Book review: Dial H: Volume 1, Into You by China Miéville

A witty, philosophical take on superhero tropes leaps out of the phone booth

A witty, philosophical take on superhero tropes leaps out of the phone booth

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To my mind, China Miéville is one of the most interesting literary writers currently working in Britain, an accolade undiminished, though perhaps sometimes obscured, by his wholehearted commitment to genre.

Dial H: Volume 1, Into You By China Miéville

DC Comics, 168pp, £10.99

He has expressed the ambition in some interviews to write one work in every possible genre (so, for example, The City & The City is a sort-of police procedural; Embassytown is sort-of science-fiction and Railsea is a sort-of homage to the seafaring work of Captain Marryat and CS Forester). His recent psychogeographical polemic, London’s Overthrow, is the most considered aesthetic response to the riots of 2011. Dial H collects the first seven issues of the superhero comic he has been writing for the “Second Wave” of DC Comics’ New 52 relaunch. Even readers happy to relax with a Rankin or bask in an Iain M Banks might wrinkle their noses at the idea of a “literary” superhero comic; but such is Miéville’s prodigious imagination that this manages to provide one of the highlights of my reading year.

The Dial H premise first appeared in 1966, in anthology comic House of Mystery, as Dial H For Hero. A boy named Robby Reed (with his catchphrase “Sockamagee!”) discovers an artefact resembling a rotary telephone dial in a cave, which, when he dials H-E-R-O will transform him into a different hero. It was rebooted in 1981 as part of Adventure Comics, with two new teenagers, Chris King and Vicki Grant, each having a similarly enchanted dial. Part of the endearing dappiness of the series was the peculiar “heroes” the dial created, a feature of the series which was only encouraged when DC solicited readers to invent their own heroes for inclusion in the comic (where, predictably, they became the intellectual property of DC Comics). So, for example, we had the adventures of Baron Buzz-saw, the Mighty Moppet (a grotesque baby), Ragnarok the Cosmic Viking, Zeep the Living Sponge, Lavender Skywriter and Miss Hourglass (equally predictably, the latter two were only ever dialled up by Vicki Grant).

Miéville retains the original conceit (no magic iPhones or bewitched mobiles), but infuses it with his own brand of surrealism and turns many of the tropes and stereotypes of the superhero comic inside out. The new “hero” is Nelson Jent, an overweight chain-smoker recently made redundant. When his friend Darren is beaten up by thugs with whom he has started to work, Nelson stumbles into a telephone box (in itself, this is a witty take on Superman’s favoured public changing room) and inadvertently dials 4376 – and texters will know what that spells. He emerges as Boy Chimney, a steam-punkish skeleton with a smoke-belching stovepipe hat. Although artist Matteus Santolouco deserves credit for the visualisation of such characters, it should be added that Miéville makes them sound different as well. Too often comics indicate voice by typography (a jaggedy font for the insane Joker, ASCII-style blocks for various robots, and suchlike). Boy Chimney speaks in cod Victorian argot: “Brick up this brickway, my lad, can’t scratch my itch with even so elegantly twirled a cudgel – oh I shall smoke you out”. The reader has just as much fun as Miéville as Nelson becomes Captain Lachrymose, CTRL-Alt-Delete, Armoured Snail, and, in a lunatic finale, Cock-A-Hoop – a spinning hoop with a cockerel’s head, with, er, making things spin powers. There’s a lovely joke when, a propos of these gloriously new weird heroes, a low-level villain says: “Seriously? Green Lantern you buy, but this is too much for you?”

Once the concept behind the series is established, Miéville progresses sure-footedly and in line with comics conventions. As well as Nelson’s new-found powers, he discovers a strange plague of coma victims seemingly connecting the thugs and the hospital. Each villain conceals a further villain – and as well as the sinister Ex Nihilo, Miéville introduces an alien called Squid and a sentient nothingness called Abyss – both of whom readers with long memories or easy access to Wikipedia will recognise as having appeared back in December 1981 in Adventure Comics #490. At the end of the second chapter, Nelson also gets acquainted with a mentor: Manteau seems to have her own dial but disguises herself behind the superhero disguise. There is a double purpose to this. As the story reveals, you don’t just temporarily become a hero with the dial, you take on that character’s memories and dreams as well, to the extent that your own identity starts to fray and unravel. Manteau means “coat” in French, but her alias also conjures up “portmanteau”, a word combining two previous words and therefore a good simile for her double-disguised condition. Also, behind both costumes, she’s an old woman (again, not the kind of character who frequently appears in comics). This allows Miéville some fun with the still-prevalent gender clichés that too many comics deploy. He sketches in some of his own mythology for the series. Every pioneer of telephony has had contact with the mysterious “O”; Manteau fears – rightly – a “shadow on the line”.

This volume collects the “Zero Issue”, a standalone origin story illustrated by Riccardo Burchielli in blockier fashion, which suggests that the protagonists don’t just become new heroes; they steal the identity of someone from somewhere else. These hints are expanded in the ongoing monthly comic (where one of the villains is a black ops operation from Canada called “Dark Maple”, and we discover a little about all the politically incorrect heroes dialled in the past).

Questions about the nature of heroism are standard fare in comics; what Miéville adds is both philosophy and poetry. The Abyss speaks in a fractured, ungrammatical stream of consciousness. There’s a nice take on Nietzsche’s “Gaze long into an abyss and the Abyss also gazes into you”, with the alien Squid correcting the humans on Nietzschean ideas. Given how comical the book can be, the ending is genuinely elegiac: “some people of my world think the whole of our universe is just the effluent of the Nihils’ predation on each other, that we live in the crumbling coprolite of nul-eat-nul, that matter is the leftover of void rapacity”.

The superhero comic is a form in which anything is possible, and yet so rarely is this imaginative superfluity properly explored. Dial H is a sheer delight, with hilarity and gravitas in equal measure.

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