How to describe The Amazing Screw-On Head? It's a big help that Mike Mignola gave him a name that does half the battle. The Hellboy-creator introduced the character in a one-off comic several years ago, a strange single issue that became a cult hit among those fortunate enough to have come across a copy. It contained the usual stellar art from the cartoonist, along with his strange ideas, but the Head also gave Mignola a forum for his absurdist humor.
Screw-On Head is a living metal head that can insert himself into any number of robotic host bodies that he's had built so that he can go out and fight the evil beasties of the world. Much like Hellboy exists outside normal society, hiding things that go bump in the night as urban legends, Head is part of a secret alternate history that Abraham Lincoln decreed would be kept separate from the public record, lest regular citizens lose their marbles. He employs Head to take care of wonky occurrences before they get of hand. Yes, Lincoln is the boss of the Screw-On Head. Didn't I mention this is a period piece?
The twenty-two minute animated program on this DVD was created as a pilot for the Sci-Fi Channel. Paul Giamatti (Sideways) voices Head, and in this premiere episode, he has to track down his arch nemesis, Emperor Zombie (Frasier's David Hyde Pierce), who has used a gun-toting monkey and a couple of old lady zombies/werewolves to steal an evil mystical artifact. To mess with Head's mind, Emperor Zombie deploys his servant, the Vampire Queen Patience (Molly Shannon of SNL fame), to trip up the do-gooder, knowing full well that before she was a vampire, Patience was the love of Head's life. It's up to Head's zombie canine (already stuffed and mounted before reanimation occurred) and his manservant Mr. Groin (Patton Oswalt, The Comedians of Comedy) to keep the hero from losing his way.
I am not sure why Sci-Fi didn't pick up The Amazing Screw-On Head. It sounds pretty great, doesn't it? They never even really gave it a fair shake. As far as I know, it never aired on the network and could only be watched as a low-resolution internet stream. Too bad, because it's a fun cartoon, made even more entertaining by Bryan Fuller's script. As the guy behind Wonderfalls, he's shown he can do whacky, but capturing Mignola's talent for deadpan non-sequiters proves he's in another league entirely. The Amazing Screw-On Head displays a fantastic dry wit, and the premise lends itself to no end of kooky situations.
The animators, with Mike Mignola as art director and under the helm of director Chris Prynoski, also do an amazing job preserving the look of a Mignola comic, with plenty of well-placed shadows and jagged shapes. Unfortunately, the actual animation itself leaves something to be desired. Somewhere in the ballpark of the more rudimentary Adult Swim offerings and web-based flash animation, the onscreen movement is minimal, restricted largely to character's mouths and the most essential gestures. I now that the history of television cartoons is built on limited animation, but something about the employment of digital technology as a shortcut feels cheap, and it keeps a cool cartoon from being truly great.
Even so, it's an entertaining pilot with a fair amount of laughs and neat ideas. The price point is a bit so-so for such a short offering, but if this is something you dig, there's a good chance you'll get your dollars back over multiple viewings (especially if you can get it for under $10). If they made more episodes, I'd watch them. And hey, with Hellboy now having his own successful cartoon franchise, why not a crossover?
The actual transfer quality of The Amazing Screw-On Head is pretty good. Maybe too good, as it reveals animation flaws like sketchy linework. (This was particularly noticeable on my computer screen, where the image got really pixellated.) The colors are nice, though, and it is neat to see the Mignola-esque art in this format. The DVD has two viewing options: a 4X3 Full Screen print (1.33:1) and a 16X9 widescreen selection (1.78:1).
Despite having a fairly uncomplicated soundtrack, there are 5.1 and 2.0 mixes to choose from, along with English closed captioning and English and Spanish subtitles. There isn't a lot of atmosphere to the audio production. It stays pretty much on an even keel throughout.
Director Chris Prynoski and writer/executive producer Bryan Fuller have recorded an audio commentary for the pilot. It's a lively discussion with a lot of technical info, but maybe too many "shout-outs" to members of the rather extensive production crew. I also have a pet peeve about commentaries where they talk about things like original title sequences, etc., and say, "Maybe that will be on the DVD." Find out what will be on the disc before you go in to record the commentary, because otherwise I'm sitting there thinking, "Man, why didn't we get the alternate title?!"
A two-and-a-half minute storyboard showcase provides a tri-screen view of one scene from the show. The top half of the screen has the flat storyboards, which are presented as two images at a time, just as they appear on the original sketch sheet. The lower right quarter shows those storyboards in animatic format, and the lower left has the final version, allowing you to see the three stages of production together in a clockwise position.
The featurette "From Comic to Cartoon" (14 minutes) takes a look at the production from Mignola's inception through development and final animation. It's a relatively standard approach, driven largely by interviews, but it's also full of production footage (including some at the Korean animation studio), design artwork, and more from the animatic and the Korean pencil tests.
There are a couple of trailers for other Lions Gate releases both as the DVD loads and in the special features menu.
Finally, the case contains what is billed on the packaging sticker as an exclusive comic book, but it's not a comic at all. The folks at Lions Gate maybe need a tutorial on what that actually means. Thankfully, what we do get is still pretty cool. As it says on the booklet's cover, it's a "Limited Edition Collector's Album." Mignola provides a new cover, introduction, and two drawings of new characters (both colored by Dave Stewart). The rest of the booklet is 8 pages of production artwork by the incomparable Guy Davis, a comic book superstar who currently draws the Hellboy spin-off series BPRD.* So, despite the misnaming, nicely done!
Though The Amazing Screw-On Head is short, it sure is sweet, and I mean that in the slang sense of being super cool. Mike Mignola has always made fun comic books, but the absurd pleasures of this one-off were so uniquely bizarre that you can't imagine them coming from anybody else. This strangeness translates well to the cartoon medium, and though this pilot failed to get picked up, it doesn't fail to amuse. The animation is a little simplistic for my tastes, but the humor and adventure win out, making The Amazing Screw-On Head Recommended.
* Full disclosure: Guy Davis also drew a story I wrote for The Dark Horse Book of the Dead, which just so happened to be colored by Dave Stewart. That anthology also featured an exclusive Hellboy story by Mignola.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.