SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for "Dial H" #1, in stores now.
Fans of China Mieville ("The City and the City," "Embassytown") have been looking forward to today ever since news surfaced a few years back that the Hugo Award winning novelist was writing scripts for a relaunch of "Swamp Thing" for Vertigo Comics. The project never came to fruition, but Vertigo's parent company DC Comics, no doubt fueled by Vertigo's Executive Editor Karen Berger, must have liked what they'd seen as the publishing powerhouse commissioned the Brit talent to launch a new iteration of the cult classic "Dial H" as part of the Second Wave of its New 52 initiative.
Featuring art by penciller Mateus Santoluoco ("American Vampire") and edited by Berger herself, Mieville told CBR that his run on "Dial H," which begins today, will explore the very origins of the mysterious telephone booth that allows everyday Joes to enter its inner sanctum and exit a superhero -- more specially, a different superhero every time, he or she dials H-E-R-O.
The concept, which first appeared in "House of Mystery" #156 in 1966, originally featured a teenage boy named Robby Reed as the owner of a mysterious power (and identity) granting Dial. Mieville has replaced Robby with unemployed, out-of-shape twenty-something Nelson Jent for a number of reasons, but he did tease that there is always chance we haven't seen the last of the Dial's original owner.
Juggling a busy career as a novelist (his latest, a YA novel titled "Railsea" is out later this month), a creative writing professor at Warwick University and a politician, Mieville shared his unbridled passion for the Dial H concept, his thoughts on creating new characters each month and his reasons for why the telephone booth itself is such an iconic image in comics.
CBR News: Why did you decide to have your hero still dial from a rotary phone in a telephone booth as opposed to an updated cell phone or even an internet-based login and password?
China Mieville: There was never a question of getting rid of the dial. When I think of the comic, I always think of the title, "Dial H." When it was redone, a little less than a decade ago, they did at as "H.E.R.O." and they did update it. That was a good run and I liked that run a lot, but I wanted to keep the retro feel.
Mieville and artist Mateus Santoluoco's "Dial H" debuts today from DC Comics, with a cover by Brian Bolland
Of course, you don't use a rotary dial in this day and age and have that not be a thing. I am obviously well aware that it's an outdated bit of technology and part of my job is to find a way to weave an explanation for that into the story. I really like the idea of this outdated and, frankly, clunky technology being what enables this extraordinary, impossibly crazy, sort of magical transformation. It was truly never a question for me of updating it, but equally, I wasn't going to not make a point of giving a reason why it was a dial thing. That's all going to be a part of the slow unfolding of the story.
Using the telephone booth, or I guess the call box, certainly echoes of Doctor Who's Tardis, which is very much its own character within that universe. Will the dial in your series be a featured player?
I won't give away too much about future issues, but what I will say is that the telephone booth has a very strong and honorable place in superhero history. When one thinks of classic, Golden Age Superman, you think of Clark Kent running into a phone booth, ripping off his clothes and reappearing as Superman. That's one of the reasons I wanted to keep not just the dial phone but an actual phone booth. I wanted it to serve as an actual homage to that classic superhero changing routine.
Our protagonist has to actually go out and seek out this phone booth every time. You, as the reader, are forced into a retro-style comic every single time he wants to become a superhero. He's being forced to play the role of the original Superman. I just really like that idea.
As to what's going to happen in future issues, I won't give stuff away but there are developments with the booth. [Pauses] Let's put it that way.
I love your new dialing hero, Nelson Jent. In the first issue, we see him smoking, drinking, huffing and puffing. He's certainly not your textbook version of a secret identity. Can you shed some light on his secret origin?
I wanted to make this a story that's very much set now. And one of things going on now is the fact that this is a very difficult time, both economically and politically. I wanted to set it in a town that was having real difficulties and that was kind of depressed. I wanted my main character to be an everyday guy who was also depressed, and because of that, he's not necessarily in the best shape. He's not particularly happy. He's not looking after himself and all of those things. I didn't want to do it in a parody or cliched way, but our superhero didn't have to be the star quarterback either.
I want Nelson to be a very simplistic character. Again, he has a lot of problems; he's out of shape and everything else, but it's equally important that we're not mocking him because of that. He's a sympathetic character and that makes him someone that we can identify with. The nature of Nelson is that he is not a billionaire, philanthropist playboy. He's not Bruce Wayne. He's not the star quarterback. He's not a reporter. He's not a scientist. He's a very nice, decent, if depressed, guy who has his blue collar job taken from him because the economy is in terrible shape. But he's doing his very best and frankly, right when the story opens, he's not doing that well. Sadly, that's a very real situation for a lot of people.
Nelson isn't a billionaire playboy and he's not the star quarterback, but now, every time he comes out the telephone booth, he's a new superhero. That has to be somewhat intoxicating for someone that would otherwise be sitting in his apartment hoping a new job materializes. And at the same time, it would probably do a number on his psyche.
Absolutely. That's very much a part of what I want to do with the run. When I read the book as a kid, I read the early run, and even back then -- when it was played very much for slightly goofy laughs -- I was aware of how weird this was. It had an inherent extraordinary strangeness to it. Because it isn't just that you dial it and all of sudden, you have these strange powers. It's more than that. When you dial it, you immediately know what your powers are. And you know what your name is, which means it's not only your body that's changing. Some kind of consciousness is being shifted every time you dial. Even as a kid, I was thinking, "This has to be messing with your head."
So yes, I definitely want to get into that psychological confusion. As you were saying, unlike a lot of superheroes and their alter egos, this isn't really anything to do with wish fulfillment. This is just a depressed guy, having a difficult time, finding a very intoxicating escape. But it's one that he wants control of, especially at the beginning, and it's not one that makes him feel any better about his everyday life. I do want into probe into all that, and again, I want to do that in a very sympathetic way. He's a miserable character that's not particularly in control of his own situation. I think that's something that a lot of us can identify with.
