How difficult it is to decide exactly where China Miéville’s Dial H Vol. 1: Into You fits in the literary continuum is just the first indication of what a pleasantly oddball book this is. It starts out as a crime drama and never quite loses that crime noir aesthetic; toward the middle, Dial H would seem to offer some generally familiar superheroics, but this, too, is supplanted by some unexpectedly vigorous sci-fi — aliens and creatures from other dimensions and time travel.
Dial H is interesting and well thought-out, and Miéville would seem to have a thorough mythology for the “H Dial” planned out that could last this title many moons. Whether that will happen or not, however, remains to be seen — the second volume of Dial H, already solicited, collects issues #7-16, more than a normal trade and also cutting off at the September issue where many expect DC may release a new “wave” of titles. Dial H is the kind of oddball that the DC Universe needs, a diverse voice instead of another franchise title; we’ll learn shortly whether there’s public support for that kind of thing, or if Dial H is soon to dial its last.
[Review contains spoilers]
Dial H requires a lot from the reader at the start, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — Miéville doesn’t pause much for explanations, so the reader must stay sharp for follow who’s X.N., Manteau, and others. Miéville and artist Mateus Santolouco depict Nelson Jent’s first transformation with the H Dial, to Boy Chimney, using fractured panels and disjointed narration; the difficulty increases when Squid comes on the scene in the second chapter, a seeming prisoner who’s suddenly the captor instead of the captive. All of this distinguishes Dial H as a book unafraid to tell a complicated story and trust the reader to keep up.
The other weird, wild thing about Dial H is that, by the climax of the first main storyline, the book’s supporting cast consists of portly, unemployed Nelson; Manteau Roxie Hodder, who turned out to be an elderly woman; and Squid, a trans-dimensional alien who previously murdered Nelson’s best friend. They are a motley crew, to be sure, but moreover they’re specifically different than the svelte superhumans of the Justice League or Teen Titans. Dial H’s unspoken message is that anyone can be a hero, no matter how unlikely; but also it’s simply nice to see a comic where every character isn’t built like a god.
H Dials abound toward the middle of the story — there’s not just one, Miéville establishes, but scores hidden in unexpected places — but one interesting complication is when those dials are stolen or broken until Nelson and Roxie have to share. Nelson is the story’s first “bad actor,” swiping the dial out of Roxie’s hands; later he and Roxie make a grudging deal to take turns dialing up super-powers. I began to wonder if more than just the thrill of superheroics was at play here, but rather whether Neslon and Roxie may be becoming addicted to the dial; there’s plenty story potential should Nelson and Roxie’s partnership become not-so-friendly for want of the dial.
Perhaps most startling is the last chapter collected here, Dial H’s Zero Month issue #0. It begins in Babylonian times with the pseudo-origin of the H Dial, in which Syrian leader Laodice fights off the marauding Parthan army with the help of a sun-dial that grants her powers. Strangely, however, Laodice becomes Bumper Carla, a carnival-themed superhero long before automobiles have been invented. The story gets more bizarre when Carla returns years later to murder Laodice in revenge; apparently when Laodice summoned Carla, the process stole the powers from an actual superhero named Bumper Carla, causing the people Carla had been saving to die.
With this, Miéville has rightfully made Dial H his own, different now from any iteration of Dial H for HERO that DC has published before. The H Dial’s user doesn’t simply gain powers and a heroic identity, but rather those powers and identity are stolen from a hero in another dimension, and that hero still exists for the time the dial is in use, just without their powers. In a way this enriches all the “random” Dial H characters — each one actually comes from somewhere, with their own culture and origin — though it creates an extra burden on Miéville to imagine not just new power sets, but entire lives for each of the beings Nelson and Roxie turn in to.
It’s probably to Dial H’s benefit that, while some of DC headline superheroes get a mention here, this book is largely removed from the rest of the DC Universe. At the same time, when Carla’s teammate Slim explains that “there’s more than one world,” I couldn’t help but hope the H Dial is tapping into not just different dimensions, but the multiverse, and that maybe a crossover with James Robinson’s Earth 2 or such might be in the offing, if Dial H lasts that long.
I don’t want to jinx Dial H’s chances by adding to the chorus suggesting this book might be on its way out — if anything, if this review has piqued your interest, probably the best thing you can do to save this title is to pick up a copy of Dial H Vol. 1: Into You and pre-order the second volume as well. In some of the esoteria of the characters here fighting an abyss monster made of nothing, Dial H is not as compelling as, say, Animal Man Buddy Baker trying to save his family, but neither is it yet another Batman title; the best way you can support a diverse catalog of DC Universe titles is by giving the oddballs notice when they come about.
[Includes original and variant covers, sketches and designs by Santolouco, profile page]
Now for something completely different — on Monday, a review of Grant Morrison’s Happy. Don’t miss it!