Feature: Screw-On Head Reviews 

Mignolaversity: “The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects”

By and | May 6th, 2020
Posted in Reviews | % Comments

Mignolaversity Logo

With no new comics coming out at the moment, now seems like a good time to revisit older Mignola stories, and what better way to kick that off than with “The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects,” a book full of Mignola gems.

Cover by Mike Mignola
with Dave Stewart
Mike Mignola has deservedly become one of the biggest names in comics for his creation of Hellboy. But when Mignola needs a short break from the Hellboy universe, he turns to diversions such as The Amazing Screw-On Head, winner of the Eisner Award for Best Humor Publication!

When Emperor Zombie threatens the safety of all life on earth, President Lincoln enlists the aid of a mechanical head. With the help of associates Mr. Groin (a faithful manservant) and Mr. Dog (a dog), Screw-On Head must brave ancient tombs, a Victorian flying apparatus, and demons from a dimension inside a turnip. This new collection of oddball Mignola creations also includes “The Magician and the Snake” from Dark Horse Maverick: Happy Endings, and nearly fifty pages of brand new material, all as weird and hilarious as the beloved Screw-On Head.

Mark Tweedale: I’m a little surprised Mignolaversity hasn’t discussed this one before. The book came out September 2010, back when Mignolaversity was only four months old, resting only on the shoulders of David Harper and Matthew Meylikhov. I’m sure you’ll agree it’s an oversight that needs correcting.

James Dowling: Yeah, when I realized that we were somehow the ones getting a chance to cover it I really lost my mind. “Screw-On Head” has that vibe where it’s Hellboy-adjacent and is really, really well received, so it seems like expected reading even though it kind of. . . isn’t. Like it took me years to get around to, but when I did I latched onto it irrationally hard.

‘The Amazing Screw-On Head’
Written and illustrated by Mike Mignola
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Pat Brosseau

Mark: This story originally came out as a one-shot back in 2002 and it ended up making quite a splash. It was among the first stories I read by Mike Mignola back when I was introduced to his work in 2003 and it was very much my jam.

James: I got through all of “Hellboy” in a three-month binge maybe four (???) years ago and it obviously blew my mind. But I remember, having not read “Screw-On Head,” finding the ending of “Hellboy in Hell” to be such a cop out, mainly because it seems to come right out of left field. Anyway, fast forward a few months; I read “The Magician and the Snake” along with all the other “Screw-On Head” accoutrements and lost my collective shit over it. Fast forward another few months (except enough months to be four years in the future) and that ending is one of my favorites in comics and I literally have a tattoo of the impossible shapes from “The Magician and the Snake” attached to my skin.

Mark: That’s one of the weird things about “The Amazing Screw-On Head,” it’s not exactly a part of the Hellboy Universe, and yet it kind of is. There’s a guy, Walter Edmond Heap, who wrote three stories about Screw-On Head, The Incredible Adventures of a Small Mechanical Head (1899), The Mechanical Head Returns (1900), and The Mechanical Head Returns Again (1902). So this story exists as a story within the Hellboy Universe. Perhaps Professor Bruttenholm read the stories of Screw-On Head while Hellboy was growing up.

James: Yeah, coupled with some references to Vril energy and things start to feel pretty squirrely. I’ve always been a fan of those quasi-crossovers though, where it feels more like complementary motifs than hard canon. It definitely has that feeling of a pulp story the young Hellboy would idolize though. Maybe one day we’ll get the spectacular team-up of Lobster Johnson and the Amazing Screw-On Head. In that regard it’s great seeing Mignola delve into his desire to write fully fledged pulp full of his own eccentricities.

Mark: Plus, Abe Lincoln.

It’s such a great comic. It reads like a stream of consciousness with the flavor of Monty Python.

Continued below

James: Yeah, I think I could die happy if we got to see Mignola draw the full Mount Rushmore. In that regard, I’m always surprised by how uniquely great the character designs and facial expressions are in “Screw-On Head.” Even “Hellboy in Hell” doesn’t really hit this interplay between minimalist linework and detailed facial work, but who knows, maybe I’m just more used to him drawing a stoic Hellboy.

Mark: One of the things that jumped out to me when I first read this was Mignola’s comedic timing, especially when he uses stillness, silence, and emptiness. Most striking of which was a big panel of black preceding a laugh from Emperor Zombie. I’d never seen anything like it before.

James: Yeah, “Screw-on Head” is really genuinely hilarious, and that comedic timing goes a long way. It’s also stuffed full of great one-liners, “All really intelligent people should be cremated—for the sake of national security” and “Free at last from my vegetable prison!” will probably ring around my head forever. That, mixed with all the absurdist imagery, creates this really wryly comedic, esoteric bundle of joy. A turnip containing a universe feels like something ripped straight from Douglas Adams, yet it’s also its own brand of Mignola-ish shenanigans. It all just fits together so nicely.

