Today, Taylor and Ethan are discussing Dial H 14, originally released July 3rd, 2013.
Taylor: Why do superheroes exist? Why do the worlds they inhabit even need them? Looking at our own world, it seems that superheroes aren’t necessarily needed for us to survive in relative peace. Sure, it would be nice if Superman could do something to stop global warming but we don’t need him exist to stop that. If humanity could get its collective shit together, then we could easily curb global warming along with the vast majority of other problems that plague our little planet. Of course we don’t live in a world with superheroes and it would seem that the reason they don’t exist is that we don’t need them. However, in other universes — especially those in comic books — superheroes are needed to face the incredible dangers that plague their homes. Killer comet heading towards your planet? Undead wizards? Malevolent aliens? Your local superhero has you covered. But why are certain worlds and universes subjected to these life threatening situations and others not? Is there a reason for that or is it blind luck? In typical self-exploratory fashion, issue 14 of Dial H explores these questions as Nelson Jent and company race to stop the Centipede from achieving his nefarious goals.
Nelson, Roxie, Open-Window Man, and the rest of their hodge-podge assortment of heroes are hot on the trail of the Fixer and the Centipede and hoping from world to world in the process. At each world, our heroes are met with decimation on a grand scale that seems even beyond the capability of those they pursue. During this pursuit, they enter a world inhabited by a race of beings who are all composed of medieval weaponry (which is as ridiculous and funny as it sounds). In this world, Nelson and company are captured but escape their bonds by helping their captors defeat an undead army. Here, Nelson and Roxie learn of the Lost Operator, a powerful being who has the ability to bring destructive events down on entire worlds. They also learn that there was a Dial War ages ago wherein most of the dials were destroyed. With this fresh information in hand our group of heroes sets off for where all of this started, the Exchange.
There are so many reasons to enjoy Dial H and none of them fails to please in this issue. Those looking for explanation and a plot reaching climax have it. Those looking for action and adventure are satisfied with significant action sequences. And my personal favorite: those looking for commentary on comic books in general are satisfied as well. What’s impressive about Dial H 14 is that it delivers on all these topics while ruminating on one central theme: why do bad things happen to certain worlds?
We’ve all been curious since the reboot of this series to see where exactly it was going and how author China Mieville would somehow make sense of all the crazy and seemingly disparate elements at play in his plot. Ever since the announcement of its eventual cancellation, the curtain has been pulled back more and more on the world behind the dials and it’s been fun seeing that nothing that everything that’s happened so far has meaningful. One of the most pressing questions (since Nelson dialed the Flash, anyway) is what the relationship between the dials and other heroes is. In this issue we learn that a war has taken place between those who used the dials and those who have had their powers stolen.
While this illuminates some aspects of the dials’ use it still raises the question of who created them and for what exact purpose. We find out that there was a Dial War and we see that the Exchange, the central location and probably hub of the dials, was under siege by those who it fought to subdue and use.
Overall this is a little addition by subtraction. While we get some more history of the dials, this particular reveal only spawns more questions – but it does feel as if we are getting tantalizing close to the root of all questions. Additionally, this allows artist Alberto Pontecelli to wow us with some wonderfully rendered action sequences of some historic dial battles. Plus, we get some of the sequences of our protagonists fighting the undead. It’s a fine balance of both exposition and action, is what I’m getting at.
Of course we also get the grand reveal that the worlds Nelson and Roxie are visiting in their pursuit of the Centipede are being decimated by various disasters because the Lost Operator is causing them to happen.
He/She/It is accomplishing this by somehow dialing disasters against worlds that are working to stop dials from existing. It’s a bit of a dues ex machina and while this might seem like kind of a cheap way to wrap up a story, I don’t think that that is Mieville’s sole intent here. Having disasters happen to worlds, even when they are nonsensical like a zombie attack on a world that didn’t have humans in the first place, is an indication of this. For superheroes to exist there needs to be something for them to battle or else there would be little reason to read their stories. Now, disasters that require a superhero to rectify them don’t happen that often, so the reader needs to suspend their belief in normality being the status quo of most people’s lives. In a hero-populated world, there is always something that needs to be done and they are the only ones who can solve it. Is it really much of a leap to suggest that something or someone is making these things happen? Perhaps a Lost Operator or even a comic book creator?
