Dial H #1
“What’s the 411?”
Writer: China Mieville
Artist: Mateus Santolouco
Colors: Tanya & Richard Horie
Letters: Steve Wands
Cover artists: Brian Bolland (regular)/David Finch & Richard Friend (variant)
Editor: Karen Berger
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $2.99 US
You couldn’t find a better target audience than me for this new title. I’ve loved the “Dial H for H-E-R-O” concept since I discovered it in Adventure Comics in the 1980s in a stint by Marv Wolfman, Carmine Infantino and Don Heck. I never submitted a hero for inclusion in the book, but I devoured every issue and marvelled at how DC accepted ideas from its readership. Skip forward a decade or two, and I was gobbling up just about every title being offered by DC’s Vertigo imprint, headed by Karen Berger, the mature-readers’ brand’s editor, who also happens to be editing this new spin on the H-Dial (heh, “spin”). I suppose if I was familiar with China Mieville’s prose works, I’d represent the perfect demographic trifecta. Admittedly, I was receptive to this book going in, but one could argue I had high expectations as well. Well, if I did, Mieville and artist Mateus Santolouco lived up to them. Despite my love for the title concept, I really didn’t know what was in store for me, and what I found was unreal, unconventional and unique. The creators have crafted something dark but goofy, surreal but grounded.
Nelson’s life has turned to crap. He’s lost his job, his girl, and thanks to too much time on his hands and too much depression, his health as well. Still in his 20s, Nelson’s had a mild heart attack, and his best friend Darren pleads with him to take care of himself and to turn his life around again. Appreciative of his friend’s efforts to help and annoyed with himself for being a jerk, a quest to apologize leads Nelson to witness a violent attack in a Littleville alley. Scrambling to call for help, he grasps at an old payphone in a booth, but some accidental turns of the dial result in an impossible transformation — and the power to make a difference.
Mateus Santolouco’s dark, gritty and exaggerated style is a great fit for the tone of the story. His work reminds me of the work of such comics artists as Phil (The Monolith) Winslade and Justiniano (Countdown to Mystery). His portrayal of Nelson is a little over the top. He’s comically overweight, but then again, I appreciate the fact the lead of this series isn’t some over-muscled super-stud. What really catches the eye in this book is the artist’s sense of design for the weird super-heroes Nelson becomes. His heroes more often than not look like villains or like super-heroes filtered through a satirical lens. Another important visual he gets right is the aged, rotary-dial phone from which the book derives its title.
Speaking of which, the old-school payphone shtick works surprisingly well. On the surface, it seems ridiculous the H-Dial could sit untouched and safe in a phone booth in a filthy alley, but if one thinks about it, it works. It’s hiding in plain sight. There’s some logic to such a powerful artifact going untouched despite its stationary, public locale. In the 21st century, who really uses a payphone. And who would dial four specific numbers in a certain order?
The one visual aspect to this comic that didn’t quite fit was the cover logo. It’s a much more traditional, super-hero masthead, and this story calls for something more offbeat and darker. And while Brian Bolland’s regular cover is in keeping with the creepier leanings of the book, David Finch’s design for the variant cover seems, like the logo, more entrenched in conventional genre dynamics rather than the decidedly different tack within.
The main character is initially a rather unlikeable (but unfortunately relatable) figure, but I got over that aspect of the story quickly once the H-Dial forms started popping up. The oddities that serve as the super-hero concepts are so weird and wonderful that it’s incredibly easy to overlook Nelson’s pitiful nature. Boy Chimney’s dialogue is dense but oddly enticing, and almost lyrical at times. Furthermore, letterer Steve Wands manages to add to the chilling pitter-patter of his dialogue with some italicized, lower-case fonts. The script is almost as mesmerizing when Captain Lachrymose breaks into his soliloquies about people’s despair, regrets and lamentations.
I’m unfamiliar with China Mieville’s past projects, but I love the twisted, oddball ideas and the black humor he brings to this inaugural effort in the medium of comics. Despite the ghoulish tone and developments in the story, there’s always a playful underpinning running throughout the issue. He balances the ugliness of Nelson’s wallowing and Darren’s underworld existence with a sense of fun, albeit a morbid one. Mieville’s work definitely has a Vertigo sensibility to it, but this story is also clearly entrenched in DC’s super-hero continuity. It lurks within the dark periphery of the brighter colors and energetic displays of conventional genre storytelling. 7/10
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