Due to computer problems, the Sunday Slugfest was posted late this week. I apologize for my tardiness.
Plot: An elderly man and his grandson check into a Gotham City motel in a bad part of town. A downtrodden man contemplates a final act while the Joker stages a catastrophe.
Sorry to tell you, but comics really used to suck. I mean, they were awful. Stupid. Mindless. Annoying. Just plain dumb.
And among the dumbest of all the comics that have ever appeared is a series called “Dial ‘H’ For Hero.”
First appearing in House of Mystery #156, late in 1965, was Robby Reed, a young boy who discovered a magic dial in a cave–a dial that looked like an old rotary phone. When Robby spelled out the letters H-E-R-O on the dial, he would turn into a random super-hero.
While some of the stories were cute or clever–such as Giant-Boy, Quake-Master, and, in one memorable issue, Plastic Man–most of the time he turned into such Z-grade heroes as . . . well, why tell when I can show?
Despite some wonderful art by the great Jim Mooney, well-known for his work on Supergirl at the time, the writing by Dave Wood served to make the series feel quite awful. The stories were written for eight-year-olds, which meant that they were unreadable by most anybody over the age of six or so. Despite its wretchedness, the series proclaimed itself on its covers, “the most original character in comics history,” which surely outdoes Stan Lee’s hype by a long way.
Perhaps its worst feature was that Robby would frequently exclaim “Sockamagee” when startled or surprised–or just whenever the mood strike him to do so. Whenever I stumble over those old issues of “Dial H,” I just want to slap the kid and tell him to shut up. I’m almost embarrassed, by the way, to admit that I’ve been wondering how to pronounce “Sockamagee”–is the emphasis on the third or fourth syllable?
Heck, just for the fun of it, here’s a typically pathetic cover from this wretched example of comics art:
Thankfully this abomination was canceled with House of Mystery #173. It then disappeared into comics limbo.
“Dial ‘H’ For Hero” was revived in 1981 by the august team of Marv Wolfman and Carmine Infantino–and it’s another head-scratcher for me. At this time Wolfman’s New Teen Titans was riding high for DC Comics, perhaps reviving DC’s entire line of comics when it was near death.
As a way of following up his famed success, Wolfman opted to create . . . a kids’ comic in which fans would send in names and costumes of their characters for publication?
In retrospect, this choice of new series seems quite odd, but at the time it probably seemed a smart business decision.
It was an odd choice, but the series started strong in Adventure Comics #479:
This time, rather than Robby Reed and his rotary telephone dial, there were two dials contained in a watch and a locket that Fairfax, Virginia teens Chris King and Vicki Grant used to turn themselves into heroes whenever trouble reared its ugly head.
Fans sent in ideas for heroes, which, it was hoped, would lead to fan excitement. Unfortunately, this gimmick pretty much just led to apathy and a vague suspicion that DC would steal kids’ ideas for characters. “Dial ‘H'” appeared in Adventure for a year, and then disappeared to the back-up slot in the then-current Superboy title before disappearing completely.
In the Superboy stories, Robby Reed was revealed as the evil genius who was the driving force behind the villains that Chris and Vicki fought. In fact, Robby was the one who created the two dials and left them in the attic of Chris’s house under circumstances that are too bizarre and stupid to delve into here.
My favorite incarnation of “Dial H For Hero” is Will Pfeiffer’s 2003 revival HERO. This wonderful series featured fantastic art by a man who called himself Kano, as well as an involving and interesting semi-anthology format that eventually rolled into being a continuing story with an interesting and thoughtful conclusion.
In the latter half of this series’s run, Robby Reed returned (as an adult) to help track down a serial killer who was using his powers to kill innocent people.
HERO was one of those comics that I ranted about in the Sunday Slugfest two weeks ago. It was one of DC’s interesting but very short-lived hero titles that died due to poor sales and worse promotion. It had its flaws, but I had a really good time recently re-reading the whole run of that series.
