Award-Winning Novelist Nervous to DIAL H for DC's 2nd Wave

China Miéville may be an award-winning novelist. He may even be a professor and have a PhD under his belt.

The writer may even have run for election to the House of Commons in Great Britain.

But now that he's writing a comic book — the new Dial H comic coming out next week from DC Comics in their New 52 "second wave" — he said he's "nervous."

And not just a little nervous, mind you. According to Miéville, he's "extremely" nervous.

"I know very well that I'm a newcomer to this," he said. "And I know that comic readers are very demanding, as they should be."

Much of his nervousness lies in the fact that he came up with the idea of DC reviving Dial H, a comic that first showed up in comic books back in 1960.  The concept, which follows the adventures of a normal human who is granted a different superpower each time he "dials" H-E-R-O, was one that Miéville had loved since he was a child. His pitch worked, and now he's working with artist Mateus Santoluoco to launch Dial H #1 in May.

The debut of Miéville's new Dial H is one of six new titles that DC is adding to its roster to fill out its "New 52" comics, now that six of the original relaunched comics from last September have been canceled.

But Miéville might be a little less "nervous" because he has one of the best editors in the business working with him. Karen Berger, the executive editor of the Vertigo imprint, is lending her services to the DC imprint for Dial H. She had worked with the novelist before, as he wrote an issue of Hellblazer for Vertigo back in 2008. He also wrote several scripts for Vertigo in 2010 for a relaunch of Swamp Thing — although they never saw publication.

A writer who is known for writing in different genres, it's tough to know exactly what to expect from Miéville's Dial H. But the writer said he's going to do more than one thing with the title, incorporating the whimsical humor that's inherent with a human getting a different, strange superpower all the time, but also showing the darker side of constantly changing identities.

Newsarama talked with Miéville to find out more about the comics that are influencing his work on Dial H, how he's approaching the modernization of the concept, and what it's like to work with Karen Berger as editor.

Newsarama: China, for someone who has never read an issue of Dial H, how would you describe the comic?

China Miéville: Well, the basic set-up is that there is a magical artifact, a weird artifact, that imbues the user with superpowers and a super-identity every time they use it. But the kicker is that these powers are randomly generated, and they are increasingly bizarre. So it's a combination of having enormous power, but often a ridiculous, uncontrollable power. That's the basic hook.

People have been quite interested in what I want to do with it. And what I want to do is approach it in two ways, and sort of indulge the sheer sort of playfulness of that conceit, because that's what it is we love about playing superheroes in the playground when we're kids, is just these bizarre powersets where we run around playing tea-towels and call ourselves "Whatever-it-is Man" or "Lady Such-and-Such." But at the same time, I want to also see if I can cross that with a certain amount of psychological realism.

I know that sounds a bit ridiculous in the context, but you know, ridiculousness is not necessarily a bad thing. I want to take this kooky idea and treat it kind of seriously.

That way you get to, I hope, have it both ways.

Nrama: It sounds like it could, depending on the power set, have a darker edge to it, despite that kind of childlike wish fulfillment of getting superhero powers?

Miéville: Yes, I think it does. And this has been touched upon before, thinly, in the Dial H mythos.  It's been touched on a little bit in a couple of earlier runs. But it's never been, I think, as extensively engaged as what we're looking at.

In the original run, my theory is because this is part of the DC Universe, and so when the writers were inventing superpowers for their characters to have, they had to make them increasingly bizarre, because you couldn't replicate the obvious powers that the DC heroes already have. And then once you've used one power set one month, you want to try to do something different the next.

And so the sort of extrapolation was to become more and more odd. And in the original run, this was not explicitly engaged with. But I remember very much, even as a kid, I can tell you the exact character who did it for me in the '60s. Robby Reed, maybe six or seven heroes in, dials up somebody and becomes King Coil. And King Coil is a giant, superpowered animated spring, like with arms, that sort of bounces around and fights crime. So he's basically this giant spring. And this is all played for kind of kooky laughs.

But I remember thinking, even as a kid, "that's really scary." You suddenly wake up, and you're a giant animate spring. That's both insane and really frightening. What would that actually do to your head?

