In Retrospect – DIAL H #0-15 (2012-2013)


The connection is severed – DIAL H is finished! Well, almost, but it might as well be! Only a year or so passed, and already canceled! What went wrong? What went right? Why cut down a series to early in its prime? And why should it be remembered? It’s time for the DIAL H Retrospective.

Let’s take ourselves back a year to 2012. It’s May, and six ongoing series over at DC just got canned (including my personal favorite, OMAC) due to low sales. Six new series start in their place. We had the normal books expected at the time – another Batman title (a continuation of a Pre-Flashpoint book no less) and a spin-off from the then-recent Teen Titans/Legion Lost/Superboy crossover event. And we had two titles reviving the beloved JSA characters. You even had a replacement for the previously canceled military themed book.

And then you had DIAL H. No one knew what to expect.

For those unfamiliar with DC lore, Dial H For Hero began back in the sixties in DC’s House Of Mystery. In it, a young lad obtained a device with a rotary dial that transformed the dialer into a random superhero each time. That lad fought crime. The series was revived in the eighties with boy and girl duo, and expanded on the concept using reader-submitted heroes. This was followed by some rather uncomfortable business in the nineties, but then again no one was having a bright and shining time during that period. And finally the concept was toyed with further in an early 2000s series.

But the point still stands that Dial H For Hero was generally bright, goofy, and very much on the obscure side. It also had a fan by the name of China Mieville.

Writer of more offbeat (and prose-heavy) science fiction/fantasy, Mieville brought his darker sensibilities to the franchise with DIAL H. Instead of an optimistic child in the dialer’s seat, readers were treated to protagonist Nelson Jent. An overweight slob, Nelson’s life fell apart and he responded by just letting himself go. No proper job since “the plant” closed down, no romantic prospects since his previous girlfriend (or wife, it’s not clear) left him; he’s taken to eating and smoking and hating himself and his inadequacies. That is until he finds an old phone booth, with a rotary phone dial. As expected, it changes him into a different superhero each time he uses it. However, the identities are odd, and his perceptions of reality skewed by literally becoming someone else. And that’s not counting all the inherent oddness surrounding him, even more bizarre and surreal than normal superhero fare.

This is a book that isn’t just darker than previous works (because the nineties and 00s era stories were pretty dark themselves). It’s weird. Weird enough to alienate people and make it difficult to even describe the book succinctly. Why is that? Well it’s because, and this is something I only learned more recently, DIAL H was not merely an homage to the original Dial H For Hero.

It’s also an homage to old-school Vertigo comics. Which requires even more explanations of history.

The Dark Age of Comics (the late eighties and dreaded early nineties) saw not only comic stories getting darker, but also more mature. Yes, there is a difference. DC’s editors realized that having adult situations and deep, philosophical plots running alongside the lighthearted, all-age-friendly superhero books was a problematic trend. If younger readers saw Superman crossing over with, say, John Constantine, they might be inclined to read Constantine’s book. And I think we can all agree that Hellblazer was many things, but child-friendly not in the slightest. So Vertigo was a spin-off imprint meant to segregate said mature comics; the superheroes could continue to be colorful (the late nineties saw a trend away from the darkness of the early years), while mature books could extend further than they otherwise could have.

As such, a number of existing, usually obscure comic franchises found new, more mature life at Vertigo. These included Swamp Thing, The Sandman, Animal Man, the Doom Patrol, and Black Orchid. Eventually though, this initial generation of Vertigo titles concluded, and were increasingly replaced by creator-owned stories, until such became the norm at the imprint.

Looking back at the series, I’m surprised I hadn’t noticed it before. DIAL H basically replicates the same formula as the old-school Vertigo books. But of course it didn’t need segregation, because nowadays DC is all about the darker stories. And yet DIAL H does dark better than most DC comics these days for two reasons: 1) it has a writer experienced in darker stories and can bring the quality, and 2) because it’s got a lot of fun, albeit more cynical and deconstructionist.

