Review: Dial H Vol. 2: Exchange trade paperback (DC Comics)

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Monday, July 14, 2014

The statement that China Mieville's Dial H series could well have been a Vertigo title has been well and truly made, not in the least just because of the Brian Bolland covers and Karen Berger editing, but also Mieville's unlikely cast and wild and winding storyline. Dial H Vol. 2: Exchange, the final volume, is arguably not as strong as the first, delving as it does more into the mythology than into the characters themselves; it is enjoyable overall, however, and the fifth and especially the seventh chapters (issues #11 and #13) shine as real paragons of comics writing.

[Review contains spoilers]

Early in Exchange, Mieville introduces a secret military organization that's been experimenting on the titular H-Dials. Mieville contrasts well in the story the sci-fi espionage elements on one hand, and the dimension-hopping fantasy that comes later; Dial H jumps genres like the characters change hero personas, and that's all right with me. At the same time, between Matt Kindt's Mind MGMT and Matt Fraction's Sex Criminals, not to mention the bevy of covert organizations in the New 52, Dial H loses a little something here, where I think I'd liked better the threat of the all-consuming Abyss monster in the first volume, Into You.

The winningest part of Mieville's story remains unlikely heroes Nelson Jent -- middle aged and overweight -- and elderly Roxie Hodder. These are atypical hero figures amid the musclebound superhero set, and Mieville expertly captures how a normal person might react in Nelson and Roxie's situations; Nelson more often makes the wrong decision than the right one, and his ever-increasing addiction to the H-Dial is compelling. I do only wish Mieville had not made the pair a couple, albeit temporarily. The book heads too obviously in that direction, and indeed pairing the male and female lead is too common; Mieville would have kept better with the books "nontraditional" themes had Nelson and Roxie's relationship remained platonic.

The awkward morning after, however, leads to the first of the book's best issues, in which Nelson's dials up the abilities of the Flash, costume and all. This is simply entertaining, as Mieville explores the Flash's powers through the normal person guise and also plays the Flash's speed off Nelson trying to avoid Roxie after their night together. But, Mieville also uses the notable occasion of Nelson receiving a familiar hero's powers to plumb some of the book's central mysteries, namely from where the H-Dial's gets the various powers and whether the dial duplicates or steals other heroes' powers. Obviously having the dial steal powers is an untenable situation for the characters, but Mieville gets around this (cleverly but maybe too slickly) by explaining that a broken dial steals, a fixed dial copies.

The second best (but best-est) issue of the book is #13, set entirely on a planet of living graffiti; Nelson, Roxie, and their new otherworldly team of dial-heroes have to figure how to bring a two-dimensional H-Dial into their three-dimensional space. Mieville succeeds here because the issue is more about the characters than about flash-bang superhero fights; the seemingly most absurd of heroes, Open-Window Man, guides a two-dimensional chalk Bruce Wayne-equivalent through mourning his parents and becoming the chalk Batman.

Not only does Mieville end the issue with a strong statement about Bruce's choice to become Batman, but also the depth and breadth of alternate universes has never been more staggering than when we understand Open-Window Man is an alternate Batman, too. The issue is unique, surprising, and moving, and I encourage even those who never read an issue of Dial H to pick up #13 for the sheer beauty of it.

Unfortunately, I felt that Exchange began to come apart a bit as it neared its conclusion. Late in the book Mieville introduces these different H-Dialers of various powers, and I couldn't help but feel they crowded out the real engines of the story, Nelson and Roxie. Artist Alberto Ponticelli has driven this book well all along, but some crowded, dark, and sketchy panels made it tough to tell who was doing what in the end, especially in the already-less-effective big fight scenes. At the point in which the heroes fight the Fixer and the Operator -- a purposefully complex sequence as is since the Fixer and the Operator had been opponents, now suddenly allies -- Ponticelli tends to draw the two characters looking the same, again making it tough to tell who's where.

Included at the end is Justice League #23.3, the "Dial E for Evil" Villains Month issue. I'm certainly pleased DC Comics included this issue in this collection, and I appreciated that the issue does serve specifically as an epilogue to the Dial H series instead of being just a one-shot (whether said elements, now part of the New 52 firmament, appear again remains to be seen). At the same time, while the issue features a different artist per page -- of the likes of Jock, Frazer Irving, and Jeff Lemire -- there's no guide to who drew what page, and here too in some of the art it's tougher to discern the action than others.

The sheer difference of China Mieville's Dial H over other titles on the stands is an argument toward its continuation (though I'm heartened now by the coming of new DC titles like Gotham Academy and Klarion). Surely it would only benefit the New 52 to host more titles with Vertigo sensibilities. But in the end Dial H Vol. 2: Exchange gets too superhero-y for me (leaving aside the understood "hero" in the title); I hate to be down on the final volume, but this one didn't work as well for me.

[Includes full covers, including "WTF" gatefold cover, sketch pages]

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