Today, Patrick and Taylor are discussing Dial H 13, originally released June 5th, 2013.
Patrick: The Retcon Punchers tend to get flowery in our language when we describe Dial H – we’ve called it “aggressively weird” and ” gleefully surreal.” When the pages are stuffed with goofy characters like Captain Lachrymose and Bumpler Carla, it’s hard to escape the fact that the weirdness of the title is kind of the point. In issue 13, China Mieville digs into the background of Open-Window Man — a character we had previously only known as a compatriot of Boy Chimney’s — and discovers a moving truth about superheroes, comic books and the value of repetitive storytelling.
The Dial Bunch was in the middle of pursuing the Fixer and Centipede through parallel worlds, when they hit a wall – a whole world of walls, that is. They land in a universe made up entirely of chalk drawings on crumbling cement walls. The walls are populated by adorable stick figures who live their lives and experience joy and pain and loss, and there are little chalk superheroes and supervillains – we see them as graffiti on the wall, but it’s their whole reality. The reason the Bunch is stuck here is that the fabled J-Dial, which would allow them to Jump easily between worlds, is in the chalk-world, but our heroes can’t figure out how to retrieve it (after all, it’s just a drawing on the wall).
While waiting for his compatriots to figure out what the hell is going on, Open-Window Man befriends a young man with a story we all recognize:
Mieville is careful to never name this character, but the similarity to Bruce Wayne is obvious. Open-Window Man mentors the child, and guides him through his training. The whole thing plays as cute: because how else are you going to portray a stick-figure training montage? Even when they hit a snag and hurt each other’s feelings, we’re mostly watching a fun, frivolous re-telling of the Batman origin story. But that all changes when Open-Window Man, in a moment of frustration, relates the two formative experiences of his life. The latter was the death of his partner (the aforementioned Boy Chimney), but the former is yet another warped retelling of the Batman origin story. In fact, this iteration of the story takes it a step further, putting a spin on the “I will become a bat” moment.
My first reaction was to laugh out loud here. A lonely and despondent Jed Oliver takes his superhero identity from an open window – that’s goofy has hell. Obviously, what’s supposed to happen is that a bat flies in the room at the perfect time and then he’s supposed to dress up like a bat and fight bad guys. The irony is that a bat is an equally arbitrary source of inspiration. We can call Dial H “silly” or “weird” all we want, but the truth is our superheroes always require that the reader take a leap of faith and suspend our disbelief enough to engage with these characters emotionally.
In a genius storytelling move, Open-Window Man’s story makes him realize that he’s basically lost in a world without windows. Fortunately, our little chalk man points out that they do too have windows – they’re just made of chalk. So the Dial Bunch uses the G-Dail (for “gear”) to dial up anything with windows, allowing Open-Window Man access to the chalk world and the J-Dial. That’s a situation where literally every other superhero would have been useless, but a man with the power to move freely between open windows is the sole solution. Amazingly, we come to the end of this issue and the character is no longer a joke: he’s a superhero.
I can’t tell you how many times I read this origin story. We’ve all seen the Waynes gunned down in the alley behind the theatre – the moment is so iconic that it shows up in comics and movies and video games and TV shows, time and time again. It’s a simple, powerful image and no matter what else is different about a new version of Batman, that moment remains the same. It’s interesting to consider Open-Window Man and this little chalk kid as versions of Batman we’ve never seen before. It makes you wonder about the version we got, and why we place so much cultural value on Batman. Added to that – Open-Window Man draws his little friend a cave (because he didn’t have one), in order to make him more like Batman. It’s an arbitrary decision, but one that we accept as the right choice because, well, Batman has a Batcave. But the boy rejects it and Open-Window Man simply erases it. It’s an active relationship between the creator and the creation, a give-and-take Bruce Wayne never had with Bob Kane or Bill Finger.
Taylor, I absolutely loved this issue. Dial H is ending in August (with a weird little reprieve in September for the villain issue Dial E), so maybe Mieville is more contemplative with his final issues. This one certainly seems to be considering not only the role his characters play in comic book history, but his own role. The name of this issue is “Tekel Upharsin,” which is a reference to the book of Daniel, wherein Daniel is the only one to decode some mysterious writing that appeared on a wall in King Belshazzar’s palace. He read the words as “mene, mene, tekel, upharsin” or “numbered, numbered, measured, divided.” The obvious connection between this story and the story in Dial H is only Open-Window Man can figure out what to do with the graffiti on the wall – just like Daniel. But the book of Daniel is also where the phrase “read the writing on the wall” comes from – Daniel believed that the message meant that God had weighed Belshazzar’s kingdom, found it wanting, and was going to destroy it. With so little time left before the ax comes down on this series, is Mieville exploring the writing on the wall for Dial H? Or, given the universal nature of the Batman / Open-Window Man origin story, does he see the writing on the wall of the whole genre?
