Drew: I’m not a fan of origin stories, or really the starts of narratives in general. They often require large exposition dumps to make everyone’s personalities, means, and motivations clear to the audience. One of my favorite ways authors avoid cramming that much exposition into the beginning of a story is to start in medias res. Sure, the whys of the situation aren’t always clear — or even what exactly is going on — but that creates curiosity, a genuine interest in learning more, which almost never happens when we’re just given bare-faced facts with the understanding that this will be important later. Writer China Mieville has taken this tack to the limits of my curiosity in Dial H, delivering three months of questions without any real answers, leaving us floating uncomfortably in a confusing sea of possibilities. With this issue, we finally start getting some answers, helping the events of the previous three fall into place with surprising ease.
The issue picks up where the last left off, in Mr. King’s hotel room, where Ex Nihilo and squid have just brought forth Abyss, some kind of being made of nothing. Squid apparently has some history with Abyss, but that doesn’t stop Abyss from wounding him when it starts flipping out. Nelson and Manteau do their best to battle it, with Nelson seeing a strange vision through it before Manteau makes it disappear by throwing a chair through it. Ex Nihilo is not pleased, and knocks out Manteau to take her back for questioning. Nelson objects, but has turned back into his schlubby self, which XN is not impressed with. She reveals herself to be Dr. Wald, Darren’s neurologist from issue 1 (which I had totally missed), then has Squid poison him with a dab of his finger ink.
…Or so she thinks. For some reason, Squid leaves Nelson alive. Nelson attempts to dial up a new hero to save Manteau, but his dial is still on the fritz. He returns to Manteau’s house in hopes of fixing the thing. Meanwhile, XN tortures Manteau for answers, in spite of Squid’s objections. XN has been working for decades to capture Abyss, and is convinced Manteau has some kind of history with it. When Manteau doesn’t have any answers, XN settles for learning how to use her dial. She then heads out to capture Abyss as Tap-Out, a spigot-themed hero.
As Nelson watches this all unfold on Manteau’s TV, he’s approached by Squid, who now fears what might happen if XN continues her quest. Squid explains that he comes from a planet where his people wrangle and train Abyss beings as beasts of burden, means of travel between one world and the next. This particular Abyss was his companion, and they had traveled to Earth some time ago to steal jewels. They had a run-in with former dial-wielders on that visit, which drove them away, and forced Squid to fall through his Abyss endlessly, until he was pulled out by XN. XN has used Squid to try and retrieve Abyss, but now that it’s here and mad, Squid doesn’t trust her to control it, so he needs Nelson’s help. Of course, Nelson is useless without his dial, so they hatch a scheme to break Manteau out of XN’s warehouse. They’re almost successful, but Abyss has directed XN back to the warehouse to stop the escape.
I usually avoid getting into that level of detail in these summaries, but this issue is particularly dense, and the way it delivers on past details suggests to me that any (and all) of the details I mentioned might be important. I have absolutely no idea where this story is going, which is an exciting feeling. Or, I should say, it’s gone from being a frustrating experience to being an exhilarating one in a single issue, even though it could still do anything.
I suppose the biggest strength of this issue is the focus on character. We’ve spent a lot of time with Nelson in this series, but there haven’t been any other strong character anchors. Darren is dead, and Manteau is still shrouded in mystery, so we’ve been left with only the willfully un-relatable Nelson, who spends half of his time as other characters, anyway. Here, we have Squid’s past and motivations explained in detail, creating a sympathetic victim of circumstance. I was particularly fond of the images of his homeworld, where Abyss is treated like cattle, lassos and all.
Mieville is also delivering on that line from the last issue about Squid changing his vernacular from moment to moment. When he’s trying to convince XN that Manteau has nothing to do with Abyss, he pleads, idiosyncratically, that “it weren’t them.” Later, when confronting Nelson, he flexes some nerd-muscle, besting Nelson’s weak attempts to reference Nietzsche. More importantly, he steps into the role of the hero quite naturally, doing what needs to be done to save what could be countless worlds if Abyss is allowed to continue unabated.
We’re also given a much more in-depth look at Ex Nihilo, who is so driven to capture Abyss that she has forsaken her own humanity. Squid has been helping her capture Abyss, but she is completely unwilling to help him when he could use her abilities to repair his body. She has killed many people to get close to Abyss, and many more may die before she is stopped. We now understand the stakes, and they’re way more interesting than those of a bookie and his muscle, which seems to be the red herring of all red herrings.
The history here is fascinating. It’s one thing to learn that telephones were a byproduct of a mysterious figure attempting to create the hero dial, but it’s quite another to see how those heroes have intersected with the travel customs of a distant planet, or the will of a scientist fixated on studying those customs. This is a fully-realized world, one that was intentionally obscured in those first few issues. That obstruction made me weary of this title, but things click into place brilliantly with this issue, clarifying all kinds of connections I didn’t even know to look for.
Oh, but I haven’t left any room to talk about Mateus Santolouco’s art, which is by turns subtle and dazzling, or Squid and Nelson’s hilarious rescue mission. Of course, I know those are things Shelby will appreciate, too, so I suppose it’s a good thing I’m turning it over to her. What did you think, Shelby, did you find this issue to be as refreshing and assuring as I did?
Shelby: I did! I was very happy to get some answers about this universe. I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that I really like the world Mieville has created, and now I’m finally getting confirmation of that. This title is weird, unfamiliar, and has been frustrating, and getting some answers to questions I’ve been asking is super satisfying. I just hope Mieville can keep it up without laying on too much boring exposition. Joke’s on you, though, I want to talk more about Abyss.
Mieville has done something very interesting and very challenging by crafting a character out of nothing. How do you create a character whose motivations I actually care about who’s whole schtick is that he is nothing? Abyss is a black hole personified; he eats light and you can travel through him like a wormhole. And yet, Squid considered him a friend, almost. Until he used his powers of nothing to put some holes in Squid, anyway. The police are also understandably unprepared to deal with the whole Abyss situation; again, how do you fight nothing?
And, you are right, the Manteau rescue mission by Nelson and Squid is delightful. I know it’s kind of cliched to play the whole “Nelson finally found the true hero within!” card, but seeing him fight crime as just himself definitely made me happy for him. He’s such a sad-sack of a character (a real Captain Lachrymose, am I right?), it’s nice to finally see him gain some self-confidence and grow a little bit. I also really enjoyed the Manteau reveal, even though I don’t know who she is and it means nothing to me. Now that Nelson has seen her true identity, I hope we learn a little bit more about her and her history with the dial. Also, I thought the dials were personal, how could XN just use Manteau’s? We’ve got a lot of answers, but I still have a ton more questions, and I hope we continue to get the answers we need to keep us interested in this title.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?