This week, DC Comics unveils its latest take on a classic concept with Dial H, the new series written by acclaimed author China Miéville. Hey, we just interviewed him!
But what is the Dial H for Hero concept, and why has it inspired such affection from a self-described author of “weird fiction?” (Seriously, my SF/fantasy book club still hasn’t forgiven me for picking Perdido Street Station, or as it will forever be known at our meetings, “The Bug Sex Book”).
Well, it’s rather simple: There’s a dial, like those kinds they used to have on rotary phones that I could never operate. The symbols on it translate into letters; when H-E-R-O is dialed, you briefly turn into a superhero with automatic knowledge of your super-name and abilities. Dialing H-E-R-O-I-N-E or V-I-L-L-A-I-N has similarly feminine or evil effects, though it is unknown what would happen if you dialed something like C-H-E-E-S-E-S-A-N-D-W-I-C-H. Fodder for future stories, we suppose.
The series represents that most basic of fanboy desires – to become a superhero and save the day. Who hasn’t thought of that once in a while?Over the years, this concept has been explored in different ways. In the 1980s Adventure Comics revival, for example, readers could write in their own ideas for heroes, villains and even fashions for the characters to wear (all of which became the property of DC, natch), receiving an “I Dialed H for Hero” shirt in return. These are still exceedingly hard to find, but if anyone has one size L or up, my email is at the top of this article. For that matter, paging Graphitti Designs …
The series can also be used as a way to explore the dark, addictive power of escapism, as in Will Pfeifer ’s excellent series H-E-R-O, which looked at what happened when the dial passed through a variety of hands. Hint: Most did not use it wisely.But it looks like Miéville’s going back to the well of the original “Dial H for Hero” series in DC’s comic House of Mystery as inspiration for his new book, and with good reason: For sheer comic book weirdness, the 1960s series is hard to beat.
Understand: In the Silver Age of Comics, creators were churning out a lot of stories and characters each month. Therefore, many ideas were thrown against the wall. Even by those standards, “Dial H for Hero” was particularly nutzo. In the course of a 15-16-page story (sharing the book with longtime Justice League hero the Martian Manhunter), the book’s protagonist Robby Reed would typically change into at least three oddball heroes to save the day.
Ah yes, “The most original character in comic history – “Robby Reed, the boy who can change into 1,000 super-heroes!” Perhaps a response to Marvel’s success with such young heroes as Peter Parker, the book’s bespectacled protagonist was a young orphan with a fondness for lab experiments and the exclamation “Sockamagee!” We don’t know where that came from either.Robby resided in the rural community of “Littleville” (no relation to Superboy’s Smallville, presumably) which like most comic book small towns, attracted an inordinate number of mad scientists and criminal organizations. Luckily, Robby found the H-Dial in a cave-in and after translating it, found himself turning into a wide variety of weird heroes.
Really, really, really weird heroes.
But let’s let the heroes speak for themselves – here’s some highlights from Robby’s run from House of Mystery #156-173, which was collected in a DC “Showcase”volume for a mere $10 back in 2010.
This gets odd. And disturbing. And in at least one case, kinda racist.
Issue #158: In the first instance of someone dialing V-I-L-L-A-I-N, a milquetoast criminal gets the dial and turns into a giant glowing creature who calls himself…“Daffy the Great.” He’s defeated by Robby turning into “The Squid” with a “helmet gun” that shoots “liquid mixtures.”
There’s something Freudian in that.
#159: Perhaps the best issue for Robby’s odd transformations, this sees him battling the mushy menace of “The Clay-Creep Clan” by turning into the four-tentacled “Human Starfish” and the battling baby “Mighty Moppet,” who proclaims, “I may be a fugitive from a baby carriage – but I do have some crazy powers!” Said powers include a “Bottle Blast” that can shrink bad guys down to his size. Again, calling Dr. Freud…
Interestingly, another “Human Starfish” was the bad guy in Blackhawk #190. Clearly someone at DC thought this was a good idea. It was the 1960s.
160#160 : This issue has one of my favorite one-off heroes, King Kandy, who fights crime with the likes of his Licorice Lariat, Lollipop Bombs and Taffy Twists. Surely he deserved more than his 2.5 pages of glory! Stranger still, Robby turns into Plastic Man…yes, the actual Plastic Man, whom DC had recently acquired the rights to, and was looking to revive. Years later, another story would have Robby fight the actual Plastic Man as Plastic Man, but this is confusing enough as is.