So that slightly grimmer and scary implication that you're talking about has always been there, I think. But what I want to do is pay homage to the original joyfulness, but also bring out that tendency that has always been implicit.

And really, just think about what it would do to change your identity every day? You know? The identities of the superheroes in the DCU are so bound up with their powers. But what would it do to you psychologically if you are trying to retain a core of yourself, but you're also becoming somebody else every time you want to intervene. 

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Nrama
: You're well known for writing novels in different genres, or at least being influenced by different genres in the way you write your various novels. Is there any genre influencing what you're doing in Dial H? Or is it just that the concept holds so much potential that you are following where it leads?

Miéville: That's an interesting question. It's an interesting question that I'm going to now proceed to try to duck because I think... I mean, in a very broad sense, I do want to bring in that kind of "weird" aesthetic, which is always what appeals to me about fantastic fiction in general.

But one of the things about Dial is that, definitionally, changes issue to issue. I think, for example, one of the first heroes that we dial is quite scary. It reads, I hope, like a character that could come out of a weird horror story. And then in a later issue, we see a fleeting glance at something that's really kind of ridiculous, so frankly, if you were going to play it, would have to be played comedically. And then you have another character who's an homage to a kind of golden age, brightly colored spandex superhero. And then you might have somebody turning into a robot and becoming much more science fictional.

So you're right. I like to play around with different genres. Part of the pleasure of Dial H is you get to do that within a single title, within a single universe.

Nrama: It seems like it would be a real attraction for you to the comic, which you were already interested in because you had read it. Even as a writer, that had to be part of the attraction, right?

Miéville: Absolutely, and I suspect that it will kind of dovetail. I suspect that, when I was a kid, part of the reason that it appealed to me was precisely because it did allow you to play around with all these different sort of aesthetic drives. The first two runs were played fairly straight, in terms of kind of kookiness and even sometimes countered with a sort of sadist humor. And then there have been a few hints of taking it into a darker and a more introspective direction, which I want to honor but really extrapolate out.

There's a whole sort of revisionist comic thing in taking an old title and trying to do a kind of "gritty, dark" version, in scary quotes. That's nothing new. But that doesn't mean that it's not an enjoyable thing to try to do.

Nrama: You've certainly talked about how the older versions of the comics influenced this version. But I'm curious what other artistic influences inform what you're doing, even comic books that may have been an influence on you as a fantasy writer or specifically to Dial H.

Miéville: One of the things that's worth bearing in mind is that in Britain, we have quite a distinct comic culture than the U.S. Obviously we geeks grew up reading DC and Marvel and the kind of "classic" superheroes. But we also had and have very specific British comics, most famously 2000 A.D., but also various children's comics, like Whizzer and Chips and Beezer and Oink! and stuff like that, which I think if I had to generalize -- and I say this very tentatively -- but I think on the whole there was a slightly kind of more grotesque tradition to them. And you see some of that grotesque in American comics, definitely, but you often see it in underground comics and art comics.

And so for me, my comic trajectory came from sort of grotesque British comics, through to people like Charles Burns and Raw and Drawn and Quarterly and the kind of art comics. And then through that to revisionist post-Silver Age stuff and then moving backwards.

So I would say that, as a generalization, I would say that the tradition both artistically and specifically in comics that I can't get away from is the grotesque.

And then there are particular artists, like you know, in the American comic scene, my kind of outstanding genius would be Burne Hogarth. And I have one of Burne Hogarth's collected Tarzans when I was a kid. And I'm obsessed with his line work and so on, which is actually quite a grotesque linework. Quite kind of knotted and organic.

So that would be the kind of thread I think that unites it.

Nrama: It's very interesting that you specifically mention British comics in particular, because I wanted to ask you about working with Karen Berger. And she was influential in the American comics scene for bringing over many British writers to DC. From the point of view of comic fans, it feels significant that you're working with Karen Berger on this comic. How would you describe that working relationship and the reasons for her involvement? 

 

Miéville
: The problem is that this is going to sound like kind of PR duff. But frankly, it's been delightful. I'm very aware of what I have in this. You don't get to be a nerd of my age and not have Vertigo be a giant star in your cultural firmament. So to be working with Karen full-stop was always a very big thing for me and was very exciting.

And then coupled with that, the fact that she was into -- because I suggested this project to DC. That's one of the reasons I'm excited about it. They didn't suggest it to me. It was the other way around. And the fact that she was excited enough about it to sort of "lend" herself to the DCU, because obviously this couldn't be a Vertigo title, being part of the DC continuity. So the fact that she is now working for the first time in a long time on a non-Vertigo project, on a DC project -- I'm enormously flattered that I was persuasive to her. It's a huge thing.

And I like collaborating. I like being edited. I know very well that I'm a newcomer to this. And I know that comic readers are very demanding, as they should be. So I try very hard to listen carefully to everything Karen's saying. I don't have a resentment toward being edited at all. It's quite the opposite. I really like it.

So you'd have to ask her about why she's doing this, and you'd have to ask her when I'm not in earshot. But my sense is that we're working really well together.

Nrama: It's a good thing you like collaboration, because obviously that's one of the big differences between working in novels and working in comics. You've got an artist involved as the director of the action and the emotions on the characters' faces. How would you describe the interior art, and how has it been collaborating with an artist, and how much is that influencing the story you're telling?

Miéville: Oh, it's been great. And I think you're right, and it is a culture shock. The key thing as a prose writer, as someone who has worked in fiction, is that you've got to go in with your eyes open. If you go in and think this is your project, and the artist is there to sort of service your vision purely, I personally think that's not going to work.

So it is a cultural shift to learn to work with someone else. But it was one that I was very, very aware was going to happen. So from the earliest point, when I went into this, I went into it trying to think of it as a collaborative project, because I'm not drawing it. Occasionally, on a nuts-and-bolts level sometimes, I'll send notes and ask for something like, you know, "can we make the hat a little more this," or something like that.

But sometimes it happens the other way. I'll give you an example. One of the characters in the opening issue, Mateus' vision for him was fairly substantially different from my own initial image in my own head. But the moment I saw it, I was just like, "oh, that's so much better than I was thinking." And then once you've got that, you start to tweak the way you're writing that character to interact with that image.  So it does become a genuine collaboration.

This is the first time I've done this over an extended period, but I think it's been going well. We wanted very much to have an artist who had the sort of expressionist lines, that the lines are quite rugged. You know, I go back to where earlier I said grotesque. You know? And you're trying to talk to him about general aesthetic direction as well as specific colors and so-on. So it has been very different. But I always knew it would be. And I went in, I think, with my eyes open.

Nrama: We've heard that you had a treatment for Swamp Thing, and I know that went all the way to script form, although it was never published. For you personally, as a writer, the experience of having written that, and maybe even the experience of getting feedback about it and it having not been used, how much did that inform the way that you approached Dial H? Did it make you a little more willing to listen to Karen, or did you (pardon the pun) maybe dial back some things?

 

Miéville
: Well played. No, I don't know that I held back. It actually made me more confident, because we did quite a lot of writing on that. There was a fair bit done. I'd written a couple of short comics before, including something for DC before, so doing something over that length certainly increased my confidence in, you know, how to do pacing, how to do comic dialogue and that sort of thing. And I was already, I hope, working fairly well with Karen when we did that.

I think if anything, it was almost the opposite of what you say. It wasn't a question of realizing how invaluable it was going to be. I think what was difficult when I first started was that I was so nervous. So I think it did give me a sort of confidence with that.

And you know, those scripts remain in my hard drive, and I can pilfer them for ideas and that sort of thing. So yeah, I believe and hope that Dial is going to be better having been through that in the first place.

Nrama: Then as my last question, China, I'd just ask that, for potential readers of Dial H, is there anything in particular you want to say to them?

Miéville: I just want to say that, as I've mentioned to you, I am really excited about the fact that this was a project I pitched to DC. That matters to me. Because whether it works or not, whether I'm any good at it or not, this is the comic I have always wanted to do, for years. And I think that's why I'm both extremely nervous -- I mean, I'm not going to lie about that. I'm very nervous and I want people to like it. But I'm also, having a whale of a time.

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