Taylor: Mieville certainly is reading the writing on the walls for the comic book genre, of that I’m sure. Time and again Dial H has been the sounding board for Mieville’s thoughts on the comic book genre, so it’s a natural fit for this issue. Of course in this instance the commentary is a little more blatant given that we’re dealing with characters in this issue who exist entirely as chalk drawn figures. These are basically stand-ins for all of the comic book characters we read and write about on a daily basis so its clear Mieville’s main agenda in this issue is to talk about the comic book genre. Again, this is not new for Dial H but in no other issue is the commentary so clear and so thought provoking.
What I find particularly interesting about his issue is the perception that Open_Window Man has of what a hero should be. In many ways I think his view is aligned with the popular expectation of what a comic book hero should be by much of the public. One of the most important aspects of any hero’s development, according to Open-Window Man, is that they undergo some sort of trauma in their early life which motivates them to become a crime-fighter. Open Window Man himself undergoes a such a trauma that is an exact replica of Bruce Wayne’s but those certainly aren’t’ the only examples of this. Peter Parker loses Uncle Ben, Superman loses his home world, Constantine loses everybody he cares about, and even Nelson has his world rocked when his friend gets involved with the wrong crowd. Mieville’s critique about origin stories is spot on, naturally, but he never comes down and proclaims any sort of viewpoint on the subject. While some might find that unsatisfying, I love it. Mieville cleverly shows us a glimpse behind the curtain of comic book writing but he refrains from telling us how we should feel about it. Instead he challenges the reader to come up with their own feelings about the subject rather than telling them how they feel. It’s a wonderful way to engage readers and make them turn a critical eye on the medium they love.
Open-Window Man doesn’t limit his conception of a hero flounder just at his or her conception, however. While talking about his efforts to catch the Fixer, Open-Window Man drops the tidbit that he is sure the Fixer will do something bad with his power. The stick figure he’s taken under his wing calls Open-Window Man out on this, questioning how he knows the fixer will do bad. Open-Window Man’s reaction to this observation is interesting.
According to Open-Window Man, people who oppose heroes are destined to do wrong, no matter what. Again, this is Mieville showing us something about how comics operate and leaving it there for us to think about. In this instance, the question revolves around the ideas of a hero’s psyche. Indeed, how exactly can heroes justify the things they do when their entire life if predicated on the idea that people will always do bad things? It is only a hero’s belief that bad things will happen without them that justifies their going to such extremes to stop it. However, heroes are an example that sometimes people don’t always do bad things, but sometimes good. So if people can be good — like our heroes — why do heroes need to exist? It’s kind of Ouroboros like question – it just keeps perpetuating itself. And while there is no real answer to this quandary, it is apparent that Open-Window Man hates the question and would rather avoid it.
It would have been easy for the little stick figure guy to give into Open Window Man, however, by the end of the issue he has matured and is capable of thinking about being a hero on his own. Open-Window Man creates a Bat-Cave for him but the stick figure refuses it, instead choosing to walk his own path.
Our chalk friend is doing something admirable here. Not only is he refusing help from what is basically a divine source, but he’s also taking a risk doing something many other heroes never do: he’s not letting revenge or a sense of justice sway his emotions. This leaves open the possibility that our stick figure hero will lead a heroic life of a different sort. Maybe like Bruce Wayne’s father, he’ll become a doctor or some other type of hero that doesn’t rely on punching people for results. Where other portions of this issue failed to take a definitive stand on a subject, here it is obvious Mieville is trying to tell us something. Maybe, just maybe, we should try to conceive of heroes who, like Nelson, aren’t your stereotypical do-gooders. Maybe we should look for other ways people can be heroes.
This speaks to why I like Dial H as much as I do. While I occasionally get frustrated by the lack of clear plot, maybe I should be okay with that and let the title be a new kind of comic book reading experience. Maybe I should adjust my expectations. And I have. I’ve realized I enjoy this title not really for its plot (though it’s good) but for what it has to say about comic books, about heroes, and about writing stories about larger than life people and events.
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?