Dial H review — #1: What’s the 411?

dialh01WARNING: SPOILERS! (Review index)

Welcome to my first Dial H issue review! Dial H is the first mainstream comic project by China Miéville, and despite getting cancelled and subsequently rushing to a bit of an unsatisfying ending, it’s still a clever little miniseries which unfolds from a superhero dark comedy into a dimension-hopping science fiction story.

I’m going to write a post on each of the 15 main issues, plus issue #0 and the special “coda” issue which was released as part of the Justice League series. I’m starting with #1, and proceeding in their order of publication, so issue #0 will come between #4 and #5.

So anyway, issue #1, “What’s the 411?”, introduces our new hero Nelson Jent, a man who’s gotten to a rather self-destructive point in life. He’s without a job, his girlfriend has left, he’s overweight, a heavy smoker, and has already had one heart attack. Nelson lives in Littleville, which as I ascertain from googling, is the setting of the earlier Dial H for Hero comics as well.

Nelson’s friend Darren Hirsch is attacked (Darren is actually involved in some shady business) and Nelson, trying to call for help from an alleyway phonebooth, ends up dialling himself into a superhero. The reason why this phone in this alley just happens to have a superpower-generating dial is explained in a later issue. What isn’t explained is how Nelson knew to dial 4376 on it. Anyway, that number turns Nelson into his first of many alter egos, Boy Chimney.

I’m going to do a running list of every hero in this series, much like I did with the ships in my The Scar chapter-by-chapter post series. The heroes will be at the end of each review, along with my thoughts on each one.

So Nelson becomes Boy Chimney, subdues the thugs, and saves Darren. The thugs turn out to be working for criminal Vernon Boyne, who is himself working for a mysterious person known as XN. XN wonders if the hero who saved Darren is someone by the name of Manteau. We’ll meet this Manteau later, but we get our first look at her on Vernon’s computer screen.

Meanwhile, Nelson works out how to use the dial again, and becomes Captain Lachrymose to scare Vernon’s thugs away from finishing off Darren. Nelson/Lachrymose is attacked by a horrific thing wearing the skin of an old woman, and has to make his escape. Finally, we see Vernon talking again to XN, while another not-quite-human figure sits and listens in on the phonecall.

* * * * *

It’s an interesting start to the series, although I admit I was pretty confused when I first read the issue. I think the start of the story suffers from too many villains: we have Vernon, XN, the horrific old woman creature, and the mysterious non-human at the end. Who’s who doesn’t really get clarified for a few issues.

What worked well in this initial story are the heroes dialled up by Nelson. We get two very different hero concepts, both invented by Miéville: first a rather dark idea in Boy Chimney (who you could think of as a cousin of Un Lun Dun’s Smog), then a very funny one in Captain Lachrymose. As soon as I’d read this I knew I would be anticipating every new issue mainly for the new hero ideas. This issue alone, with its first two randomly-dialled heroes, illustrated why Miéville was the perfect person to reboot Dial H. In creating new heroes every issue he’s able to tap into his fondness for weird characters, puns, monsters, anthropormorphised forces, and literary references.

Now, the artwork. I got used to Mateus Santolouco’s art as I kept reading Dial H, but for the first few issues I wasn’t too fond of the sketchy lineart, or the character design. The main thing I didn’t like was how Santolouco drew Nelson: he seems to alternate between pathetic and insane (see the wide-eyed, manic Nelson on page three), neither of which are very empathy-inducing. I know Nelson improves as a character throughout the series, but the first issue should have you rooting for the hero from the start, right?

I still much prefer the Nelson in the cover art, drawn by Brian Bolland. He seems like a much more likeable “everyman” than Santolouco’s Nelson.

Santolouco does the dialled heroes very well though, especially Boy Chimney, who oozes (or spouts) creepiness in his design, poses, and everything. The jagged layout of the page where Chimney takes care of the thugs really adds to the sudden left-turn the comic takes into dark, sinister territory. This dark tone is also perfectly illustrated in the woman-thing near the end of the comic, who is disgusting and misshapen and horrifying.

Random thoughts before I sum the review up:

  • Green Lantern is mentioned in passing, meaning that Littleville is set within the broader DC universe. Other famous DC heroes will pop up later.
  • One of Vernon’s thugs being gay and having a lover die in Iraq is really sad.
  • Nelson trying “IFSO” amongst the many words just doesn’t seem like a logical way for him to remember how to use the dial. And how did he know to dial “HERO” the first time around? I mean, who does that when trying to call for help?
  • I don’t read individual comic books very often, just paperbacks or graphic novels. When I first started buying Dial H I was amazed how much advertising they cram into each book. It’s pretty ugly, and always interrupts the flow of the story.

Personally, I think this issue works a lot better now that I can go on and read the rest of the story immediately. That’s the beauty of trade paperbacks, I guess. Back when issue #1 first came out, I had been dying for a Miéville fix and the meagre 28 pages of material didn’t feel very substantial, especially as I would have to wait another month for just 28 more pages. But with the cool dialled hero ideas, and the promise of recurring weirdness every month, I was immediately in for the long haul.

Dialled heroes

  • Boy Chimney – A very tall, dark, inhuman-looking thing with yellow eyes, Victorian dress, and a chimney-shaped top hat that spews smoke. He speaks in a rather eloquent, old-fashioned way. His powers revolve around smoke, pollution and poison. He can also create bear/wolf-like smoke creatures, which attack and suffocate their targets, and ride a cloud of smoke through the air. He seems to be able to “read” the smoke of the city, giving him the ability to see any location where someone is smoking, fires are burning, etc. The urban and grungy themes are very Miéville, making this a great first hero design for the series.
  • Captain Lachrymose – A caped superhero with emo hair, who weirdly seems to have a thinner version of Nelson’s face. He sheds black tears constantly, and his emblem is a crying eye. His power is knowing people’s saddest memories and making them relive them, which generally incapacitates them. His victims’ tears and misery make him stronger. I found this concept to be hilarious, and wished he got more pages to do his thing.
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