Loyal musers, I come to you with a contrite heart, as I am afraid I must admit that I, Hal, have failed you. For over a year there was a prime circumstance in which I could have made multiple ‘Planet of the Apes’ puns, but I squandered that opportunity, and now it has passed. For that, I am sincerely sorry.
Nevertheless, I welcome you back to Comical Musings, where we bring insight out of the chaos of comics, and occasionally make nonsense of their structured order. Please attribute any deficiencies to the author, and don’t hold them against the blog.
Devoted readers probably already grasp that my apology was necessitated buy the untimely cancelation of DC’s Dial H, but casual visitors may desire some additional explanation. Although doing so afflicts me with both guilt and grief, I will oblige, both to honor the memory of a title I held in high esteem, and as part of my penance.
To start with, you must understand that I have weird tastes. I like surrealism, and so I like the Flaming Carrot. I like crossovers and mash-ups, and so I liked Prophecy. This also illustrates that I occasionally like comics that aren’t widely popular with general readers or reviewers. I like bold art. I like action. I like good stories, but I don’t always have to understand what is going on, as long as there’s ¡wEîRdNëŠs! Dial H had some of each of these elements, and I came to really appreciate the unique niche it filled in the comics landscape.
DC began publishing Dial H in May of 2012 as part of the “second wave” of New 52 titles. Dial H was brought in to replace other comics, like Justice League International and Resurrection Man that were not selling well at the time. But the story in Dial H didn’t exactly fit into the rest of DC’s expansive universe, and that was part of it’s charm. In a series all about superheroes, they rarely acknowledged that DC’s more well-known heroes even existed. Instead Dial H almost seemed to exist in its own little world, even more so than Earth 2. I thought that the writing by China Miéville was well composed, and the art by Mateus Santolouco and Alberto Ponticelli was gritty and detailed, while still having a trippy, dreamlike quality. The cover art by Brian Bolland was even more so, and resulted in some of the best/weirdest covers that DC has produced over the past year.
The story centered around Nelson Jent, who accidentally discovers an old rotary telephone dial with the power to transform people into a random superhero for a limited time. “Random” is an apt description because the heroes that appeared over the course of the series often seemed like the product of a mad-lib style brain-storming session, whose output ranged from the magnificent to the profane. These weren’t DC’s headliners (except Nelson dialed the Flash once), they weren’t DC’s second or third string, these weren’t even artifacts of comic book trivia that nerds will be able to trace back to long-forgotten back issues. These were concepts for heroes that no-one had ever seen before, not even in independent comics. These were the sorts of heroes that kids (or childish adults) would dream up while playing superheroes in the back yard. Heroes like the Iron Snail, Shamanticore, 3 Hole Punch, Flame War, and the Planktonian…
If this premise sounds familiar, you are either a very long-time reader of this blog, or a fan of obscure DC series. The “H-dial” was previously used in Dial H for Hero (1966) and H.E.R.O. (2003), and the latter became the subject of Scott’s first review here at Comical Musings. This latest iteration, Dial H, actually did an adequate job of explaining the origin of the dials in the previous series.
Dial H also introduced a few new elements into the mix. As the story escalates, Nelson teams up with other “dialers” carrying variations on the traditional H-dial. This series introduces the S-dial (that turns users into a sidekick), the G-dial (that summons random gear and equipment), the J-dial (that allows users to jump between universes), and the D-dial (which has the power to doom entire worlds by initiating a random apocalypse.)
Among the myriad of heroes featured in the series, one was an absolute stand-out, who deserves his own title. Although he really only appeared in the last four issues (he is shown briefly in issue 1), Open-Window Man was clearly the break-out star of the comic. He is an actual hero (as opposed to an avatar dialed up by Nelson) with an origin story similar to Batman. But when a bat flew through his open bedroom window, he found inspiration not in the bat, but in the window itself. Now he uses his window-related powers to save Nelson and his team-mates when their dials can’t do the job. His persona is unusual, his costume is silly, but he takes himself and his mission completely seriously, and he was easily my favorite part of this comic.
Where there are heroes, there are villains, and Dial H delivered some terrific villain concepts as well. Squid, Ex Nihilo, and the Abyss were all adequately strange, the Fixer was intimidating, but one villain stood out as not only weird and powerful, but also as a hard-core jerk. When the Canadian government becomes aware of the dials, they send their top agent after Nelson and his partner Roxie. But it quickly becomes apparent that he has his own motives. His powers are a weird combination of super-speed and quantum uncertainty, while his demeanor is cold and professional. But beneath the surface lies an eager maliciousness that made me uncomfortable every time he showed up in the story. On top of that, his code name is the Centipede, which constantly brought to mind a certain despicable movie, making him a thoroughly unlikeable antagonist.
Issue 15 of Dial H was released in August, and it provided a fitting, if not entirely conclusive, end to this series. It felt a bit rushed, which is understandable given the series untimely cancelation, but this final oversized issue stayed true to the random, deus ex machine strangeness that made me a fan of the title from the beginning. And it did a decent job of explaining the origin of the dials, the Fixer, and the mysterious lost operator. My biggest disappointment was that the Operators, the extra-dimensional beings who created the dials, just looked like withered, bald men in robes when they resumed their true form. It was explained that the dials look like old phone dials because the initial design of rotary telephones was influenced by the Operators and based on the dials. But it was somewhat underwhelming that the beings inhabiting the universal switchboard, who invented a means to tap into signals across the multiverse, were ultimately so mundane. Never-the-less, Miéville found a way to change the game, even in this concluding episode, making it a bitter-sweet issue which wrapped-up an uncommonly imaginative composition.
As sad as it is, there is still a glimmer of hope. This month, as part of DC’s “Villain’s Month”, there will be a special one-shot called Dial E [for evil] authored by Miéville. This may stave off our dialing withdrawals for a while, but like me, you may be more concerned with a longer term solution. I plan to by the collected volumes of Dial H as they become available, and I recommend you do the same. And keep in mind, this was the second time that this premise has been resurrected. With all the creative possibilities they offer, I suspect that this will not be the last time we witness the power of the H-dials.
Thank you for your patience in the face of my failings. Please keep musing, and if anyone needs me I’ll be over here remorsefully trying to cobble together puns out of Army of Darkness and Manhattan Projects.