Mark: Not to mention he carves out so much space to settle into locations. . . often creating a mood in stark contrast to the tone of the comic. The section leading up to Gung the Magnificent’s tomb needn’t have been spread over two pages, but I’d argue the comic would be substantially less without it. It works for the same reason Abraham Lincoln had to be present. . . he’s far too solemn for this nonsense, and he works great as a tone misdirection in the opening pages.

James: Yeah, all his full-page portraits are something special. I think I have that arrival to the tomb set as my lockscreen. This comic does a really good job of surrounding its eccentric characters with foils, the silent fiancée of Emperor Zombie and the mild-mannered Doctor Snap (more on him later) combats the Emperor’s verbosity really well; and Screw-On Head’s companions, Mr. Groin and Mr. Dog, while not as plucky as the titular automaton, bring their own brands of quiet altruism. It’s a balancing act that shows off the best aspects of these main characters.

Mark: I was in university at the time I read this, doing a course in animation. A lot of the students there spent their spare time drawing comics, myself included, and since this was something I immediately fell in love with, I obviously tried to emulate it. . . The results were not good. There’s a balance at play that I could never get the hang of—“The Amazing Screw-On Head” is absurd, but the absurdity is invisible to those that inhabit its world.

Plus the way the ending sort of shrugs and gives up is utterly brilliant. But then it’s hard to go wrong with three horrible old women and a monkey.

James: I’m sure you made a masterpiece Mark, maybe you just needed a couple more mechanical appendages to really make it your own, “The Peculiar Velcro Leg” has a ring to it.

I’m just in love with how identifiably personal this whole project is. All of Mignola’s staples are here: skulls in Victorian suits, flies, breather panels of paintings and old busts, 19th century rooftops, abandoned temples, monkeys. Plus, like you said, that sudden step back into direct address is a really pitch-perfect way to sidestep into some random pin-ups (which are all delightful—bowtie bird-head is a personal favourite). I’ll never get sick of those lenses of false antiquity and academia that Mignola filters his work, I don’t see it anywhere else and even if I did, I don’t think I could love it like this.

‘Abu Gung and the Beanstalk’
Written and illustrated by Mike Mignola
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Clem Robins

Mark: I’m curious, have you ever read the original version of this? I’ve only ever seen it in IDW’s Artist’s Edition. Fortunately, it had the lettering on the page, so I could experience it in full. It’s pretty much the same, but Mignola adds in space. . . and that makes all the difference. It’s substantially funnier when all the panels around a comedic beat inflate its importance.

Continued below

James: I remember doing some google sleuthing and finding examples from the early version here and there but I never got to read it in full. I feel like you can see the influence of later-day Mignola here though, mainly in the design of the demon, who’s a pretty big departure from the usual Dante-inspired evildoers, it almost reminds me of those Earth Mother effigies you saw popping up during the actual time period of ‘Gung.’

Mark: The devil’s parasol is a new addition too. It’s a small detail that gives him a more interesting character. Another addition is the bookends with the bearded gentleman addressing the reader. Again, this sets a tone for the story to subvert.

James: Yeah, it’s almost like a fairy tale being picked apart by an academic, building in a couple layers of obfuscation to the story being told, on one hand we have this moral fable being told with the three sisters wasting all their money, then there’s this academic tone of scrutiny and retelling over it in the very glib dialogue and stop-start pace (maybe I’m just reading into it too far, but that was my interpretation). It keeps a story that could have felt overshadowed in this collection very relevant and distinct.

Mark: These filters are important though. Fairy tales and fables have a way of simplifying characters in ways that don’t play well in a modern context. The filters become a way to maintain the strange fairy tale logic without portraying it as the “true” version of events.

Plus I kind of like the way this is sort of meant to be the proto-Jack and the Beanstalk story from which the version we know today grew out of. (Hopefully out its nostril.)

‘The Magician and the Snake’
Written by Katie Mignola and Mike Mignola
Illustrated by Mike Mignola
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Clem Robins

James: I feel like I should mention here that I’m absolutely in love with ‘The Magician and the Snake,’ I read it in the back of the “Hellboy in Hell” Omnibus before here, which definitely leads to two very different readings. As a part of “Hellboy in Hell” there’s this ring of inevitability and finality to it, seeing as we’ve been surrounded by so much macabre prophecy already. But as a part of “Screw-On Head” the childlike placidness shines through as we see that sure, the Magician and the Snake are living on borrowed time, but they made something perfect out of it.

‘The Magician and the Snake’ feels a lot more genuine than some of the other stories in the collection, I feel like Mignola always favours cryptic and protracted prose in a way that seems poetic, in a rhythmic way. But this story just uses a genuine monologue to cut deeper emotionally.

