DIAL H #13

By: China Miéville (story), Alberto Ponticelli (pencils), Dan Green (inks), Richard & Tanya Horie (colors)

The Story: Parents really need to stop taking their kids on shortcuts through dark alleys.

The Review: Well, you can’t say DC didn’t give this series a fair shake.  While I do find it interesting that Dial H is getting canned even though it seems to perform just as well or better than, say, Batwing,* I can’t deny that for a distinctly oddball little title, it’s lasted quite a lot longer from a mainstream publisher than anyone would expect.  It’s just a shame that Dial H must end just as it’s finally reached its full potential.

Obviously, though, the title had to navigate several humps before it got to this point, and it probably couldn’t afford that kind of growing pains.  You had Nelson, a brand-new protagonist who didn’t exactly fall into the usual standard of superhero. Dial H also seemed determined to chug along on the power of its own concept, without much help from bigger-selling guests.  And then there was Miéville’s idiosyncratic writing style, which was (at least at first) too unusual and indirect for a mainstream audience to appreciate right away.

Yet Miéville has for a while now solved most of these problems, to the point where he no longer has to spend so much time selling his premise and characters.  Instead, he can just play, having the most fun dissecting the genre conventions within superheroes.  Why else would he write an issue where you encounter not one, but two tragic orphans of an alleyway shooting?

It’s not just the inherent humor of a Batman analogue who takes for his heroic inspiration such a weird, out-of-context totem.  There, Miéville’s merely pointing out and exaggerating the silliness of the Batman origin story itself.  It’s more important to recognize that in spite of these strange details, Open-Window Man takes himself seriously enough to seem credible as a hero.  In that respect, Dial H at once exposes the parallel tropes and appeal of the superhero genre.  No matter how odd their power sets or backgrounds, all of the heroes in this series, even the ones who are no more than graffiti on a stone wall, share the same noble qualities: courage against desperate odds, an eagerness to help, bold inventiveness, and a sense of adventure.

At the same time, Miéville challenges the assumption that superhero stories all have to follow the same formulas and arrive at long-proven answers.  Open-Window Man’s attempts to mentor a little graffiti boy and shape his story into the same mold as all the orphans-turned-vigilantes ultimately fails, even though his mentee does take inspiration from him.  The little boy observes, “You always think things are going to be bad, that people are going to do bad things.  Sometimes they don’t.”  What he’s really saying is that even in an well-established genre, there’s no real restriction against originality.

You don’t have to take a doodle’s word for it; Miéville proves it constantly on this series and he does it with multiple characters in this issue alone.  All the members of the Dial Bunch have fun, compelling backgrounds that are each worth a few issues of exploration alone (my favorite is Unbled, a minor demon whose half-broken dial still summons enough heroism to make him forget to be wicked), and despite the uniformity of their power source, Miéville still manages to give each of them specializations in their field.  With Nelson and Roxie, he’s redefined what a superhero can be, and with the Dial Bunch, he’s redefined the superhero team.

Ponticelli may not be the most aesthetically pleasing sort of artist in the business, but I do wonder how many other people can translate Miéville’s bizarre concepts as well or as enthusiastically as Ponticelli does.  If someone handed me an order to draw a reality where the denizens exist merely as childlike doodles on stone walls, I’d probably quit.  Ponticelli not only captures the idea’s sweetness, he manages to make it work, i.e. make you believe this world can exist and function.  Just as tall an order is having to color in all those world-walls, but the Hories rise up to the challenge just as admirably.

Conclusion: I’m not sure I can really hope for a sudden, last-minute, Manhunter or Blue Beetle save of the series, but it deserves one just as much as those titles did.

Grade: A-

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * As recently as March 2013, Dial H had higher sales figures than Batwing, and actually increased sales in April 2013.  And despite Batwing’s creative change to the prominent writing team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, its numbers are still not profoundly different from Dial H’s.

– Yaaba, another human dialer, instructs Nelson on the ways of the Dial: “Don’t hope for something in particular and don’t bemoan what you get.  One dial warrior won a battle as an immobile ragdoll.”  That’s a real interesting story, I bet.