163163 #163: Robby battles the giant-insect-creating Baron Bug by turning into the mythological twins Castor and Pollux. Robby takes being split into two in stride, along with being turned into a giant steel spring called “King Coil.”
#164: Robby battles Dr. Cyclops, who unlike Marvel’s character (or the 1940 film villain) is AN ACTUAL CYCLOPS, by turning into “Robby the Super-Robot” whose abilities let him turn into…a wooden robot. There are levels to this.
#165: Battling Dr. Rigoro Mortis and his robot zombie “Super-Hood,” (this gets weirder), Robby turns into “Whoozis” (a giant rubber ball with arms and legs), “Whatsis” (a giant boomerang) and “Howzis” (a robotic pinball machine on roller skates that can access different powers from various slots). Robby chalks this up to a freak electrical storm messing with the dial; we chalk it up to it being the 1960s.
#166: Robby meets the threat of “Cougar Man” and his “Awesome Giant Albatross” as “Chief Mighty Arrow,” a headdress-ed Native American with “a winged Injun pony” named…”Wingy.” After thrawting the menace with “Jet-propelled bonnet feathers” and his “gimmick tomahawk,” Robby reveals the creatures are actually being created by a rogue computer and ensures those responsible will “pay heap big for their crimes.” Oh lord.
#167: Robby turns into “Balloon Boy.” There’s at least three jokes we won’t make.
#168: At this point, the ideas seem to be running a bit thin, as Robby turns into “The Hoopster,” a pantsless hero whose hoops include a large “Hoop-a-Jet” to battle “Moon Man,” a former foe who’s returned with moon-powers and a crater-based mask. Weirder still is that Robby also turns into a combination of two heroes from his first adventure, “The Mole” and “Cometeer” to become…”Mole-Cometeer,” who can…burrow through the ground at the speed of a comet, we guess. Logistics are not a strong point for this series.
#169: Robby’s love-interest Suzy finds the dial and becomes “Gem Girl!” In true Silver Age fashion, she’s portrayed as incompetent with her powers and is made to forget everything at story’s end. Because she’s a girl. Sigh. This tale also has Robby turn into “Astro, Man of Space!” whose brain is visible inside his translucent head.
#170: A trio of oddballs, as Robby becomes “Baron Buzz-Saw,” with buzz saws on his hands and, um, head, Don Juan (a “jazzy mid-century caviler!” with a bad Spanish accent who drives a village full of Spanish girls into a paroxysm of lust), and “Sphinx-Man,” who’s…well, a giant sphinx.
#171: The most 1960s-ish of all Robby’s adventures pits him against evil microbes as “Go-Go,” after being shrunk down into another dimension as “King Viking.” Yes, this story starts with a Viking super-hero and only gets crazier from there. Capable of doing a “way-out frug,” Go-Go lays the smack down on the talking microbes and their crystalline creatures, but must finish up by turning into “Whirl-I-Gig.”
#172: Though Chief Mighty Arrow makes a comeback, the highlight is Robby turning into a living pendulum straight out of Edgar Allan Poe. In addition, a kink in the H-Dial turns Robby’s friend Jim, who shares a birthday with him, into a variety of Lovecraftian creatures. Again something Freudian with that.
#173: Nothing major happens, but by now the Comics Code Authority had lightened up, and the House of Mystery became a horror anthology title with the next issue, along with House of Secrets. This remained wildly successful for the next decade, but oh, what weird heroes we lost!Robby Reed has popped up a few times since then, though rarely with his dignity intact – in H-E-R-O, he was portrayed as the equivalent of a burnt-out child star. More recently, he made a few appearances in the DC Universe The Brave and the Bold (though sadly not the cartoon or its tie-in book). In one case, he let the dial fall into the hands of a criminal because he’d had a vision that the next person to use the dial would die; after this came to pass, Batman was all, “Yo, he had a crappy life and you let him die a hero, so it’s cool you let a guy get killed. Whatevs.”
But the potential in Miéville’s series is enormous. Not only do you have an immensely talented writer at work and a concept that, again, speaks to the desire of the everyman to become a superhuman, but it offers something that no revival of the “Dial H” concept has had before:
Really, really, really weird heroes.
And isn’t that what comics is all about?
I still want a T-shirt, though. And bring back King Kandy!
Special Thanks to Siskoid’s Blog of Geekery (http://siskoid.blogspot.com/) for letting us use his color scans of the original stories. Check it out for full profiles of the many Dial H Heroes!Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!