Today, Ethan and Taylor are discussing Dial H 9, originally released February 6th, 2013.
Ethan: Remember the last time you woke up? You know, that thing you did this morning. You do it every day, you’re completely familiar with the experience, you know it like the back of your hand. And yet… do you really remember the instant of waking? Or is what you remember actually the moments or minutes of awareness after you actually became fully conscious — when the blur of color and sound and smell that you’ve plunged into begins to make sense. In that hazy cloud of stimuli, it’s possible to exist in a half-state — you aren’t completely “you” yet, so much as a body, breathing and shifting. It’s a physical echo of the conceptual strangeness that comes from waking up each day, year, decade, in the exact same body, but not quite as the same person as you were before. Dial H #9 continues and deepens the series’ exploration of identity, of what it means to be yourself, and what happens when that question becomes more difficult to answer.
The issue opens with The Centipede holding a dial, selecting to the fateful digits 4… 3… 7!… 6!!… annnd it doesn’t work. In that moment, Roxie arrives to apply a taser to the agent’s neck (tastefully refraining from any form of the “don’t tase me, bro!” joke). While their enemy is stunned, she dials and becomes Minotaura — a giant bull-woman hybrid — trapping her foe in a labyrinth. We then cut to some kind of governmental building where The Centipede has returned from his op. Lush carpet on the ground floor gives way to high-tech, people-mover-equipped subterranean corridors. We see the debriefing of the befuddled dialer who faced Nelse/Flame War. The Centipede blows off some steam, using his unique skill-set to obliterate a dozen training dummies before being interrupted by the walrus-moustached (walrustached) General Choler. The General presents — and demands that he wear — a new costume: an enormous insect-head-looking helmet. As The Centipede reviews the secret notebooks he stole from Roxie, still wearing the helmet/mask/abomination, Nelse and Roxie begin their surveillance of the very building under which the Centipede lurks (and — probably — sweats: that helmet looks really uncomfortable). Nelse dials until he finds “an ID that fits” the goal of infiltration, landing on the mostly invisible “Glimpse.” Nelse compromises the top-secret levels’ security with ghost-like flair and Flash-like speed before coming face-to-face with the Canadian’s guinea-pig dialer, the latter of whom has dialed the brilliantly conceived “Bristol Bloodhound” — a man-missile-dog hybrid whose name is a reference to a family of ramjet surface-to-air weapons.
The most obvious questions of Self and of what it means to share your skin with another, super-powered, person are still found in our time with the dialers. Roxie’s transformation into Minotaura is a split-second decision, so she is caught without her mask. Her partners-in-crime relationship with Nelson continues to grow around the shared hardship: the fear of losing themselves to the more potent personas they constantly “call” forth (oops, pun).
But please bear with me: I want to focus on our secret agent frienemy. I’m glad that The Centipede continues to slither his way into the core of the plot, as we see him begin to play the dialers and the govie forces against each other, on the way to some undisclosed goal of his own. That said, when we first learned the nature of the agent’s “re-do” powers, I had some trouble getting on board. Take a look at China Mieville’s explanation-via-monologue from the previous issue, describing what happened to The Centipede after he participated in a State-sponsored attempt to build a time machine
He can manipulate time (or, sure, “unstick” sounds like an appropriately technical term) and move among the time-separated versions of himself. The phrase “pick a new front self” really bothered me at first. What does that mean?! In terms of doing the super-human stuff we’ve seen him do so far, it mostly means that he can get shot a bunch of times and not fall over crying like a normal person would; he simply “picks a new front self” and goes on with his life. But what does that mean about who that “front self” is? This character embodies all of those thought experiments that blew you away in Philosophy 101: If you put a person’s brain in someone else’s body, who would the mind/body pair be? How much of your physical or mental self could you cut away before you stop being you? How about memory — if someone zapped away all of your memories up until 2 days ago, are you still the same person?
