“Dial H” #3 by China Mieville and Mateus Santolouco is a throwback in all the right ways. Although it’s firmly set in the modern DC universe, it’s a comic with a tone and narrative style that harkens back to the glory days of Vertigo, when creators like Peter Milligan and Grant Morrison filled their pages with offbeat, original work that simply couldn’t be done outside of comics.
This issue is the first where plot threads begin to come together, as Mieville begins to weave the disparate threads of the series opening into something resembling a tapestry. It’s a narrative you have to work to understand, but even if you don’t care to comprehend the specifics of what’s happening, the scenes work from moment to moment such that you can intuit the shape of the story. In that sense, it’s reminiscent of Matt Fraction’s “Casanova”.
Santolouco is the perfect collaborator for Mieville and uses a style that feels anarchic and freewheeling, while keeping an eye on the storytelling. A book this dense needs an artist with a solid ability to convey information to the reader and Santolouco has the necessary talent to carry it off. Of particular brilliance are the designs. Where some artists can only come up with derivative costumes, Santolouco practically throws away hilarious and fantastic character designs for the sake of a few pages (although we’ve yet to top issue #2’s “Iron Snail”)
It’s no surprise, given Mieville’s reputation, that “Dial H” has turned out to be one of DC’s most engaging and original works. In fact, the surprise is that he’s being allowed to do it at all. It’s exciting to read something with such a density of ideas and clarity of tone. It’s clearly a superhero book, but it’s completely unlike any other being published. If there’s any strong criticism you can make, it’s that it’s going to be hard to jump onboard — but on the other hand, back issues are available digitally and new readers are only likely to be marginally more confused than existing ones.
Still, set against this book, the rest of the DCU looks positively anodyne. It’s a thrill to read and a joy to support. Nelson is an unusual yet engaging protagonist and the supporting cast are full of weird and curious figures that invite you to learn more about them. If you’re not frustrated by complicated stories and Morrisonian narrative sleight-of-hand, it’s a must-buy. Quite simply one of DC’s best titles at the moment.