China Mieville Revives "Dial H" for DC Comics

With the news of DC Comics' New 52 "Second Wave" breaking today, six original launch titles have been canceled and six new titles will debut from the publisher in May. One of the more offbeat series is "Dial H," written by award-winning fantasy novelist China Mieville. Artist Mateus Santoluoco joins the "Embassytown" author as they reopen the door for one of DC's classic concepts.

The original "Dial H" followed the escapades of a normal human who was granted extraordinary powers by selecting the letters H-E-R-O in order on a mysterious dial. Originally debuting in "House of Mystery" in 1960, "Dial H" went on to become its own series in 1980, reappearing as "H.E.R.O." in 2003 and again in J. Michael Straczynski's "The Brave and the Bold" #27 in 2009. Each iteration starred a different protagonist, but featured the same concept of an everyman gaining extraordinary powers through the mysterious dial.

Set to relaunch the book as part of the New 52, Mieville spoke with CBR News about his love for the original series, the creative opportunities the concept affords, possible directions for the book as a whole and why "Dial H" is a great story for 2012.

CBR News: China, what appeals to you about the concept of "Dial H" and what was your initial thinking coming onto the book?

China Mieville : I always loved this book. This was always one of my absolute favorite titles, and I've been hankering to try and do something with "Dial H" for a long time. The stars kind of aligned and made it work for the moment, but it's something that I've been thinking about for a very long time. Basically, there are two big draws of the title -- one is the craziness of the superheroes that get dialed each week, the idea of not only becoming a hero each week but becoming something often very, very strange. Secondary to that was the fact that, quite unusually for a title in a fairly established universe, the backstory and the explanations were always pretty opaque. We still don't really know why the dials are there.

My thinking about it was to do an homage to that classic title, but to take it quite seriously. In the original runs, it tended to be quite fun and goofy, which I loved, but I wanted to take, psychologically, what would be the real impact of having this immense but completely unpredictable power -- the idea of how destabilizing it would be to your identity to change who you are every time you dial up. Also, I wanted to tentatively look at why these things are here. What's the backstory to these extraordinary artifacts?

Is the book going to focus more on an individual protagonist or on the dials themselves?

I want to make it quite mysterious. "Dial H," although it was part of the DCU, always felt semi-detached, you could say. It was in its own little space, and I wanted to keep that going. So, although it is part of the overall universe, it has an almost contained feeling to it. I don't want to risk that spilling out too much, especially early on when we're establishing things. There will be a strong, central protagonist, and I reserve the right to go out a little bit further on, but because I'm particularly interested in the ideas of identity and stuff like that, it helps to focus on a strong linear story.

Is there anything you can tell us about the main character of the book?

I'm terrible with this because I always feel very superstitious about talking about stuff before it's actually emerged. What I will say is, with apologies for being vague, what's interesting is the idea of someone very ordinary being suddenly and very abruptly faced with this kind of enormous psychological and physical upheaval. If you are already a jet test pilot or if you are already somebody fairly high-flying, that transformation is not so interesting to me. I'm interested in these very strange, quite surreal, superheroic events occurring in a very everyday, quite gritty background. That's the milieu in which I'm interested in.

You mentioned you're a fan of the old series. Is there any chance we'll see some of the old "Dial H" heroes make an appearance in your series?

You're determined to make me do spoilers aren't you? Well -- yes, there's a chance. There's absolutely a chance. Some of those characters are so intoxicating, they're so difficult to leave aside. If you're doing a classic title like this, you want to commit homage at the same time you want to do new things. One of the things that interests me a lot about those old characters -- especially in that first run, the really early run -- they were played for kooky laughs. They're actually kind of scary, a lot of them. I'm certainly interested in the idea of going back and having one or two of those originals -- there's every chance they might occur.

At the same time, part of the big draw for me is precisely this effervescence of creativity that, in every single issue, you have a spillage of new heroes. Every single time I use an old hero, that's one of the new ones that I'm stopping myself from using. Although I do think the occasional garnish for the people that remember the original one, the occasional spice, for me one of the initial draws was very much the ability to create new heroes. So if I do use them, it will be a present for the real fans.

While you've worked in comics before, this is your first time helming an ongoing comic series -- what is it about the story you have to tell that is especially suited to an ongoing series?

What appeals is several things. I grew up reading comics and loving them. There's something about that episodic format and the interplay -- I'm sorry to spout cliches, but the interplay of the graphic and the word, that's unique. There's no other form like it. As a writer, that's a very specific skill and it brings to the table quite distinct things, which is exciting. I also thing there's something intriguing for a writer about writing within an established canon. On the one hand, it can sometimes be quite constraining because you can't break the rules of the canon, but on the other hand, throughout the history of literature and art, sometimes constraints have been very inspirational. People have risen to the quite strange rules and used them as a way to push toward more creativity. Even weird and avant-garde movements, like the French Oulipo, who would set themselves these very strange rules, like, write a novel without using the letter "e." In a way, writing within an established canon gives you these rules. It's almost like a challenge that your job is to respect those rules and love that world, but also to rise and do something new. That's really exciting.

In terms of what I think I can do for this particular title, I think it's a combination of profound love for the original title and profound love for that incredibly geeky joy we all have as kids, which is inventing superheroes. That's the thing we did all the time, and there is no title in the world or in the history of comics that so celebrates the ongoing play of inventing superheroes as "Dial H." So, to do that, but to bring with it a dark, adult feeling, I think that is an attempt to devote an homage and something new. That's what I hope I can bring.