I found Pfeifer’s scripts to be clever, interesting, and often quite humorous. Robby Reed had a very nice evolution in Pfeifer’s series–from nasty criminal to a real hero. If you get a chance to track down back issues of that comic, I highly recommend it; you can get copies of it very cheap.
All of the above doesn’t have much to do with J. Michael Straczynski’s revival of the “Dial ‘H'” concept in his first issue of his run on The Brave and the Bold, because JMS completely disregards the history of the character in this nice little issue.
There are no allusions to the past history of the character, which I suppose keeps the reader from getting too distracted while reading this comic. It’s not as if anybody much cares about the “Dial H” history anyway. It is clearly a grade “z” concept for DC’s line.
In Straczynski’s story, a teen-aged Robby Reed is visiting Gotham City with his grandfather. He leaves the dial in his motel room–intentionally, we find out later–and the dial is stolen by a petty criminal named Travers Milton who uses it to become a hero named The Star. He thus manages to redeem himself before making the ultimate sacrifice.
It’s a nice little story, and a real treat for those who complain that no new comics are “done in ones.” Straczynski’s script has a charmingly retro feel. It’s quite dense with plot, features a version of Batman who will actually stop and talk with a civilian, and seems centered on an old-fashioned and refreshing sense of heroism. Along with the retro feel comes a bit of cliché and corniness, but you take the good with the bad.
I was quite honestly a bit surprised that Straczynski delivered a story with such a positive feeling to it. I’ve complained in the past of a surplus of darkness in his previous comics work, but this comic has a sweetness and charm that’s unusual for his comics work. I love the arc of Travers Milton’s story, as it has a poignancy to it that feels fresh in these cynical days.<
Jesus Saiz delivers wonderfully solid artwork in this comic. Saiz’s use of traditional layouts and classic character design works well in the story as it’s a nice match for the script. Saiz also delivers some quite spectacular scenes.
There’s a wonderful view of Gotham when we see Milton’s hero, The Star, fly around the city, and a terrific full-page montage of Batman and The Star fighting crime.
This is not your father’s “Dial ‘H’ For Hero”–but, then again, maybe it is. While Straczynski doesn’t pay tribute to the history of the hero dial, he does pay tribute to classic verities in a way that subtly acknowledges the spirit of the history of the dial.
It’s been over a year since I’ve reviewed (or read) a Brave and the Bold issue. I bought into the first 12 or so for the nostalgia factor. I like DC’s high-concept titles (DC Comics Presents and Showcase seem right up there with the formula for B&B to me), and I like the Batman playing well with others. I also liked the artists chosen in those first 12 issues of the new series.
J. Michael Straczynski (JMS) seems well-suited to this episodic formula, and for his first issue he constructs a tale that really isn’t about the ostensible team-up so much as it is a tale about Gotham City–and Gotham, in the DC universe, is a pretty exciting place. Grim and dangerous, but exciting.
The confluence of elements here involves the very dated “Dial H for Hero” concept, one with surprising longevity at DC and one that even JMS ribs for the perfect silliness of an analog dial rather than a series of buttons or . . . well, I suppose it’d be a touch-screen now, wouldn’t it?
Well, hey, even iPods still have dials of a sort–and it’s an alien device anyway.
So we really get two formulas for one–the Batman team-up meets the hero-as-needed, and then JMS does something cool. He has an unknowing downtrodden soul steal the Dial. The way that happens is really a story of redemption and hope in the grimness of Gotham, and the reason it happens makes a statement about adulthood and responsibility.
Batman is not so much a teammate as a wise observer throughout, and though the ending is too pat and Batman’s long-winded explanation at the end way too expository of every possible point and nuance (if JMS has a big weakness, it’s talkativeness), neither flaw mars a solid, self-contained story.
Jesus Saiz did excellent work on Manhunter, Checkmate, and The OMAC Project, and this issue is a welcome return to quality on this title that once featured the likes of George Perez and Jerry Ordway. Saiz’s sense of anatomy is strong, and so is his storytelling. Things are back on track, even if they don’t pursue the complicated Macguffins that lead this title’s first year.