DIAL H pulses with dichotomy; it plays many of its core aspects much darker and deeper than previous incarnations, but is also very aware of how silly the premise is. It is simultaneously a loving homage and brutal parody, both of Dial H For Hero and for early Vertigo. Concepts are pushed into complexities unseen before…and yet characters are turning themselves into wacky (and sometimes not so wacky) heroes that would be laughed out of the least serious Silver Age idea meetings. Super teams fashioned around parts of a house; heroes based on lame puns; cultural heroes both offensively outdated and respectfully restrained. All alongside inter-dimensional wars and void wranglers and Canadian government hit men with vaguely defined superpowers.

And yes, in spite of myself, I still don’t quite know how Centipede works. I assuredly couldn’t describe them or how they work.

The point I’m trying to make is that DIAL H is weird. Really weird. OMAC was also weird, but it was at least founded on the style of Jack Kirby’s original work, and the era it was written in. Simple and bombastic, is what I’m saying about OMAC. DIAL H is unabashedly wild in its execution, but in stranger ways; more abstract ways. For some readers – readers like myself – it struck the right cord of surreal and fun that we’d been missing. Different enough, but cut of the same cloth as our favorite classic superhero comics and films all rolled into one eclectic package.

But for many others, DIAL H remained simply too strange, and too obscure, to warrant attention. And that’s ultimately what doomed it from the start. Even those half-way interested in the book fell into the Firefly Effect: too knowing how soon the series would likely die, and thus reluctant to invest in it. Although at least it lasted twice as long as other series similarly too-strange-to-live.

The series lasted only sixteen issues (technically seventeen, but we’ll get to that) – one of which was a zero issue. In that time we got a mere three story arcs before cancellation. DIAL H actually handled it better than most, able to come to an adequate stopping point, if not a satisfactory conclusion. Plot threads were tied up, though many had to be cut short.

For instance, in the latter half of the series readers were introduced to the Dial Bunch, an entire team of colorful dial users, when before we had only two: Nelson and Manteau. The team included demons, a robot, a couple humanoids, a semi-expert in dial tech, and a dialer trapped in random changes to the point where they could only be called DWAN (Dialer Without A Name). Oh, and Open Window Man, a regular superhero.

And aside from Open Window Man and some bits with the tech expert Bansa, none of them got any characterization. This is because the series had to rap up mere issues after introducing them.

I think Open Window Man was the only one of the Dial Bunch to get an issue devoted to him because he had the most solid connection to Nelson. He was the hero partner to Nelson’s first dial, ensemble darkhorse Boy Chimney. A fine thing, was the Open Window Man issue, but it highlights how tragic the early end really was. China Mieville obviously had plenty of stories to tell concerning the different characters, and had to work to jettison most of them by series end just to wrap up the fight with the series big bad.

One character in particular stands out upon rereading DIAL H: Ejad the mechanical dandy. He was killed off in between issues, and I didn’t even notice when they brought it up. Or rather, I didn’t remember from the first time, resulting in it taking me by surprise when I read it again. Ejad’s story not only wasn’t told, it will never be told. Entire adventures in time and space occurred to the Dial Bunch and we the readers aren’t privy to it; most of them are at least implied to have survived, but Ejad most certainly won’t reappear even in the unlikely event of a sequel series. And that’s just sad.

Here’s another thing: Nelson and Manteau were great characters. Nelson was a slob, down on his luck and battered by life, with only the dials to give him purpose. At least once he singled himself out as the worst identity to have. And when he’s told by those around him he needs to change this or that about himself, he can only grunt “yeah, yeah”; he already knows about his failings, and only wants the nagging to stop. A hell of a lot of readers (myself included) identify with the big lug. Even his obsession with dialing superheroes can be construed as a metaphor for comic readers seeking escape through the consumption of superhero comics, where conflicts are simple and can be solved, and where stories have happy endings.

And now I need to move on, because I’m starting to depress myself.

On the other hand, Roxie “Manteau” Hodder is an older woman, a hippie with knowledge of telephones and esoteric physics, who knows as much as any single person on Earth about dial tech, and knows she knows too little. She uses her dial powers to fight corporate malfeasance and such high-profile social injustices; she does so in a mask and cloak, in order to prevent herself from being lost in the I.D.s she dials. She’s politically correct, and encourages healthy living. In short, she’s the perfect foil for Nelson.

