DIAL H FOR HERO: A History of the Zaniest Hero Around
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?
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.
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.
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.
There’s something Freudian in that.
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 : 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.
#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.
#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.
#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.
#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!
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!