Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Dial H Book 2: Exchange (#9-15 Justice League #23.3)

"Kill that bastard!" - Nelson Jent

So you're DC.  Your New 52 relaunch has certainly been a sales success, but has divided your fanbase and generated very few critical successes. After a second wave launch of multiple new titles in 2012 one book that is getting plaudits is Dial H, a complex rejigging of the Dial H For Hero comic written by the acclaimed novelist China Miéville.  Unfortunately sales while decent are not stellar (though it apparently sold well enough to be called "The New York Times Bestselling Series" on the cover. Hmm), and so despite all the praise you cancel the book forcing Miéville to wrap up what was obviously planned as a much longer plot arc in a couple of issues.  Shame on you DC.  So we come to the second and final volume of Dial H, which collects the last nine issues plus a fun, post series one shot from the Justice League series called "Dial E" as part of it's "Villains Month" intiative.  The comics collected here are ridiculously textually dense, crammed with jokes, character moments, multiple twists and turns and I am having to summarise massively to keep this post from becoming a truly epic length, especially the second half of the book where it's obvious everything is having to happen in a big rush to let the book end on a definite and upbeat note. Probably the biggest casualties of this cut short run are the Dial Bunch, who were obviously designed to be explored in much greater detail than we get here. With that said then, let's crack on.
Of all the Heroes they dial, Daffodil Host is my favourite
Nelson and Roxie have been travelling the world, chasing up rumors of another dial.  This includes infiltrating a secretive cult devoted to the dials.  Roxie turns into a hero in front of one of the high ranking members to gain some specific information which sends them to a ruined qwater temple also devoted to dials, but the dial that was being worshipped is gone.  They do however find a clue that the Canadian military have been there.  They are also being tracked by a member of that organisation.  A man who was part of a failed military attempt to create a time machine.  Now he can generate multiple copies of himself at different points in his most recent timeline.  If something happens to his most recent body, he can jump back into an earlier one.  His hero name is The Centipede.  The Canadian military seem to be trying and failing to create a national hero, so they give the Centipede a stupid insect helmet and tell him he might have to do.  The Centipede meanwhile is keeping a secret from them which are Roxie's notes he lifted while tracking Nelson and Roxie.
The Centipede's tricky time travel abilty in action
The Centipede accosts Nelson out on the street and takes the H-Dial.  But when he tries to dial a hero it doesn't work.  Roxie appears, manages to dial herself up a hero who is a minotaur and traps the Centipede within a maze.  Later, Nelson as a hero called The Glimpse manages to infiltrate the Canadian military base where they have a dial that hasn't been working well for them.  They can dial a hero, but the dialler then just freezes up.  The Centipede tells the military dialler to dial a hero to deal with Nelson, so he turns into Bristol Bloodhound a giant rocket powered dog.  But when he goes to fight Nelson he finds himself compelled to do what Nelson tells him and flies himself and Nelson out of the base.  Later as he and Nelson are back to normal, Roxie appears and when the soldier tells them the number he dials is 7,4,3,3, Nelson realises he is dialling the word SIDE.  It's an S-Dial - a sidekick dial - that's why the soldier was compelled to obey Nelson while he was H-dialled.

Roxie and Nelson decide to test out the S-Dial.  Nelson says he's been losing himself while H-Dialed so he'll be the sidekick. They become a handsome and beautiful hero couple and go and deal with a bank raid:

"That surge again, that sudden knowledge of who I am.. And what I what I can do.  But this time there's an undertow.  Trust? Obedience? Whatever it is.. it's a relief!".

After they foil the raid, both of them are amped up about how well they worked togteher and suddenly Nelson plants a huge kiss on Roxie.
Roxie and Nelson about to have a bad idea
At the Canadian military establishment, the Centipede has the leader of the Dial Cult and has hooked him up to various machines so he can use him to attract the attention of the shadoqw on the line - The Fixer. Nelson and Roxie wake up in bed together.  They made love qwhile dialed and Neson is horrified, saying Roxie abused her H-Dial power over him.  He uses the H-Dial and turns into... The Flash!  This annoyingly leads into a two-part story in The Flash series which is not collected here.  In any case, Nelson comes to the conclusion that they were not copying powers but stealing them.

"Oh God. What've I done? What was he doing when I took his powers?"

The Centipede meanwhile has managed to bring The Fixer to him.  He tells him he wants to team up and that The Fixer missed a dial last time he was here (he had previously concluded that The Fixer has lost the ability to travel easily between dimensions and had to use something like The Abyss from book 1 as a way to reach Earth).  Roxie and Nelson meanwhile ponder the dial and wonder if the reason The Centipede didn't change when he dialled was because it didn't see him as a hero.  They are interupted by The Fixer and The Centipede suddenly appearing.  Nelson, still as the Flash, grabs Roxie and runs, ending up in Australia.  He then changes back, and The Fixer and The Centipede show up to attack them again, The Centipede grabs the H-Dial and tells The Fixer to deal with them.
Nelson as The Flash
Roxie snatches the H-Dial back, but The Centipede grabs it again.  The Fixer takes it from him and starts to switch it off.  Roxie uses the S-Dial and manages to knock the H-Dial out of The Fixer's hands while resisting his orders.  Nelson takes the H-Dial and Roxie flies him aqway to a building where they hide out.  Before they can talk about sleeping together, another hero appears, introducing himself as Open Window Man.  Nelson remembers him being Boy Chimney's sidekick.

The Centipede arrives on the scene and Open Window Man knocks him out of the building.  He then ports Roxie and Nelson through one window and out the next, travelling to the bottom of the building where The Centipede is.  The Fixer shows up as do a whole gang of Dialers called The Dial Bunch.  Using a portal they send The Fixer and The Centipede back to where The Fixer came from.  Although as this was where The Centipede wanted to go anyway, there is likely to be more trouble in store.
The Dial Bunch to the rescue!
The next chapter I really have to applaud for the imagination it shows.  The Dial Bunch, Nelson and Roxie have travelled to a world made up of grey walls.  The inhabitants of this world exist as graffiti on those walls.  It's here they have tracked down the legendary J-Dial, the Jump Dial that used to belong to Fixer and allows directed travel between worlds and dimensions.  Unfortunately they can't figure a way to get it out of the wall.  While the rest ponder, Open Window Man talks with one of the graffiti people who can see him, and fills in some background on the Dial Bunch and their mission.

Open Window Man: "We been fighting the Fixer, who killed Captain Random, for years. It's too tough to kill.  We thought we'd got rid of it a while ago, but we made a mistake. Sent something with it, something we need to stop."

Captain Random was the hero of this world, and owner of the J-Dial.  He explains that without the J-Dial they have to take backdoors through dimensions.  Same way The Fixer travels.  As they have journeyed they have come across evidence of multiple genocides with The Centipede's mask cast-offs proving he was involved.
Flashback to Baansa finding Open Window Man.
He says they are all dial-touched.  A human called Yaaba with a H-Dial; Nem, a cogsmith qwith a G-Dial who can summon random artefacts; Ejad, a robot dandy with a Dial Tapper, Dwan who has an Autodialler and finally Baansa who has a H-Dial that always steals rather than copies powers (and here it is confirmed Nelson stealing The Flash's power was a one-off) and who was responsible for the death of Boy Chimney by doing this. She doesn't use her dial anymore, but she's the one who can open doors through dimensions and find the Dial-Touched of those worlds.

Open Window Man:
"We hunt the Fixer who ends those who use these broken machines for justice. Like your Captain Random. And we hunted for new comrades. Became the Dial Bunch."

All the dials had been scattered through time and dimensions by a massive war in the Exchange.  To get to the Exchange they need the J-Dial.  The grafitti person then points out his world has windows and Open Windown Man has an idea.  He gets Nem to summon something with a window and travels through it into the graffiti world and gets a hold of the J-Dial. He returns with it and as the Dial Bunch make to leave, the graffiti person thanks Open Window Man for inspiring him to carry on the good fight, him being the graffiti worlds equivalent of a hero.
The graffitti world
Nelson: "Water worlds. Rust worlds. Worlds made of of light and worlds made of dark. Worlds underground.  Every world has its heroes.  Its gods. Its monsters"

They are on a world saving the froglike inhabitants from a monster.  This worlds has been taught to beware of dialers because of a "war".  Ejaad has also been killed here

They can't make the J-Dial qwork, so are still travelling via "frayed" spots in reality.  They arrive in a world being consumed by water and are attacked as being the cause.  When they explain they aren't they open another hole in reality and take the few inhabitants of that world with them.  But the hole closes before Nem and Yaaba can get through.

They are attacked again on this new world, by a strange, mechanical alien that lives there.  He threatens to hurt the civilians they have with them, so they surrender.

Alien: "Why did you come here? You think we'll let you steal powers again?  By Torque and Attrition, I remember the war.  And I will not allow you to restart it."
The big giant head of The Operator
Before he can elaborate on this mysterious war people keep referring to, a zombie attacks.  Then a giant head of a bald man appears in the sky, saying he is punishing this world.  And more zombies attack.  The alien allows our heroes to have their dials back and they fight them off.  Then the alien reveals they mended the J-Dial and so our heroes dial 0,0,0,0 and travel to the Exchange.

