Saturday, 16 August 2014

Dial H Book One: Into You (#1-6, #0)

"We saved the town.  We saved the moon.  Even if we couldn't save everyone" - Nelson Jent

In 2011 DC initated the biggest, line-wide shake up of their comic book universe since 1985's Crisis On Infinite Earths.  Every single main DCU title was cancelled, while others were slated for later cancellation including several from the Vertigo and Wildstorm imprints (those characters DC wanted back in the main DCU like Swamp Thing, John Constantine and Stormwatch for example) and then fifty-two titles were launched beginning at issue #1, with the idea that this "New 52" as it is now known as, would always have fifty-two titles running at once.  If a new title was to be launched, an old one would have to be cancelled to make room.  This shake-up has proved controversial at the very least because every title was given an entirely new continuity, basically wiping out seventy-odd years of accumulated DCU history.  Because there has been so much controversy attached to The New 52, it's been hard figuring out which titles have been worth checking out.  But one title kept popping up in my perusing of various comics blogs as a title worth checking out and that comic was Dial H, written by acclaimed fantasy novellist  China Miéville and primary artist Mateus Santolouco.

It's a reboot of an earlier comic called Dial H for Hero, which is about a mysterious dial that, when the letters H, E, R and O are dialed, turns the user into a random superhero.  These are strictly ones designed only to appear in the Dial H comic (except later on in Book 2 when a major plot point turns on summoning up a well known DCU hero).  There have been a couple of exceptions, but only minor ones like Plasticman have been used in the past.  The first Dial H for Hero ran from 1966-1968.  Then it returned in the 80's as a back-up strip in various comics.  It returned again in 2003, entitled H.E.R.O, looking at the effect the dial had on it's users, at the end of it's 22 issue run the H-dial was sent back in time to 50,000 BC and there were no more stories based on the concept until the New 52 reboot in 2011.  Here all the characters associated with the series have been pruned from the narrative and a brand new storyline and history of the Hero-Dial instituted.
Darren and our soon-to-be hero Nelson
The action begins with one of our two main protagonists - Nelson Jent - being chewed out by his friend Darren over just having had a heart attack.  Nelson is not glamorously fit.  He's pudgy, unfit, a smoker and a depressive.  His friend leaves and Nelson chases after him to apologise for being rude to him.  He finds Darren being beaten in alley and he stumbles to a phone booth, he dials a number and in a flash, turns into a tall, skeletal creature called Boy Chimney, who deals with Darren's attackers and carries Darren to the hospital, while Nelson deals with a rush of memories that are not his own.  Finally he changes back.

The action cuts to a bald gangster who says they'll need more protection to deal with Darren if super-beings are involved.  After visiting to check in on Darren, Nelson returns to the alley and dials the number again in the booth.  This time he turns into Captain Lachrymose, and turns up at the bald guys hideout, causing him intense, crippling sadness.  He warns him to leave Darren alone. He goes back to the alley again and ponders to new found power he has access too:

Nelson: "It's impossible.  It's just a busted up phone. 4376.  Ain't even an interesting number.  Ain't a prime.  Ain't nothing.  But it's the number...'cause look, 4376 spells another word to.  HERO."
Boy Chimney in action
The next issue begins with Nelson doing "research" on how long the effect lasts and how long between transformations he can use the dial.  Finally he finishes and reflects:

Darren: "Time to change into the worst identity of them all".

Referring to himself.  Serious self-esteem issues there.  Nelson talks with Darren in the hospital and they discuss the epidemic of people falling into comas in the city.  Darren says it was his job to go to a newly comatose persons flat and steal their stuff, but they kept being interrupted in their work by a Hero.  Nelson later ponders this and his desire to "bust Darren's ass out of this mess".

He goe's and changes into a hero with a TV for a head called Ctrl-Alt-Del.  He goes to the apartment Darren was going to next and bumps into a hovering, cloaked purple figure, who attacks him.

Nelson: "Stop thinking like a schlub.  Start thinking like a hero."

And he uses his power to "reboot" the mysterious figure, who leaves.  As does Nelson, before Darren's crew are due to turn up.
Ctrl-Alt-Del versus Manteau
The action cuts to two gas masked villains discussing what happened, saying the woman Nelson encountered is called "Manteau".  One of the masked men attacks the other with black spit, then says he'll go take care of the problem.  He goes and melts his way through Darren's hospital window.  A panicked Nelson who had tried to reach Darren at the hopsital only to be told they can't get into his room, goes and changes into The Iron Snail.  A soldier with a huge metal shell.

He attacks the mobsters at the hospital and then gets into a fight with the reptile like creature who was attacking Darren and who seems to know who he is.  Before he can prevail, he starts to change back and goes rushing back to the phone booth, closely followed by the mobsters.  There he finds Manteau hovering over the phone booth.  She says she made a mistake attacking him.

