Comic Picks By The Glick

Dial H vol. 2: Exchange

February 23, 2014

This was a series that was too weird to live.  Some people have argued that it should’ve been published through Vertigo, but it wouldn’t have felt entirely appropriate there.  Strange as it was, “Dial H” is a series that’s steeped in the superhero mythos and it was entertaining as a trip through the strange back alleys and dimensions of the DC Universe.  You can tell that writer China Mieville clearly had plans to do more with what he established here, and the wrap-up inevitably feels rushed.  Yet if you like your superhero comics strange, then you’ll probably be willing to forgive the series its issues.

When we last left dial-wielders Nelson Jent and Roxie Hodder they were trying to find out more about the history of the dials that bestow superpowers on whoever uses them.  Their search takes them across the world to dial cults in France, the bottom of the Mediterranean, and the hive of villainy that is Canada.  That’s no joke because Nelson and Roxie’s actions have put them on the radar of a black-ops branch of that country’s military that is trying to figure out how to weaponize the dial they have.  They’ve also got their top operative, the Centipede, on our protagonists’ trail though they have yet to realize that he has his own ideas for what to do with the dials.

Time-traveling through your “selves” of moments ago, superheroes based on insults, sentient graffiti, the wiring of the universe coming undone.  If nothing else, “Dial H” has ideas to spare, and I haven’t even gotten to the new kinds of dials which become key to this volume.  Even if some of their novelty is only skin deep, the ones Mieville does flesh out come off quite well.  The revelation behind the nature of the “sidekick” dial was particularly clever, as was the very nature of Open-Window Man.  He’s essentially an absurdist version of Batman, as seen in his origin and responsible for the book’s high point.

It’s also regrettable that his appearance not only brings a number of new characters to the series, the “Dial Bunch,” but also signals the point at which things start going off the rails.  (I would not be surprised at all to learn this was when Mieville got the news that his series was getting the axe, but I digress.)  Up until then, the focus had been squarely on Nelson and Roxie and they made for an appealingly unlikely team.  He’s an unemployed chain-smoking slacker, she’s an older-almost-elderly veteran dial-wielder with a wealth of specialized knowledge about them.  Yet they work well together, bonding over little things like 80’s power ballads and keeping each other grounded in their frequent identity crises.

With the advent of the Dial Bunch, that focus is lost as they’re subsumed by the new cast who are here to advance the plot almost at the expense of everything else.  There are some interesting ideas behind some of them, like Ejad the robot dandy, and the demon Unbled whose encounter with a dial caused him to forget his wickedness.  Even the ones we do learn more about like Bansa, whose dial always steals powers from other heroes, feel more like ciphers designed to advance the story.  Worse still is that Nelson and Roxie’s relationship also succumbs to this all-driving need to advance the plot, though the goodwill from the effort Mieville spends on their characterization does mean that they remain sympathetic throughout the story.

This is a good thing as the last couple of issues are such a rush of “We gotta wrap this up NOW!” plotting that it would be hard to invest in them otherwise.  For all of the fun bits in those issues -- “What’s a zombie,” the “doom dial,” hero mashups, the acronyms of the forces invading the Exchange -- they’re virtually subsumed by the action and exposition thrust upon the reader.  Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate that Mieville managed to bring some closure to this very strange superhero tale.  Better a rushed conclusion than none at all.  Yet there’s no getting around the fact that it’s still not a very satisfying finish to this title.

Which is a shame, because not only is the first half of this volume a welcome continuation of the first we also get the high point of the series here.  It might seem that Open-Window Man’s mentoring of a sentient graffiti kid whose parents were recently shot and killed would be too strange to provide any kind of emotional resonance.  Yet it proves to be right up this title’s alley as the superhero helps work the kid through his grief in the only way he knows how -- by training him to be a hero as well.  You may think you know where this is going, but Open-Window Man’s interactions with the kid simultaneously subvert superheroic conventions while embracing them as well.  The kid questions his mentor’s methods in perfectly legitimate ways, and the hero responds exactly as you’d expect someone who lives by the tropes of his genre would.  Yet its through these interactions that Open-Window Man ultimately saves the day while his final interaction with the kid actually coming off as legitimately heartwarming.

One wonders that if “Dial H” had a healthy 50-issue run, how many more issues like that we would’ve received.  Then again, if the title did last that long I also wish they’d have found a more capable penciller to illustrate the bulk of it.  The majority of this volume is illustrated by Albert Ponticelli, and the best thing that can be said about his work is that you can see he’s willing to commit to the weirdness of this series and clearly trying to do justice to Mieville’s scripts.  However, his linework generally comes off as sketchy and wobbly while the cast’s expressiveness frequently clashes with their scenes.  Ponticelli gets points for effort, but I wish that Mateus Santolouco (who did most of the first volume) or David Lapham (who does another issue here) had stuck around.

That’s not an issue for the final issue, as it’s a jam session from over a dozen different artists.  “Dial E” wasn’t even part of the series as it was originally published as “Justice League #23.1” during the “Villains Month” event.  As you might’ve guessed, villains play a key role in this issue as some kids get their hands on a particular dial and unleash some innocent havoc before its owner comes looking to get it back.  It’s less of a proper story and more of a fever dream with a different artist on each page, but an appealing one thanks to contributors like Jock, Frazer Irving and Liam Sharp.  Don’t expect this issue to offer any more closure to this series as it functions mainly as an epilogue to address one character’s fate.  I will admit that the callback on the final page was pretty amusing, though.

Would “Dial H” have found the audience to sustain it long enough to reach its natural conclusion if it had been published through Vertigo?  Given the state of the imprint these days, that’s highly debatable.  However, what we got was a refreshing dose of weirdness whose failings, substantial as they were, felt like they stemmed more from outside sources than anything else.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’d certainly be amenable to seeing more comics work from Mieville after this.  Though he’d probably be better served by finding an artist worthy of his talents and going the creator-owned route through Image.  Just as a suggestion.

Jason Glick

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