins) the 17-page tale, which involves a hanging, spirit travel, and aliens shaped like giant artichokes.

Ethereal form of a man floating in outer space towards a reddish planet, then a very alien bug-headed figure sitting at a control panel and peering into some kind of scope with a bald, mustached man seen bathed in blue-green outside through a porthole. Dialogue caption: 'Once free of my physical body, I resolved to make straight away for Mars, to sort out the mystery of Cyclops's grotesque transformation. Unfortunately, I had not anticipated the sophistication of the Martian technology.'

Per my trusty New Oxford American Dictionary a fugue, in the context of music, is defined as "a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others"; that's how I'm using it in this review, although the clinical psychiatric term indicating a state of altered consciousness is not entirely inappropriate. "In the Chapel of Curious Objects" is a 3-page sequence, the last of the stories in the hardcover and (as Mignola says in the notes that follow) not even really a story at all, guiding the reader silently through a (perhaps literally) Byzantine assortment of items seen in the preceding pages, often more than once. "The Prisoner of Mars" is told from a tavern called The Magician and the Snake, whose signboard features the likenesses of those selfsame characters, and it concerns a Dr. Carp who resembles the man of that name seen in the opener. Gung the Magnificent's cross-reference has already been acknowledged, while a certain trio of shapes and their labels is the most intriguing recurring motif of all.

Magician with hands clasped gravely telling Snake, 'Not forever. One day they will return and on that day I will die.' Caption: 'Upon hearing this, the Snake's heart was broken.' 'Please say it isn't true,' says the Snake. 'All we can do is make the most of what time we have,' replies the Magician, Snake coiled around his arm. 'We will,' says the Snake.

The sole complaint I have about this enchanting expansion of The Amazing Screw-On Head is the muddy reproduction on some pages of the title story, inferior to my copy of the original comic book. Aside from that, "Screw-On Head" and its Other Curious Objects have rewarded multiple readings and will likely reward countless more.

Images © 2002, 2009, 2010 and The Amazing Screw-On Head feature/character TM Mike Mignola.

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1 comment:

Arben said...

This was probably my favorite book of the year. Much better late than never... I loved reading "Screw-On Head" again. I almost kinda choked up at "The Magician and the Snake" (How did I miss this before?). I could not get over the delightful absurdity of "Prisoner of Mars". And that last story was so haunting that it turned a great collection of stories into some sort of trove of secret knowledge, tying it all together spookily. Dude can do no wrong!

VW: oingick — A pig coughing somthing up mid-snort.