I’m probably not the typical comic book reader. If you made me choose, from my experience with the movie adaptations, I’d pick the Marvel Universe. I don’t normally read superhero comics (I go for graphic novels) but when China Miéville’s name is on something, I wants the precious. I heard about Dial H in a youtube video with Miéville and he made it sound wacky and fun and like the perfect playground for a writer like him.
Published by: DC Comics, 2013
Paperback: 168 pages
Series: Dial H #1-6
My rating: 6,5/10
First sentence: Littleville. Gotta love it.
In the small run-down town of Littleville, CO, a troubled young man stumbles upon the lost H-Dial and all of the secrets and power it possesses. It has been many years since the H-Dial has been seen, though legions of villains have been scouring the globe looking for it and its ability to transform users into a variety of superheros and take on their powers and psyches.
Will our hero be able to harness the power of the H-Dial and protect it from falling into the hands of evil? Will this newfound power plunge our hero to madness? And will we ever discover where the H-Dial came from and its true meaning?
Prior to China Miéville mentioning it in this interview I had never heard of Dial H but when he explained that the protagonist turnes into a different superhero every time he dials H for Hero on an old phone, it’s easy to understand why the series was discontinued by DC. Coming up with a new sort of hero – one whose powers haven’t been seen a million times before – is difficult and can feel forced very quickly. But then, Miéville has always been full of ideas, most of them unconventional. I went in expecting to meet with some superhero-shaped garbage, trains and octopuses.
The protagonist, Nelson, has reached a low point in his life. He just had a quasi-heart attack, you only need to look at him to know he is very unhealthy and overweight, he smokes too much, he doesn’t get out, his girlfriend dumped him, he lost his job, and his only friend is a criminal. That’s the first thing that drew me in. Turning this guy into a superhero comes with interesting implications. While other superheroes are usually socially impaired in their normal life, they are never as hopelessly overweight or alone as Nelson. And sure enough, Nelson dials random numbers and turns into Boy Chimney.
Now that’s exactly the kind of crazy I was hoping for. You can tell Miéville wrote this. His obsession with everyday things that are usually considered ugly shines through on every page. Boy Chimney, who has smoke coming out of his top hat, has a certain beauty about him. But Nelson soon discovers that with great powers… nah, not what you expect. Nelse is aware of Boy Chimney inside his mind, he is flooded with strange memories and they get stronger with every superhero shape he takes. He soon realises that it is his mind he has to watch out for because these heroes have minds of their own and if Nelson’s not careful, they might take over.
Good thing he meets one of the resident heroes, Manteau, a red-haired woman who wears a silver mask and her name-giving cloak. Between the two forms a bond that I thoroughly enjoyed reading about. Their development, as single characters and as partners, was beautifully done and shows both in the dialogue and the drawings. Nelson is incredibly overweight at the beginning of the story, but slims down a bit after a while, to the point where he doesn’t look like he might burst an artery at any given moment. I love that two such unlikely people are the heroes of the series and how their personalities complement each other. They keep each other grounded, the more experienced Manteau lets Nelson in on her secrets and Nelson keeps her on her toes when it comes to crime-fighting.
The shapes Nelson changes into are carefully chosen. While some are clearly Miéville-esque, others verge on the ridiculous (Captain Lachrymose) or are used to deconstruct the comic book genre’s racist past (Chief Mighty Arrow). Whether it’s a gigantic gun-shooting snail, an emo hero who gains strength from tears or a hoop with a chicken head… there’s a lot of fun and games mixed with seriousness in the caped or not-caped people Nelson embodies.
I really enjoyed the artwork, even if I thought some pages were difficult to read. The panels smudged into each other and there was too much going on at the same time. I have no idea how the creative process works with comic books (I imagine it’s rather difficult) but the end result was a bit jarring at times. The quieter parts, with Nelson and Manteau talking, or a quick flash to see what the bad guys are up to, were wonderful and easy to follow, the art never getting in the way of the story. But the big battles and the action scenes sometimes felt messy and I came out of them feeling as if I’d missed something.
With the last issue collected in this paperback, I had made up my mind to continue reading. The first four issues were fun and everything, but nothing to get me hooked. Issue five, despite its lack of action (or maybe because of it) made me care for the characters more than ever before, and issue six – a departure from the first issues – grabbed my attention with the story, the characters, and especially the big revelation at the end. So count me in, I’ll be coming back for some more dialling.
RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good, leaning towards a 7