“Dial H For Hero” is an oddball superhero concept from DC that has been revived several times over the years with, at best, modest amounts of success. It’s not hard to understand why it keeps being brought back as having a telephone dial that grants superpowers to ordinary people is a versatile setup that lends itself to reinvention and reinterpretation. Enter China Mieville. Author of “Perdido Street Station” (which I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed) and several other highly-regarded works, he was originally slated to work on a revamp of “Swamp Thing” at Vertigo before the character was drafted back into the DC Universe. Now, Mieville is working in the DCU with a take on “Dial H” that feels like it wouldn’t have been out of place at Vertigo when they were doing things like this all the time back when the imprint was first formed. That said, it doesn’t have the coherence of the best revamps of old ideas and some are likely to find it too off-puttingly weird for its own good. However, it’s also the kind of work that rewards close attention and a re-reading.
Nelson Jent is a schlub of the highest order. He’s overweight, smokes, and we’re introduced to him as his friend Darren is helping up the stairs after he was discharged from the hospital subsequent to a “non ST-elevation heart attack.” As Darren points out, Nelson isn’t even 30 yet. They argue and after Darren leaves, Nelson realizes what a jerk he was and rushes out after his friend only to come upon some thugs beating the crap out of him. Ducking into a nearby phone booth to call the police, he dials something else instead and emerges as dapper master of all smoke, Boy Chimney.
After saving his friend, Nelson realizes that the dial in the phonebooth has the power to change him into a random superhero every time he dials “H-E-R-O” on its rotary apparatus. Soon he’s going around foiling bank robberies as Skeet, taking on Darren’s criminal bosses as Captain Lachrymose, and encountering another person with similar powers as Ctr-Alt-Del. This is only in the second issue, mind you, and things only get stranger from there as Nelson gets sucked into the strange agendas brewing in the town of Littleville. You’ve got Ex Nihilo, a “nullomancer” who wants to harness the power of nothing contained in an entity known as Abyss. There’s the reptilian Squid who can secrete a number of disturbing liquids from his fingers and is also after Abyss for different reasons. Manteau is another “dial-wielder” like Nelson, and she winds up informing him of the more esoteric parts about being such along with the mysteries associated with it. Things like “O” and the “shadow on the line.”
All of the stuff that Mieville throws at the reader can be a lot to take in on the first go. There’s lots of fractured narration to convey Nelson’s disassociation with the identities he inhabits, the methods by which Ex Nihilo and Squid go about flushing out Abyss are somewhat confusing, and a lot of stuff happens in the main story’s climax that seems to make no sense at first. While I was able to piece together the general flow the main story in reading it the first time, I wasn’t really invested in it because it felt like Mieville was trying to be different for the sake of being different. The man certainly has a wild imagination, as seen in the various superhero identities he concocts. All of the personas on display feel like he was playing a game a free-association with phrases and the superpowers that might come with them. Would you have thought a superhero with the name Tap Out would have a faucet on their head and spigots for arms? Or have something like the Iron Snail be a Schwarzeneggerian commando with a shell-shaped armory on his back? The “heroes” he comes up with are consistently interesting, though if he keeps going along these lines I can only see one logical outcome.
All of this said, I was prepared to write this first volume of “Dial H” off as being too different for its own good. Its brand of weirdness felt more indigestible than enticing. Then, when I started to re-read it earlier this morning, a lot of it started to make more sense. Knowing how everything turned out, it was easier to understand the characters’ motivations and actions and pick up on bits of foreshadowing that initially meant nothing to me. It’s not perfect, the details are more interesting than the plot itself, Ex Nihilo’s “nullomancy” is never explained enough to make it seem more like a plot device, but the imagination on display is enough to make it stand out from most of the New 52.
The volume is capped off with two stories that show Mieville does have a general direction in mind for the story. The first involves Nelson stuck in “Manteu’s” house as a decidedly un-PC superhero, waiting for a crisis big enough that will allow him to leave the house. Aside from providing some amusing interaction between the two characters, as well as illuminating us to more of Manteau’s backstory, it’s a nice illustration of the utter randomness of the dial’s powers and some of their more unpleasant side effects. Those side effects are also dealt with in an oblique manner in the final story which takes place in the distant past as one woman uses a sundial (pun intended) to channel the powers of Bumper Carla, spirit of the fairgrounds, to defeat a rampaging beast. It isn’t until many years later that Bumper Carla comes looking for her that she realizes her actions at that time had far-reaching consequences. As for what this implies regarding all of the other “heroes” Nelson has summoned... well, I hope it means we get to see Boy Chimney again, because he was cool.
Art for the main story is provided by Mateus Santolouco who does a great job capturing the run-down feel of the characters and the city. More impressive are his designs for all of the various superheroes on display here. The aforementioned Boy Chimney imposes the right amount to terror, style and charm to be memorable, while Captain Lachrymose comes off as the first emo superhero that I’d actually like to see more of. In fact, all of the superheroes here are inventively designed to the point where I wouldn’t mind knowing more about all of them. What kind of deal does someone like Shamanticore have anyway? David Lapham and Riccardo Burcielli step in for the final two stories with some nice work of their own, even if they’re a bit too clean to impart the same sense of menace Santolouco gives the main story.
After all this, I’m certainly onboard for more of “Dial H.” Even if its rapidly declining sales and advance-solicited second volume appear to foreshadow its imminent end. It’s the kind of book that would’ve found a more receptive audience at Vertigo a decade back, but after reading this first volume I’m glad we have it now as opposed to not at all.