Dial H review — #0: Sundial H For Hero

dialh00WARNING: SPOILERS! (Review index)

Well, this is a bit weird. In September 2012, DC Comics decided to do prequels for all of its New 52 comics; they called this “0 Month”. And so, we got a Dial H prequel with entirely different characters. To be honest, the issue came at a bit of an unwelcome time, right after the penultimate issue of Dial H‘s first story arc, and so readers had to wait an extra month to see the conclusion of the main story.

The trade paperback collection (Dial H Vol. 1: Into You) rectified this by putting issue #0 at the end of the book, after issue #6 (itself a sort-of standalone story, albeit still featuring Nelson and Manteaul). I guess it would make sense to review the issues in the order they were later collected, but I’ve already committed myself to reviewing them in original publication order, and #0 happens to be the only issue I have at hand right now. So, here we go!

First, ignore the dial thing on the front cover: it doesn’t feature anywhere in the actual issue. The power-bestowing object of this story is a massive stone sundial that must be moved (with great effort) so that the sundial’s noon shadow, over four consecutive days, points to four particular symbols… It’s HERO, the sundial is spelling HERO, okay? Just go with it.

The protagonist of this story, an ancient Babylonian* woman named Laodice, is desperately trying to complete this “dialling” sequence so that she can protect her city from a beast, the dragon-like Mushussu, which has already destroyed other cities. At first I tried to cross-reference the place names mentioned in the issue to pinpoint when this story is set. But trying to place this story in historical context, I decided, was a bit pointless, because at no point in history did a beast called Mushussu show up and destroy any cities. As far as we know.

*I’m assuming she’s Babylonian. I’m mainly going off the fact that she’s familiar with the Ishtar Gate, and that the soldiers’ uniforms look vaguely Babylonian. But I’m probably trying to hard to figure this all out.

From the narration and accompanying panels on the very first page, I thought the threat bearing down on Laodice’s people was the pictured army. A few pages later though, I realised that the actual threat was the beast, and the army shown in that panel is actually the Babylonian army preparing to defend against Mushussu (they don’t succeed). I blame the ambiguous captions. It took a few reads to figure out what was actually happening in the start of this issue, and consequently I don’t think this is the best-written Dial H script Miéville has done. Perhaps he had to quickly churn one out for DC’s “0 Month”, with little time to polish it.

Babylon’s soldiers are all wiped out rather painfully, but Laodice manages to finish “dialling” before the beast reaches her. She turns into… Bumper Carla?! Up until this point I thought we were reading a relatively simple mythological prequel that showed how hero dials existed in one form or another throughout time. But this is something else! The dramatic, desperate fight for survival for this ancient city suddenly becomes a hilarious, cartoony fight. That’s the essence of Dial H I suppose: the heroes truly are random, and tone can go out the window all in the name of hilarious puns. We’ll see that happen again and again in future issues.

The beast is quickly disposed of, and all seems well… but the story soon takes another turn. We jump forward quite a few years — Laodice is now revered as a hero and an advisor for her city. However, she hasn’t been able to use the sundial since, as it was smashed to pieces during the fight. Laodice also has something new to worry about, as a stranger has come to the city looking for her. He turns out to be a hero from another dimension: a carnival world, by the look of it. He calls her a dialler, and warns of impending danger, but Laodice mistrusts him as an assassin.

She should have listened, because suddenly the real Bumper Carla shows up, having traversed from the carnival dimension to hunt down Laodice. According to Carla, Laodice has committed a huge crime: she had dialled Carla’s powers right when they were needed in her own world, thus temporarily robbing Carla of her powers, dooming many people to death. In retaliation, Carla murders Laodice. Wow.

* * * * *

After the wackiness of the fight with Mushussu, this is another abrupt tonal shift that leaves the reader reeling. It shocks us that a goofy character with a punny name like Bumper Carla could show up with a festering, murderous rage; and that Laodice getting to be a superhero for a day could lead to many deaths, including her own. I really like this dark turn to the story, which is a bit of a game-changer for Dial H. It makes us wonder about all the heroes that Nelson and Manteau have been dialling, and what the consequences have been in other times and other places. This is actually explored within the main Dial H storyline in a later issue, so issue #0 works as a good bit of background to introduce that idea.

Overall though, this issue is mostly silly and I really would rather have learnt about the power-stealing properties of the dials through the main storyline. I get the feeling that Miéville hadn’t planned to do a prequel story like this until he was made to as part of “0 Month”. The Babylonian setting seems rather inconsequential, as if you could replace it with any other historical setting and get the same story. Perhaps if real-world history had been incorporated a bit more into Laodice’s story (for example, if the threat had been one of an invading army rather than just a beast), and if there were more hints about dials being scattered throughout human history, the historical setting would be a bit more justified. We never find out where the sundial came from, either; only that Laodice’s people remember it being around forever, even though those memories might be fake.

There are things to like in this story though. It’s China Miéville after all, and he always delivers. I really like the idea of an all-carnival world, with rollercoaster roads and so on — especially the notion that such a place could still be affected by death and destruction, and would need its own heroes. I also like the play on words that gives us a hero-summoning sundial rather than a telephone dial.

The art isn’t, for the first time in this series, by Mateus Santolouco. Instead, Riccardo Burchielli illustrated this issue, and it looks just alright. The panel layouts are a bit boring, and I’m no expert on the comic art style, but it seems like there’s too much ink in the lineart of this issue — too many blocks of black. It seems messy. And the panels in which Mushussu roasts the army alive could have looked more realistic, thus more horrifying. Instead those scenes just have a yellow and black hatched look, like an unfinished sketch. I’ll be glad to return to Santolouco’s art for the final time in issue #5. I’ve grown quite fond of it.

I didn’t mind delving into a side story in issue #0, but I’m excited now to get back to Nelson, The Squid, et al. Luckily, there’s no extra month to wait anymore! So in a few days I’ll be back with a review of issue #5. There’s a showdown waiting to happen…

Dialled heroes

  • Bumper Carla – Spirit of the Fair. She rides a flying red bumper car that rams hard into enemies, and she can shoot electricity too. I really like the costume. It has a cheesy 50s look about it, that makes it all the more horrific when we see this cheerful, wholesome heroine turned into a revenge-seeking murderer.
  • Dead Hood, Arrowmaid, The Needler, Power Squirrel, Nuclear Punch – Some of the heroes that Laodice cycles through before she becomes Bumper Carla. This is strange actually, as we never see multiple heroes whooshing past when Nelson dials. Only some of this list are illustrated. Power Squirrel in particular looks very cool, with its spiky armour. Nuclear Punch has giant Rutherford-Bohr-style atoms for its head and hands.
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