If you read comics and you’re mildly pretentious, or kind of feel like someone’s calling your name when they say “intellectual,” there’s a pretty good chance you have what I’d call the “Sandman Complex.”
In addition to a troubling tendency to throw powder around strange bedrooms, this complex is the desire to defend the literary artistry of your funny books (*shudder*) with the verbose and complex line of argument that Sandman made so damn easy. The non-comics ridiculer wants to laugh at the lack of Joyce in your hands? Fine: that won’t stop you from your fierce rebuttal of “But but but Shakespeare… and and and refried reality!”
It was in this general mindset that I originally felt compelled to pick up Dial H. How does it rank in terms of fulfilling my Sandman Complex?
Although Dial H isn’t quite on the level of Grant Morrison’s Animal Man or Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing (and 4 issues in that would be quite a feat), it definitely has the potential to raise the level of complacency in the comic book medium.
As a part of the DC Universe, Dial H’s greatest strength is that it is in this world, but not of it. Yes, there are references to Green Lantern and Superman, but otherwise the adventures of Jent Nelson are very much self-contained, giving creators China Mieville and Mateus Santolouco the freedom to explore everything from dangerous fantasy escapism to Nietzschen emptiness.
Dial H For How Does This Work
Unlike, say, Batman, Dial H requires some exposition. The comic follows Jent Nelson, our obese, chain-smoking former boxer, as he discovers the magical “Hero Dial” in the satirical town of Littleville. Unlike Smallville’s Clark Kent, Jent’s alter ego is not by choice. In the first issue we quickly learn Jent has recently suffered a heart attack (“but not a heart attack heart attack”), lost his job, his girlfriend and his will to do much of anything but sit around and smoke.
And then Jent finds the mysterious Dial that allows him to transform into the widest array of heroes this side of Morrison’s Batman Incorporated. All of a sudden his true identity is a trap, a pitiful reminder that he is not great, not performing grand feats, not super. The four issues so far have tracked Jent’s ability to cope with who he is when the fantasy takes over and who he is when he can’t be a part of the fantasy anymore. The creators haven’t made it clear where he’ll land just yet, but that’s part of the appeal.
As comic book ideas go, Dial H does a nice job of taking the fairly dated, child-like concept of a magic pay phone (again, a certain Kryptonian comes to mind) and giving it a deeper, reflective meaning. As comic book readers – and perhaps obsessive ones at that – it’s somewhat damning to read stories within the medium that seem to ask: What are you when the fantasy fades? Is that enough?
Artistically, too, Dial H has really allowed Mieville and Santolouco to showcase a pure, unfiltered creativity unrivaled in the superhero genre. Lest we forget, every single time Jent dials H-E-R-O he turns into a different character. This means Mieville and Santolouco are rattling off characters at a rate that would make Stan Lee and Jack Kirby jealous.
The constant creation helps give Dial H an unpredictability rare in hero comics. In Superman, we know Clark Kent is going to be all kinds of strong and indestructible and laser-vision-y. In Dial H? Jent could be anything from Captain Lachrymose to Shamanticore. And that’s a huge part of the fun.
Best Moment of Dial H 1-4
So far, the best moment of Dial H is the first hero transformation as Jent unexpectedly finds himself becoming Boy Chimney. Fantastically fractured paneling reflects the fractured consciousness of Jent/Boy Chimney as he seeks to save his friend from a gang of thugs.
As if Santolouco’s art wasn’t scene-stealing enough ,Mieville’s uses the newly developed character to fire off a string of comic book poetry. Beetlejuice meets E.E. Cummings as Boy Chimney streamlines,
“petrolbreath carbon particles ruin rendered effort boredust burnt paper stinking singeing feathers char and oh poison.
What Does Issue #0 Mean For the Future of Dial H
Issue #0 of Dial H doesn’t meet the gold standard set by the first four issues, but it does develop a new understanding of the Dial, while also making it very clear that it is the Dial and not Jent that serves as the main character of this comic book.
In issue #0, the Dial is presented as an ancient artifact, a near timeless piece of magic that has been at work for centuries. This is a smart move on the part of Mieville, as it opens up Dial H to the boundless depths of time.
I won’t spoil the major development in issue #0, but I will say that it opens up the current run to more parallel world and alternate reality theorizing than I would have guessed. We have already seen some of this “alternate world” creation with The Squid’s story about meeting Abyss (basically, they’re the villains in this storyline. And no, Abyss is not an agent of Apocalypse), but issue #0 gives these realities a new heft.
In the end, I’m enjoying Dial H as a comic book looking to broaden the shoulders of the medium a little more. It’s not quite earth-shattering at this point, but it is well done, and I’m hoping that as it continues I’ll be able to turn to copies of Dial H on my shelf and espouse their literary validity to any non-believer.