Sunday, 23 February 2014

Dial H (The Complete Series)


When I first started this blog I wrote about the first four issues of Dial H. You can read the full thing here but I summed up by saying that Dial H had been one of the surprise hits of the New 52 relaunch and was one of the most inventive and enjoyable comic books available.

A brief refresher for those who've forgotten or were unaware to begin with. Dial H begins as a story about Nelson Jent, an overweight fella who discovers a magic phonebox near his flat (apartment, whatves) that can turn people into superheroes for a limited time. It began as a reboot of old title Dial H For Hero, designed only to play a minor and peripheral part in DC's New 52 event-slash-crossover-slash-reboot.

The old title featured protagonist Robby Reed getting into scrapes that could only be solved via use of the phonebox (it was a simpler, less demanding time for comic writers). China Mieville, author of the New 52 edition, took a different approach. Instead of a weekly adventure approach he wrote a long-running plot that involved alternate universes, reality-eating monstrosities, and, fittingly but surprisingly, the history of telephones. It was often difficult to read but in hindsight that was only because Mieville was writing each issue as a chunk of a whole. When the first six issues were done they told their own satisfying story that made sense, though there were obviously some threads left dangling. With Mieville being a novelist this was to be expected.

And that was just the first six issues. After that Mieville began focusing on what really interested him: the origins of the phonebox. He took the relatively simple idea of a phonebox that gives superpowers to ordinary people (something I suspect original creators Jim Mooney and Dave Wood lifted from Superman) and created an entire mythology around them. It's staggering how much detail Mieville manages to pack in about the history of the dials. He works in an otherworldly war, phone lines as another plane of existence, and multiple new dials, as well as addressing the question of where the dialled superheroes actually come from. It's an incredible achievement not only to have thought of everything he has bit to have written it in a way that seems fluid and natural. It could easily have been a case of continuous and boring infodumping. Mieville writes a story that’s fascinating and enjoyable, something that can be appreciated for its invention, its humour and story.

The artists who worked on the series warrant a mention too. Mateus Santolouco drew the first six issues (numbered zero to five) and did just as much as Mieville to establish the tone of the book with his grubby, dingy backstreets and bright, colourful and charismatic superheroes. Fill in artist David Lapham did a fine job and was replaced permanently by Alberto Ponticelli. He was more in line with the regular DC artist, someone who draws action sequences and dynamic poses, but he also understood the quirky nature of Dial H. In particular he triumphed with Open Window Man and The Centipede, strange characters who could easily have lost a lot of their impact with the wrong artist. Brian Boland provided a cover for each of the series’ issues. They were predictably excellent.

Sadly DC is apparently not a company willing to fund satisfying creativity. Dial H didn't get good enough sales and so was cancelled after seventeen issues. As DC is a company that makes more than enough money from its big titles, merchandise and films I think they could have allowed for a title that lost them money but was a creative success. In the long run it probably would have paid off for them as trade paperback and digital sales could have recouped cash in the long term.

Apparently it wasn’t worth keeping around even for that. They did at least have the good grace to grant Mieville time to wrap things up and allocated him an extra-long final issue. The reduced time resulted in a truncated conclusion (I suspect far longer would have been spent exploring the concept of various other dials had the book continued) but it did at least get to end. So many inventive series don't even get that.

Although it didn't go on for as long as Mieville would probably have liked Dial H is still something worth treasuring. It's a clever, imaginative read that's uncompromising in its pacing but knows where it’s going. It is one of Mieville’s greatest accomplishments.

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