Mark: I love that Mignola has resisted any obvious metaphor for the shapes. They can be a stand-in for any number of concepts. I’d read this story long before I got to “Hellboy in Hell,” so the childlike quality is something I can’t unsee. In Mignola’s notes in the back of the book, he talks about how he originally thought of the magician as a stage magician, but Katie corrected him—he had to be a magician with a pointy hat. In a strange way, that’s the essence of it. That childlike quality is inescapable.

It’s funny, Mignola has spoken only a little about what the shapes mean, generally dodging the question if he can or letting the interviewer put words in his mouth, but in an interview with a French magazine, he spoke more about the importance of ambiguity, basically saying that the French readers would likely be more comfortable with that aspect of it. It’s not a question that needs an answer; the question is more important.

James: Yeah exactly, it’s more about the journey these friends go on than the purpose of it all. The impossible shapes could be anything, all that matters is they spur on “Those last years. . . the happiest of their lives.” I think that idea of a journey is fitting too, seeing as how central the theme of time is to the story. From the get-go our authors are introduced as “Katie Mignola (age 7) and Mike Mignola (much, much older)” and after the story’s end we even get an epilogue page that immortalizes the Magician as a statue to be remembered by his friend. I guess it speaks to the permanent impact of us very impermanent people; the shapes disappeared and reappeared in their own time, but the Snake remembered the Magician long after that adventure was over.

Continued below

Mark: See, that’s another reading of the shapes I’d never heard before. This is what I love about it. The second you say, “Oh, it means this and that,” it stops people from bringing their interpretation to the story. It doesn’t need to have a Wikipedia explanation.

One more thing I have to mention here, is the way Mignola uses space. We’ve already seen him use it to tremendous comedic effect throughout this book, but the best use of space is in this story, with the kite unmoored and drifting in the sky. Gets me every time.

James: Mike Mignola, the king of decompressed storytelling.

‘The Witch and Her Soul’
Written and illustrated by Mike Mignola
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Clem Robins

Mark: There’s this thing Mignola does in the Hellboy Universe, where a human’s soul is represented by a white bird or sometimes a moth, and it’s always in the most devastating stories. The imagery is so perfectly haunting.

And yet here he uses it in a tale about two puppets becoming evil. . . and somehow doesn’t undermine the poetry of the bird as a soul. I. . . HOW? I cannot fathom this. By rights this should not work. By rights this should break something. And yet it all holds together.

James: Yeah, there’s so many insane moments like that in this book where Mignola will take one of his motifs, transplant it somewhere in a really quiet way and then it suddenly has three more layers of insane detail to it just by the new level of intertextuality. I can just see him watching as his readers scrape their jaws up off the floor.

Now, obviously Mignola’s pencils here are pitch perfect (I could live a happy life reading nothing but puppet shows drawn by Mignola). The huge standout to me here though, were Dave Stewart’s colors, the pastel blue and yellow of the puppets crossed with the rich, fiery red of the Devil, it makes my day every time.

Mark: My god, we’ve gotten this far in and haven’t yet mentioned Dave Stewart. Mignola loves to do cutaways to other locations, to other times, and to imagery representing ideas all the time, and you can see all of that here in ‘The Witch and Her Soul.’ Stewart anchors all that, defining each moment so clearly, there’s no mistaking where each panel is taking us. He is the reader’s anchor.

Likewise, we haven’t yet mentioned letterer Clem Robins. And I simply must because of this moment. . .

. . .I love that Manx is cowering, trying to make himself as small and as invisible as possible, and yet his speech balloon is the exact opposite. It’s such a nice bit of contrast.

James: Yeah, it reads so naturally, it’s like that moment when little kids will whisper, but it just ends being more piercing and obvious. It nails that sense of immature fear in them so perfectly, it leads into probably my favourite moment in the story where the puppets are scared of Hell for the most practical reason possible, they’re “wood, and likely to burn.”

Mark: Simply put, puppets and Mignola are always a winning combination.

‘The Prisoner of Mars’
Written and illustrated by Mike Mignola
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Clem Robins

Mark: Of all the stories in this collection, I think this is the one that I laugh at the most—yes, even more than “The Amazing Screw-On Head.” There are so many great lines. And I love that Doctor Snap is miraculously back, even after he got possessed by the thing inside the turnip and got blown up. No explanation needed.

Of course, when an explanation does come along, it’s glossed over in the most glorious fashion.

James: I know! ‘The Prisoner of Mars’ is such a treasure, everyone in it is so mild mannered and polite that the whole story just feels more bizarre because of it. There’s so many great character beats too like Doctor Cyclops just poking this alien brain with a stick because science, or Doctor Snap very casually apologizing to his friend for murdering him after they’ve both made their way into new sci-fi bodies.

