A Body Eclectic
I'm always excited by additions to Mike Mignola's body of work. And while that honestly wasn't meant as a pun, this post exists to sing the praises of a delightful fugue composed by the creator of Hellboy known as The Amazing Screw-On Head. It began life several years ago as a one-shot comic book; now, its titular story has finally been reissued with like material by Dark Horse in a $17.99 hardcover [ISBN 978-1-59582-501-8].
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 my magazine Comicology before its demise would've
seen contributors, folks we interviewed, and readers sharing books they hoped might come to be — possible (say, The DC Covers of Nick Cardy), not impossible (say, The Next Hundred Issues of Stan Lee & Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four), but that's a fun idea too. High on my own list was an omnibus of Mignola's non-BPRD/Hellboy stuff, even though I do love that and though some of the quirkier, self-contained Hellboy stories approach the feel of "Screw-On Head". I was thinking of "Abu Gung and the Beanstalk" from the anthology Scatterbrain and odd Dark Horse Presents offerings like the Dr. Gosboro Coffin tale 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. 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.
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 the situation requires — 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 (not just a groin, thankfully), 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!"
That and the unique, atmospheric 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.
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 completely 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 a corpulent incarnation of the Devil who strongly resembles the big red guy), it now reveals a connection to the above-mentioned Gung the Magnificent.
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 Dark Horse Maverick anthology Happy Endings. It's an insanely touching study in economy of style. The 6-page "The Witch and Her Soul" follows, more humorous but with its own 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.
Per my handy 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 wouldn't be far afield. "In the Chapel of Curious Objects" is a 3-page sequence, the last of the stories in the hardcover, 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.
The sole complaint I have about this enchanting expansion of The Amazing Screw-On Head is the inexplicably muddy reproduction on some pages of the title story, inferior to my copy of the original comic book. Aside from that, Screw-On Head's exploits and the Other Curious Objects that follow have rewarded multiple readings and will likely reward countless more.
Images © 2002, 2009, 2010 and characters TM Mike Mignola.
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