Omni Exclusive: China Miéville on Dial H and the Superhero B-List
A winner of the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, British Fantasy, and Arthur C. Clarke awards (to name a few), China Miéville specializes in the fantastical and the weird. His literary approach to genre themes earned him a legion of fans (most recently with his novel Railsea in 2012), but Miéville remains a fan as well--of comics. The personal and professional interests collided in the best of ways during DC’s New 52 initiative, when the publisher announced a new Dial H series with Miéville at the helm with artist Mateus Santolouco. In the following exclusive essay, Miéville reveals his long history with the series and how that history led to a fresh, successful start for the book while remaining true to its core weirdness.---
I wasn't very good at canon. Oh, I got better as I got older, but as a kid, I pieced together my comics knowledge like a mudlark, scobbing together whatever titles I could find in local shops and libraries – new copies, second-hand ones, beaten-up and ripped-to-shreds remnants - without any understanding of publisher or continuity. I’d cross-fertilize them with the various exciting bits and pieces I'd picked up, all the rumours and half-truths regarding superheroes.
This led to an idiosyncratic version of the DCU. Once, many years ago, as a very young child, I was delighted to discover a pile of comics in an attic. They featured a blond, orange-shirted superhero who could speak to fish. “Ah,” I thought, settling down to read. “This must be this ‘Superman’ of whom I've heard so much.” I was intrigued that so many of his adventures were maritime.
As the years passed, I got a bit more systematic, but I never lost the excitement at the sheer chaotic variety of costumes, monikers and powers I might find fighting for justice, every time I opened a comic. It was always a surprise. This addiction to the proliferation of the superheroic is something many of us never grow out of.
In fact, inventing superheroes is one of the basic games of childhood. Tie a towel around your neck and come up with a powerset, all the abilities you think you’ll need. Justify that hot mess as coherent by some ingenious, tendentious argument. Finally, give your wonder a name. (Electrical blast and tiger stripes? Electrotiger!) This is what we do. Like countless kids around the world, I was a martyr to superherogenesis.
And then, one early-eighties morning, I picked up, with my usual surrender to chance, a copy of what I now know to be New Adventures of Superboy [issue #] 30. Within which was a B-feature, a secondary story - something called “Dial H for Hero.”
I pieced together the schtick of what it was I was reading. Some rather annoying boy called Chris King, had, because of some magic dial, been turned into “Mr Opposite.” In which guise, shameless in his purple-and-black outfit, he could make anything behave the opposite of how it should. Chris King had never had this epistemologically troubling power before, nor ever would again. He knew, though, the moment the ability arose in him, at utter random, what it was he could do and how. And he knew his superhero name.
That was how this worked.
After a while, I could breathe again. My heartbeat finally slowed. Thus began my devotion to the H-Dial.
Whatever the particularities of the H-Dial story - and it's appeared in titles since the 1960s - this basic norm, the surrender of the dialer to random powers has remained the same. And no matter how much the storylines, particularly the original ones, played this for gags, for absurdities and thrills, for the simple joy of endless superpower invention, there were always a few troubling elements to the situation.
The DCU has long been a very crowded place. It brims with heroes. And pretty much all the obvious and useful powers have been taken. So if you have a title the very raison d'etre of which is to come up with two, three, four or more new heroes every month, and you don’t want to repeat yourself, there's a drive to more and more unlikely characters. Where does that leave you? Where does that leave the dialer? With the Human Starfish, is where. With the superbaby Mighty Moppet. With King Coil. A giant, animated, superheroic coil. With coil powers.
It was the 60s.
It's pretty standard these days to point out that putting on a mask, inventing a name and running around hitting people is a very odd thing to do. To put it charitably, it bespeaks identity issues. So what about when you don't even get to choose your superheroic identity? And it changes every day? And might reboot you as a starfish or a giant coil? What does that do to a crimefighter?
And you think Batman needs therapy.
Perhaps most intriguing of all the questions the dial threw up was, “Where does it come from?” In a setting as baroque and as intimately explored as the DCU, it’s almost beyond belief that this has never been answered. There've barely even been hints. It's unlikely that Dave Wood, who wrote the first scripts in House of Mystery, wanted to do anything other than come up with a mechanism to invent endless heroes. But his brilliant success at this inexorably raised the question. What could possibly have led to the creation of this dial?
For a long time, Dial H for Hero and its successors have been my comics obsessions. No other title, I've long explained to any of my poor friends who'll listen, combines childlike joy in superhero-creation, a neo-surrealist faith in the aleatory, a post-Vertigo focus on the erosion of identity, and an opening into one of the few utter mysteries left in the history of the DCU.
Also King Coil.
For all these reasons, during the years when I would periodically chat with people from DC about the possibility of writing comics for them, after we had batted various ideas and titles around, I would conclude the conversation, every single time, increasingly plaintively, with “You should let me take on Dial H.”
I’d do my riff. I’d urge them to see that these areas needed to be investigated. I’d talk about fidelity to the inspired genius of the original idea, a respectful updating, humorous and goofy still, but serious, too, an investigation of lost and unstable souls. A realisation of costs as well as benefits, of the terrible mechanisms at play. There could be, I would say, there had to be a slow creep of understanding, an origin story. Once there was an epic and epochal war. These dials came from somewhere, I’d say. I would whisper the phrase “the Exchange.” I would mutter about “the lost Operator.”
“You should let me take on Dial H,” I’d say. The DC people would smile politely. That would be that.
Until, very suddenly, they said yes.
Our thanks to Mr. Miéville and DC Comics for this opportunity. Dial H Vol. 1: Into You releases today in both print and digital formats.