Year of the Artist, Day 15: Mike Mignola, Part 5 – The Amazing Screw-On Head
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Mike Mignola, and the issue is The Amazing Screw-On Head, which was published by Dark Horse and is cover dated May 2002. This scan is from The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects, which was published in 2010. Enjoy!
For the last day of Mignola, I wanted to show some of his artwork from his “mature” period, meaning from the beginning of Hellboy in 1994 to the present (I haven’t seen his latest Hellboy story, but I assume it generally looks like Mignola art). A lot of people have seen Hellboy, though, so I decided to check in with The Amazing Screw-On Head, one of Bill Reed’s favorite comics, to get a sense of what Mignola has been doing for 20 years as opposed to the first decade of his comics career. It’s interesting how much he changed, even though we can still see some of what he had been doing for years prior to 1994.
One thing we notice, of course, is his use of blacks, which Mignola had been leaning toward for several years before making it the primary “color” in is palette. As I noted yesterday, Mignola has an affinity for the late Victorian Era, which means he gets to dress people in very severe, colorless clothing, as we see with Abraham Lincoln on this page (Screw-On Head is a top agent for Lincoln). This preponderance of black also helps him create an interesting mood in the book – it’s not exactly sad, but it is slightly eerie, as Mignola can use negative space very cleverly – note when Mr. Groin seems to rise out of the blackness when Screw-On Head calls him. Mignola also began putting great machines and other steampunkish favorites into his comics more and more, and in Panel 1, we see the machinery in the shadows, as Mignola uses the blackness well once again. Dave Stewart, who colors most of Mignola’s work these days, uses just enough dark blues to show the outlines of the machines, and Mignola gets rid of any holding lines so that the machines look somewhat ethereal. This is another feature of his mature period. We also see that he uses blacks much more in faces, as Lincoln looks particularly haunted. Of course, Lincoln often looks haunted in photographs, but Mignola even puts black on Screw-On Head’s face, as he hovers in partial shadows. Mignola could be more concrete if he wanted to, as we still see hints of how he used to draw faces with Lincoln, which is obviously based on existing photographs, but we’ll see that with most faces, he’s become more and more abstract.
We head off to the Aswam Valley, and we see more of what Mignola is working on these days. He uses very lines to suggest a great deal, in this case a dusty, desolate desert. The fewer lines suggest something primal, and the fact that the desert is encroaching on the stone structure makes it even more decayed. While Stewart colors the scene with a dingy yellow, Mignola makes sure there’s plenty of black, so that it still looks eerie even as it’s a relatively bright day. In Panel 2, we see more black, more use of negative space, and again a lack of holding lines. This helps make the temple more impressive and terrifying, as it hides the creepy creatures just enough that we need to concentrate more on what they look like. They seem to loom out of the shadows, closing in on the tiny figures in the center of the panel. This is a very Mignola-esque panel, and it’s one reason he’s so good at horror comics.
More of Mignola’s evolution, as we see how abstract his faces have become. Dr. Snap has a bulbous nose and a nice brush mustache, but it’s very simplistic. “Madam,” the vampire lover of Emperor Zombie, has black diamonds for eyes, a simple triangle nose, and a small blob of a mouth. Emperor Zombie, meanwhile, is given a bit more definition, but it’s just a few small marks on his skull. I’m not going to say that the abstract look is better than the concrete look – they both have pros and cons – but I do find it interesting how severely Mignola shifted. I don’t know why he did. Meanwhile, we get Panel 2, the kind of panel Mignola likes to drop into his narratives every so often. It’s possible that this is taken from an actual wall relief or painting, but Mignola makes it his own, with the same technique we saw on the previous page – lots of black, no holding lines – that makes it look like something from the deep, strange past. Note, too, that in Panel 6 we see the new-and-improved Mignola Kirby Krackle – we get the thicker, more sinister Krackle as Dr. Snap is consumed. Mignola, we see, has never lost his storytelling skills – he makes sure to link Panels 3 and 4 so that our eyes move that way, and there’s nothing confusing about the way the page is laid out.
Dr. Snap is transformed into this demon, who was apparently trapped inside that onion, and it gives the usual rant about unleashing a horror. This is a typical Mignola monster, with the large eyes, the weird tendrils, the frog-like body, but because AS-OH is a humor comic, the demon, while looking terrifying, is kind of lame. I actually posted this page because I love the final two panels, as Madam “poofs” into a bat. This is an easy gag, but Mignola still nails it.
One thing Mignola’s use of blacks do is make the light stand out even more. He can use brightness in the same way he uses blacks, as we see on this page. Screw-On Head bursts through the floor of Emperor Zombie’s gondola (it’s strapped to the hot air balloon we see in Panel 2), and Mignola uses the white in the same way he uses black – the books and sword disappear into the light, and there’s a jagged break between Screw-On Head (shining the light of justice) and the darkness symbolized by Emperor Zombie. Notice, too, that in Panel 5, we get even more light, as Screw-On Head bites through the electrical wires. Once again, Mignola uses very few lines, but because he doesn’t, we get more of a sense of the bright light and there’s no need for lens flares and other special effects that a lot of artists would use. It’s just Mignola knowing how to convey a scene and Stewart using white to emphasize it. It looks “simple” but is still very clever. Meanwhile, yesterday I noted that Mignola started putting floating paper in his comics to denote trash, and what do we see in Panel 4? Yep.
So that’s The Amazing Screw-On Head, and that’s our look at Mike Mignola. He’s always been a tremendous artist, and it’s pretty neat to see how much he’s evolved in 30 years. So what’s on tap for tomorrow? That’s a good question. I’m going to check out an artist who died far too young, but even his limited output places him among the greats. Who can it be? Come back tomorrow to find out! And remember: archives!