It's well documented that you are a huge fan of this property and you actually pitched DC Comics on helming this latest version. I have to say, I am little surprised that you didn't go with Robby Reed as your hero. Did you consider him as your main character at any time?
First of all, there is no absolute proof that I'm not going to bring back Robby Reed, is there? But certainly for the opener, I very much wanted to explore someone to whom this happened out of the blue and they have no control. It obviously couldn't have been Robby because by this point in DC history, even with the New 52, Robby has been through this. We had his story mapped pretty extensively over the past many years. I really didn't want that. I wanted a blank canvas. I wanted a situation where we had someone that had no idea what was going on with them. And have to work it out.
That does not mean that there are no Easter eggs for the fans. And I will say that if there are any really hardcore "Dial H" obsessors out there that go through the back history, you will find a lot of Easter eggs and references in the present day stories that they will get that other people won't get. I definitely wanted to put some of that stuff in. It was very important to me to not necessarily reboot the concept, but start from the ground up because you have to remember, a lot of the people reading this will have no idea about the previous runs. And also, as I mentioned, I really wanted to get into the psychology from the word "go."
I hate to put you on the spot, but am I hearing a hint that we might see Robby Reed at the some point during your run.
I can neither confirm nor deny such a thing. [Laughs]
I am terrified of spoilers at the best of times, and right now I am going to be even more circumspect than usual. But I will say again, for people that may be disappointed that Robby's not there, and for others that may be pleased that he's not there, really, from quite early on, there are some pretty big nods to some classic stuff from the "Dial H" canon, which as far as I know, no one has drawn attention to but it won't be very difficult for people that are into that stuff. The trick is, obviously, to make it that you don't need to know it if you are new to the concept, but if you do, you can say, "Oh, okay. I know what he's riffing off there." That's always the pleasure with backwards referencing.
In "Dial H" #1, Nelson makes mention of Green Lantern, and historically, "Dial H" has featured the likes of Plastic Man and Martian Manhunter. Might we see any of these superheroes playing a role during your run as the series is set squarely in the New 52?
It's an interesting question. The official status, if you like, is that "Dial H" takes place in the DCU. That is the case. The way I always look at it is, and I don't know if you use this phrase in the U.S., that it's semi-detached. It's like a house that is right next to another house but not physically joined to it. This is happening in the DCU, so any time it is possible that Batman could walk in or whatever, but this happens to be taking place in a relatively quite corner of the DCU. There is nothing to stop that from happening and I expect that as we go down the line, guest appearances will happen. That's always fun.
And as big things happen in the DCU or in "Dial H," that obviously is going to have ramifications across the titles. But the intention at the moment is to give this a sense of its kind of specificity. It's a sprawling, big industrial town, but it's not a hub like Metropolis. Or New York or Los Angeles. The room is certainly there for it, but the idea is not to make this "Dial H and His Amazing Friends." At least, certainly not at the beginning. [Laughs]
I love the first superhero Nelson transforms into, Boy Chimney. Very creepy. How many of these superheroes are going to be Mievillian creations and how many are going to be re-imaginings of classic "Dial H" characters?
It's a tricky decision. The reason I wanted to do to the run and the reason I was always into this title is because of being given the opportunity to invent new characters. Obviously, there is a desire to constantly create new ones. At the same time, I also have a great love for the original run and therefore, there is also a desire to put in some nods to some classic characters. My suspicion, at this point, is that the majority will be new characters because that's always the pleasure. But I don't know that I will be able to resist eventually dropping in Giantboy, the Mole or Zip Tide. They might creep back. But I have to think, every issue only has 20 pages, and every hero that I use which has been done before is one less that I don't get to invent myself. There is always going to be that kind of balance. Even though I am sure there will some kind of references and nods backwards, the invention of the new characters is really, for me, the strongest draw.
But you get the same thing, even within the new run. I start doing it and part of the draw is that I get to invent all of these new characters. And then you come up with someone like Captain Lachrymose from the first issue, and the issue is over and you realize, "I really like that guy. I'd like to go back and do him again." But you can't. Even from where I have started, it's difficult to let go of these characters.
All that said, I wouldn't be totally surprised if a smattering of old favorites appeared during the run.
The very concept sets up nicely as a done-in-one, episodic type of comic but I can tell even from the first issue that you are telling a much larger, overarching story.
Absolutely. Part of the trick for me, at least what I wanted to be able to do, was to have exactly that, a big story, but still have the enjoyable craziness of the episodic structure. I didn't just want to start this because I wanted to invent these characters and that would be the end of the story. I had very specific aims in mind. First, think about the psychology. Let's think about what this does to a person's psyche. And secondly, let's talk about the backstory, because "Dial H," in some form or another, has been going in the DCU since the 1960s and the origin of the Dial has never been done. And that's absolutely incredible. That's a rare thing in a universe as thoroughly mapped as the DC Universe. One of things I want to do is start approaching questions like that. You don't explore the backstory just in passing in one issue. That's a big deal. For that reason, one of the overarching projects of the comic will be to start examining the mythos of the Dial and start getting into its backstory. I don't want to do it in a way that ruins all the mystery, because the mystery is part of the pleasure, but I certainly want to try and negotiate that.
So yes, you are absolutely right. I have one smaller arc to kick it off and I have a really big, epic arc in mind that could go on for as long as readers will have me.
"Dial H" #1 by China Mieville and featuring art by Mateus Santoluoco, is on sale now.