Continued below

Mark: I can’t help but hear Graham Chapman while reading this. He was the master of this sort of absurd mild behaviour.

James: Honestly, I just imagined every character with the voice of Taika Waititi. Few things will beat the moment in this where one of the martian squid brains is just drenched in that menacing red light just tapping a globe of the Earth, they will rule with an especially jellied iron fist!

Mark: I found reading the sketchbook particularly illuminating, as Mignola talks a little bit about his process. Doctor Snap’s original body was described in the script as a cross between bagpipes and an accordion, but when it came time to drawing it, Mignola had no idea what that looked like. It’s interesting that there’s a sort of division between writer Mignola and artist Mignola. I imagine artist Mignola shaking his fist at writer Mignola and cursing him.

James: I would pay an absolute mint to see the difference between the scripts Mignola writes for himself and the scripts he writes for others.

Mark: God, me too. I wish they’d put some of that material in the sketchbooks. I love seeing scripts.

James: I remember reading in one of his afterwords (or introductions—one of those) for “B.P.R.D” that he’s never really liked doing written scripts that much, and prefers to just talk it out with another writer or the artist themself. That stream of consciousness style really shows itself throughout this. There’s this really delightful “and then” quality to the whole story, like he’s grinning as he throws together character after character and plotpoint after plotpoint. I wish Mike got to draw aliens more often, it brings out something delightfully Flash Gordon-y in him.

Mark: I get the feeling you might get your wish. He’s been drawing aliens lately and talking about how much fun it’s been.

I love the trail of red in this story. The color leads the way like breadcrumbs. We start with blues, then Doctor Snap finds Doctor Cyclops’s red notebook, which leads to some bloody murder, which leads to a red planet, with red aliens with red eyes. And the second they’re done with we’re back to blues again.

Also, random note, but I like that Mignola worked a Batman easter egg in.

James: Oh wow I’d never noticed that before! See, this is the miracle of revisiting these stories, I’ve got an eagle-eyed co-writer to spot everything I miss. And yeah, the way Stewart synonymizes blood with the martians through his color work is really cool. There’s so many cool touches like that where characters and environments mesh together in familiar ways, like how the martian lair is kinda shaped like one of the martians. It makes everything sort of easy to read and easier to appreciate.

Mark: This highlights just how rereadable these stories are. There’s so much thought in the page layouts. I have never been able to just read a bit of this. If I look at a page, I get sucked in and end up reading the whole thing.

‘In the Chapel of Curious Objects’
Written and illustrated by Mike Mignola
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Clem Robins

James: ‘In the Chapel of Curious Objects’ is such an insane, uniquely Mignola ending to the collection, I really can’t get over it. Like it’s so simple and the moment you explain it it sounds kinda dumb but it’s genuinely magical. This whole idea of a story that’s not a story that puts all the other tales out on display in this simple physical space, like we mentioned before, it adds a whole other layer of antiquity and hindsight to the stories we just read. Like they’ve already been found, catalogued and left to the dust.

Mark: It’s a comic that simply drifts through a scene. There’s a serene quality to it, not at all what you’d expect to end a collection of largely madcap stories. And yet these are the sorts of pages I’ll dwell on, especially in the Artist’s Edition.

James: Yeah Mignola always has a way of meshing the eccentrically creative with the quietly brilliant in the most memorable way possible, he makes it look too easy. Speaking of quiet pieces of brilliance, there’s a little turnip emblem on the back cover of the book which I really love.

Continued below

I almost wish that was how Mignola signed off on everything.

We hope you enjoyed this long overdue review. We’re planning to do a few more of these, so keep your eyes peeled for them. Mignolaversity has already covered “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” so we won’t be revisiting that one, and the DC3cast only just covered “Cosmic Odyssey” (not to mention Robots from Tomorrow chatted about it back in 2015). Other than those, there’s quite a bit for us still to explore.


//TAGS | evergreen | Mignolaversity

Mark Tweedale

Mark writes Haunted Trails, The Harrow County Observer, The Damned Speakeasy, and a bunch of stuff for Mignolaversity. An animator and an eternal Tintin fan, he spends his free time reading comics, listening to film scores, watching far too many video essays, and consuming the finest dark chocolates. You can find him on Twitter @MarkTweedale.

EMAIL | ARTICLES

James Dowling

James Dowling is probably the last person on Earth who enjoyed the film Real Steel. He has other weird opinions about Hellboy, CHVRCHES, Squirrel Girl and the disappearance of Harold Holt. Follow him @James_Dow1ing on Twitter if you want to argue about Hugh Jackman's best film to date.

EMAIL | ARTICLES



  • -->