Manteau: "You want to know how I knew to wait for you.  How that thing knew who you were. What the dial is.  What's going on.  I can help you".
Squid takes on The Iron Snail
The mobsters attack and in the crossfire the phonebooth gets damaged.  Manteau tells him to take just the dial, which he does, then she wraps a tentacle around him and they fly off.  The mobsters report back to a female who was a doctor at the hospital.  The reptile creature - who the Doctor calls "Squid" - says he knows she wants "something from nothing", while he just wants to go home.  But if they suceed, the emptiness will want something too.

Manteau flies Nelson to her house and tells him she might be able to fix his dial.  She also has one of her own.  She gives him a potted history of the telephone:

Manteau: "I'm saying Bell and Edison, all of them are lucky 0 wanted them to secretly swap thoughts.  I'm saying the entire history of telephony is a by product of someone elses research.  Reserach into something else altogether".

She then asks him what his biggest fight was and he channels a Boy Chimney memory.  She explains that she uses the same name, and costume so she can keep her own personality grounded when she changes.
Nelson and Manteau
In a car, the doctor and Squid plus two zombies, go and visit a man called Mr.King.  Some time ago his brother saw something years ago, and him being close to his brother means he can be used as a conduit to channel something.  One of the zombies then vomits black goo on him.

Nelson returns to Manteau who shows him she has been tracking Dial reports over the years.   She then dials into listen to Mr. King as he is being attacked, becuase he was close to the last big cluster of Dial incidents.  Nelson tries his dial and changes briefly, seeing a "shadow on the line" while he is changed.   Manteau tells him to try again and he changes into Baroness Resin.  He freaks out at this:

Manteau: "You been a giant metal spring yet? A super-disco dancer?  A boomerang? Now it's bust because you got ovaries?"
She tells him to "woman up" and they go to rescue Mr. King who has been strapped to a bed.  As Manteau and Nelson arrive, a huge black being bursts out of him.
The Abyss
Squid falls into a prayer position and thinks back to a thing that was lost:

Squid: "It fell through fast places, through anti-qworlds, through questionable realities that weren't sure whether they were a punishment it's fall took it back to where it had first been trapped, fallen into something.. and it never stopped falling.  Until it did stop".

And he remembers the doctor rescuing him and telling him she wanted his companion back.  Back with the black being, the doctor tries to bind it, while it lashes out at Squid.  Manteau and nelson attack it and make it disappear.  The doctor blasts Manteau in the back with her binding gun, while Nelson transforms back into himself. 

The doctor tells Nelson she made herself a "nullo-mancer" Studying all these years to bring the Abyss back.  She and Squid then leave with the unconcious Manteau and her dial.  Nelson tries to dial another hero, but his dial seems permanently broken now.

Back in her lair, the doctor has Manteau strapped to a table, while the Abyss cause havoc in the city.  She says that Dial-wielders banished Squid and the Abyss, and she wants to know how.  Squid weakly asks if she could heal him, but she refuses.  Intent on finding out about the relationship between Dials and the Abyss she tortures Manteau, but she knows nothing.  The doctor then says she could boost her nullo-mancer power with the dial and bind the Abyss that way.
The Abyss
The Abyss is growing larger, and Nelson watches it on TV, quoting Nietzche's famous lines about gazing into the abyss.  Squid turns up at Nelson's flat, apologises for killing his friend Darren, then shows Nelson the huge hole the Abyss made in him.  He says all he ever wanted was to go home.  He explains his people are "null-herders", training and taming "the wild nothing".   He found one he could push even harder than normal and explored the universe with it, until it was the one in control.  And it was hungry.

Squid: "It is dark between the stars.  It is hungry for the light."

The dialers banished him for stealing jewellery while on Earth. The Abyss has lost itself and is getting stronger.  The doctor might make it mad enough that it remembers it can eat suns.

Nelson tells him that his dial is bust and all he can do is change into himself.  Squid says that will have to do.  So Nelson dresses as a super-hero and calls himself Rescue Jack and he and squid go to the hide-out and beat down the mobsters.  Nelson finds Manteau stripped of her mask and costume and she turns out to be an old woman.  He unties her and she dresses back up again and they go to leave.  Back with the doctor and the Abyss, it shows her whats happening at the hideout and she warps back to where Nelson, Squid and Manteau are, screaming "traitor!" at Squid.
Rescue Jack and Squid take on the mobsters
Squid takes on the doctor so Nelson and Manteau can make a getaqway and fix the broken dial.  Back at Manteau's house, she reintroduces herself as Roxie Hodder, and thanks Nelson for rescuing her. She tells him that in the sixties she was doing a Phd in Telephony when a "Joy festival" opened her mind to more spiritual uses for it.  Watching on TV, Nelson sees Squid even more badly injured, plus the doctor has dialled again, turning into a powerful hero called The Hairbringer.  The doctor is angry at the Abyss for it's ingratitude and starts to attack it in earnest.  Roxie finishes mending the dial and hopes she gets someone strong, before she can dial, Nelson snatches it from her and dials himself:

