Dial H review — #5: Disconnected

dialh05WARNING: SPOILERS! (Review index)

Now, after that prologue interlude, we come to issue #5, the end of the Abyss arc at last. At the end of issue #4, Nelson, The Squid and Manteau found themselves in a face-off with Ex Nihilo, now wielding her own dial (and currently “wearing” a hero made up of Swiss army knives). Her alliance with The Squid has broken down and she’s having a hard time trying to control Abyss, but she’s still as mad and determined as before. Not only do Nelson and Manteau have to worry about her, they also now have to try and stop an apocalypse. And at the end of this issue, another threat to the safety of our heroes will become apparent. Let’s dive into this action-packed conclusion!

Cliffhanger resolution! The Squid distracts Ex Nihilo long enough for Nelson and Manteau get away, but the price is dire: he’s attacked once more with null-ness, which accelerates the eating away of his body. Damn, he can’t get a break. Back at her apartment, Manteau begins repairing their last dial again, while Nelson keeps track of news about Abyss. Manteau also introduces herself properly to Nelson: her real name is Roxie Hodder, and she’s a telephone engineer who became interested in the crossover between occultism and her trade. Somehow (in an attic somewhere? It’s not really elaborated upon) she found a long-abandoned dial, and became Manteau. That’s not the end of her backstory though — we’ll hear some more in the next issue, in fact.

I’d like to know whose attic Roxie found the dial in. I can’t honestly remember if that gets explained. Also, I first thought that maybe Roxie Hodder was a character from an earlier incarnation of Dial H For Hero, but I haven’t found anything online. I’m pretty sure now that she’s a Miéville creation.

Nelson reports that Abyss is wreaking havoc downtown again, and that Ex Nihilo is back trying to control him, with another dialled form: Hairbringer. Interestingly, Roxie has dialled Hairbringer before, showing that some powers can repeat. Ex Nihilo is at the end of her tether with Abyss, while Abyss seems blasé about all of her attempts to reign it in. In fact, Nihilo’s inadvertently making it stronger by feeding it with her powers — specifically, the light her powers give off. Abyss is ravenous for light, and soon it has the moon in its sights as a veritable feast. This cannot be good for Earth. We kinda need the moon.

Suddenly, after having snatched the patched-up dial from Roxie, Nelson is on the scene! Unfortunately, the form he’s dialled is a bit of a joke. Cock-a-Hoop, really? Furthermore, it’s not entirely stable, jolting him back and forth between his own body and the hoop-shaped rooster hero. This leads to some unsettling half-Nelson-half-rooster faces seen during the fight. Nelson tussles with Ex Nihilo for a bit, but air force missiles and the moon’s light itself feed Abyss and make it grow to huge proportions, making both factions realise they have to unite to stop this monster.

Nelson and Ex Nihilo send Abyss’s “children” (smaller sentient void-beings that Abyss has been spawning throughout its rampage) against their parent. It turns out that these lifeforms will eat one other, and as The Squid (who is near death) explains, when nothing eats nothing, it creates something. So Abyss’s offspring begin to eat it alive, turning Abyss into raw matter that falls in chunks throughout the city. Nelson (his dial having failed once more, leaving him human) and Roxie watch while Ex Nihilo, who can handle the smaller void creatures, wrangles the remaining ones, who have nearly vanquished Abyss.

Abyss’s entire body has turned to rock, a gigantic statue frozen above Littleville. Only the head remains made of void… and suddenly out of this emerges a new figure, sporting a dial on its chest. It’s the “shadow on the line” that Nelson glimpsed back in issue #3, and it has used Abyss as a doorway to our world, where it has sensed dial activity. In a blur of constantly-shifting forms, this figure swoops upon Ex Nihilo, deactivating her dial and reverting her to her normal self, leaving her plummeting to the ground from high up, where she had been flying. Then the figure flies back to Abyss’s head, departing again (I think — that panel is ambiguous) right before the last of the void turns to matter.

Everyone is stunned. Ex Nihilo is dead, smashed upon the ground. The Squid has succumbed to his void-wounds and also died. Abyss has been vanquished, now made of unmoving matter. The city is safe, but there is confusion in the aftermath. As the clean up begins Nelson and Roxie walk away, wondering what this mysterious dial-wielder — who punished Ex Nihilo for her dial use by taking her life — will do when it discovers Nelson and Roxie have another dial.