They are greeted by The Centipede, they battle him and beat him doqwn but Fixer arrives and grabs Nelson and takes him back into the Exchange building.  An edifice with many huge wires leading into it.

Baansa: "Wires channeling an infinity of worlds. Ripped out of eternity.  Ruined by war"
The Exchange
Back in the exchange, Nelson wakes up on a table, with Fixer standing guard over him.  The bald man introduces himself as The Lost Operator - O.  He has a D-Dial, a Doom Dial qwhich he can use to summon up random apocalypses.  He inflicts one on the world our heroes just left.

Nelson asks the Centipede why he is helping O.  The Centipede replies that when the H-Dial refused to work for him, judging him not a hero, he decided he wanted something else.  An E-Dial, EVIL.  And O has made him one.  Nelson then wants to know why Fixer is helping O.   He tells Nelson about the war.  How this was a world of diallers, and people in other worlds became afraid of them when their dials stole powers rather than copied them.  The worlds got together and attacked the Dial world, and it was destroyed apart from the Exchange where 0 created the D-Dial to take revenge on those worlds.

Fixer: "Perhaps it was our enemies portals making the exchange bleed. Or 0's amplifying machines destabilising realities and chronologies.  Or our terror.  Or the strength of our attacks.  But what happened was like nothing that had before."

There was an explosion that scattered dials through time, space and reality. Fixer had been loyal to a dead world, one that 0 helped kill.
Fixer reminices
Meanwhile Roxie, Baansa and Open Window Man have snuck into the Exchange.  They find an armory full of H-Dials and Roxie takes one. Centipede arrives to fight them, and by using an instruction manual for the dials they manage to temporarily fend him off.  Fixer then turns on 0, but 0 can turn off dials and disables the Fixer. Dwan and Roxie arrive, and Dwan can fight because his autodialler moves to fast to be disabled.  But 0 speeds it's changes up until Dwan can't move.  Roxie, Nelson, Baansa and Open Windown Man exit via a window.  Centipede arrives and kills Baansa.

Roxie reprograms a H-Dial with crossed wires inside.  This allows Nelson to transform into heroes that are a combination of each other, and means 0 can't turn his dial off.  0 uses an amplifier instead to grow huge.  Nelson keeps battling him to distract him while Roxie enters the Exchange and starts working on crossing the huge wires powering the Exchange.  This results in a build up of pressure that causes 0 to explode, also taking out the top of the Exchange where Roxie and Open Window Man managed to escape from just in time.  But not the Centipede who was trying to stop them. They survey the aftermath.
Nelson keeps O distracted
Nelson: "Hey, we stopped them.  We kinda did it.  And we're in the middle of a bunch of tangled universes. We saved history but we're beat up, hungry and stuck. But that's the exchange.  We got stuff to salvage.  To fire up.  You know this ain't the end of it.  We're dialers.  So lets dial."

But it is the end of it.  That's the final issue of Dial H alas. It wasn't quite the end of The Centipede though, who survived the explosion at the Exchange.  He showed up in Justice League #23.3 as part of Villains Month, chasing up his E-Dial which had fallen through reality into the hands of a gang of teenagers using it to create heroes.  The issue is most notable for having each page drawn by a different artist and ending with the Centipede getting knocked out by a dimensionally travelling hero called Rescue Jill.
The Operator and the Exchange go Boom
This second volume of Dial H does suffer a little from it's truncated run.  You can tell Miéville wanted more time to explore the Dial Bunch and the final showdown at the Exchange with 0 is contained in one issue which means things like Fixer's Heel Face turn seems to come out of nowhere.  That said, the fact this longer storyline crammed into a few issues still manages to make sense is a testement both to the artists and writer's command over their material.  Miéville created a wonderful team pairing in a world of glamorous perfect heroes having the main characters as a fat slob and a pensionably aged woman was a radical move.  Beating the final villain with a combination of her cleverness and his bravery was a fantastic end for the series.  There are enough concepts and characters thrown into these final few issues that could keep more "decompressed" titles going for years.  It's a tragedy that an intelligent and literate comic like this was cancelled.  Hopefully Miéville will write for comics again in the future and it's certainly made me keen to seek out his prose work now. If you enjoy way out science fantasy stories, Dial H is definitely a comic you need to read.


  1. If Nelson and Roxie can be heroes, maybe you and I can be heroes too. What would your hero name be? I'd like to be Wiki-Girl. I could categorise my enemies to death!

