Ask me what my favorite book was in 2003. Marc? Yes, Marc. What was your favorite book in 2003? Well that’s simple…Will Pfeifer’s “H.E.R.O.” (a modern riff on the “Dial H for HERO” series of the silver age). Why? It quickly became of my favorite books because it took the traditional cape and cowl adventures, but found a unique and dark human voice to it all. Wow, that’s pretty high praise, Marc. Even today, the issues hold up as amazing stories that only got better with each successive arc. In January 2005, when the book was canned, I was sad—not surprised mind you—but sad none-the-less. Color me surprised when I saw the solicit for “Dial H” here in 2012. A revamping of the H.E.R.O. device with a decidedly ‘Vertigo’ palate. And thus, here for you, my gentle readers, comes a review from the first of the ‘second wave’ of DC’s new universe. Dial me impressed, but skittish.
China Mieville, provocative “Weird Fiction” writer takes on his first comic book assignment since a single issue of Hellblazer in 2008. I could be wrong about that, but I’ll trust wikipedia on that factoid. Focusing on Nelson, a fat slob as our protagonist, we’re introduced into the odd corner of a fictitious city with seedy underbellies abound. Issue 1 takes little time to get into the action. Nelson’s best buddy is hospitalized after missing a meeting with his criminal buddies, and paying the price for his truancy. Whilst he is beaten bloody, Nelson comes to his rescue by way of a mysterious payphone booth. Through wildly random happenstance, Nelson dials the correct code on the phone, and seconds later becomes one of the odd ‘heroes’ of the book—Chimney Boy. Villains are dispatched, the day is saved, but Nelson’s pal is none-the-less bruised goods. Adventure ensues. Issue 2 picks up the pieces from the first soiree, and peppers in some nefarious super-criminals, mysterious ladies in cloaks, and Nelson’s abuse of his new found super-toy.
My most positive note? Mieville knows his way around odd characterization. As atypical as any Vertigo-twinged title by like-minded oddballs like Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison, Mieville’s home base seems to be a near schizophrenic cacophony of voices combatting on the page. His use of caption/thought boxes tying directly to the spoken word creates a unified script that makes for easy (if not entirely coherent) reading. That being said, Mieville suffers a bit throughout trying to define and differentiate the action spilling out on the page. He bounces between ‘street tough’ and ‘Shakespearian drawl’ so often with Nelson and his smokey alter-ego in issue 1, that I was truly convinced that he wasn’t in control of his own body. By issue 2 though, China has made it clear that was never the case. It was jarring, and frankly disappointing. What we end up with is a very similar book to Pfeifer’s, with decidedly creepier ‘Heroes’.
Too often with writers like this, there is an inclination to be weird for weirdness’ sake. In the case of Dial H, it comes in the form of confusing banter, and a lack of an almost-necessary omniscience to the narration we need, but never get. In simpler terms? The dialogue and caption boxes don’t tell enough of the story to make me happy. I had to read, and reread to ensure I was getting a clear picture. Don’t get me wrong, the actual dialogue is riveting enough… but it’s presented sloppily in points—enough to warrant my tepid enthusiasm towards future issues. Aside from that though, I really have a problem with Nelson’s initial transformation. After being nearly bludgeoned to death by alley-goons, his attempt to dial for help in the nearby ‘phone-booth of destiny’ makes complete sense. When the phone doesn’t seemingly dial out though… Mieville simply has him try other numbers. It’s a leap I have a hard time accepting. Then again, one must accept it to move forward with the rest of the book. My point is moot. Mieville 1. Pissy reviewer 0.
Mateus Santolouco’s art is certainly something to behold. Equal parts sketchy, rounded, and deep… he is obviously pouring on the detail to make a solid first impression. Special kudos goes out to Brian Bolland though… His covers always make me swoon. Sure, these are derivative of Bolland’s previous Doom Patrol book covers, but I’ll be damned anyways—I love them all the same. But I digress. Santolouco’s Nelson is quintessential grotesque incarnate. You look at the folds of fat, the pointy features jutting out from layers of beer, sweet, and cheese… and you can’t help but hate the man. Contrasting this with truly hilarious alter-egos (like Shamanticore, Pelican Army, and Double Bluff), the art is never without some wondrous oddity to behold. At times, Mateus pulls a Yanick Paquette with his off-kiler page layouts. Unlike Paquette though, these flights of fancy are nearly incomprehensible on initial read. I’m all for ‘dense’ art, but even I have limits. That being said, the book by and large is pretty damned beautiful. Details, body language, and backgrounds are all gloriously depicted. Even when I didn’t know what was going on, at very least… things were pretty to look at.
Ultimately, China Mieville’s Dial H is a solid entry into the “DCU Dark” line of comics. The artwork is solid, the characters are compelling enough, and the main plot is mysterious enough to warrant continued callings. Mieville may be shaking off some ‘ring rust’ with his dialogue and narrations (and lack of a hook any different than Pfeifer’s…), but there’s enough meat on the dark bones to keep the book interesting as it finds its footing. Consider this one book that’s earning its three-way calling feature one issue at a time. Pick it up for sure, but be ready for a little roaming charge every now and then. OK, I’ll stop the phone puns now. Let me just use my iPhone—and dial— H…E…R… Oh my god! I’ve become REVIEWMAN! With the power to piss off readers with scathing retorts! Now, to go use these powers on Rob Liefeld.