You're also an accomplish novelist, having written a number of fantasy novels. You've self-described your genre as "weird fiction." How do you feel your experience writing fantasy novels and weird fiction has helped you in the development of "Dial H?"

Partly in the sense of world creation. As I said, one of the things that interests me about "Dial" is its background mythos, its universe has always been very sketchy, it has not really been gone into. Part of the pleasure of writing within the fantastic is to make sense of worlds, to create these worlds. At the same time, the trick is to not lose the elements of mystery and the strangeness and the all that brings us in the first place. I hope one of the things I can do -- one of the things I want to do -- is to actually bring that rigorous fantastic eye to start to raise the question of why and wherefore and whence these things come from, but still respect that sense of astonishment, which is the fantastic. You lose that if you over-explain, and that's the dialectic as a fantasy writer, to straddle those two.

First and foremost, I come at this as someone who loves the title. Although, obviously, I have a background in fiction, I think the point for me is not that I've written x number of 800-page fantasy novels, therefore I'm perfect to write "Dial H." It's more, I've loved this title for as long as I can remember, it's the comic that I wanted to write longer than any other. This was not a question of DC coming to me and saying, "Do you want to do this?" it was a question of me saying, "Can I suggest this?" And people listened to it. That's why I'm excited about it.

As a longtime fan of the book, you're probably familiar with a moment in the series where the protagonist dialed "HORROR" instead of "HERO." Is the potential of this dial to form other words and have other experiences something you hope to explore?

It's definitely something that's in the back of my mind. I wouldn't want to suggest this is going to be a horror comic, but I think it's fair to say we want to stress some of the weird, and that means a certain sense of the uneasy and maybe sometimes the scary. That's something I'm very interested in examining. If you start to think about the dials and where they might come from and what they do, the question of why they work when you dial this, but not this; what if you dial this instead of this -- those are questions that have to be asked. I don't want to give too much away of where we're going, but certainly that question of what are the limits of the dials, what are they for, what happens if you dial one thing and not another, that definitely leads to the foremost in my mind what I've been thinking about the run.

"Dial H" experienced a brief comeback in 2003 as the short-lived, criticallt-acclaimed series "H.E.R.O." Now, it's nine years later -- why do you think 2012 is a good time to re-launch "Dial H?"

I liked "H.E.R.O." I thought it was a very well-written run. I know it didn't last all that long, but the things that I thought were behind it not blowing up were, to me, the great thing about "Dial H" that would always appeal to the people who loved it. Let's be honest, it's not a title that everyone has loved, but those of us who have loved it, what's exciting about it is this efflorescence of change, of creativity. I think that focusing very much on one hero, one distinct story each time is to underplay the excitement of that change. What this run is about, what I want to really look at, is this notion of extreme and strange, destabilizing change. These creations which are simultaneously, almost comically absurd, but with a slightly sinister edge. I think that maybe this is quite an unstable time. There's a great upheaval going on. People do feel quite destabilized. I hope there's something about this title that can tap into that simultaneously quite exciting but also quite nerve-wracking sense of instability, and cross-virtualize it with our geeky love of making up superheroes.

I also think there's something to do with the question of the New 52. The universe, in a way, part of it is coming of age. Part of it has to fill its own shoes. The confidence and strength to go down unusual byways. It's always going to have its core characters, it's always going to have its Superman and its Batman and its big, iconic characters. To survive and to thrive as a creative set, you also have to have some odd and strange and sinister and quirky byways. You couldn't necessarily have come out at launch with what is an odd, almost a cult book. I think it's a really excellent sign for the DCU as it stands at the moment, that it has the confidence to have this culty title. What you want to do is retain that strangeness with the cult feeling, but make it something that newcomers can also enjoy. I don't want to make it hermetic for the people who grew up on this title; I want to make it exciting for newcomers, too.

What has been the most challenging aspect about writing an ongoing series compared to writing a novel?

It's a completely different skill. I've been very nervous. When I started, I was very nervous. I've been very lucky to have fantastic help, editorially. The obvious thing -- I'm sure most prose writers usually say this -- when you're writing fiction, you have all the room in the world for the description. You can take your time, you can enjoy the prose as a descriptive passage, which, of course, there's no room for at all [in a comic.] I tend to write rococo prose anyway. Trying to pin things down into this efficient format has been something that I was hopeful I wouldn't mess up -- making things come through dialogue and through suggestion and so on. I've been really lucky, because my editor is Karen Berger, and this is the first time in many, many years she's doing a non-Vertigo title because she's very excited about this. We've worked together, and that's hugely exciting. Although I have been nervous about it, because it's a very different set of skills, I like working with editors. I like working with other people. It's an enormously collaborative process, writing comics, with the artist and the editor and so on. I wouldn't call it a culture shock; I'd say it's more of a culture shift. I think it's gone really well. Obviously, it'll be up to the readers to judge, but I think it's gone very well.

I'm always very keen to stress to people that it was me who wanted to do "Dial H." I know I said this already, but it's quite an important thing because you get invited to write for this or that title. It's lovely and it's happened to me before, but it's very, very rare that you genuinely get your dream, which is the title you have been wanting to renew, to do something with, and somebody turns around and says, "Yes." I can't quite believe that happened.

"Dial H" hits stands in May 2012 as part of The New 52's "Second Wave."

DC's 'Villain of the Year' Is Both a Big Shock AND Exactly Who You Think

More in Comics