#CBR5 Maneuver #19 – Dial H, Vol.1
Profile: Comics, Mystery, Science Fiction, Fantasy
After Action Report:
Like many of China Miéville’s novels, Dial H tries to alter the way readers look at its genres. It uses the tropes of superheroics to tell an entirely different kind of story with a lot of style and unique take on the world of DC Comics. It is a quintessentially Miéville story, where the rules have to be learned, or re-learned at the very least. And in spite of all that, it stays true to the comic book canon and is a huge breath of fresh air in a space that has been stagnant for a while.
I am a huge fan of Miéville’s ability to turn the boundaries of genre into creative playgrounds and Dial H doesn’t disappoint in this respect. It is a brilliantly rendered series that taps into the ‘weird’ space that DC has been attempting to capitalize on in their ‘New 52’ reboot. It isn’t as grand in scope or story as some of the great graphic novels, like Sandman, but it bridges the gap between a superhero story and a ‘larger’ adventure.
Dial H is a continuation of an older series called Dial H for Hero, a DC property that featured a mysterious rotatory telephone dial that allowed a normal person to transform into a random superhero by dialing H-E-R-O. The new series picks up when Nelson Jent, an out-of-work everyman, finds a new dial in a telephone booth and accidentally becomes a ‘hero’ while trying to call the police. Nelson’s experiments with the dial, and his attempts to break a local gang ring, draw the attention of curious villains, who want him out of the way or his power for their own.
Miéville does a good job of setting up this new adventure in the canon of the original Dial H for Hero. The elements he adds or expands on, such as the dialed hero’s mind being overlaid onto Nelson’s, and the dial’s strange connection with other dimensions, give darker flavors to what would ordinarily be a silly concept. Some critics have called the new Dial H horror-esque because of some of these elements of weird fiction that Miéville has introduced, but I don’t think that label really fits. This isn’t Perdido Street Station by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, Dial H has more in common with Modern Era Batman, focusing on psychological elements of crime fighting. Even though Dial H eschews realism, these gritty touches, such as Nelson being terrified by the dreams of a hero that he experiences when he falls asleep while transformed, provide new insight into the burden of being a hero, and how that might affect someone who definitely isn’t heroic.
Nelson’s character is a very unlikely protagonist, partly because he’s pretty unlikeable, but also because he isn’t motivated by a sense of justice or obligation. At first, Nelson transforms to try to save his friend, but he keeps doing it because it’s fun. It is also implied that the process may be somewhat addictive. At the same time, every hero Nelson becomes leaves a lingering imprint on his mind, subtly shifting his mentality to that of a hero. The dial itself drives Nelson’s slow transformation from a reactive ‘save-the-day’ type to something else that combines elements of hero tropes with those of detectives and occultists; that mad drive to discover the truth of the way things are.
The art mirrors Miéville’s emphasis on the darker aspects of being a hero. Santolouco’s panels are filled with black. Thick black borders surround characters and cloth is textured by folds of black rather than shadowy gradients. The agents of Ex Nihilo, the primary antagonist of the first arc, literally vomit darkness and the Squid uses poisoned ink as a weapon. It’s almost jarring when the lead penciller switches from Santolouco to David Lapham in issue #6 and a lot of that blackness just evaporates. We aren’t given much time with the new art style, but issue #6 is pretty sedentary, so it’s hard to get a feel for the real impact of the shift.
Volume 1 concludes with the surprisingly wonderful issue #0. DC Comics wanted to celebrate the one year anniversary of the New 52 reboot and basically forced all of their currently active series to do an issue #0 that would expand an origin story or reveal the motivations of a villain. By and large, these issues were dull and ill-received, but the Dial H #0 is pretty spectacular. It takes us back thousands of years to ancient Mesopotamia, where a priestess and some farmers are using a sundial to invoke the aid of the gods against a rampaging monster. But when the ritual is complete, Laodice is shocked to be transformed into Bumper Carla, a carnival themed superhero. While the use of a sundial as a ‘dial’ is interesting enough, issue #0’s best moments are near the end where we learn that the universes that these crazy heroes come from may not be so removed from ours after all, and the dials may be more dangerous than we thought. It’s a short little gem of a comic that sets up the coming conflicts, not so much of Volume 2, which will focus on the Centipede, but Volume 3 which moves out into the greater cosmology created by the new dial backstory.
I love this series, and I’ve actually started reading it issue by issue, instead of waiting for the collected paperbacks. And though the series has already been canceled, and will end with issue #16 in two more months, I really cannot recommend Dial H enough.
Posted on July 26, 2013, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged #CBR5, China Miéville, Comics, David Lapham, Dial H, Fantasy, Fofo, Mateus Santolouco, Mystery, Science Fiction. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.