Dial H Retrospective
I’ll probably be the first to say it, but DC hasn’t been in a place this good since the era of Infinite Crisis. While much of the early New 52 (why are we still calling it that?) books were a fun but muddled, incomprehensible mess, DC has really found their stride by allowing creators a larger territory for their creativeness. On one end of the spectrum, you’ve got books that are forging their own creative territory whilst working within the traditional superhero system (Green Arrow, Phantom Stranger) and then you have the other end of the spectrum where the comics DC is publishing are exploring new genres rather than the typical action movie formula of say, Justice League. That’s not to denounce the quality of Justice League (although its quality has varied from time to time) but it’s saying that it’s not an entirely unique spectacle. It doesn’t cross traditional boundaries like Demon Knights or I, Vampire did. Those were books that expanded the territory of which genres DC writers could work in. The most unique book DC has published in the last couple of years (even though it works with superheroes but we’ll touch on that later) is Dial H.
Dial H was scripted by China Mieville, and ran for 16 issues and ended with a coda in the form of Justice League #23.3: Dial E for DC’s villain’s month event. Unlike most series cancelled before their time, Dial H’s ending didn’t feel rushed in the slightest. In essence, it felt like one of Mieville’s novels, with a proper beginning, middle, and end, and a final farewell in the form of a coda chapter that functions as a love letter to the series and an extremely unique experience (20 pages drawn by 20 different artists, each showcasing a brand new villain). It was to be initially published through DC imprint Vertigo (which explains why Karen Berger was an editor on the series) and therefore feels a lot like one of the early wave of Vertigo titles, mixing super heroics with a dark, weird, and outlandish take on traditional superhero conventions. And unsurprisingly, like many other Vertigo titles of the day, there are deeper themes, meanings and metaphors afoot that eventually make themselves known by coalescing with the main story at the very end.
Dial H, at its central core, tells the story of a nobody named Nelson Jent who happens upon the H-dial by chance. When he does get it, it’s a very nondescript moment that subverts the clichés of a superhero origin story masterfully. The “nobody” aspect of Nelson’s personality gets played up a lot actually. In his natural life, he’s a major wreck that pretty much no one respects. When he obtains the H-dial, he uses it to (naturally) become a hero but those heroes aren’t him at all; they act as a false masking for Nelson’s insecurities by allowing him to change who he is and forget (at least for a little while) how much of a failure he actually is. He hides behind these personas that aren’t his, and while using them to do well, he can’t ultimately truly embrace his new status because these people aren’t him at all. He is Nelson Jent, and that is his identity.
Dial H as a whole focuses largely on the concept of identity. It asks us “who are we really?” and gives way to the idea that if we keep coming up with new identities for different situations, we will eventually become what we intentionally created, regardless of whether that was who we are originally or not. The old identities will pave the way for new ones, and the new ones become the old eventually, in an endless cycle. We can never remain what we truly are because what we are is what we have invented ourselves to be. We are constantly shifting masks, consciously or subconsciously. In a way, it is our choice and it is not. Dial H embodies these ideas by having our characters Nelson and Roxie cycle (or more appropriately, dial) through heroes at a compromisingly fast rate. What would happen if they got stuck on one identity (or between identities)? Would they be lost forever? Would they eventually become part of the dial itself and maybe get dialed one day? It’s an interesting concept that gets touched upon masterfully by Mieville, with only the barest hints of excess.
It’s interesting that both characters consistently shift through identities because it could be seen as political commentary as well. It could mean that we evolve and adapt to keep up with the ever-shifting climate of politics and economics, and that we could get lost in the day-to-day rut if we fail to keep up and choose to remain complacent rather than take action. Given that Mieville has a degree of some kind in Economics, this wouldn’t be surprising at all. Of course, political commentary runs the risk of dating itself to the issues of the current political climate, but not here. Mieville has adapted his commentary into something that qualifies as timeless.
Another issue the series touches upon (which I didn’t get until I read the last issue and re-read the whole series from there) is overtly strict copyright laws. The final issue, number fifteen, really touches upon this with pastiches on the MPAA and RIAA (in the form of the Material Protection Alterity Army and the Rapid Interreality Assault Alliance respectively). It seems appropriate to portray them as villainous given their notoriously thuggish nature and tendencies to screw over those who actively pirate copyrighted materials (I’ve heard of cases where people get charged thousands of dollars for torrenting a single movie). While the law states that it is legally (and I suppose ethically) wrong to obtain something like music or say, a comic book through non-traditional means (i.e. free) it is not necessarily a statement I (and many others) find entirely agreeable. Piracy is just another way of actively being able to share stuff that you appreciate with others so that they can judge it for themselves, and hopefully, go out and buy a physical copy of the product. Mieville and Ponticelli (the artist) kind of portray them as an increasingly aggressive, rabid, mindless army whose sole function is to attack. It’s about time someone spoke out against both corporations.
