Thursday, May 03, 2012

Dial H

Yesterday I read Dial H #1, and I loved it; I encourage you to read it, too.

Author Chia Mieville (although he is an accomplished sci fi/fantasy writer and a ridiculous hunky man-babe) has said in the press that he's been very nervous about Dial H.

Small wonder.  Even with Mievelle's resume (and biceps), the prospect of revamping DC's "Dial H" property is a daunting one.  As many of you will already know, Dial H was a kid-friendly concept introduced in DC's Silver Age (specifically in House of Mystery #156, 1966).  As the accompanying cover suggests, it wasn't exactly grim and gritty.  

The "H Dial" was a rotary dial (much like a telephone dial) of unknown origins, found in a cave by a boy, Robby Reed of Littleville, Colorado.  Every time Robby dialed "H-E-R-O" on the H dial, he would become a different superhero temporarily. After transforming, he would conveniently know exactly what his name and powers were.  

One of the hooks of the stories was that readers could write in and suggest one-shot superheroes for the H dial.  This sort of interactivity was pioneered in the Silver Age; other examples included Legion elections and the dress designs of Katy Keene.  It was all done by postal mail (which, for you younger readers, was kind of like the internet only slower...and on paper).

Anyway, the kid was a dork ("Sockamagee!"), the heroes were goofy (King Kandy!), and the setting inconsequential (Littleville, Colorado!).  It ran for only two years (though the concept has been revisited a few times by DC).

Silly or not, it was strong enough to knock the Martian Manhunter off the cover of House of Mystery (already a place of exile for him since his expulsion from Detective).  Poor J'onn, who never met a superpower he didn't want--he must have been greener with envy as the kid's ability to acquire new powers every day.

Stupid or not, the H Dial was all about the CONCEPT, which was as pure a childhood wish-fulfillment as you can get: "Here, kid; is a magic object; use it to become an experienced superhero whenever you want."  The "experienced" part --the fact that Robby knew his codename and powers and how to use them with each transformation-- is not a minor one.  Like Captain Marvel, the H Dial identities came not just with power but with the knowledge and wisdom to use that power; every kid's fantasy of what being an adult is like. 

Mieville's done an amazing job of recontextualizing the concept and WITHOUT really altering it at all.
The setting is, again, Littleville, but the town represents things that have "seen better days".  Like the protagonist (Nelson Jent); like the H Dial itself (a relic of a different era). 

I was ... relieved? Amazed?  Impressed?... when I saw the first two "heroes" produced by the H Dial, who are pretty much exactly as ridiculous as the original ones.... BUT TERRIFYING IN THEIR POWER.  In tone, then, this new comic has less in common with the original than it does, say, Peter Milligan's Enigma or even Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol.

I don't want to spoil the comic any more than that, and although I haven't read anyone else review the comic, I have a feeling a lot of people are going to be telling you to read it.  Please do, and let me know what you think.

Meanwhile, one last diversion: my theory about what the H Dial is.

Now, one of the glories of the H Dial is that it is sort of the technological equivalent of the Phantom Stranger. It has no background.  It has no context or explanation.  There is no sensible reason it could, should, or would do what it does in the way that it does. It is arbirtary, capricious, unjustified; and is totally, clearly, and purely an instrument for advancing the story. 

Cool.  I will now try to explain it ANYWAY with no evidence and nothing but RAW DEDUCTIVE POWER.  It'll be just like a pre-Socractic philosopher trying to explain cosmology and physics without ever having to do any, you know. science.

I propose that the H Dial is Fifth Dimensional (you know; like Mr Mxyzptlk) in origin; this is the only 'in-universe' way it could do what it does.  This is consistent with the fact that although "magical" and unpredictable in its fantastical power, it is still rule-based (e.g., you must dial HERO; you do not become the same thing twice; you automatically received a name with your transformation) and time-limited (the change is not permanent).  

I posit that the H Dial is, in fact, a conceptual lint trap / gumball machine.  From an outside perspective (like ours, or the view from the Fifth Dimension), the DCU is a world powered by concepts for (super)heroes.  There are lots of such concepts; not all of them would work well in the long-run or jibe well with the existing DCU.  The DCU naturally "ejects" those concepts away from itself; the direction of that "away" is into the Fifth Dimension.  Rather than have half-baked conceptual garbage from the DCU littering up the Fifth Dimension, the H Dial serves as a lint trap, that collects and stores them all.  

