Dial Hard

Dial H (Issues 0-15, JL 23.3): written by China Mieville; illustrated by Alberto Ponticelli, Mateus Santolouco, and others (2012-2013): China Mieville’s Dial H series for DC Comics would probably have lasted longer in the 1990’s, when there was a certain commitment by DC to odd superhero books. In the second decade of the 21st century, it never really had a chance. But it was fun while it lasted, warts and all, as Mieville learned how to write comic books and the readers got to watch.

How odd was this series? Well, the two heroes are a 30-ish overweight man and a woman in her late 50’s or early 60’s. The villain is a Canadian. The Hero Dial, a concept from DC’s Silver Age, works pretty much as it always did. You dial H-E-R-O and you become a different hero for a limited time every time you dial.

From this basic set-up, Mieville took off running with an exploration of how the dials work and where they come from. And even though cancellation came without much warning, the powers that be gave Mieville enough time to supply a mostly satisfying, though somewhat open-ended, wrap-up to what I would have marketed as the War of the Dials. Because by the end of the series, there were a lot of different dials (this a commentary on DC’s recent obsession with there being a power ring for ever colour of the spectrum and more in the Green Lantern books). Dial to be a Sidekick. Dial for world-shattering Doom. And so on. And it’s an analog Dial in a digital age. Why?

Mieville’s characterization of his oddball (for superhero comic books, that is) protagonists was sympathetic and engaging, as was the depiction of the supporting characters who appeared throughout the series. If there were problems, they lay partially in Mieville’s inexperience at writing comic books: the first few issues are a bit too murky in their proceedings, the engaging weirdness obscured by, well, just plain narrative weirdness and a bit too much off-putting narration from some deeply weird H-E-R-O characters.

Another problem lay in the choice of the first artist for the series, Mateus Santolouco. He’s a lovely draftsman, but his storytelling sense wasn’t all that strong (or Mieville was giving him odd instructions that he couldn’t overcome). Alberto Ponticelli cleaned things up a lot when he came on-board, but the series might have benefitted from a bit more traditional, Silver-Agey grid-structure art. One of the things that made Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol (the DC book most like Dial H) so enjoyable in the early 1990’s was that penciller Richard Case was a fairly straightforward storyteller. In some cases, the weirdness needs to be delivered ‘straight,’ especially weirdness in the post-modern Silver-Age school of metafictionally recursive superhero comics.

By the last few issues, Mieville and Ponticelli were really pretty much all there. Issue 13, in which one of the characters interacts with an alternate universe composed entirely of chalk drawings on walls, was the best single issue of the series, and a classic of post-modern superhero comics in any decade. I’d say it’s the best single issue of any superhero comic book published in DC’s mainstream New 52 line since that line started in autumn of 2011. It’s a hell of a high point. No wonder the book got cancelled. Recommended.

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