Really, I am trying to be good, but I’m not sure I can help it. Last month, DVD’s for The Amazing Screw-On Head (2006) and Hellboy: Sword of Storms (2006) were released on the same day. That should have been the best day ever since they’re both based on Mike Mignola’s comics. Unfortunately, releasing both projects on the same day leads to unfair comparisons.
Based on a one-shot comic, The Amazing Screw-On Head is a charming cartoon. It was a pilot for a projected series on the SciFi Channel. So far it hasn’t been picked up, and I’m not exactly surprised. The ways of SciFi are mysterious. The story is as crazy delightful as can be, referring to a whole lot of generic adventure story conventions while still holding together evenly. Set in 1863, Screw-On Head, a mechanical wonder of the Steam Age, serves President Abraham Lincoln and defends America—and by America, he means the world—from ancient evil as well as his former manservant turned undead mummy, Emperor Zombie, who has also vowed to kill all Screw-On Head’s subsequent manservants. Besides manservants, the cartoon features: the Museum of Dangerous Books and Papers; a taxidermed dog; a chimp gunner; a Paleolithic conqueror; a temple submerged in the Mississippi; and the Homestead Act. And it’s nice to see female characters around whose job isn’t just being female. It’s especially neat to see a female werewolf included for the same reason a male one would be and not just as a twist on doomed love.
I’ve heard The Amazing Screw-On Head’s animation called crude, but for me, Mike Mignola’s blockprinty style and heavy blacks survive any stutter. At worst, The Amazing Screw-On Head is reminiscent of stereopticons and magic lanterns. To make an unfair comparison between different things, I found Sword of Storms a little too slick, somewhere between Warner Bros.’ DC cartoons and Disney’s new Anime lite style. While it’s still Hellboy, the cartoon seems bland in comparison to the comic or The Amazing Screw-On Head.
I first saw Hellboy: Sword of Storms in a theatrical screening as part of a marketing campaign for the DVD, which included showing us all the remarkably similar looking and voiced ads on the DVD, the warning against public screenings and leaving the muting on during the video’s opening. Yes, it was a low level yet still pretty entertaining fiasco with giddy marketing execs all a-flutter on their Special Day. The poor actor hired to be Hellboy stood by helpfully while a marketing executive mc’ed with her mic off and the back of the theater demanded their rightful swag. The screening probably made Sword of Storms less exciting than if I had wandered across it on the Cartoon Network.
Still, The Amazing Screw-On Head throws into relief how Sword of Storms misses some of the charm of the comic series. The comic, and the related series, B.P.R.D., concerns a group of paranormal investigators who are themselves paranormal: Liz, a pyrokinetic; Abe Sapien, a fishperson; and Hellboy, a.k.a. the Beast of the Apocalypse. As with The Amazing Screw-On Head, the comic mixes Lovecraftian horror with fairy tales, archaeology, humor and the exuberance of 30s and 40s pulp fiction. Sword of Storms adds dragons, a Japanese spirit world and fox spirits.
Somehow, though, it seems like something was lost in the transition. I can’t point to anything specific. It might be as simple as the choices that make a collection of stories into a standardized 90-minute, 3-act movie with A and B plots. And, of course, Mignola’s work is hard to master. Clearly, he loves his material, even when it might look like he’s poking fun at it. Somehow he can bring together different kinds of pulp material as well as create complex narrative and emotional tones. I can’t take it out on anyone for not being able to manage the trick as well.
So I’m not sad at the prospect of the next Hellboy animated movie. I mean, it’s Hellboy, animated and on tv. The world would definitely be a better place with more swell cartoons. At the same time, seeing how slick, smooth and vaguely dissatisfying I found Sword of Storms, I’m a little ambivalent about The Amazing Screw-On Head as a series. Again, cool cartoons—yay! Still, The Amazing Screw-On Head is already perfect: wonky, idiosyncratic, and so wrong it’s right. I think maybe 22 minutes is about right. The compression allows for gestures towards all the various kinds of stories. If it had more time or more space it might not actually be as fun or as funny.
As for Hellboy vs. Screw-On Head, the truth is nobody has to choose just because the DVD’s were released simultaneously. I’m doing my best not to get caught up in a false choice. After all, we have them both now and America—and by America, I mean the world—is better for it.
Carol Borden agrees with Screw-On Head that all really intelligent people should be cremated for reasons of public safety.
(This article was originally published at The Cultural Gutter on March 28, 2007)