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Around the "Dial H"

Matthew Derman

The cancellation of Dial H came as a bummer but not a shock. Its sales were never off-the-charts, and its story, characters, setting, and tone aren’t quite like those of any other title coming out of DC right now.

The answer’s out there… somewhere on the dial

The DC Universe is not a bright and happy place these days. For whatever reason(s), there seems to have been a decision made across their entire line of titles to keep things fairly serious and gloomy. Presumably this has to do with the ongoing misconception that you can’t tell an “adult” or “grounded” superhero story without removing some of the spectacle and inherent ridiculousness that made superheroes appealing in the first place. If there is any lesson the publisher can learn from its recently canceled Dial H series, it’s that a story can be relevant and grown up while also championing just how absurd superheroes can be.

The book is based on a DC property from the 60’s, Dial H for Hero, which has seen many revivals since its invention, but none that stuck around for all that long. Though each version had its own take, the core concept has never changed: magical rotary dials transform people into superheroes if they spell H-E-R-O, the catch being that they never know who they’ll become or what powers they’ll possess. Understandably, this has at times been used as a mere gimmick, an excuse to create as many new characters and abilities as possible. In the most recent Dial H however, writer China Miéville used the idea as a jumping off point to construct an elaborate history for the dials that spans many eras and connects multiple realities. It’s a sprawling high concept, but seen through the eyes of a schlubby, insecure, aimless protagonist named Nelson Jent, giving the reader an immediately accessible character to connect with before things start to expand. Used for both comic relief and scenes of great vulnerability and sadness, Nelson as a character is a lot like Dial H as a series. Both have their depressing moments, but are mostly a lot of fun to have around.

It is Nelson who we first see using a dial, and he does so entirely by accident, trying to use a beat up pay phone to call for help when he sees his friend being attacked. Instead he becomes the help, turning into Boy Chimney, the first in a remarkably long list of original superheroes Miéville and his artistic collaborators cook up for this comic. From that moment, Nelson is hooked, and finds himself caught up in an adventure much larger and more important than merely trying to protect his buddy. He connects with other dialers, some of whom possess dials with slightly different effects than his own, and together they struggle to make sense of their situation and defeat the evil dial-related forces working to destroy every world in the multiverse.

Did they take you off the air?

The cancellation of Dial H came as a bummer but not a shock. Its sales were never off-the-charts, and its story, characters, setting, and tone aren’t quite like those of any other title coming out of DC right now. It combines morbidity and levity in an unusual blend, with a lot of pun names and outrageous designs for the heroes, but some extreme mental and emotional consequences for the characters who use the dials. The personalities of the superbeings they become have a tendency to take over, to become the dominant identity. And their memories linger, causing an erosion of the ego as more and more selves are packed into the same body. These side effects are especially tough on Nelson, who begins to show classic signs of addiction when it comes to dialing. He loses himself to the heroes sometimes, causing his partner Roxie and the reader a certain amount of anxiety. But when he becomes someone like Iron Snail (a giant military-themed snail man whose shell is a fully-operational arsenal), Chief Mighty Arrow (offensively stereotypical Native American with a pegasus companion named Wingy that defecates on criminals), or Cock-a-Hoop (a chicken head and arms attached to a hula-hoop), it’s hard not to smile even while worrying over Nelson’s psychological well-being.

Roxie, by the way, stands out as especially unusual for a modern superhero comic. She’s more capable and confident than her male counterpart; she’s sexually active without needing to be aggressive about it or provocatively dressed; she’s middle aged yet it never gets in her way, nor does it define her. It’s wonderful to have her be so well-rounded, and the worst part of this book getting the axe is that Roxie and Nelson’s relationship was cut short. They had a mentor-mentee dynamic that shifted suddenly and surprisingly (for the characters and the readers) into something romantic and all the more interesting. Sadly, once that was introduced it had to be shoved aside so the larger narrative could be told in its entirety in the few remaining issues. Their attraction to one another, and how much it was or wasn’t influenced by the dials, was left disappointingly unexplored. Still, better to leave me wanting more than not caring at all.

Perhaps the biggest point against Dial H, as far as the decision to end it was concerned, is that it didn’t fit very snugly into the rest of the DC Universe. There is one issue that nods to that shared reality by having Nelson dial up the Flash, but on the whole what made the series work was that it got to do its own thing. The only people concerned with or even aware of the dials were those actively involved in their use, and this allowed Miéville to tell an epic tale on his terms with his characters. Not limited by a bigger unifying continuity, he could make the story of the dials as intricate as he pleased, and he did so with great inventiveness. An ancient war involving numerous universes, dials scattered across time and space, a secret Canadian government program devoted to studying how the dials work—these kinds of far-reaching ideas would be harder to pull off in a book more connected to/bogged down by the events of other titles. Luckily, Dial H always stood alone, which may have contributed to its death (or at least made it easier to cut), but is also why it got to be so exciting and energetic when it was coming out.

You never gave in to fashion/You never followed any trends

The most reliable aspect of Dial H was its unpredictability. Just like with the dials themselves, you never quite knew what you’d get. This doesn’t only apply to what crazy heroes might appear, though the joy of seeing new characters each issue was certainly a selling point (see below). The narrative was also full of the unexpected, adding layers of complexity all the time. The initial story arc takes its time establishing several strong lead villains with bizarre backgrounds and enormous power. Then suddenly, these characters are killed off—mostly by one another, with slight assists from Nelson and Roxie—and the story announces in no uncertain terms that its true villains present an even greater and more challenging threat. Even looking back on those early chapters now, I find myself a little surprised that the initial baddies never return in any form, because death is so rarely a fixed state in mainstream super-stories, and they were such rich characters. In Dial H, dying always sticks, and it happens to plenty of seemingly permanent cast members, right up to the finish line.

The steady supply of unique superheroes helps with these losses, and provides some of the simplest and most satisfying surprises in the series. Though Miéville no doubt came up with the names and descriptions, it is his artists who brought life to the innumerable heroes, and therefore they who were responsible for keeping the book’s central premise fresh. Alberto Ponticelli was the most recent penciler, and the one who handled the most issues, thus creating the most new characters. He introduced the Dial Bunch, a gang of dialers who travel together recruiting new members and battling the evil Fixer, a being who can shut down the dials of others for good. Also The Centipede, a villain who can manipulate time to create temporary copies of himself that act independently but work toward common goals. These characters call for complex images, lots of bodies changing and moving pieces, so Ponticelli’s contributions to the title are no small accomplishment. His lines also have an amorphous nature that adds to the general sense of instability in the narrative. Nothing looks wholly solid, and maybe nothing is.

David Lapham drew two issues (#6-7) and brought a much more tempered style, solid lines that held everything in more securely. How he made this aesthetic work was by playing up the wackiness and, more than that, the discomfort of seeing such absurd figures in a more realistic environment. It works for the chapters he tackled, but I think only giving him two was the right call, because in the long run Dial H needed to look a little crazier and less contained.

Somewhat sadly, the best artist on the book was its first, Mateus Santolouco. His work lands somewhere in between the other artists in terms of technique, but leans more towards the unrestrained madness of Ponticelli. Santolouco’s stuff was bold and always felt like it was moving, like he transferred his own enthusiasm for the material right onto the page and it stayed there. His art had an unstoppable energy about it, and his heroes were always appropriately larger than life. They owned their panels, lived up to their names, and had some truly hilarious costumes and clearly expressed idiosyncrasies that enhanced them tenfold. His departure from the title was a shame, but the work he got in before he left was excellent, and gave Dial H the momentum it needed up front to get as far as it did.

It wasn’t the pressure/You never sounded down

Dial H was not without its problems, narrative or visual hiccups that hurt it along the way. Especially toward the end, once the cancellation had been announced, there was a great feeling of over-urgency. Miéville didn’t want to abandon his ideas, so he had to squeeze them all into the final few issues, making those closing chapters too hectic in places. And because through the dials any character can look like anything, some scenes feel like they would have benefitted from a little less unfiltered creativity, particularly once the Dial Bunch shows up. It can be hard to keep track of who’s who, and one or two big action sequences take a second read to fully comprehend, only making sense in the middle once you know how they end. However, these rare bits of confusion or mismanaged pacing are worth the ride.

Because for every example of accidental sloppiness, there are a handful of other spots where the reader is meant to be overwhelmed, uncertain, or left completely in the dark. At its heart, this story is a mystery (albeit on a cosmic scale), with Nelson and Roxie as the bumbling buddy cops who find clues just quickly enough to stay in the game. It depends on hanging questions and shadowy foes to drive it forward, so being baffled by it is just part of the experience. And as a full experience, Dial H is refreshing, using its genre and medium to have some untainted fun as well as tell a great story about the nature of identity, courage, and war. It’ll be missed and hard to replace, a singularly quirky comicbook achievement.

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