Nelson: "Come on.  No more crazy powers. This one matters.  This time we need a superman"

Roxie: "We're screwed"
Cock-a-Hoop to the rescue!
Nelson has turned into Cock-a-Hoop, a giant hoop with a chickens body attached. Oh dear. He goes into battle with the doctor and the Abyss. Meanwhile, military helicopters fire missiles at the Abyss, who just absorbs them.  Nelson uses his spin attack to confuse all the little Voids the Abyss is generating.  They turn on the Abyss and attack it.  It starts to turn into stone, then suddenly there appears another dialler, shifting forms fast.  It attacks the doctor and disables her dial.  She turns back into herself and as she was hovering way above ground, this does not end well for her.  Then the dialler fires a giant bullet into the head of the now stone Abyss and it finally dies, before disappearing as mysteriously as it appeared.
The dying Abyss and Hairbringer
Nelson, now back to his normal self, and Roxie check the doctor is dead and at the same time, Squid finally dies as well.  They don't celebrate their victory over the Abyss, because all they can do is ponder the being that attacked the doctor, the shadow on the line who targets dials.

Nelson: "That's what it's been hunting. You felt it on the line.  Since way before the Abyss turned up. That's what it came for... What's the shadow gonna do when it figures out we got another one."

And as they contemplate the half-broken dial, this arc comes to an end.  But it's not the end of the book.

We next get an amusing one shot that explores Nelson and Roxies growing, warm relationship as they share the dial.  Roxies is telling Nelson he can't go out looking like he does now, which is as a stereotypical "Red Indian" called Chief Mighty Arrow.

Nelson: "Ah come off it!  Enough with the political correctness BS. I got super arrows! Jet propelled explosive feathers! I'm heap big trouble for criminals... uh"

Roxie: "'Heap big?' Oh my God can't you hear yourself?"
Roxie scolds Chief Mighty Arrow
After chasing off the flying horse that came with his powers, Roxie shows Nelson her "Refusenik Dossier".  The I.D's even she as Manteau refused to use.  She says they were just too shameful, as Nelson peruses the photos.

Nelson: "What the hell is that?!"

Roxie: "That's Golliwog.  Dialled it in 2007.  They used to make dolls like that.  What kind of insensitve pig - or racist - would put that out in the world.!"

Ouch.  That is actually a meta reference and qwhat the hip hop community would call "a massive diss" aimed at Alan Moore putting the Golliwog (who has a large penis) in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, published in 2007.  I'd like to mount some spirited defence of Moore as simply appropriating the iconography of the fifties to make some kind of satirical point.  But I can't, some things are too toxic, too laden with negative meaning to be used that easily.  I don't think Moore is racist, but I think he made an error.  Still, getting a shot at him in a mainstream comic is funny, but better watch out China, lest a puppet snake God comes to eat your soul in the night!  Of course, Miéville is using dodgy imagery himself, but makes it clear that it's wrong and shameful so I think he about gets away with it.

Nelson agrees to stay inside, although he sulks.  Sweetly, Roxie kisses his forehead and agrees he can go out if someone is really in trouble.  They chat and Roxie tells Nelson about the last time she went out patrolling not as Manteau, she was sick and overwhelmed by half-memories when she changed back.  Nelson must protect his mind.

To be continued....
Later, as he restlessly watches TV he sees a hostage crisis taking place.  Before he can rush to the scene, his winged horse turns up there and craps all over the attackers, rescuing the hostages.  Disappointed, Nelson nearly falls asleep, but catches himself before he does so.  Falling alseep while dialled is a real no-no. Then another situation breaks out with a costumed attacker cause havoc in the town.  Before he can rush to the scene he changes back.  Roxie swipes the dial off him and changes herself, but as she does so she tells Nelson she might have tracked down another dial.

There is actually more in this collection with the inclusion of an issue #0 set in the ancient past, involving a primitive stone dial and travellers from the future.  However the real meat of this book is the relationship between Roxie and Nelson.  And also Nelson's journey from self-confessed "schlub" to an eager hero, who helped save the world.  The writing is excellent, melding goofy super-heroic stuff to a real core of hard fantasy concepts, with plenty of warmth and humour on the way.  The artwork is great as well, capturing both the epic and the intimate with ease, given some of the cosmic concepts written here, a lesser artist could have been completely stymied, but Mateus Santolouco pulls it off.  Enough on-going plotlines have been laid to make checking out the second (and sadly final) volume a real must.  Dial H proves that a full on reboot of somewhat corny concepts can be handled in an accomplished and literary style, while still staying try to the core ideas. Definitely the cream of The New 52 relaunch.


  1. I agree with China Miéville.

    This looks like a really good comic book and reminds me of some of China's novels. I'll definitely have to lend them to you.

  2. Yeah that wqould be cool. This comic has really interested me in terms of his other writing, it's got some pretty trippy concepts for a mass market comic in it!