Some of you may know that I am a fan of J. Michael Straczynski (JMS). I have followed much of his career, and there is little of his work that I have not enjoyed. I think it is fair to say I am a bit biased, but a mighty five-bullet review makes me a look a lot biased.
In order to combat the impression of complete bias, I will have a slightly longer review than normal, and there may be some spoilers–so be warned those of you who have not yet read The Brave and the Bold #27.
In July of this year, I had the incredible fortune to see a Spotlight panel with JMS at Comic-Con International in San Diego. This was one panel for which I made sure I was early as I expected a standing-room-only crowd, so I was surprised that the room was only about half full since, for me, JMS was one of the big draws of SDCC.
He is a legend in science fiction writing and film-making, and has enjoyed 10 years of incredible work at Marvel on titles like The Amazing Spider-Man, Silver Surfer: Requiemand Thor. Yet, half the room was empty.
It turns out the low attendance was likely because JMS had had laryngitis and was not expected to show. More is the pity for those who did not come because it was a life-affirming speech and follow-up discussion, and it left me pondering a lot of things about my own life choices. It is hard to believe that such a thing could happen at a 60-minute panel at a comic convention but, honestly, this was the most important talk I have seen this year. I will not go into the story of my life, but I will give the reason I have brought all of this up in relation to this comic.
JMS gave a portion of a speech he was planning to give at MIT* (by popular vote of the audience no less). He discussed his career in the context of risk, how he has been granted dozens of opportunities from across the media spectrum, and how that as he has started to think about what he is leaving behind as his legacy. His strongest comments were related to failure. Specifically, he stated that the only things in life he has ever regretted have been those things he passed up because he was afraid to fail. This comment came with a couple of stories about such opportunities, and how ultimately he failed despite himself simply because he had not tried.
These themes of legacy and failure are clearly being tackled in JMS’s writing, in particular with Brave and the Bold #27,which is not his first romp at DC Comics–his first being the Red Circle miniseries that was an update to the Archie comics characters. However, I think this is the first time that JMS has been attached to a major DC character like Batman. As such, I find it somewhat amusing that he chose to pair the Caped Crusader with a somewhat obscure concept from the history of DC: “Dial H for HERO,”which is, by far, one of my favourite oddities of DC lore.
The person who holds the rotary “H Dial” can turn himself/herself into a hero by dialling H-E-R-O. This concept falls apart a little bit in the modern age of digital phones, but I love that JMS even poked fun within the story at the fact that the concept is outdated . References of this type break the fourth wall–giving the reader a wink and a nod that says: “Yes, we know this is a bit silly, but just go with it and you will be rewarded.”
I love that type of writing.
Within the first two pages of the piece, we are introduced to two seemingly unrelated people. We meet a boy, Robby, who is visiting Gotham City with his grandfather. We also meet a man named Travers who is down on his luck, and seemingly always has been. In two pages, we are told everything we need to know about these characters in relation to this story. There is enough detail that we immediately understand the situation that each character is in, and yet no more than is necessary.
From this very brief introduction, JMS transitions to the most fearful character in the Batman mythos: The Joker. Due to the role that The Joker plays in this issue–the antagonist who sets up a plot to kill Batman, and who is then seen again only in one panel–it is easy to criticize JMS and say that he just wanted to write a scene with the Joker in it. However, I think such criticism is too simple.
While it’s true that the general plan of exhausting Batman and then trapping him
with the devious choice of whom to save could have been executed by any Bat-villain, the choice of the Joker is a symbol of the Batman legacy. The Joker is the irrational that counters Batman’s rationality. He is Batman’s opposite, and the complementwithin the classic struggle between good and evil. Without one, the other has no reason to exist–at least as a concept. Thus, it makes sense for JMS to use the Joker as the villain within this context since the issue’s plot hinges on a plan to kill Batman.”