* * * * *

Wow, that was a pretty damn good ending. Abyss has been taken care of in a satisfying way, but Nelson and Roxie get no reprieve: the “shadow on the line” has added a new danger to their lives. Things will get more interesting from here on in, as Miéville has dispatched his initial villains and now has room to explore more of the dial lore in the future.

I’ll list some cool things I liked about this issue, before I talk about some problems I had. So, what I liked:

  • All the rapid-fire forms the shadow takes in that two-page spread. I won’t be trying to list them at the end of this post though — I’ll be sticking to listing the named heroes, as well as the occasional unnamed-but-highly-featured ones.
  • Nelson is becoming more sure of himself thanks to his time as a superhero. He actually wants to be the one to face Abyss, and takes the dial from Roxie to do so. I’m liking this character development.
  • Abyss’s dialogue is great. It sort of just monologues in a weird poetic way, a bit like a less-verbose version of the Weaver from Perdido Street Station. The speech bubble style and lettering are cool too, adding another element of unearthliness to its speech. Some lines I like include:
    • “Too howl and stretching void innards”
    • “Glimmer in vorago gut”
    • “You chew the nil of me”
  • Talking of speech, in The Squid’s (heartbreaking) death scene, he talks once more of his fondness for human languages — he learnt 17 of them. The Squid is probably the deepest and most fascinating character of this series so far, so his death is a tragic loss.
  • I like the little bit of lore he shares about his people’s theory for the origin of the universe: all matter is simply the waste left over from the predation of null upon null.

Now some other thoughts. You know, this issue was the last chance for Ex Nihilo to reveal her motives for summoning and trying to control Abyss, but she dies without really imparting a satisfying reason. I guess this whole time she has just served as plot MacGuffin to bring The Squid and Abyss into the spotlight, and for that she doesn’t need a stronger motive than wanting power. I suppose with three main villains sharing “screen-time” over five short issues, not every one of them can be fully developed. Luckily, Miéville will soon provide us with another amazing villain, in the upcoming story arc (starting issue #7).

This was the last issue of Dial H to feature Mateus Santolouco’s art! I gotta say, it’s been pretty good overall. Some of the character designs/expressions have been superb in fact, notably The Squid and Roxie; and most of the hero designs have been pretty cool. It must be a challenge to put China Miéville’s strange ideas on the page, and Santolouco’s done a great job throughout these first five issues.

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 5.53.38 pmHowever I have one more niggle about the art to talk about, and it’s one particular panel in this issue. In the last panel of the two-page spread where the shadow on the line deactivates Ex Nihilo’s dial, killing her, the SOTL flies back to the closing void in Abyss’s head, and… well, I assume that it disappears through Abyss, and the “crunch” sound effect is the void-hole finally shutting in stone. But this is illustrated so poorly, that (to my eyes, anyway) it comes across as a comical “crunch” of the SOTL, in its inexplicable crystal-rhino form, smashing into Abyss’s stone head. I know that’s not what happens. Dialogue after this implies that the SOTL is gone for now. It just seems like its departure could have been depicted so much clearer. Look at that panel! It’s just a blue blob colliding with Abyss. It’s a bad panel. Rant over.

And so ends the first Dial H arc… but in terms of the lore and deeper mysteries of this world, things are only just beginning. There are eleven issues to go in this awesome series. The next issue is a bit of a lighter standalone story, but after that (from #7 onwards) begins the second and final story arc of the series. It’s exciting to be moving on to the storylines involving The Centipede, Open-Window Man, and everyone else! I hope you’ll join me for those adventures.

Nelson’s dialled forms

  • Cock-a-Hoop – A hulahoop superhero with a rooster’s head and claws. Might just be the silliest hero Miéville’s come up with yet, which makes it hilarious that he saved it for the big showdown! Cock-a-Hoop can bounce around at fast speed, incapacitate or confuse targets by spinning around them rapidly, and crow so loud that whoever is in the way of its crowing is blasted back through the air.

Ex Nihilo’s dialled forms

  • Hairbringer – You have to love the awful puns in this issue. I googled around a bit and noticed that “Harbinger” is a DC hero, but this hero doesn’t seem to be a spoof of her. Hairbringer has a costume of silver, grey and red; a awesome-looking, spiky, red, white and green mask; and oodles of green hair. Disappointingly, her powers don’t seem to be hair-related. Instead, she shoots green bubbles of some kind of energy. This form has been dialled by Manteau as well.

Manteau’s mentioned forms

  • Atavist, Timekiller, Girl Eclipse – Only mentioned in passing by Roxie, as strong forms she’d like to dial to take care of Abyss. Your guess is as good as mine as to what these heroes might be like.

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