China Miéville deconstructs superhero comics in the outstanding Dial H
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Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Dial H #10. Written by China Miéville (The City & The City, Railsea) and drawn by Alberto Ponticelli (Unknown Soldier, Frankenstein: Agent Of S.H.A.D.E.), it’s an issue that explores the complexities of the superhero genre without forgetting about fun and humor. Warning: spoilers ahead.
Brian Bolland’s cover for Dial H #10 is an impeccably rendered close-up of a human with the head of a bloodhound, a missile on its back, and a telephone rotor hanging around its neck, speeding toward the reader while drool dribbles down its chin. Bizarre? Yes. But it’s also the type of visual that readers of China Miéville’s mind-bending reimaging of Dial H For Hero have become accustomed to. The British novelist is a newcomer to comic books, but he’s established a voice on this title that combines the sophisticated storytelling of Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison with the oddball superhero comedy of The Tick’s Ben Edlund. Using the concept of the H-Dial, a device that gives individuals superpowers when they press the numbers 4-3-7-6 (H-E-R-O), Miéville has created an elaborate narrative of ancient cults, alternate universes, shadowy government agencies, and absurd superheroes.
Two unlikely figures have teamed up to uncover the secrets of the H-Dial: Nelson Jent, an obese twentysomething deadbeat, and Roxie Hodder, an elderly telephone engineer who has been fighting crime under the mantle of Manteau. The device has brought these two together on a globetrotting adventure that ends in Canada, where superhuman assassin The Centipede and his mysterious employers are headquartered.
The Centipede is a captivating villain, a constantly degraded pawn pursuing his own secret agenda. Last issue’s humiliation resulted in one of this book’s best visual gags, when he had to endure a strange new costume change. With a name that isn’t appealing enough to the general public, The Centipede is forced to wear a helmet/mask that was designed by focus groups to up his Q-rating. The problem is that the mask is a giant, lifelike replica of a real centipede’s head, so the villain is forced to wear an insect helmet on top of his business attire. It’s a hilarious yet unnerving image that comments on editorial interference in superhero comics to make them more attractive to the masses.
It’s hard to believe that there have only been 10 issues of Dial H, considering how many ideas Miéville has packed into the story. The rotor bestows powers by pulling heroes from other dimensions/universes/timelines and putting them in the place of the dialers, who have limited control over their new mind and body. Eventually, the memories and personality of the original hero begin to take over, and the more often one uses the device, the greater the risk of losing his or her true identity forever. Roxie wears a blank mask when she transforms, as a reminder that this dialed self is not her real form. Nelson has more trouble maintaining, and a major part of his relationship with Roxie is that she helps remind him who he is when he falls too deep into his borrowed identity. In an interview with Comic Book Resources, Miéville talks about how this conflict is at the core of the series:
“I don't think I am doing anything tremendously original in the sense that identity issues that are concomitant with putting on a mask and running around with an invented name are fairly well-established in comics for some time. It seemed to me with Dial H that would be the foreground. That issue of what exactly is it doing to you when you do this, what does it say about you as a person that you want to hide yourself behind these frankly preposterous identities is just something inherent in the Dial H mythos that really appealed to me.”
The heroes Miéville conjures from the device run the gamut from the ridiculous (Control+Alt+Delete, Cock-A-Hoop, Captain Lachrymose) to the ingenious (Nelson’s current dial, The Glimpse, never fully appears on-panel); the main attraction of this book is the simple joy of seeing what characters Miéville will think of next. This month’s breakout star is Bristol Bloodhound, the dog-man-weapon hybrid named for the British surface-to-air missile. Dialed by one of the soldiers at The Centipede’s base, Bristol Bloodhound isn’t an ordinary hero; he’s forced to do everything Nelson tells him to do. That’s because he was commanded to dial 7-4-3-3 for hero, which Nelson figures out is actually the code for S-I-D-E, summoning a sidekick for whoever uses the H-dial. It’s a major new development for the story, establishing that the dials have their own unique capabilities and limitations.
The introduction of the S-dial dramatically changes the dynamic between Nelson and Roxie, giving them the chance to partner up as heroes. When they’re not dialed-up, the two characters are complete opposites that balance each other out: He’s big, young, and headstrong, while she’s small, old, and cautious. Nelson has come to depend on Roxie for control and she turns to him for excitement; when they dial together, the dependency transforms into sexual chemistry, especially with Nelson in the sidekick role. Roxie commands him to remember his real identity as they patrol the streets, and Nelson adores the domination. When they come back home, Roxie tells Nelson that she wants him to do what he wants, and the issue ends with him pulling her in for a kiss. This new element of romance complicates things considerably moving forward, and there are multiple layers to this issue’s cliffhanger. Both characters are only partly in control of their actions when they’re dialed, acting on impulses they’re feeling while in the midst of the ultimate act of wish-fulfillment. How that kiss will affect their lives outside of the dial’s influence is yet to be seen, but Miéville will surely take this relationship in more unpredictable directions as the series continues.
Superheroes are the modern-day equivalent of classical mythical figures, looking at real-world problems through a filter of epic spectacle. In the context of a colorful superhero adventure, Dial H asks serious questions about identity and power: What kind of person needs to constantly wear a mask? What does an average person do when given extraordinary power? What does that kind of power do to the mind?
These deeper philosophical questions are presented alongside a narrative mystery that stretches back to ancient Babylon. The H-dial was originally a sundial, and this issue provides small flashes into Thomas Edison’s creation of the contemporary telephone model, which includes the appearance of a heavily armed giraffe and a hero with a law textbook for a head. The introduction of the S-dial in this issue provides some more clues about the true nature of the devices, which appear to be instruments designed for war. The H-dial bestows great power on one individual while its companion device instills a sense of eager obedience, giving the main hero the ability to control his forces however he sees fit. Dial H #0 was one of the strongest issues of DC’s #0 month, and hopefully DC will keep this book running long enough for Miéville to fully explore the mythology of this world that he’s steadily expanding with each new issue.
Fittingly, given its themes, Dial H does not look like other superhero comics. The four artists that Miéville has worked with—Mateus Santoluoco, Riccardo Burchielli, David Lapham, and Alberto Ponticelli—each have distinct styles that are vastly different from the current DC house style, giving the book a visual sensibility that’s as unique as the script. Ongoing artist Ponticelli comes to this book from the gritty Unknown Soldier and the fantastic Frankenstein: Agent Of S.H.A.D.E., and Miéville’s scripts take advantage of his talents for grotesque realism and superhero spectacle. He draws every little hair on The Centipede’s mask and every fold in Bristol Bloodhound’s saliva-covered jowls. Small details like the wrinkles in a superhero costume help establish this book in a more realistic environment than the rest of the DC universe, even if it takes place in the same world as Superman, Batman, and the Justice League.
Rumor has it that the Flash gets dialed next issue, and it will be fascinating to see how Miéville and Ponticelli handle an injection of the DCU into their largely self-contained story. Hopefully the guest appearance will translate to a boost in sales, as Dial H isn’t the hottest seller at DC, but it deserves to be. Dial H is the perfect superhero comic for anyone that has gotten tired of flat characters and uninspired crossovers; it would be a shame to see it cut short before Miéville has the chance to finish his story.