Maybe it’s the fact that it took me three attempts to make it through Dial H (work lunch break – interrupted; waiting for friends in a cocktail bar – interrupted; with a cocktail hangover while the lovely girlfriend slept hers off – success!) but it felt much longer than any of the other #1s. It could be that, or could be the sheer density of the thing.
The set up is simple, adapted from a ’60s comic – a man, trying to help his friend, stumbles into a telephone box that turns out to be magic, and transforms into a hero. (A quick Wikipedia suggests that’s not exactly the premise of the original comics, but there’s definitely a silver-age purity to it.)
And then a celebrated author – of actual, real books! – comes on board, and makes it just a little bit more textured and interesting. The man is an overweight failed boxer, with a quickly laid-out history of recent failures; the friend he’s trying to help is good and loyal, but involved with mafioso types; and the hero he turns into… Well, that’s quite something.
As I understand it, our hero will turn into a different Hero every time. That’s both wildly exciting and quietly disappointing, as this issue gives us Boy Chimney, the playful spirit of Victorian industry and modern pollution, and Captain Lachrymose, the misery-drinking emo superhero. They’re wonderful, Morrisonian creations and I wish I could see more of them. Which, given comics’ all-too-common dependence on past glories, is absolutely great if I never get to again.
Both characters are realised sharply by Santolouco. His scratchy art style works okay in the more mundane scenes, but it comes alive with the transformations. Boy Chimney moves fluidly, his proportions appropriately impossible and inconsistent, equal parts horror and cartoon. Captain Lachrymose is designed in a way that’s both familiar and alien, all for the benefit of a two page spread and never – presumably – to be seen again.
And that’s what I mean about the density. I’ve never been a believer in ‘story’ as a unit of a comic’s worth, but this issue certainly gets things done. In that spread, the Captain, his powers and personality, is introduced and fully laid out, a message is sent to the bad guys, he meets something he can’t defeat, and gets out.
There’s almost always something else going on – a fight scene is peppered with unpunctuated poetry, conversations set up characters and situation and foreshadow what’s to come. It takes full advantage of being a comic, basically, and puts everything else I’ve read so far to shame. I’ve now read it a fourth time. I suggest you do so too.
I feel I should begin by pointing out once more that I am not a longtime DC reader. Of all the New 52 titles launched last year, I’ve only bothered to keep reading four of them – Aquaman, Animal Man, Swamp Thing and Blue Beetle. Reading Dial H, I have no idea if this is a character or concept ported over from the Old 52 or if it’s a totally new idea altogether.
But judging this book on its own, without speculation as to its future, I can only say this: I liked it… about three pages from the end.
Before that, I quite honestly had no idea what was going on. The art, although breathtaking in its style, attention to detail, and gritty urban beauty, didn’t do much to help me decipher the story. It was only near the end of the book did I realise that making me feel confused and overwhelmed was what it set out to do. (Probably… Hopefully…)
Thankfully, Miéville chose to explain things using the story and not just via a block of text near the beginning of the book. Overweight smoker Nelse witnesses his caring-but-running-with-the-wrong-crowd buddy Darren taking a beating from some thugs. Nelse can do nothing to help Darren except try to dial the police using a nearby telephone box. Rather than the police, however, Nelse gains the aid of ‘Boy Chimney’, a Victorian looking, cudgel wielding, smoke demon who defeats the thugs using the city’s air pollution, and then rushes Darren to the hospital, before disappearing in a puff of …well, smoke… leaving Nelse in his place, and leaving the reader to realise that Nelse was that dapper demon all along.
We’re not done there, though. Nelse now needs to send a message to the thugs so they won’t come after Darren again. We return to the phonebox to call on the aid of Boy Chimney once more. However, Boy Chimney is not the man to send a message. Oh no. This looks like a job for Captain Lachrymose! A hero that you really need to see to believe. Finally the book wraps up with Nelse realising that the phone box is the source of his power and with the introduction of what seems to be a potentially interesting arch nemesis.
I learned from previous New 52 titles that the weirder ones were clearly the better (O.M.A.C the OMAZING for instance) and I’m glad to say that Dial H has not disappointed. With the gorgeous artwork and a story that’s as bizarre as it is intriguing, I believe I may have just made my four continued titles into five. Dial H gets two thumbs up and a solid…