    I really enjoyed reading your reviews of this comic. Like you said, it was a crying shame it got cancelled, but at least China managed to call Alan Moore out on the golliwog before he went, and he got some really cool concepts in. Ctrl+Alt+Daffodil! Gloriously mental... and yet it all makes sense.

    So the thing is that there are countless different worlds, all based on a different substance or idea, and the dials come from Dial-World where ectypes (good word to learn, especially from a comic book) are dialled into reality as and when needed. That's so cool! And there's Graffiti-World, and there must be so many others besides, it's a shame we never got to visit them. And it would be so cool to see what the D-Dial did, although it would be very unethical too, like all those experiments we'd like to do on children (e.g. what would happen to a child if you bought her up without access to language?) but can't because it would hurt them. I envisage wonderfully creative apocalypses — worlds drowned under a torrential rain of fish, bacteria grown to the size of football stadia, all the villains from books coming alive, etc.

    I'd like to have the S-Dial so I could be a sidekick and have that sense of complete trust and obedience. But I've always been too much of a coward to think for myself. Just, I reckon it would be nice.

    The China Miéville book this reminds me of the most is Un Lun Dun, but I'll just give you as many as I can carry and see what you make of them.

    Just one thing... isn't the Centipede's power the same as that of Legion in Alan Moore's run on Captain Britain?

  2. Hmmm not sure qwhat my name qwould be, but I definitely be something to do with videogames. Maybe I could fight with a magical 360 controller!

    We do very breifly see the D-Dial in action. The Operator mentions that chances are you'll get an apocalypse based on Earth mythology because we have so many. But so much was happening in that final issue it doesn't get focused on.

    The Centipede did remind me of Legion in Captain Britain. But he does have differences. His power only works over his last few seconds of timeline, and crucially if one of him dies he can make a different one of him the "Prime Self" unlike Legion who will die at some unspecified time if one of him gets killed. So, it's similar but enough differences for me to write it off as China probably coming to the idea independently.

    Ah so many wonderful worlds we didn't see and I so would liked to have seen the Dial Bunch explored in more detail. But it was not to be. Anyway, definitely looking forward now to borrowing some Mieville off you. The man is crazy imaginative and I love that.

  3. "Unfortunately sales while decent are not stellar (though it apparently sold well enough to be called "The New York Times Bestselling Series" on the cover. Hmm),"
    The trades sold very well; it's even getting a deluxe edition hardcover collecting the whole run.

    "and so despite all the praise you cancel the book forcing Miéville to wrap up what was obviously planned as a much longer plot arc in a couple of issues. Shame on you DC."
    DC gave him an extra sized final issue and a coda issue, I don't think that's anything to be ashamed about. They've treated Mieville much better than actual comic book writers.

  4. That's a fair point, I'm just frustrated with DC that we were tempted with so much more. But you're right, I've read plenty of series that came to an abrupt No Ending so it could have been much worse. And at least the series was left in a state where someone else can easily pick up the reigns again....

  5. Things I like about this series (more than just the general liking I have for this series):
    - The message that even slobs like us can be heroes, and the message (in the "Rescue Jack" incident, and perhaps also "Rescue Jill"?) that we don't need superpowers to do it.
    - The whole Chief Mighty Arrow issue that critiques things that comics did in the past (or even in recent volumes of League...) that aren't really acceptable today, if they ever were (Wikipedia says the "Dial H for Hero" comic actually featured Chief Mighty Arrow back in the 1960s).
    - The several occasions when Roxie calls Nelson out on his reactionary moments.
    - The way that Open Window Man creates a Batcave for the graffiti boy because he thinks that's what heroism is about, and the graffiti boy refusing it and saying his traumatic experiences have inspired him to take direct political action instead - that's very China Miéville.
    - The way Miéville parallels the use of the Dials with copyright violation ("RIAA" and "MPAA"? You rascal, China...), which adds a provocative twist to the story in the last couple of issues.

    Basically, Miéville is too good for 'em. I do think a couple of the middle issues (i.e. around the front end of vol 2) are a bit stodgy, and on that basis I can see why DC might have lost confidence, but the whole series just crackles with ideas and deep, intelligent character work.

  6. A hearty yes to all your comments, it really was crammed full of goodness. I did love the issue with Open Window Man and Grafitti Boy so much, it was incredibly touching and cool. It's a shame DC didn't qwait to see hoqw the trades fared before cancelling the series, I knoqw that loqwer selling monthly titles can be kept afloat by good trade sales.

    I hope Miéville works in comics again, I could see him doing a great creator owned series say for Image, where big monthly sales would not be such a big pressure upon him. I'd be there like a shot. If something as qwayout as Prophet (something I intend to cover in the future) can survive and thrive, I'm sure anything Miéville can come up with can as well.