ETHAN! How are you enjoying the progression of events in Dial H? Are things happening the way you would like or guessed? Do you like how Mieville is exploring the medium he is working in? Do you think the Lost Operator is an actual person? When was the last time you talked with a siege weapon?
Ethan: Taylor, it’s funny you ask, because I just met a mangonel at a house party the other night, and he had some really interesting ideas about third-party politics and the virtues of the gold standard – fascinating guy, but maybe a bit too intense.
As for the latest issue of Dial H, I was conflicted. One the one hand, the series appears to be taking increasingly more narrative shortcuts to fill the pages. On the other hand, ghost-elephants and a dude wearing gables and curtains embody everything I love about Mieville. He refuses to recognize ANYTHING as too bizarre to do in his stories, and he has the creative energy to pull off the breakneck pace of odd innovation. Honestly though, the dramatic compression of the plot bummed me out a bit. Maybe it’s because there’s a fixed end date looming up ahead, but I enjoyed the earlier issues for their steady exploration of the dials in the context of the ignorance of the people who wielded them. The dialers and the readers were learning just a tiny bit more about how the dials worked each issue – every issue was like a teaser trailer, where you see just enough to drive you into a frenzy to go see the movie. Yes, Mieville is dumping insane new ideas on your head in every panel, but that volume of mind-bending was balanced by the glacial rate at which we grew to understand the forces at work. I’m sad that we’re having to jump around so quickly now, and kill off brand-new characters right after we meet them, just to fit the full arc into the pages we have left. All of that is to say that this remains one of my favorite titles – it’s not that I’ve lost respect for what the creators have built; I only wish we had more time to spend with that world.
The action sequences were indeed fun – I enjoyed seeing Nelson and Dwan’s dynamic while they fought off the barkfly. Nelson is learning to focus and quickly evaluate the potential of each dialed power-set, and he gets to watch a master at work. His partner, Dwan, has the jammed auto-dial that constantly switches the hero being copied from moment to moment, so while Dwan shifts through each persona, Nelson is mentally practicing how he would use them in a fight.
Again, this makes me melancholy. We only just met this band of dialers, each with their own very distinct dial. There is SO much potential here. It’s like when you pick up a new team-based comic full of new heroes – you spend a little time learning about their personalities and powers, and then you get to see how those emotional and physical dynamics combine, both constructively and destructively. Only this time around, it seems that we’re having to skip the personal side of things – the members of the Dial Bunch don’t really get fleshed out as people with distinct origins and motivations. We’re a bit pressed for time on the powers side of the equation, too, and so it feels like characters with new and exciting dial-types must be written out of existence as quickly as we met them. Ejad’s power-mimicry was a great concept, but now he’s dead; Unbled and his damaged dial that can only approximate the powers it copies were shut out in the flooded dimension while the rest of the crew continued into the Metacastle.
Haste appears to be the order of the day. As probable confrontation with the Exiled Operator himself draws close, I wonder how much we’ll get to explore his character, too. Taylor’s question is a great one – is the Operator even a person? Or is he the sentient incarnation of signal noise in a multi-dimensional transit network? Or is he some kind of analog machine intelligence, steampunk-ing his way through genocide after genocide? I only hope that we have time to learn more about him other than the fact that he’s Dialing A for Apocalypse (B for Bummer? C for Catastrophe?) down onto world after world.
Speaking of which, how does that part work? While I love the flexibility that the multiplicity of dial-types brings, H for Hero, S for Sidekick, and G for Gear were of a small enough scale that they work within a character-driven storyline quite nicely. Being able to yank entire doomsday scenarios out of the ether and drop them onto a planet seems a bit over-the-top, right? Then again, it is THE Operator that we’re dealing with, so I suppose it would have been silly to see him bring a knife to a gunfight. I predict that the same broad, omega-level brush will be his downfall, if it does come down to a fight with the dialers; I envision the Operator attacking the Dial Bunch with waves of unstable reality, tides of unpredictable physics, while the lowly heroes win the day through elbow grease and practical application of their goofy, emulated abilities. Or perhaps the Operator will turn out of be more of a Wizard of Oz, cowering behind the curtain, surrounded by and hiding from an ocean of chaos. If one thing’s for sure, it’s that we won’t have to wait long to find out.
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?