As one of the forefathers of the New Weird — a literary genre that started in the 1990s, which, in part, blends fantasy, steampunk and science fiction — writer China Mieville is no stranger to the realm of perplexingly complex storytelling. No wonder DC Comics has the British novelist writing the misadventures of Nelson Jent in the pages of “Dial H” each month versus one of its more traditional superhero titles.
Mieville is a long-time fan of the Silver Age “House of Mystery” feature, “Dial H for Hero,” which traced the exploits of Robby Reed, the boy who could change into 1,000 superheroes — albeit one with a different name, costume and powers every time, and only for short periods — by ringing the letters H-E-R-O on a mysterious dial.
In the reimagined New 52 “Dial H” series, Robby has yet to appear — but don’t rule him out just yet. Instead Mieville has channelled his inner weird through two vessels sharing one H Dial: Nelson, an overweight, unemployed smoker who suffered a heart attack before the age of 30 and Roxie Hodder, a more experienced superhero who has been dialing for decades under the guise of Manteau.
Mieville, who won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award in 2010 for his novel “The City & the City,” spoke with CBR News passionately about the project and shared that he has plans to stick with the title for as long as DC Comics and the faithful readers of “Dial H” will have him.
The author of “Kraken” and “Embassytown” also discussed moving the “Dial H” storyline to Canada, the ever-evolving relationship between Nelson and Roxie and why revealing too much about the H Dial may take away all of the fun.
CBR News: I thought it would be hard to top Boy Chimney but for the life of me, I can’t stop thinking about a Tree Knight ongoing series. Which of the heroes that you’ve dialed do you wish you had a little more time with beyond a few panels?
China Mieville: There are absolutely plenty of heroes that I’ve come up with that I think I want to do a whole series with them. It happens all the time. And it’s interesting because there are the ones, that if you like the “money shot” heroes, I come up with and I think, “Okay. I know that one is going take off. I think I did a good job there. That will get people’s attention.” And then there are ones that I don’t necessarily predict it. For example, you’re the first person that has really fallen for Tree Knight. [Laughs] And that’s part of the pleasure of the whole thing. There are plenty of characters that I could easily do whole titles about. Part of the trick is to not overdue it. Hint at them and then they disappear.
While Nelson and Roxie are constantly emboldened by their powers, you also fully explore what all of this identity-swapping can eventually do to a user’s own sense of being. Is this as much a search for self (and self-worth) as it is to solve the mystery of the H Dial?
Absolutely. In one way, I don’t think I am doing anything tremendously original in the sense that identity issues that are concomitant with putting on a mask and running around with an invented name are fairly well-established in comics for some time. It seemed to me with “Dial H” that would be the foreground. That issue of what exactly is it doing to you when you do this, what does it say about you as a person that you want to hide yourself behind these frankly preposterous identities is just something inherent in the “Dial H” mythos that really appealed to me.
And the other part of it is just the simple pleasure of coming up with really strange superheroes. But I definitely wanted to have a slightly adult take on that too. It’s not just for the laugh. That’s clearly going to mess with your head. And the interplay between Nelson and Roxie allows you to look at different responses to that. And what might happen about that. And the way people might react to those difficulties.
Roxie’s more than Obi Wan or Yoda. She’s truly a partner in crime-stopping. You haven’t driven this story with Mulder and Scully, two young and beautiful leads destined to fall in love, but instead an out-of-shape slob and a retiring older woman. Why that decision?
Partly it’s just the desire to have characters in mainstream superhero comics that aren’t necessarily so often featured. I wanted to have someone who is larger and another who is not another stereotypical sort of shape. And I definitely wanted to have somebody who was older because I like the idea of what kind of autumnal flavor you get if you do have a much older superhero. As you say, I just wanted something a bit different that hasn’t been done so much before. I think it also suggests that the particular identity issues that we’ve been talking about are going to impinge on those kinds of less usual heroes, if you like, in a very particular way. And I wanted to explore that.
If you are somebody that has real issues of self esteem about your, if you like, “usual” body then becoming a superhero is going to be a very particular thing. If you are somebody who has been in your body for a very long time and is maybe beginning to feel the aches and pains of getting older, that’s also going changes things so it’s both just an attempt to do something different and an attempt to kind of allow me to explore these issues of personality and identity, in a kind of melancholy, but I hope, very respectful way.
In the latest issue of “Dial H,” Roxie professes to Nelson: “I want you to know how much better it is doing this with you.” This relationship is as important to Roxie as it is to Nelson, isn’t it?
Absolutely. I do want them to be genuine characters. It’s interesting you talk about Yoda. Yoda is a perfectly fun character but I didn’t want them to have that kind of straightforward power dynamic. I wanted it to be that these two were their own people with their proclivities. Roxie is clearly more experienced but she’s perfectly capable of doing things wrong. And I wanted them to have a genuine interaction, which is, I say, both respectful but also treats them both as real people and adults. It’s definitely not the case that he’s simply the student and she’s simply the teacher. The intention is that they are friends. Friends with very different histories and very different backgrounds and they can bicker and argue and so on but I do want them to have warm, genuine interactions.
Will we learn why the H Dial only works for certain people because it looks like the Centipede has figured it out? Or at least just about.
