WARNING: SPOILERS! (Review index)
After the cliffhanger ending of the last issue, issue #4 of Dial H takes us directly back to the room where Ex Nihilo and The Squid have summoned Abyss. We’re nearing the end of this story arc, but in the penultimate issue of the Squid/Abyss storyline, we’ll get some excellent villain back story, and an unexpected new alliance will form. There are also moments of both humour and peril for the protagonists. We’re starting to see the dramatic heights the series is capable of reaching. All in all, I love this issue!
The Squid, after being banished by King and Grant in Adventure Comics #490, spent decades falling through the void between universes, until suddenly getting trapped back in our reality by Ex Nihilo’s magic/science. Nihilo has been obsessed with “nullomancy” since she was a teenager, when she had heard about the The Squid & Abyss’s first visit to Earth. Now she has finally brought Abyss back, but finds she can’t really control it like she planned. Abyss seems unbindable and unstoppable — although Manteau manages to scare it off for a while with, strangely, a thrown chair. Before it disappears from the room, it fires beams of nothingness through its old comanion The Squid, leaving gaping holes in his body.
Ex Nihilo subdues Manteau with a beam of some weapon, and carries her (and her dial) away while The Squid pretends to take care of Nelson with a squirt of some poison. He actually leaves him alive, which makes me wonder if he’s already planning to abandon Ex Nihilo at this point, or whether he just doesn’t see Nelson as a threat with a periodically failing dial.
While Abyss begins to wreak havoc in Littleville, and the army tries and fails to stop it, Ex Nihilo attempts to get information out of Manteau about how she (temporarily) vanquished it back in the room. I would kind of like to know as well. There didn’t seem to be anything exceptional about how it happened, as Manteau only threw a chair. Ex Nihilo would also like to know about a mysterious figure glimpsed inside Abyss. We’ll find out who that was in issue #5, but there have already been clues…
The Squid is suffering from his nothingness-wounds, and Ex Nihilo doesn’t seem to care, so instead The Squid goes to find Nelson, whose dial has broken once more. The Squid has not come to kill Nelson, but rather to ask for his help in stopping Ex Nihilo and reining in Abyss. The Squid tells Nelson his back story:
He is from a world (possibly in another dimension) where his species “herds”/”wrangles” creatures that are made of void. The Squid raises one such creature, which becomes Abyss, and uses it as a doorway to visit other worlds. At first they explore, but Abyss begins to hunger for light, and thus devours anything which gives it off. They find themselves on Earth, where Abyss forces The Squid to steal jewellery for it — a crime on this planet, but just a snack for Abyss. Unfortunately for The Squid, the dial-wielders of the time (Chris King and Vicky Grant) defeat him and send him careening through the void for eternity as punishment — until Ex Nihilo simultaneously rescues and imprisons him, decades later.
The combination of the writing and the incredible artwork of The Squid in this section turns the tables completely, and we really start to empathise with him. As he says, he committed no murder or genocide, just simple theft: so was his punishment justified? It works as a critique of the overly simplistic plots and morals of comics in the 80s and earlier (in general, not in every case of course), as well as earning sympathy from the reader.
Nelson and The Squid form an alliance, but there is a problem: Nelson’s dial doesn’t work. He can’t turn into a hero, only into himself. In a hilarious sequence, that’s just what Nelson does. They go to find where Manteau is being held prisoner, and Nelson has invented a fake hero with a terrible costume: Rescue Jack. Sheer surprise (as well as not-entirely-pathetic fighting skills from Nelson) helps him and The Squid get through the thugs guarding Manteau. They find Manteau tied to a chair, sans-costume. In an awesome surprise, she’s revealed to be an elderly lady. Vernon (remember him?) tries to stop their escape, managing to shoot The Squid (NOOOOO! For a moment I thought he was dead!) before Nelson knocks him out with a mallet.
All the time meanwhile, Ex Nihilo has been using Manteau’s dial, fighting as various heroes to try to get Abyss under control. Now they are battling in a museum, where Abyss is eating the glittering geodes from the geology hall. Abyss distracts her by opening a portal within itself leading to the chamber where Manteau was captive, and Ex Nihilo sees The Squid (not deterred by Vernon’s bullet, thankfully) helping Nelson and Manteau get away. Ex Nihilo is enraged, and jumps through the portal after them. And there the issue ends!
* * * * *
This is the second-last issue with Mateus Santolouco’s artwork, and for all my gripes with it early on, I actually really like the artwork this time around. Flipping through the pages again, I keep coming across panels I loved: the alien landscapes of The Squid’s homeworld; The Squid’s many facial expressions; the scared look in Nelson’s eyes as The Squid tells him to “dial a hero”; the first glimpses of Manteau sans-mask; and the creepy, cosmic design for Abyss. The fist-and-mallet fight starring Rescue Jack is a fun little action sequence too, which gives Santolouco a chance to draw some more kinetic poses and physical reactions — a change from the “shoot beams of superpower at each other” kind of fight from the end of last issue. Finally there are little touches of the inking and colouring that I feel deserve some appreciation, such as the reflectiveness of Manteau’s mask and The Squid’s scales, and the washed out look of the flashbacks.
I want to also credit Miéville’s dialogue writing this time around. He does character exposition particularly well, as we see in The Squid’s story. In that monologue there are the literary references (in the quoting of Nietzsche), the trademark Miévillian terms like “null-herder” and “void wrangler”, and the tantalising references to a vast, fantastic universe that Miéville likes to feed us. The Squid’s style of speech is a cool addition: as an alien, of course we wouldn’t expect him to talk like a human, but Miéville has him switching between almost stereotypical methods of speech — from thug-like banter to eloquence and back again. It turns out this is because The Squid was obsessed with human pop-culture and learnt our languages from watching characters in TV shows and movies. This is only brought to our attention once (I forget if it was in a previous issue or the next one that Ex Nihilo mentions it), and it’s a shame that The Squid’s presence in this series is so limited, because I would have liked to see his pop-culture-shaped personality featured more. Abyss’s fractured dialogue is also pretty good, sounding like a convincingly alien intelligence. He’s a little like The Weaver in Perdido Street Station to my mind.
One other thing: despite Ex Nihilo getting a mini-villain-monologue in this issue, we still don’t really have any idea what she hopes to achieve by controlling Abyss, other than the generic “I want power” type stuff. In the shadow of The Squid, Ex Nihilo really is a bit of an underwhelming villain. Oh well, that’s my one quibble with the story at the moment.
This was a great episode, and we’ve now got one more issue left in the Ex Nihilo/Squid/Abyss arc. However, next time I’ll be reviewing the special prequel issue (#0), which came out between #4 and #5. It’s a weird one, but adds a bit to the Dial H mythos, so it’s not bad. Until then!
Ex Nihilo’s dialled forms
- Tap-Out – A heroine in a skimpy blue costume, with a faucet (tap) on her head and two more in place of forearms. We don’t really get to see her in action much, but she has water-shooting powers.
- (unknown) – A Swiss-army-knife-themed hero, purple-ish in colour, with arms and legs made out of Swiss army knives, and more blades on its back. Looks very dangerous. I’m not sure if it was a trademark issue, but the colour scheme and the logo don’t match actual Swiss army knives. Still looks awesome though.
Nelson’s fake hero form
- Rescue Jack – Nelson in a cheap costume with a mask, gloves and tool belt. He also has a cape and a leather harness thing on his chest with a big “R” in the middle. His power is, uh, hitting people with a big mallet. He kind of reminds me of Nite Owl II from Watchmen — it’s the goggles mainly, but also just the image of an out-of-shape guy in a homemade costume beating up thugs.