Additionally, and back to the themes of JMS’s speech, The Joker explicitly spells out how he has no legacy unless he is the one who brings about Batman’s denouement:
“. . . what kind of legacy am I leaving if something happens to me before I get around to finishing the job . . . I will have failed gentlemen, and failure is not a word that exists in my universe.”
This is not the crazy Joker. It is not the maniac bent on bringing chaos. It is the cold, calculating Joker. It is the Joker who is a real match for Batman. This type of Joker has been presented several times, notably in The Killing Joke.
I also want to comment on the presentation in both the pencils and the colours on that page in which The Joker refers to his legacy. While minions surround the Joker, Saiz draws him as not really looking at anyone. He is speaking to his men who are scattered around the scene, but they are positioned in such a way that it is reminiscent of a set in a stage play. Additionally, the muted colors on the minions makes The Joker appear to be in a spotlight. Whether it was intentional or not, this scene feels like it is directed at the reader from the front of a stage.
Similarly, this presentation of the Joker is very similar to the one used by Paul Dini in both the comics and in the animated series. Consider the following soliloquy from Batman: The Animated Series:
“Dear friends. . . Today is the day that the Clown cried–and he cries not for the passing of one man, but for the death of a dream. The dream that he would someday taste the ultimate victory over his hated enemy. For it was the Batman who made me the happy soul I am today.”
The two speeches by The Joker that I have quoted could easily be strung together within one story as they present the complex relationship between Batman and his arch nemesis. This consistency of tone shows a certain depth of understanding by JMS of the history of The Joker as a character–as well as an immense respect for the Batman mythos.
All of Saiz’s panels with The Joker are outstanding. He manages to make the Joker elegant, handsome, and absolutely terrifying within three panels. Consider the following panel:
It is very reminiscent of the original Joker from his first appearance:
Indeed, the pencils of Saiz throughout the book are extremely strong. His depiction of Robby is incredibly distinct from the older Travers. I would love to see Saiz do a book like Teen Titansbecause I am confident that he could depict the characters with appropriate ages–whether teenagers or in their early 20s–which is something that can be hit and miss with any book dealing with youthful characters.
Saiz has a fantastic feel for movement within a panel. All of the panels that contain the H-Dial character “The Star” show superb movement and an understanding of kinaesthetic motion. When The Star flies away, he moves with power, but when he stops his horizontal movement, it is not just a static vertical shot. The Star is leaning in the direction of the motion in which he was moving, and his right leg is raised as if he is compensating for his change in direction. Similarly, when he lands on the roof next to Batman, his cape flutters forward enveloping him, again in line with the direction he was moving.
Moving to the story, the theme of leaving a legacy returns in the later half of the book. Batman reflects with Robby about what makes a hero and what it means to have the chance to build a legacy. The final scenes of the book link the heroes with the villain–showing that many of us are driven by the same needs and desires, whether we work on the side of the angels or the side of the devils. I will not recite it all here, but I found the scene with Robby to be incredibly poignant.
Now, one interesting question about this book is: who is Batman? Is it set in a time outside of current continuity? In other words, is he Bruce Wayne? Or is it Dick Grayson who currently wears the cowl? JMS never tells us. He does not even hint at it. It is certainly possible that it could be either. The gloves and the belt suggest that it’s Bruce–as do his mannerisms in his interactions with The Star. However, the final scenes with Robby could be either Bruce or Dick.
In this case, I do not think that it matters who is in the cowl. In a final nod to legacies, JMS posits that it is the Idea of Batman that is important. The person under the cowl actually does not matter. Instead, what is accomplished while in that persona is what’s important.
Because of Batman, other people get the chance to continue to build legacies for themselves before the inevitable end of the road. What a great message to pass around to a set of readers: Your legacy comes from those with whom you interact and with whom you aid.
I think that the truly amazing thing about this comic is that the reader originally thinks the story is going to be about a typical Joker versus Batman plot, but it ends up being something entirely different. JMS pulls off in 25 pages what many cannot do in 6 issues: an unexpected, rich and endearing story.
* EDIT: I have received a reference to JMS’s talk at MIT for our readers – from JMS himself!