What’s more, these two are so unlike normal comic protagonists. One a fat slob (though admittedly he used to box back when he was in shape), the other an old woman. Where else would these two not only be found as the leading characters in an action series, but also make perfect sense in it?

So where did this series go wrong? Aside from being close to a granite octopus in terms of impenetrability? I think it might have lost more than a few readers after issue five. The first story arc ends, a new status quo opens up, and a bunch of things change (not the status quo either). The art changed. Though the various artists to work on the series were good in their own right, I personally liked Mateus Santolouco’s work the best. My guess is that many readers agreed, and were much less forgiving on succeeding artists than I; stuck through it myself for the story.

But the story also hit a snag, because issue six can best be described as filler. Interesting filler enough, since it challenged many aspects of superhero comics (and took stealth digs at Alan Moore while at it). Yet filler nonetheless; an entire issue devoted to the two main characters sitting at home because Nelson dialed a hero too insensitive to justify anything less than life-or-death heroics, and it was a slow day. By any account, one could not ask for a better jumping off issue than that.

It took a while for DIAL H to pick up speed after that, having peaked at issue five and then struggling to work again. I think it did by the time the Dial Bunch came in, but by then the writing was already on the wall.

I would say with issue fifteen the series is over, but there’s still one lingering element yet to come. In honor of Villain’s Month in September, DC is releasing a one-shot called JUSTICE LEAGUE #23.3: DIAL E. Because it would be too much to ask for the thing to be marked as DIAL H #15.1 or anything, oh no. DIAL H doesn’t even get that courtesy; it gets lumped into the Justice League’s group of villain issues. Which makes it all the harder to find in any solicitations unless one happens to know about it beforehand.

DIAL H has nothing to do with the Justice League, why is it marked as such?

To twist the knife deeper, DC’s solicitation for the issue on their website actually describes the book as a fan-favorite. As if to say “we know how much you loved DIAL H, and we’re canceling it early anyway”.

Or maybe I’m just getting bitter, and DC genuinely wanted to keep it going but couldn’t because of the bottom line. As of late my optimism for the reboot has been running out. It started as a defense mechanism to prevent myself from becoming a bitter old comic fan too early. A combination of time, poor decisions on DC’s part, and growing exhaustion with the slow pace of today’s comics has worn my cheer down. No wonder I’m slowing slashing DC books from my pull list, and yet the Marvel ones are remaining stable.

There’s a point (and not the Point One DC stole from Marvel either): DC’s book slow to a crawl, and get less done than Marvel, and I’m more eager for Marvel’s stories. That’s because, while they don’t always do this, Marvel seems to prefer the shorter storylines. Or maybe that’s just the books I’m reading. DC definitely writes for the trade, and I get so tired with them. Loyalty to the property is the principle thing combating it for The Flash, and Geoff Johns leaving it is what made me drop the Green Lantern books finally. I think that’s another thing DIAL H did right: at its longest the arcs still moved briskly, and had enough individual stuff to keep things interesting. Other books I read have been going longer by months, and yet DIAL H probably got more done story wise in less time.

At this point I’ve descended into ranting. Let’s wrap this up. I loved DIAL H and wish it could have been longer. But then again, it had enough time to reach a conclusion. Some plot threads remain dangling, and we didn’t get to know a lot of the characters. But issue fifteen concluded on a hopeful note, like the adventures may continue later. The optimist in me wants to believe at some point in the nebulous future Mieville might be brought back on to do a miniseries or something to give greater closure. But the cynic in me knows if DC really wanted to tell more of that story, it would have let the series run its course; that we’ll probably never get a sequel. That Dial H For Hero will receive another reboot years from now after all the fans of DIAL H stopped caring; most likely after nest generations inevitable reboot of the entire DC universe that complicates matters even further.

I’m rambling again. Too long, didn’t read summation: DIAL H was great, and you should pick up the trades when they come out. And also support unusual series because they are the life-blood of innovation.

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