The Body Eclectic
I'd stack Mike Mignola's body of work up against any other in the comics medium. And while that wasn't an intentional pun, as it turns out this post exists to sing the praises of one of the Hellboy creator's oddest and most beloved compositions, a delightful fugue called The Amazing Screw-On Head. It began life several years ago as a single-issue comic book; now, finally, the titular tale has been reissued with like material by Dark Horse in a $17.99 hardcover [ISBN 978-1-59582-501-8].
The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects © 2002, 2009, 2010 Mike Mignola.
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 feature I never got to introduce in my short-lived magazine Comicology would have had the regular contributors, folks we interviewed, and readers alike sharing publications they'd like to see under the rubric "Book 'Em" — possible (say, The DC Covers of Nick Cardy), not impossible (The Next Hundred Issues of Stan Lee & Jack Kirby's 'Fantastic Four'), although that would've been fun 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 jauntier, self-contained Hellboy stories approach the feel of "Screw-On Head". I was thinking his "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".
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, satisfying with both new and reprint material that is purely Mignola, hold the collaborators — outside of his trusted editor Scott Allie, faithful colorist Dave Stewart, former lettering partner Pat Brosseau, current letterer Clem Robins, and daughter Katie Mignola (credited with the origins of "The Magician and the Snake", a 2003 Eisner Award winner for Best Short Story; the Screw-On Head one-shot took home the Eisner that year for Best Humor Publication).
If ever a 27-page yarn that ends abruptly and is followed by portraits of "three horrible old women and a monkey" deserved a prestige republication, 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 accomplices 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!"
That and the impeccable art have sold you on this book unreservedly, or I don't want to be your friend. Yet, since 31 pages plus credits feels undercooked for a hardcover no matter how brilliant, there's more. First up are "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 more fantasias that make my reference to this collection as a fugue particularly apt, under the heading Other Curious Objects.
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 fable 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 our beloved Big Red), it now reveals a connection to the above-mentioned Gung the Magnificent.
Next up is that father-daughter ditty, the 6-page "The Magician and the Snake" from Dark Horse Maverick: Happy Endings, newly colored by Stewart. 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.
The New Oxford American Dictionary loaded onto my laptop defines a fugue as, in the context of music, "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 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 Amazing Screw-On Head". Gung the Magnificent's citation in both "Screw-On Head" and "Beanstalk" has already been acknowledged, while a certain trio of shapes and their labels is the most intriguing recurring motif of all.
My only complaint 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 already rewarded multiple readings and will likely reward countless more until the day I rust.
The hardcover edition of The Amazing Screw-On Head is available at Amazon. If you buy it or anything else – like the DVD of the animated adaptation of its title story, or another brilliant Mike Mignola creation — by clicking through the links in this paragraph, Blam's Blog gets a small commission on the sale.