While mulling/obsessing over this new, redeeming perspective on The Centipede, I suffered a moment of disorientation when we (and The Centipede) eavesdrop on a pair of scientists:
In retrospect, I think that “Captain Stochastic” is a mocking term for the hit-or-miss nature of the Canadian dialer’s form and/or effectiveness, but the first time I saw this panel I thought that they were talking about The Centipede, who is striding up behind them in this panel. Yes, “stochastic” can just mean “random” or “unpredictable,” but it also describes a type of modeling that relies on using out-of-the-blue variables to achieve a “good enough” result every time rather than trying to follow a rigid protocol to achieve a near-perfect result some or most of the time.
This interpretation of the word almost perfectly describes the potency of The Centipede’s abilities: he hijacks each second of time to pursue multiple, simultaneous avenues of action towards his goal, even though some of these paths are completely counter-productive, e.g. stepping into the path of a bullet. What makes him so dangerous is not a monolithic, Superman/Sentry projection of force, but the ability to try countless ideas and choices with essentially no consequence when he makes a misstep; one of him (the one he eventually chooses to be the “front” him) gets to where he’s trying to go. This concept is mirrored in this issue both by Nelse and Roxie’s strategy of dialing until they find a useful hero and in their repeated use of the phrase “lateral thinking.”
I would ramble on about this even more, but my time’s definitely up, and a rockstar is waiting in the wings. Taylor Anderson! Were you delighted/disgusted by the redoubled jibes at our Neighbor Nation to the North? Did you find the tender moments between Nelse and Roxie moving and/or creepy? What do you think The Centipede knows about the dials that Roxie does not? Are you strangely attracted to giant, shaggy, female bull-woman hybrids?
Taylor: Ethan, thanks for warming up the crowd and making my job so easy! Now I can just play the hits and get the hell out of here before all the groupies start asking for my autograph. Yes, the life of a comic blogger is glorious and hard.
I think your analysis of the Centipede and his identity is spot on and, to be honest, I’m mad with jealousy that you noticed it before I did. But I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad, since apparently all of the Centipede’s colleagues fail to recognize this aspect of his character as well. The Canadians obviously haven’t even considered the idea that the Centipede, with his strange abilities, would begin to work for no one but himself. Whether this is another commentary on the Canadian government or not I’m not sure, but it definitely raises questions about just who the Centipede is. When we were first introduced to him I thought he was for sure going to be a straight up villain. You will remember that when we were first introduced to the Centipede we saw him murder several people in a ruthless and workmanlike fashion, not exactly the stuff that heroes are made of . But he doesn’t seem to harbor any ill will for our heroes either. He could have easily killed Nelson when he confronted him on the street but he chose not to. Similarly, you get the feeling that he has an almost professional respect for Roxie that makes him loathe killing her strait up. So this raises the question of just who is this guy? Villain or hero? Dialer or government mechanic? Merciful or ruthless? His donning of the centipede mask in this issue seems to be China Mieville’s way of making these questions more literal for the unassuming reader.
Speaking of character development, the relationship between Roxie and Nelson is a little weird for some reason, and I can’t place my finger on it. It could be that I’m just weirded out by the idea of a December-May romance but I don’t think that’s quite it. Besides, we have no reason to really suspect there is a blossoming romance between our two heroes since all we have seen them do is occasionally flirtatiously speak to one another. Rather, I think what weirds me out about their relationship is the reversal of the power dynamics. When Roxie and Nelson first met, the latter was firmly ensconced as the leader of the pair. However, it seems like the more Roxie uses the dial, the more she is weakened as a person; whereas the more Nelson uses it, the more strength he gains. Roxie seems to be deferring to Nelson more and more with each issue and for some reason I find that disconcerting. Will she be lost to a dial one of these days? Will her age catch up to her? At least Nelson is picking up the slack and is beginning to show more heroic qualities of his own while not dialed. His triumphant punch to Centipede’s face would seem to indicate that even if Roxie is losing her moxie, the dial is still in good hands.
Also, Ethan, the lady Minotaur is a little oddly sexualized — what with her hairy breasts hanging out and all. But, if no one was around and she made a move on me I would put out. Lady bull-women can solve the labyrinth of my heart.
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?