I have a very clear idea of how and why it works. I’m not just plucking these cliffhangers out of the air. [Laughs] Part of that story is obviously the mystery. And so I hope people are intrigued. That said, I don’t think you can rest a story just on that kind of point because if you do, then people who figure it out or when it is revealed, there can be a slight sense of deflation. I don’t want that to happen so while figuring out the mystery is definitely an important part of the plot, I don’t think it’s the only thing. It’s perfectly possible to figure out from hints why and how the dials work and, roughly, where they’re from and that sort of thing but hopefully, I can still keep you interested anyway.
As we approach the end of this arc, it certainly doesn’t feel like you’re coming to any kind of end. Do you have long-term plans for “Dial H”?
I could basically keep going for a very long time. I have a set of specific ideas in terms of this arc but it’s also a question of setting up a mythos, which can contain a lot of stories for a long time and I will be happy to continue on that basis as long as the readers will have me. That is not really in my hand. That’s in the hand of the readers and the company but certainly, I’m having a lovely time and I can keep going as long as people keep having an interest.
As a Canadian, I love the fact that you’ve moved the story to Canada. Why the decision to base the Centipede and the rest of his cohorts in the Great White North?
I feel slightly sheepish about this because it’s not very sophisticated. Basically, as someone who knows Canada well and somebody who has been there many times and has great respect for it, I hope it is understood to be a kind of affectionate teasing. If I’m honest, it’s an opportunity for some fairly simple jokes, not, I hope, at the expense of Canada or Canadians but riffing off some of the stereotypes in a light-hearted way. As you know, there is a certain reputation for Canadians being terribly nice and polite so I quite like Canada being the heart of the most utterly chilling, ruthless, Blackhawks-style operation. Again, I make no claims that these are sophisticated jokes, please believe me, but it allows me to have some fun with the extreme politeness of the Canadian special forces, for example.
But also, for those people that care about it, there are also some references in there to genuine issues of Canadian politics and Canadian involvement in world affairs such as its role in Haiti and so on, which I’ve been very critical. These are small throw away lines but anyone who is interested can find them. As with a lot of the things in the writing, the hope is that you can have your cake and eat it. It allows me some silly, affectionate, light-hearted jokes but it also allows you to plod in more sophisticated directions, as well.
During the book’s Silver age run, Plastic Man appeared in “Dial H for Hero.” Is it true the Flash makes an appearance in “Dial H” #11? Does Nelson or Roxie change into the Scarlet Speedster like Robby Reed once turned into Plas? Or is this the first true crossover for “Dial H” into the New 52?
Obviously, I’m not going to go into specific details at this point but what I’ll say is for me, part of the pleasure of “Dial H” has always been that it is, if you like, semi-detached from the DCU, so I have a lot of leeway to do my own stuff and create my own things. But at the same time, there is no question that it is part of the DCU, part of the New 52. These characters exist within the same world as the DC superheroes and to me, that’s never been a constraint. That’s part of the background. That’s part of the fabric and one of things that I was thinking as I was writing it, was trying to work out ways of encompassing the mythos I wanted to do so that it didn’t contradict some of the tenants of the DCU — that’s part of the game of superhero comics — so the opportunity to do some sort of references and crossovers and so on, there’s no question of it being a kind of artificial constraint.
This title, for all that I hope it very much has its own flavor, does exist in the same universe as Superman and Batman and so on and so it struck me that kind of referencing that, acknowledging that, having that be part of the fabric of it was important. How can you have this kind of oddness and flavor and still be part of that totality? That was kind of an interesting thing to do once the series had its own legs, had its own traction.
Before I let you go, I wanted to ask you about teaming with artist Alberto Ponticelli. His art style isn’t one of a classic superhero artist but this isn’t a classic superhero book and you’re not a classic superhero writer, so that’s why it works so well, right?
I love working with artists in general. It was a relatively new thing for me coming in [to comic books] and I really loved that kind of gnarly, slightly sort of scrappy, chaotic feeling. I think it works very, very well. I think he has a terrific sense of urgency. And almost a kind of slight grotesquery — and I don’t use the term “grotesque” as a criticism, I use it as praise — that kind of hyper-reality and, as you say, it’s not a classic comic superhero style but a little bit exaggerated, a little bit twisted. For me, that works very well. It’s a beautiful thing.
I think it’s the kind of art that divides people but at least that’s much more interesting. I much rather prefer both writing and art that provokes strong opinions, even if inevitably some people don’t like it so much rather than something that everyone can shrug at and somewhat like.
I think this was my last question last time we spoke but are we going to see Robby Reed in “Dial H”?
[Laughs] I can’t remember the exact thing I said to you when you asked this before but it was probably along the lines of this: Would you really want me to answer that question?
And I will say the same sort of thing again. I understand it because I share the desire of comic geeks like me, to see all the references to all of our old favorites, and I simultaneously completely share that desire and think it can also be a bit of a siren song that we shouldn’t necessarily always go into.
The question is really: Am I going to surrender to the siren song or am I going to plug my ears full of wax and lash myself to the mast and go past? And I’m not going to tell you the answer yet. [Laughs]
“Dial H” #9, featuring interiors by Alberto Ponticelli and a cover by Brian Bolland, is available now.