Based on a one off comic by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, this is a whimsical beast, and a very funny one at that. The animation style is largely based on Mignola’s work though not quite as effective as it is on the page, mainly as budgetary constraints meant the animation isn’t as flowing or as attractive as the still imagery. Hopefully that would have been remedied if given a full run as it often has a beautifully gothic look to it, and is quite unlike any other animated comedy I’ve seen.
The episode opens with an old woman changing in to a werewolf, before being helped by another elderly woman along with a machine gun wielding monkey to kidnap an expert in historical books. It’s a bold opening and makes it clear that this isn’t exactly The Simpsons or Family Guy, and if anything it reminds me of Grant Morrison’s gorgeously insane run on the Doom Patrol comic of the 80’s and 90’s. Once they escape Abraham Lincoln narrates the opening credits, which gives us a bit of exposition as to what’s going on, as we learn about America’s secret history and how it was recorded in only one book – The Amazing Screw-On Head. Said character is a bouncing robotic head who can choose the bodies he wishes to use for each mission, he’s voiced by Paul Giamatti but sounds far more heroic and dashing than I’ve ever heard Giamatti be before or since.
We’re first introduced to The Amazing Screw-On Head (or Screw-On as I’m calling him from now on as it’s an arse continually typing that out) in 1862 as he recruits a new manservant, Mr Groin (Patton Oswalt, superb as always), as all of his previous servants have been killed by Emperor Zombie, Screw-On’s first ever servant and former close friend. Unfortunately for him Emperor Zombie turned evil and has a fetish for killing off anyone close to Screw-On, and now plans to use his knowledge to track down a mysterious gem, but which turns out to be a turnip – albeit, as his henchwoman says, “It’s a turnip, and it looks like it has a small parallel universe inside”. And inside that universe is a demigod intent on destroying everything and everyone.
Emperor Zombie is played with glee by David Hyde Pierce, who’s rather jovial considering his undead state. But he’s able to do menacing rather effectively as well, and the flies that buzz around his decaying head make him oddly nauseating. He also has a great selection of henchwomen, including the aforementioned elderly ladies / werewolf, and Patience, a former lover of Screw-On’s. There’s a cute (and then disturbing) flashback to 187 years ago where Screw-On is on a date with Patience, until she’s turned in to a vampire, as is wont to happen in this show. Back to the present and Screw-On is able to capture her, and so he and Abraham Lincoln try to interrogate her to reveal Emperor Zombie’s secret location. They fail to, but are able to track him down anyhow. Soon enough a demigod is unleashed, Screw-On’s body is crushed, and the demigod’s rather taken with Emperor Zombie and happy to team up with him, indeed for a destroyed of worlds he’s rather friendly and polite with other evil types.
David Hyde-Pierce’s Emperor Zombie, characteristically looking rather happy.
In some ways it feels like a Victorian Venture Bros., at least the early episodes when it was more of a spoof of Johnny Quest and not the far more layered series that it’s now become, though it has more depth than those episodes and the characters are nowhere near as screwed up. There’s an enormous amount to enjoy here in general, and the only real downside is that Screw-On’s not the most amazingly interesting lead, he may be courageous and gallant but is otherwise rather one note, but hopefully that would have been expanded upon in further episodes. Certainly his failed romance with Patience and his growing fondness for Mr Groin suggest that this would have been the case.
There’s lots of very funny lines within the pilot, including “It’s as I always say, all really intelligent people should be cremated for reasons of public safety” (Screw-On Head) / “The head I fell in love with was so much more chatty. But that was before you allowed me to be horribly murdered and turned in to the foul beast that stands before you” (Patience) / “I’m so excited I just made water in my pantaloons” (Emperor Zombie) / “Free at last from my vegetable prison” (the demigod), though my particular favourite is when a dog arrives on wheels and Emperor Zombie happily exclaims “Mr Dog, did you come to save the day? When I was alive and he was alive he won best in show ten times running!”.
Mike Mignola didn’t like the pilot unfortunately, possibly because it’s wackier than the original comic which whilst enjoyable is definitely played straighter, even if it is without a doubt bizarre and meant to be amusing. But everything in the cartoon version is a little more extreme, and I think that’s to it’s benefit, whilst the comic is engaging it’s a bit by the numbers, and a direct adaption would have been rather dull, and thankfully this fleshes it out effectively whilst still capturing the spirit of the piece.
Adapted by Bryan Fuller, which suggests it would have been cancelled quickly, or he’d have quit after a season or so, it’s an enormous disappointment that it didn’t go to series as it’s an inventive and very charming comedy. If it had been created for Adult Swim I’m sure it would have been successful, but in 2006 the Sci-fi Channel didn’t want to take the risk which is perhaps unsurprising given the general standard of their output, but greatly frustrating nonetheless.
One and Done: Pistol Pete