I don’t even…what did I just…wait. I’ll start again.
I hate it when, asked by an acquaintance, I describe one of my interests as “comics”. It’s like saying “I like movies” or “I read books”. It’s just such an inadequate word to describe one of the most important parts of my life (after my family and the next Game of Thrones book of course) that I am often filled with a great frustration. For some reason, while other mediums have been able to subdivide out into horror, thriller, comedy, etc, comic fandom has failed to develop the same kind of vocabulary and often have to settle with sweeping generalisations that place Dennis The Menace in the same category as Spider Jerusalem. The result of this is that I have to use the same inadequate word to categorise Mr China Miéville’s new graphic novel, Dial H, as I would any of the other hum drum, comparatively pedestrian titles that have the gall to share bookshop shelf space with it.
You see, Dial H is the type of comic that I didn’t think people were making any more; head back a decade or two and you couldn’t take two steps into any self-respecting comic book shop without falling over a stack of Sandmans or Prometheas, books that catapulted you out of your pow-biff comfort zones and forced you to sit up straight and pay attention. I’m talking about Grant Morrison’s Animal Man run or Peter Milligans Enigma, books that you had to read again immediately because you couldn’t begin to describe what it was you just read on a single trip. And what a trip that was, weird, wyrd and wired, a new filter through which to view a very different world. But then it was gone.
Fast forward to 2011 and a couple of stars align. Firstly, DC Comics gets drunk and decides that their New 52 reboot should include the Silver Age property “Dial H For Hero”. Secondly , award-winning book filler and sometime Socialist Alliance Candidate for Regent’s Park and Kensington North, China Miéville, looks up from his latest addition to the “New Weird” genre and thinks “Cor blimey, that comic writing seems like a bit of a Tufnell Park! Maybe I’ll give it a go…”. Possibly.
The comic that sprung from these dubious loins is understandably a strange beast. On the one hand you have the central premise which remains fundamentally unchanged from its 1960s roots: an unsuspecting passer-by discovers that if he or she spells out the word H-E-R-O on an old rotary dial, they are turned into a different superhero every week. On the other, you have a writer with a seemingly limitless imagination for the alien and the bizarre and, as anyone who has read one of his books can tell you, a talent for unsettling imagery. Where the classic stories told tales about young Robby Reed taking on such forms as Giantboy and the Yankee Doodle Kid, Miéville’s tale centres on hard-living, chain smoker Nelson Jent, twenty-something heart-attack survivor and sudden alter-ego of, among others, Captain Lachrymose, Shamanticore and The Rancid Ninja.
The actual plot of the book is fairly standard when you boil it down – bad guy, good guy, world-destroying threat – but, as good as it is, the story really plays second fiddle to the cavalcade of strange, surreal and sometimes flat out racist (see issue six for an excellent stand-alone story about when Nelson turns into the Native American-themed Chief Mighty Arrow) superheroes, the delivery of which is carried off perfectly by artist Mateus Santolouco who manages to nail the mundanity of Littleville, Colorado and its inhabitants perfectly so when the weirdness does hit it seems to come out of nowhere, knocking your socks right off.
What Miéville has done here is take an old ridiculous superhero concept and, like the best sci-fi and fantasy, taken it completely seriously. Unlike the other New 52 comics it shares a stable with, Dial H accepts everything that has come before, nothing is ignored or changed and long-time fans of the previous titles will get a kick out of seeing references to the old series peppered throughout. He even lays the groundwork for an explanation to the mysterious dial’s powers that encompasses the invention of the telephone and ancient Babylon to captivating effect. If you’ve forgotten what having your mind-bended feels like or if you’re just in the mood for something different, I can highly recommend Dial H (if only for the fairground-themed hero, Bumper Carla!).