This week saw a sad day in comic books. DC’s amazing comic book series Dial H ended. Written by acclaimed author China Miéville, Dial H saw an unlikely cast rise up against absurd threats and the book just managed to blow everyone’s mind. And as of a week ago, it is over. With it concludes one of the weirder concepts in comic books. A concept that has unlimited possibility by definition and one that was never particularly successful. However, it’s a concept that just doesn’t want to go away. After all “We’re Dialers. So let’s go dial!”
Published by DC Comics, it started off in 1966. The story was as follows: A teenager named Robby Reed from a town named Littleville discovers a strange device that looks like the dial to a phone that is covered with strange symbols. Because teenagers in comics are like that, Robby’s able to translate this strange language into modern letters. And when he dial H-E-R-O, he turns into a hero. Thus, the book was named “Dial H for Hero” as opposed to Miéville’s Dial H, that dropped the bit about the Hero. This series lasted until 1968.
But the idea didn’t die. The property was re-imagined in 1981. It didn’t get its own book right away, but managed to have a couple of very prominent guest appearances throughout the DC Universe. It was very much a novelty series, relying on the gimmick that readers could send in their own hero-designs and author Marv Wolfman and artist Carmine Infantino would work these heroes into the stories. So what was the story? Two teens find dials and dial heroes. This series lasted until the late 1980s and had some brief re-emergences in the late 1990s.
But the idea didn’t die. In 2003, Dial H was re-imagined again. Published under the title H.E.R.O., the book saw the return of Robby Reed, now older and a much angrier. The story this time around: Average people find the H-Dial and dial heroes. They have adventures. And Robby Reed is trying to get the dial to fight of a killer. This series lasted for 22 months.
But the idea didn’t die. In 2012, Dial H was re-imagined again into what was arguably its best and most thought-through version. The story: An obese man named Nelson Jent tries to make a call, using an old public payphone in Littleville. He accidentally dials HERO and suddenly, Boy Chimney emerges from the phone booth. He wears a hat made of a chimney and generally looks very creepy. Later that issue, Nelson transforms into Captain Lachrimose, a hero who is constantly sad because he can see the sadness in everyone and make them relive their saddest moments. And with Boy Chimney and Captain Lachrimose, a series of heroes emerged that were so outlandish, they couldn’t possibly be real. Over the course of its fifteen issues, Dial H saw heroes like Flamewar – a hero who is powered by arguments on the internet – and Control-Alt-Delete who could reboot people. All in all, China Miéville crafted fantastically outlandish characters with very little merit on their own. But time and time again, the British author found ways to make these heroes work, if only for one issue. He also made a point of telling readers that not every hero was useful and sometimes Nelson who is soon joined by an elderly woman named Roxie in his adventure would have to wait for hours until the effect of the Dial wears off. And Miéville asks the question no other incarnation of the book has ever asked before: Where do the H-Dials come from? And from this question, he spins a yarn that seeks its equal.
And over the course of fifteen amazing issues, Miéville completely disregards anything DC’s rebooted universe has established, creates an entirely new universe for itself and makes us genuinely care about our unlikely heroes. He also makes us fear the Canadian Government. Canadians. Seriously.
All this is written in Miéville’s trademark weirdness. A lot of stuff is just left unstated, unexplained and thus, it has a completely weird atmosphere. And suddenly, heroes who are nothing but chalk drawings on a wall work. So does the absolutely absurd power-set of “Enter and leave through any and all open windows”. And not only does it work, but it’s mind-blowingly awesome. The comic book ended up being one of the few books out there where super powers were not only used to fight opponents. Suddenly, the ability to teleport through open windows became the ability to cross over into another dimension.
With his Dial H, China Miéville created a book that was so far out of the boundaries of the regular comic book schlock that it was maybe a bit too strange. The author tried so many new concepts, so many ideas at the same time and pulling them off magnificently that it might have seemed a little too out there for many readers. What certainly didn’t help is that DC Comics didn’t realize who they had writing for them. China Miéville is an acclaimed author of genre fiction. Not just any genre, but most genres. And he’s adding twists left and right. DC Comics completely neglected that. They forgot to advertise the book, to tell people “Hey, maybe you should look at this, it’s totally awesome.”
With Dial H, we lose something extraordinary. We lose something that could have made a great impact on comics. Something that could have become a classic. But at least we got fifteen amazing issues. Fifteen issues that gave us back our sense of wonder, the excitement of discovery and the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen next.
Dial H, we will miss you. Mr. Miéville, you are amazing.