The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects

By: Mike Mignola (with help from Katie Mignola)
Genre: short stories (fantasy, adventure, folk tale stuff)
Context: originally published in all sorts of places by Dark Horse; collected in a pretty hardcover in 2010

Mignola is best known for his Hellboy comics, and at the rate I’m writing these reviews, there will eventually be months of reviews of those books. As much as I love them, though, I will never love them as much as this book. Mignola has said that he came up with the Hellboy concept by throwing together all the stuff he loved to draw: monsters, folklore, statues, and so on. However, once those books became a constrained universe, I think the raw creativity was lessened. Don’t get me wrong — I think the Hellboy and BPRD stories are great, tightly-crafted plots. They’re just not as good as these short stories.

Actually, I’ll go so far as to wonder why this isn’t hailed as one of the best collections ever. If someone like Paul Pope or Brandon Graham had released this book, I think people would still be going crazy about it. (And maybe people are going crazy about it and I’m just out of the loop.)

Anyway, the titular story is one of the funniest comics I’ve ever read. Here is a page:

That’s a story on its own. Like I mentioned in my Abe Sapien review, there’s a relentless rhythm to a Mignola story, and that’s in full force here. The “RUNG RUNG RUNG” of the death zeppelin’s engine strums behind the page like an ominous bass line. The lettering and the positioning of the figures lead you perfectly across the page, even when you’re supposed to read (unnaturally) right to left. Here is my bad diagram:

And every page is that good! After “Screw-On Head,” there’s a charming and heartbreaking story about friendship (between a snake and a wizard), a violent and baffling folk tale (baffling in the way that all true folk tales are), a sad story about how our fates are often decided by people with more power than us (only it’s about puppets and the devil), and a couple galleries of great single images.

I don’t know if my critical abilities work when talking about this comic. It’s just so good.

Abe Sapien: The Drowning

Writer: Mike Mignola
Artist: Jason Shawn Alexander
Genre: occult adventure
Context: published in 2002 by Dark Horse; part of the Hellboy/BPRD line

I’ve had multiple friends who say they don’t read comics because they don’t know how. They don’t know whether to look at the pictures first or the words. They worry that they won’t know how to read the art or miss which parts are important.

I bring this up because Mignola starts The Drowning with a poem stretched across an opening fight scene. How much weight should the poem have in relation to the larger story? I think that, in my younger days, I would have read the poem as something akin to an opening voiceover monologue in a movie, reading carefully in order to extrapolate its relation to the book as a whole.

This time around, though, I treated it more like a soundtrack. The words, individually, just that important. What’s important about the poem in relation to the story are the broad images. Think of the music in Wes Anderson movies — how all that pop music, cultured and structured but with the earliest rumblings of cultural revolution reflects the purposeful dollhouse sets and repressed characters.

With “You Gentlemen of England” in The Drowning, it’s obviously about the tension between the dangers “out there” in context of the safety at home, but more than anything, it’s about the rhythm.

(Just now, looking up the full poem, I found out that it’s actually a song, so my “awesome” analysis of a poem as a song in a comic becomes less cool. But continuing…)

I’m not sure if Mignola lays out the pages before Alexander draws them, but there’s a rhythm to the pages that matches the books that Mignola draws himself, and the song matches that rhythm so well that you can almost here the record scratch as a line repeats itself three times, unfinished, before the final words fall at the end of the flashback. This effect is helped immensely by Clem Robins’s sound effects. Their clean, almost-hand-lettered style normally meshes quietly with Mignola’s art in Hellboy, but when juxtaposed with Alexander’s inky, murky art, it’s like a rock beat with an orchestra of strings. That’s a compliment.

An attempt to capture the rhythm of the book with my webcam. It would help if the captions were legible.

The art is great. Lots of ink brushed and dripped all over the place. It’s perfect for an aquatic character on an island adventure. The story works well. It’s Abe’s first mission without Hellboy, and things go pretty terrible for him. He learns lessons. You know how it goes.

The thing that I like most about the narrative is that there aren’t really any bad guys and no one really does anything right and the possible antagonists end up dealing with each other. While the story superficially breaks the rules I learned in high school about having the protagonist struggling and overcoming on his own, it ends up working for me.

Abe, despite being a fishman, is a pretty regular guy who ends up thinking a lot about things regular guys think: What do I want from my job? How will I handle failure? Is failure inevitable? What do I do about all the forces beyond my control? It’s blue collar existentialism by way of that fairy tale process where things happen according to an internal logic that remains forever just out of logical grasp.

Mignola’s ability to capture that dream-like sensibility, contrast it with the everyday bureaucracy and everyman sensibility, and craft it all into a cohesive whole is always pretty neat to me. The two attitudes interact, but the supernatural is never properly filed, numbered, and exposed. For every piece of information the bureau collects, more questions are raised (or more agents are lost). It’s a messy job.