In the end though, one of the things the series is saying is that we shouldn’t be uber-strict as people and as companies on the issue of who appears in what? Is it wrong to have say, Shazam! appear in a Marvel book? Or Loki in a DC book? That kind of crossover would always be, on some level, a wholly different experience and would allow for more diverse, expansive storytelling. Rather than dismiss the idea of a crossover as a cheap cash grab, it offers up the idea that cross-pollination is both a healthy and welcome diversion from the typical “three books are crossing over to tie into something bigger” tactic that we’ve seen in recent years. In essence, it serves as a reminder that not only are strict copyright laws prohibitive, they are also cancerous to many, many different levels of pop-media industry.
The recent villains month send-off of Dial H (seriously mislabeled as a Justice League title, but that was presumably to increase sales) known as Dial E, is a nice little send off, a coda if you will, to the Dial H series by tying up a loose plot thread, making clever jokes out of new character, and expanding on the idea of cross-pollination between comics.
Dial E sends us off by giving us a fun little romp in 20 pages drawn by 20 different artists (a staggering achievement in and of itself) and each new character concept designed by Mieville and the artists is intriguing, fascinating, and often times quite humorous. Take “Baba Iago, forsooth”: its design is that of a clown standing in front of a house that is walking on two monstrous legs, and I’m pretty sure it’s also a reference to Othello. Or take the Jeff Lemire concept on page 11, known as “The Bends” which looks eerily similar to the main character of his graphic novel from last year, The Underwater Welder. This is a clever nod to other works in both literary and semi-literary mediums and expands on the idea that cross-pollination can exist between two different mediums. You wouldn’t think you’d see a Shakespeare reference appear in a modern-day comic, but it actually does happen. Mieville seems to have the idea that this sort of cross-breeding between mediums can only help the industries grow. It’s also a great exposure to different forms of art to those that may not have had prior interest in said forms.
While those two villain concepts were brilliant in their message, the other villain designs are just as fun. There’s “Electroplax”, which is also the name of the plates that make up the electric organs of eels; there’s “Ayenbite” the spirit of remorse, which seems to be a reference to the “Ayenbite of Inwyt”; there’s also my favorite in the whole issue, the “Decalcomaniac” which comes from the word “Decalcomania” which is “The process of transferring pictures or designs printed on specially prepared paper to materials such as glass or metal.” This allows for some hyper-surreal, psychedelic splashes of cartoonish dementia drawn by the talented Brendan McCarthy. Each villain is a feat of clever literary merit and wonderfully unhinged imagination.
I’m of the opinion that each page was drawn extremely well, but the best ones were the ones that seemed bizarre and dreamlike. In particular the pages by Emma Rios, Frazier Irving, Zak Smith, and Sloane Leong. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that each artist brings a unique piece of the pie to the table, and somehow they manage to make it all flow extraordinarily well. Putting all of this individuality into something comprehensible must have been quite the difficult feat, but they managed to pull it off without a hint of jaggedness. Even the cover by Brian Bolland manages to flow with the art inside the book. It’s that good in terms of how it was ordered and designed.
But to give some proper analysis to Dial E, it feels like the proper kind of sendoff. Not the kind that says “superheroes will go on forever, even though this version has ended” but rather like a fun done-in-one type story. It doesn’t feel the need to be epic and grandiose like the ending of Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern run (although that, in my personal opinion, did the bombastic end-piece shtick extremely well). Rather, it says “I hope you had fun, here’s a story that ties up a loose end and manages to stand on its own merits” and then uses said story to showcase a talented grouping of artists. In fact, it subverts the very idea that a comic’s end needs to be big and ostentatious; rather, a comic can just simply end. And that’s what Dial E does. It just simply ends. There’s no teasing, nothing cryptic, nada. And that’s what makes it brilliant.
As a whole, the Dial H series of comics will always share a special place in my heart, and an idiosyncratic place in comics as a whole. Originally, it was a book that was supposed to go under the Vertigo imprint, but got moved to the mainstream DC label, ensuring it’s cancellation from the start. However, that it was that dark and surreal in tone is what makes it special in an age of comics where we’re obsessed with straight-forward stories and shocking plot twists that inevitably lead to nothing. So Dial H, I bid you adieu, and now it’s time to dial G for Goodbye. See you around, maybe.