Mike Mignola’s Amazing Screw-On Head

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Panel from Mike Mignola’s story The Magician and the Snake, collected in the Amazing Screw-On Head trade paperback. Copyright Mignola – but click for on-line preview.

So… this low-traffic blog seems to be where I confess my predilections for some of my guilty pleasures. A few earlier entries about watching football (which some call soccer) and today… it’s… comic books.

I love reading comics… and don’t feel the need to retitle them as graphic novels… they’re comics. Comics can be pretty wonderful. Many are.

A few of my favorites – among the most high-brow – include: Robert Crumb, Art Spiegleman, Alison Bechdel, Craig Thompson, Alan Moore, and, yes, Mike Mignola. More on those last two below. I also read some lower-brow stuff, too, including some Avengers, Batman, Swamp Thing…

My comic book interest goes way back. I still remember when, in the 1970s when I was in 4th grade, my buddy Mike Cranford loaned me a copy of Marvel Triple Action, which was a reprint of a 1960s Avengers thread. I collected lots of comics throughout my elementary and junior high years. Mike and I would draw comics in our spare time. I remember my early hero, The Fly, took on Mike’s villain, The Pendulum. The visual language of comics definitely influences my art –  which includes a lot of black outlines and panel frames.

Though comics are not, for the most part, great literature… they did help my language skills. I remember looking up and learning the word “suffice” from a panel where it was spoken by the Vision (in an agitated red-face one-panel one-word in-word-balloon “SUFFICE!?!”) in an Avengers comic (I think maybe issue #127 or so – the Vision and the Mantis were finding out their origin stories.) In a 7th grade spelling pre-test, I did really well; I think I was one of the only kids who spelled “annihilate” correctly. Easy!

I continued to read, re-read and accumulate a lot of comics. I still have about 3-4000 superhero comics in boxes, accumulating dust. When I went to college, still reading a few, relatively low-brow, including the X-men, folks assumed I, of course, would be into underground “adult” comics… which I didn’t know much about. But I was soon reading Zippy the Pinhead, Crumb, and others.

Though some of greatest comics have nothing to do with superheroes (see most of my initial list above) – and I really love those, I confess that I more often dwell in the realm of comics that are grounded in the super-hero genre, but pushing its boundaries. Alan Moore is the foremost practitioner of this. His Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Promethea, Swamp Thing, Miracleman (etc. etc.) are unquestionably taking place in the costumed adventurer world, but also very inventive and pushing the boundaries into great new territories. These stories are comforting to me – because I do still love all those shallow super-hero stories I grew up reading… and because I’ve outgrown a lot of them, and want something a little deeper. Moore is at once both deeper, and still very rooted in the shallow stuff I grew up with.

Mike Mignola inhabits similar territory. His best-known creation is Hellboy. Hellboy more-or-less inhabits that familiar world of costumed heroes, but there’s also an added depth of material gleaned from folklore and legend. There’s also a story arc, too – it’s about destiny, one’s calling, one’s nature, and struggling with one’s humanity – even if one is a half-human demon spawn!

(Somewhat like Alan Moore film adaptations, while the Hellboy movie adaptations can be sometimes fun by giving us fanboys/fangirls a look at a new version of the visuals we’re familiar with, the films just don’t quite have the same complexity as the comics. Please don’t assume that you know Hellboy or Watchmen or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen just because you’ve seen the movie… I guess the same is true for No Country for Old Men, etc.)

Hellboy image – drawn by and totally copyright by Mike Mignola – click link to go to the website where I stole this from, where the image is bigger

Mike Mignola is an artist, too. Quite an artist. (Alan Moore is almost always the writer only, collaborating with various artists.) In the way that Moore writes one-foot-deep one-foot-shallow reinterpretations, Mignola draws in the low-brow comic book tradition, but breathes extraordinary new life into it. He’s clearly influenced by Jack Kirby, the artist who’s arguably most responsible for the look of all the Marvel comics that I grew up reading. Mignola’s got a little Kirby, especially in the explosions and other electrical atmospheric effects, but Mignola is charting great new territory. He uses lots of black. Lots. And he’s a virtuoso in black (which reproduces graphically in a great flat way that helps tighten an image.) Stylized… and (exhales, words imperfect for describing visuals) just beautiful. His settings, backgrounds are fantastic – lots of graveyards, statues, temples, ruins, cobwebs… He has these great aged textures – every statue is in a state of decay. Mignola is also a master of the cover image. He composes beautiful balanced whole staged metonyms – images that stand apart from the whole story, but stand-in for and faithfully represent the whole.

Don’t take my word for it, see lots of Mike Mignola artwork here.

This morning I was really enjoying Mignola’s The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects. It’s a treat. A beautiful collection of tongue-in-cheek Victorian superheroes. Poking fun at the genre, and relishing it. It’s downright silly at points – “IT’S A TURNIP, BUT MY INSTRUMENTS INDICATE THAT THERE’S A SMALL PARALLEL UNIVERSE INSIDE!” but the art is gorgeous – ruins, skulls, explosions, Victorian steam-punk technology… and lots more. It’s beautiful stuff. I think that, freed from the weight of Hellboy (which is a very larger-than-life serious archetypal book), Mignola just tooled around and, with that freedom and play, hit on something great. Not deep – light, fun and beautiful.

I’ll leave you with some lines of Amazing Screw-On Head dialogue that crack me up over and over.

Emperor Zombie: THERE IS NO QUESTION ABOUT IT. THE WHOLE WORLD MUST BE MADE TO SUFFER FOR THIS INDIGNITY! YES!

BUT WHAT SORT OF PUNISHMENT?

(gestures to a row of steampunk buttons labeled A, B, C)

POISON FROGS? PLAGUE RATS? GIANT FIRE-BREATHING ROBOT?

Emperor Zombie’s Vampire Consort: WHY NOT ALL THREE?

Emperor Zombie: MARRY ME.

There’s an animated version out there (online but I am not even linking to it) but get your hands on the print version of The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects… and enjoy.

(yes… er, no – the title of this blog post is not an error… it’s deliberately a little wacky… it sounds like Mignola has a screw-on head… which I don’t think he does.)

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