When we look back on the first couple decades of the 21st century will we be embarrassed by how little we appreciated the comics renaissance exploding in front of us? Comics has always been a game of unnecessary roughage, unending clashes between stupid rivalries, fits of art on pop violence springing up in internet streets and backalley forums. But lately some of our braver creators have started taking this all head on and incredible things have ensued, as is the case with the hallucinogenic hyperaware mythbuilding of China Mieville's Dial H.
The premise of Dial H is this: there is a magic dialer that allows the user to channel superheroes at random when they key in 4376, which happens to spell out HERO. The concept first appeared almost exactly 50 years ago, in the pages of House of Mystery, and it later had its own title in 2003, with Will Pfeifer scripting and Kano illustrating and at that time it was just called H-E-R-O. Those earlier takes on the concept were fun, and are certainly worth checking out, but Mieville has transformed the concept in the same way Jonathan Lethem did with noir with his novel Gun, with Occasional Music or Terry Gilliam did with 1984 in Brazil, which is to say he boiled it down to its bare essence and then went about studying why it resonates and clicks and how that can be turned into a metaphor for the timelessness of fiction.
In Mieville's hands, Dial H is a series about comics as myth, about how even the goofiest of concepts can be incredibly powerful in the right hands and at the right time. It's a series that exists because of Grant Morrison and his work on Doom Patrol and Animal Man, but which doesn't allow that to overshadow its worth and insight. The surrogate Mieville provides us the fan with is Nelson Jent, an out-of-shape geek in a rut who comes across the dial after walking into a brutal beatdown being delivered to his friend, a bagman for a local crime lord. Running into a phone booth to call for help, Nelson instead dials up Boy Chimney and we're instantly treated to a weirder superhero story than normal.
As the primary artist on the series, Mateus Santolouco makes the world of Dial H grotesque and skeletal, a city populated with purposefully bizarrely proportioned people, its architecture sharp and drab, seemingly stuck in an older era. But the "heroes" Nelson and company dial up are that aesthetic taken to an extreme — Boy Chimney would be a horrifying Guillermo del Toro-style monster if we weren't informed he was a hero, and later the infamous Cock-a-hoop is exactly what you'd expect and then some, a shrieking rooster head set atop a razor sharp wheel. Even Nelson's ally, Manteau (a fellow dialer who essentially serves as Nelson's mentor), is scary, decked out as she is in a mask and cloak that is meant to hide the transformations she goes through as she dials, but which has the side effect of making her seem like slasher flick murderer.
Mieville's intention is clear — heroes are what we make of them, and in the wrong hands or with the wrong direction they can be terrifying to those they're meant to protect. And to a certain extent that serves as commentary on the superhero genre itself, as the collaborative nature of the form allows for characters we've known our entire lives to deviate and morph into wildly different entities. What once comforted us may now alienate, shock or disgust us. Mieville doesn't necessarily give an opinion on that facet of the comic and though he digs at certain eras of comicdom (the Liefeld-esque Iron Snail is probably the best example of this), he mostly leaves the message there in the open for us to interpret.
Except, that is, for one key issue, an issue that works as the comics equivalent of a bottle episode on TV, complete with "guest director" David Lapham. In that issue, which serves as the end of the arc in the first volume, Mieville and Lapham team up to tackle comics' often racist and xenaphobic past through the dialed-in hero Chief Mighty Arrow. Mighty Arrow happens to have a great power set, complete with "super arrows! Jet propelled explosive feathers!" and a flying horse, but Manteau refuses to let Nelson go out as the hero, barring extreme emergencies. Manteau's reasoning is that Chief Mighty Arrow's status as a racist caricature — albeit an extremely powerful one — sends the wrong message and that's just as important as heroic acts. As heroes, they must be iconic figures that can be looked up to without explanation or excuses.
Nelson winds up trapped in the house watching the news and missing out on the action, but in the process we learn more about the dials and Nelson and Manteau, the latter of whom explains that another reason for her mask and cloak is that it enables questionable characters like Mighty Arrow without the publicity nightmares that would otherwise ensue. She also indicates that she believes the dials don't just call heroes from other places, but from other times, which leads directly into the zero issue that ends the trade, a sort-of origin story about an ancient people who use an early dial to fight back against a monstrous mythological beast, and inadvertently cause great tragedy in the where/when that gave them their hero.
It's great stuff and Mieville and his collaborators do such an excellent job building the world of the dials that one could reasonably expect them to spin stories out of it for eons. Unfortunately, that won't be the case, as Dial H was recently cancelled, which is tragicomic when you consider its status as a sly, subtle examination of the fickleness of the superhero genre. But the material that Mieville and his collaborators have created nonetheless still stands out as some of the best meta-comicdom has to offer, and it's more than worth dialing into their world while you still can.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, where he reigns as the co-managing editor, or at
Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness and Pontypool.