The childhood innocence of inventing superheroes is a fundamental rite of youth. Our imaginations, as stout as possible, form even the most absurd and ridiculous ideas into a physical presence that delights our flight of fancy. In that we see the draw and attraction of Dial H For Hero, a property in DC’s pantheon that has enjoyed a cult status since its inception decades ago. That youthful flight into the absurd is back, part of the second wave of the New 52, and it’s reinvented and, in a word, revitalized.
Simply called Dial H now, this new title is from the vast mind of science fiction and fantasy novelist China Miéville and artist Mateus Santolouco. With Miéville attached, the direction for this series should be fairly apparent, yet the resulting 22 pages are anything but obvious. From certain perspectives there is a palpable amount of routine, and there are few illusions about the narrative movement and set-up, but the comic has an aesthetic and sense that hovers somewhere beyond that, as an exercise between the high culture of literature and the publicly perceived low culture of comicbooks.
While comics have gained some amount of legitimacy as graphic literature, the public perception still constrains the artform to a fairly low cultural place. The concept of Dial H For Hero was to an extent both a cause and effect of that misconception. But, as Dial H, with a far more robust execution, the property sees an elevation to a substantial height.
The concept remains intact. A mysterious dial, here portrayed as a public phone booth, allows someone to take on the form of a powerful superhero. The ordinary becomes strange and extraordinary.
One element that separates this version from the previous incarnations is the persistent vision of a far grittier present. The town of Littleville is transformed into a city with a tumultuous economic and political back story. The parallel to our world is fairly observable. But this parallel is not used to make metaphoric statements about the current climate. Rather it grounds the narrative, allowing accessibility to a silver age concept in the postmodern period. Miéville and Santolouco use the common to frame the story and make connections with the reader. In that we have a better understanding of the weird, set off against a backdrop we can completely understand and relate to.
Nelson Jent is our ordinary protagonist. Overweight, unhealthy and just coming off a heart attack, he has no appearance of being a superhero or any other type of hero. However, the circumstances he finds himself in warrants a catharsis that takes him into the realm of the absurd and nearly-surreal. Without much of an understanding of what is happening, he becomes that which is necessary at the moment: a superhero. But the type moves beyond the characteristics of what we are expecting and into the realm of the weird.
In this first issue, Nelson changes into a superhero twice, and each change is foreshadowed ever so slightly by his present circumstances and emotional state. The heroes extend the narrative, a change from previous versions where the resulting switches had little to do with the story beats. Here the powers, abilities and even the look of each hero are a summation of the plot to that point. While they do advance the plot themselves, the speculation that they are extensions of Nelson’s state of being is reinforced by how they move it along. They are far from archetypes, and as an effect allow readers to better understand where the story has been, where it is now and where it is going.
On each page (with apologies to the talented pencils of Santolouco) the vision of Miéville is ever present. The scripted story is as strong as any debut should be, with each panel translating that perspective into an easily digestible format. The collaboration between writer and artist is inspiring, as too is the extent to which Santolouco is able to merge the weird with the ordinary, so that they are not in conflict. The movement from one point to the next is a natural flow of comic pages without one single jarring panel.
Many critical thoughts have been written about gritty recontextualizations of old concepts. While there is something to be said about the dark corruption of previously innocent properties, what Dial H does here is present a fuller realized version of an old concept. What if you could become a superhero? The youthful fantasy is given a weird and imaginative contextualization in our postmodern understanding of superheroes and superheroics. The conventions of the genre are still ever present, but for the moment they are suppressed by the unadulterated passion of creation. What moves them beyond the schoolyard is an execution by writer and artist the pays tribute to youth, and also sees each element as something more meaningful.