Dial H: Call of the Weird

DC Comics have been around for a long time. As a result, they have had a lot of characters turn up in their pages and a lot of titles hit store shelves. Some of the results can be odd or “out there” ideas, the sort that might unfortunately fade away in the wake of more popular superheroes. This is the case of one Silver Age series that was known as Dial H for Hero. The series premiered in the pages of the Silver Age anthology comic House of Mystery and was centered around a boy named Robby Reed. He possessed a dial that could transform him into a random superhero by dialing H-E-R-O. It is a simple idea, but evocative thanks to the idea of the varied superhero identities that can arise from the premise. However, the concept had slipped through the cracks of DC, getting a brief run in the 1980s before slipping back into obscurity. Now, the concept has had another chance at life from an unlikely source: author China Mieville. Bringing his passion for “weird fiction” to DC Comics, he has come up with an inspired yet all-too-brief run with this idea of a hero-making dial under the title of Dial H.

Nelson Jent is a man at a bad point in his life. His girlfriend has left him, he is unemployed, he is overweight, he is depressed, and he smokes. He hates his life and hates who he is. He’d give anything for something different. Well, one day he stumbles upon a friend of his getting beat down by a pair of criminals. Desperate for any kind of help, he hurries as best as he can to find a way of contacting the police. What he finds is an old phone booth, a rarity in this day. As the criminals close in on Nelson, he mistakenly dials 4-3-7-6. In an instant, he emerges from the phone booth as a smoke-controlling superhero known as Boy Chimney. Taking them down with ease, Nelson realizes that he has found something incredible. He begins using the H-Dial, turning into different heroes to fight crime and enjoy being someone else for a change. However, he finds that there is something brewing on the horizon. A dark force of evil is stirring, one that threatens not only his hometown but also existence. Even deeper than that, however, is the real mystery at the heart of it all: the origins of the H-Dial.

From this premise, China Mieville is able to mine some rich emotions and ideas. Most prominent of these ideas is the notion of identity. Whenever Nelson Jent uses the dial and takes on a new form, he innately knows the name of the hero and how to use its powers. Not only that, it turns out that he can also have the memories that come with these identities. Thus, while he can pick any of these forms up with ease, he is also at risk of losing track of himself in the process. It is a fascinating psychological component, one that feels well-rooted in Nelson Jent’s own issues. It offers a backbone as well for Nelson Jent’s growth over the series, as he tries to truly become a hero and not just take on the looks and abilities of one. On the whole, it is a rich and vibrant take on a rather quirky Silver Age idea. It takes the central conceit and injects a sense of reality to it, capturing both the incredible possibilities of the H-Dial while also capturing the danger and risk as well. Of course, this psychological depth is not all that China Mieville brings to the table. He also runs with the sheer oddness that can come with this premise.

As one would expect with a premise involving a variety of superhero identities, China Mieville brings to the table a bizarre variety of heroes that Nelson and others can become through the H-Dial. One issue features Captain Lachrymose, who can induce sadness in others and draw strength from their sadness. Another has Iron Snail, a soldier superhero with a large metallic snail shell that is armed to the teeth. There is even the Daffodil Host, a dandy with a head made of daffodils capable of entrancing others with poetry. These are but a few of the varied and odd heroes who crop up throughout the series’ run. Of course, it is not only the heroes who get weird. Some of the foes who turn up to challenge Nelson have their own odd natures at play. For instance, one villain who appears is known at the Centipede. His power is that he is capable of jumping between different moments in his personal timeline. However, as he uses the power, he appears like a long connected chain of copies of himself. It is an inspired take on the idea of time manipulation or super speed, one that plays with the after-image nature with which super speed is frequently depicted in comics. It is clear that China Mieville knows his comics and superheroes well. Within the pages of Dial H, he plays with the iconography as part of a weird tale that takes its Silver Age roots and realizes a fascinating trip into identity.

Unfortunately, DC Comics ended up bringing Dial H to an early close. Still, that should not turn you away from reading it. The entire series is available in two separate volumes, along with a deluxe edition that brings the whole work together.

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