Novelist China Mieville calls you in 'Dial H': A comic-book review

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In one of the most delightfully random-seeming pair-ups, China Mieville, the superb sci-fi/fantasy novelist, is now writing his take on the 1960s comic book series Dial H for Hero. As part of the second wave of DC’s “New 52,” the first issue of what’s simply being called Dial H is a terrific tale of an ordinary schlub raised to hero status by accident. It’s an old trope but, as detailed vividly by Mieville, Dial H is full of cleverness and narrative energy.

Our ostensible hero is Nelson, an out-of-shape goofball who, in the first issue released today, tries to help his friend Darren when the latter is attacked by thugs. Wheezing and flailing at his pal’s assailants, Nelson is knocked on his backside by the criminals and reaches into what is probably one of the few pay phones in American urban existence. Dialing at random, he hits upon four letter/digits that magically transform him into a kind of super-hero – Boy Chimney, a gangly, soot-emitting creature whose noxious fumes quickly reduce the enemies to coughing helplessness.

It was the premise of 1960s original that each time the first Dial H protagonist, Robby Reed, dialed H-E-R-O on a rotary dial, he transformed into a different hero each time (random examples: Giant Boy, Hornet Man, Human Starfish). This was certainly a novel concept, but also what doubtless prevented Dial H for Hero from becoming a very popular series: The lack of a single super-hero with whom to identify and follow from issue to issue.

Mieville uses the concept to his storytelling advantage. Nelson’s second incarnation in the first issue is Captain Lachrymose, an aggressive sad-sack who infects all around him with debilitating melancholy. It’s a clever creation, and suggests that Mieville is going to be taking us on some wild rides.

As the owner of a copy of the Jim Mooney-drawn, 1966 Dial H premiere in House of Mystery #156, I’m happy to say that artist Mateus Santolouco has gone his own way with the new Dial H. Mooney was a terrific artist, the signature illustrator for Supergirl, but Santolouco brings a bracing modernity to the new series. The artist has Boy Chimney and Captain Lachrymose burst the boundaries of the panels of the pages in which they appear. The entire first issue has a pleasing dark hue, a visual metaphor for the murky understanding Nelson has of his new status as a multiple-hero at this point.

Mieville also briefly introduces a mysterious criminal mastermind referred to as X.N., who I’m sure will become more prominent as the series proceeds. One of the nice touches in this first issue is that, in trying to reproduce the dial code that initially turns him into a hero, Nelson figures out he’s using the numbers 4376, and, looking at the letters on a rotary dial, believes the magic phrase might be “IF SO.” (“If so” could be the beginning of many a super-hero tale – if this or that condition were so, we’d get Superman/Batman/Green Lantern, etc.) It’s only in the first issue’s final panel that he realizes that letter code could also be “HERO.” Where Nelson goes from here with this knowledge is a place I’m looking forward to following.

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