Friday, November 05, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 275 (11/5) -- The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects by Mike Mignola

We're all used to Mike Mignola being deadly serious. Hellboy has his quips and lighter side, but his stories are dark, bordering on horror -- the creatures he fights, after all, are doing their best to call down Elder Gods and stranger entities that would end all human life on earth, just for starters. And so that whole universe is dark and foreboding -- it suits Mignola's art very well, and his sensibility even better.

But there's no man alive who has only one mood, so Mignola, every so often, indulges his lighter side. Back in 2002, there was an oddball one-shot called "The Amazing Screw-On Head," a Victorian-era monster-fighting story that was deeply Mignolan in the expected ways, except for the straightfaced, almost self-parodying lunacy of the hero and his antagonists. Eight years later, that story and a few related pieces -- most of them brand-new for this book -- have been collected as The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects, and it's as nutty and fun as the one-shot it grew out of.

The stories are all loosely related; there's a long new piece about a previous adventure of Doctor Snap, who was an ally of the villain, Emperor Zombie, in the Screw-On Head story, and there's a story about the childhood of the long-ago figure whose tomb gets raided by Emperor Zombie, and some shorter pieces with even odder connections.

But it all starts off with that 2002 story, in which President Abraham Lincoln -- who else? -- calls on Screw-On Head, who is some kind of steampunk robot, to solve the theft of the Kalakistan Fragment from the Museum of Dangerous Books and Paper. Screw-On Head is sure this is the work of the dastardly Emperor Zombie, and so it turns out to be -- so Head, after carefully choosing the right body for the job (his name is precisely descriptive; he's a robot head with a threaded neck who fits into various robot bodies), sets out with his trusty manservant Mr. Groin and his trusty dog Mr. Dog. Zombie, along with his henchman Doctor Snap and a nameless vampire woman, have used the Fragment to enter the tomb of the ancient conqueror Gung, and Head must stop them, which of course he does. In outline, it's much like many other Mignola stories, but this one is far less serious than any of the rest.

Following a few pages of Head-related pin-ups, the other stories begin with a story of Gung, who outwitted the devil when he was just a boy. Next comes "The Magician and the Snake," co-written (and from an idea by) Mignola's daughter Katie, aged seven at the time, which is the touching story of a magician and his best friend, a snake. And then there's "The Witch and Her Soul," in which the devil makes some evil puppets -- "and that's a good day's work for me!" "The Prisoner of Mars" -- in which Dr. Snap kills his friend, Professor Cyclops, is executed for his crime, and then travels to Mars -- follows, and then the book ends with the silent "In the Chapel of Curious Objects," which connects more of the previous stories together, in its own way.

Mignola has always had an off-center, quirky sense of humor, but that stays pretty far down in the mix in the Hellboy-verse. In these stories, it comes front and center, and it's a lot of fun -- this book is to regular Mignola as Bob Burden is to '70s-era JLA, or Zippy the Pinhead is to Doonesbury: something odd, and not entirely explicable, but a joy to watch and thrillingly unpredictable.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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