By Derek Royal
As part of our mission on The Comics Alternative, we refrain from discussing mainstream superhero comics, especially those published by DC and Marvel. (There’s nothing wrong with superhero comics, but we didn’t want to focus on what about every other blog/podcast covers.) Dial H (written by China Mieville, with art by Mateus Santolouco and Alberto Ponticelli), which was part of the second wave of the New 52, could technically be called a mainstream superhero title. It focuses on superheroes, and it’s enmeshed in the DC Universe. But “enmeshed,” in this case, is perhaps not the most appropriate word, for any links to the larger DC Universe in this title is slight and tangential, at best. The references to the DCU are almost all in passing — the protagonist, Nelson Jent, will briefly reference a superhero in conversation — and the only sustained link to the DCU appears in issue #11, when Nelse dials and temporarily becomes The Flash (this was part of DC’s WTF campaign a few months back). But these are not essential DCU links, in that these references could be removed without altering or undermining the larger Dial H narrative. Actually, Dial H reads much more like a Vertigo title, an offbeat, surrealistic, and more experimental series that parodies classical superhero narrative. Arguably, the strongest part of this title are the many bizarre and downright wacky superheroes that Mieville imagines. In this sense, Dial H strikes me as a kind of comic that Grant Morrison would create, something right up there with his run on Doom Patrol and Seaguy. And in this sense, Dial H is much less a mainstream superhero comic than it is a freewheeling parody of the genre.
With the recent publication of issue #15, we unfortunately have an end to this series. The sales just weren’t there. The monthly numbers have been below 12,000 (or way below that), as reported by John Mayo of The Comic Book Page. This is a shame, in that the series had a lot of promise, and I went into it last year with high hopes. Part of my problem with the issues that composed the first collected trade, Into You, was the fragmented execution of the storyline. The premise was intriguing, but there were times in the story when the information was incomplete, and we as readers were required to fill in or assume more than you would expect from a mainstream publisher. (Curiously enough, you could say the same of several Grant Morrison comics.) In the issues that make up what will be the final collected volume of the series, Exchange, the storyline appears a little more coherent. That is, until we get to issue #12 and the introduction of Open-Window Man and his band of dialers. From that point on, the narrative reads fragmented once again, and there are parts where I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, even after multiple rereadings. At times such as these, I decided to just sit tight and enjoy the ride. And it was an interesting ride, culminating in the series finale with issue #15. Here, Nelse and Roxie Hodder (AKA Manteau), along with the band of other dialers, make their way to the Exchange, where they confront their nemeses, the Centipede and the Fixer, along O, or the Lost Operator, himself. It is a densely packed issue, with almost too much going on for one comic…and this is a longer issue than average. The result, at times, is the same kind of fragmentary storytelling that marked sections of the earlier series. Part of the reason for this, I’m sure, is that Mieville felt he needed to get everything wrapped up fairly quickly. Not only are a few loose ends tied up, but we get quite a bit of backstory in this last issue. We learn the history not only of the Fixer, but also of O, the man behind the dial-induced oddities. In fact, the last few issues of the series have a somewhat rushed feeling, that the creators were trying to get everything out there before the curtain dropped. And, of course, they were. Yet, given the swiftness of the series’ ending, Dial H nonetheless comes across as a fascinating story, one that sustains interest.
According to the final page of issue #15, this isn’t the ultimate end of the Dial H storyline. There’s the teaser question mark that follows “The End” (although no one doubts that this will be the last of the stand-alone title we see for some time), and there’s a notice for the reader to look for Justice League: Dial E #23.3. I’m curious to see how the Justice League figures into the Dial H world, if it figures at all — as I stated earlier, links to the DCU have been tangential, at best — and I’m especially interested in seeing how Mieville will finally wrap up the storyline with Nelse, Roxie, and company. This will be a part of DC’s Villains Month. But why end Dial H in a non-Dial H title? Why not cleanly wrap up everything in issue #15, or perhaps an issue #16 or even an issue #17? Again, DC must have felt the economic need to end the series with the most recent issue. Although this isn’t the first time we’ve seen the Dial H narrative — “Dial H for Hero” actually began in 1966 in issue #156 of House of Mystery — this is the first time it’s had its own title. It would be nice if, after a hiatus, DC decided to bring back the title…but this time, placing it where it where it would fit more comfortably and where it could possibly sustain a longer run: in Vertigo.
Check out the comics discussed in this review: