[9 May 2012]
PopMatters Associate Comics Editor
“I want the run to be an absolutely faithful homage to the original,” China Miéville says when asked about working on the new Dial H from DC. “But there would be no point to doing that if you couldn’t also go somewhere new with it.”
Going somewhere new is the heart of well done recontextualization, which Dial H is, like a cover song that takes the melody and lyrics of the original song, but spins them in a new way that takes them down a road not yet seen…or heard. Soul singer Sam Cooke did that when he would sing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin in the Wind,” a song he would sing in concert. He gave the folk song an overhaul, adding rhythm, blues and Cooke’s own soulful voice. The song still held its power as a protest song, but took on a new sense of hopefulness.
In much the same way, Miéville’s new take on the decades old Dial H For Hero, now simply called Dial H, proceeds to add layers of subtext and metaphor to a Silver Age concept that was more about kids identifying with superheroes than the existential consequences of constantly changing identities. But that doesn’t mean the child-like quality of invention doesn’t come into play.
“I completely feel like a kid writing it,” he says with a smile that transcends the phone line we are using to have this conversation. “The biggest reason for me to do this title is this feeling of being a kid coming up with these absurd superheroes; the joy we all have is in inventing superheroes”.
He continues, “With Dial H you have a title whose whole shtick is about this endless generation of superheroes. That’s just absolutely giddying.”
That’s part of the appeal to Miéville, but the other appeal is the chance to do something different. “For many years people have asked me if I was interested in writing comics. There’s an appeal to doing something that’s quite different, because obviously it’s a different skill, and I like the idea of doing something that’s collaborative which obviously comics are.”
It’s different, but also something familiar for Miéville. His novels have combined elements of fantasy, science-fiction, mystery and surrealism to be generally labeled as “weird” fiction. That literary category, where he resides but is certainly not contained to, gives an idea of the type of story he’ll develop with his run of Dial H.
“There is certain specific issues about this comic that appeal to me,” he says. “In terms of taking something random and ridiculous and trying to make it very rigorous.”
Having weighed the appeal, Miéville is quick to acknowledge the dissimilar nature of the work styles. In comics you have visual and physical storytelling, whereas a character’s movements tell as much of the story as the words. “That was something I had to learn,” he says. “I was always aware of it, so it didn’t come as a big shock, but I tried to have as much humility and open-mindedness as possible.”
One possible issue for any novelist writing comics within an established mythos like Dial H is having a constraint artificially applied to the freedom they are normally used to.
“Part of the attraction for me is the constraint,” Miéville says firmly. “I’ve always been interested in the French avant-garde tradition, where some would set these random and arbitrary constraints. I quite like having to create while maintaining a fidelity to outside rules. Constraint is not automatically a bad thing.”
Within the constraints of the comic, Miéville does have an opportunity to play with metaphor and subtext. The first issue of Dial H certainly had elements of the called upon heroes metaphorically mimicking the emotional state of lead character Nelson. However, Miéville is wary of taking the metaphor further into the allegorical territory of teaching society lessons. The shift of Littleville to being an urban reflection of the economic downturn, notwithstanding, Miéville is “very wary of narrow allegorical readings, the kind that takes the fantastic and sees as a master code that has to be decoded and then you read off the message for society.”
That’s not to immediately remove their power or to disavow the subtext, but rather to open the text to more interpretations. “I think the reason I love science-fiction is because it’s so metaphorically full and it kicks off ideas all the time,” Miéville says. “But precisely because of that it is also evasive of narrowly pinning down. When you read a piece of science-fiction and it becomes clear that this is a narrow metaphor for whatever, then the sense is of disappointment because there is this collapse of metaphoric fusion. I wouldn’t want this to become some sort of Orwellian reflection of society now.”
This leads to literalism of the absurd that may prove to be fertile ground for the type of stories Dial H will have within its pages, particularly regarding constantly changing identities with each turn of the dial.
“One of things I always wanted to do was take seriously the psychological ramifications of what this [the hero changes] might mean,” Miéville says returning to earlier part of our conversation. “Which is something that hadn’t been touched on before in the Dial H mythos, and I really wanted to push it.”
The catalyst for those changes is of course the dial, here in this new Dial H represented by the rotary dial of a public phone. It’s something of an anachronism now in the age of mobile phones. One criticism leveled by other less insightful critics of the comic was that the public phone in the book is silly.
“That’s something that is quite deliberate,” Miéville says anticipating that someone would make that criticism. “Do you honestly think that wasn’t deliberate? That something like that would escape my attention that we mostly use cell phones now?”
In that we see the openness of the text to take on not only metaphysical elements, but also mystical and science-fiction elements. This is a new place, something vital to the recontextualization mentioned earlier. But unlike the limits of a cover song, China Miéville can change the lyrics and add or subtract elements to his whim, even with the constraints of an established universe. His admiration of the French avant-garde tradition might be his best creative weapon.