When you activate the H Dial (which like Mxyzpltk operates by "word-magic") by dialing HERO, it basically spits one of those concepts out to you like gumball machine.  You automatically 'consume' the concept by carrying it out and using its powers.  But the concept, having been fully expressed once, has served its purpose and vanishes.  Now that it has existed at least once in the past, it no longer needs to exist again, and the gumball is empty of it, never to appear again.

This is also consistent with the fact that the H Dial identities are invariable, um.... well, odd if not downright goofy.  

Anyway, that's MY theory, 'cuz I've never heard a better one. 


Nacho said...

Loved your gumball theory. :)

Hoosier X said...

I betcha Bat-Mite invented it!

(With Zook providing a few barely coherent ideas!)

Anonymous said...

I'd never thought much about the origins of the Hero dial, and now it looks like I won't ever have to. Thanks!

Wanna really tie it into DC continuity? Just imagine Johnny Thunder traveling through Littleton back before he was particularly aware he had a wish-granting genie. At one point, perhaps he had cause to say: "Say, you should call dial-a-hero and maybe someone will show up to help".

Nathan Hall said...

I've read Meiville's novels. He has a great mind for the absurd and terrific descriptions, but his stories get too grand and are often poorly paced. For example, Perdido Street Station gave a very minor character a three-page exit - and she never even came back into the story.

If Meiville has a tight editor and deadlines that keep him from meandering, he could do some interesting things. I'll have to check this out.

Brushwood Thicket Farmer said...

Somewhere, Grant Morrison is shouting "dammit - the 5D thing was going to be MY idea".

Imitorar said...

I read Dial H #1, and thought that the story was a bit too oblique, in that it didn't seem to clearly spell out who the characters were and what their situation was. It just showed you their lives and you had to derive the background on your own. Which could just be my fault for preferring more straightforward, clear-cut storytelling.

And that aside, Nelson's hero transformations were AWESOME!! And isn't that what really matters when it comes to Dial H for Hero? I'm willing to give the story some time to settle into itself, especially if Mieville's hero's keep being brilliant, and Mieville being Mieville, I expect they will.

I also like your proposed origin for the H Dial A LOT, Scipio. It's very Morrisonian (in a good way), and a tone similar to that of Morrison's Doom Patrol is EXACTLY the one this series needs to strike. It also fits in thematically very well with the core of the H Dial concept: let a regular kid be a wacky hero. In fact, now I'm somewhat worried that Mieville's own explanation will pale in comparison. But only somewhat. I trust Mieville very much as an author, and I'm very excited to see how his run on Dial H pans out. I really hope it ends up being held as a classic akin to the early Vertigo books.

Scipio said...

I would be shocked if Mieville tries to "explain" the H Dial. It's fun for readers like us to do, but I can't imagine it would do anything but limit the writer to have H Dial explained. It's never been necessary before... .

If he does though, he's welcome to use my explanation :-)

Imitorar said...

Well, Mieville's said he's going to try to explain it in several interviews. I thought that was why you were publicizing your theory, actually.

See here: . Near the end, he says "And secondly, let's talk about the backstory, because "Dial H," in some form or another, has been going in the DCU since the 1960s and the origin of the Dial has never been done. And that's absolutely incredible. That's a rare thing in a universe as thoroughly mapped as the DC Universe. One of things I want to do is start approaching questions like that. You don't explore the backstory just in passing in one issue. That's a big deal. For that reason, one of the overarching projects of the comic will be to start examining the mythos of the Dial and start getting into its backstory. I don't want to do it in a way that ruins all the mystery, because the mystery is part of the pleasure, but I certainly want to try and negotiate that."

Bryan L said...

I enjoyed it, too. I particularly liked the way the dial was in an abandoned phone booth, and I wonder how that will factor in to future stories. Is the phone booth a Tardis-like semi-sentient being, that changes shape, moves around to where it's "needed," or develops an affection for certain individuals? That would fit into your theory rather nicely, Scipio. And I quite like your theory -- now I'm worried that Nieville's take on it won't be nearly as elegant.

Tony said...

Things like that should remain without an origin, in my opinion. It just spoils the magic, limits future authors, and sets the property up for a revolving door of retcons.

See also: midichlorians.

Hoosier X said...

Zook and Bat-Mite mixed up a batch of midichlorians, gingold and turmeric, then ran it through the Cosmic Treadmill and came up with the H Dial. Mr. Mxyzplk set it on fire and left it on the doorstep of Dr. Fate's windowless and doorless (and probably doorstepless) tower in Salem and ran off, giggling.

We had such fun in those days. They don't write 'em like that anymore.