July 17th, 2013
You might not know it, but you gamble every time you pick up an issue of Dial H: the ink in which this comic is printed contains a rare sort of toxin, exposure to which dials up one of three parallel universes. Before your eyes make contact with the page, you know that any given episode has a 33.333333333% chance of being: (A) a sloppy pastiche of the Morrison/Case Doom Patrol run, (B) a snazzy pastiche of a good proto-Vertigo comic (like the Morrison/Case Doom Patrol run, for example) or (C) a genuinely effective post Alan Moore/Grant Morrison superhero comic.
If Dial H #12 saw China Mieville, Alberto Ponticelli and co rolling (dialing) the reader into a hopeless tangled version of their own story in which none of the lines (whether in the art, plot or dialogue) connected meaningfully, then issue #13 (which is now only the second most recent issue due to my Mindless incompetence) provided a clear and direct line to the best of all possible worlds(/comics).
Comics being a collaborative medium, Alberto Ponticelli’s pencils tighten up with Mieville’s script, and the unstable environments of issue #12 are forgotten in favour of an information-dense two-layered landscape. Ably assisted by inker Dan Green and colourists Tanya and Richard Horie, Ponticelli works for maximum accessibility at every turn, framing our regular cast as pedestrian browsers walking through a block in which comics sprawl on every wall, always making sure that we’re able to read over their shoulders:
It might seem strange that an issue that takes a break to recap the plot of the previous few issues should be better than anything being recapped, but Dial H is that rare superhero comic that actively thrives on exposition. Try to remember that other standout issues in this series have explained where the powers Nelson and co dial up actually come from (#0, #11), and explored the difficulties that arise from contact with unreconstructed racist fantasies (no not Game of Thrones, issue #6):
Dial H is at its best when explains its own mechanics because theme is built into the design of this revamp more clearly than it expressed by any of the action on the page, a quirk (or fault, depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing) that only strengthens the book’s Karen Berger-edited pedigree.
Just think of the many walking tours through authorial interests that characterised that first flush of post-Alan Moore, British invasion comics, all those scary strolls through the green, trips out into blue forgotten worlds, the evening walks that lead you right underneath the Pentagon and straight on into the heart of the American scream…
The walking tour we get in Dial H #13 is made possible by pleasantly mixed metonyms, a double act made of dual purpose characters, Open Window Man and his new friend, a young boy in a world of chalk:
It’s clear right away that we’re in strange, if familiar territory, that queer stretch of the superhero landscape where metahumans and metafiction meet, and dichotomies are set against each other in the hope of achieving an understanding that stretches beyond the binary. In this schemata young Chalky is both reader and new character, Open Window Man entertainment and author. The “window” into Chalk World opens both ways, you see: Chalk Boy is held rapt by Open Window Man’s exposition but he also lives in an environment that’s influenced by Open Window Man’s stray scribblings, by his need to attempt to inflict what you might call the Batman Template on Chalky’s tragedy:
Pontecelli does a great job of rendering the chalk-based environment we see throughout, populating it with stick figures whose crudeness is believable while still managing to smuggle in some great, funny, empathetic cartooning:
There’s a case to be made that Dial H #13 features three layers of cartooning, each more endearing than the last. Brian Bolland’s eye-catching cover (D) presents Open-Window Man as a classically well-toned, slightly sinister hero – the sneering bully boy who’s both a fixture of every Marxist’s first essay on superhero comics and a fairly tired story idea in even the least thoughtful capes book this side of Watchmen. Ponticelli’s rendering of this character in the comics itself (E) is far huffier and less impressive: his clothes seem ill-fitting, and while he often looks petulant, he does so in a way that’s distinctly reassuring compared to Bolland’s rendition, as though Open-Window Man was your favourite grumpy uncle. And then there’s Chalky (F), a character made up of a few scratchy lines and an abundance of sharp dialogue.
As so often happens when I stare at a few comic book pages for long enough, thinking about this has caused me to doubt my frequently stated antipathy towards Scott McCloud’s theories. I don’t think that the chalk world seems comparatively more endearing just because – as McCloud would have it - less detailed cartoon characters give us more room for projected identification. Instead I’d argue that the chalk reality is the most compelling one here because it’s the one that has least been shaped by the conventions of the superhero genre.
Bolland’s cover is an absurd amplification of these conventions, and Ponticelli’s figure work in the primary reality of this story presents a more schlubby and humanised version of the same.
The chalk figures, meanwhile, have yet to be worked up into any such constraints, and are therefore charged with latent potential:
Seen in the uncanny light of this meta-fictional environment, Chalk Boy’s ultimate rejection of Open Window Man’s vision is nothing less than a rejection of the world it takes place in, an acknowledgement that while readers might enjoy Batman comics, might even find them weirdly cathartic from time to time, all but the most committed of Bat-fan will recognise the absurdity of this story on their side of the window. Which poses a question to Open Window Man, and all those like him: why force another Batman pastiche on the world? Aren’t there other stories worth tracing over this rugged canvas, other reactions worth sketching out, other cracks worth starting into?
There’s someone else who this question seems to be addressed to, beyond the pages of the comic. No, not you! Well, yes, you – but I was thinking about the strange guy who’s standing behind you right now as you read this:
As with previous Dial H highlights - the Chief-Man-of-Bats slap, the recurring riffs on the idea of people benefiting from powers (which is to say from superhero characters; creations) that aren’t their own - this issue is “anti-Morrison in a Morrisonian idiom”. Thankfully, like all the best criticisms of Morrisonian worldviews, the critique transcends mere quibbling over fictional etiquette and stretches out to encompass the question of how these fictions impact the world, either in terms of who benefits from their endless regenerations or by looking at how the stories themselves mark us.
Chalky’s a good-natured young man, from what we see of him here, but he throws all of these questions into harsh relief over the course of one eventful word balloon:
Note the never-more-meaningful italics on that “YOU” there, the way it seems to lift off the wall then off the page, a series of stark white lines designed to cut. This is a plea for more complicated, understanding narratives on both sides of the window (which, remember, opens both ways) – for the sort of stories, then, that we are capable of living, writing, aspiring to. The sort of stories we like to pretend we’re interested in when we’re really into reading garbled generic fiction published by monolithic corporations – notepad scribbles, worked up into unforgiving solidity just in time for the inevitable cancelation.
So, is Chalky (G) merely a more credulous reader than most, or is he (H) actively trying to smash Open-Window-Man’s self-perception here?
Consider this the final, most obscure scribble in Dial H #13 – a Rorschach blot test built to generate associations regardless of what feelings are being brought to the interaction, a plea to consider how you apply yourself on both sides of the window (as reader/writer and as reader/person).
And if you find yourself wondering why you’d bother trying to make this sort of material interact with the world in this sort of way, rest assured that M John Harrison was there long before you, albeit with reference to certain inglorious strains of prose fiction:
The trouble is – is it worth producing that amount of iconoclastic energy to break up and let air into the hermetic escapist dreams of children? Is it worth it? Was it worth all that running around foaming at the mouth saying “this is terrible stuff”? I’m not sure it was… The Dada Art Movement was necessary in its time. It reacted against the entire monolith of established Western art – that’s a LOT. But Science Fiction wasn’t very much. It was just a little genre which nobody took very seriously, and which frankly, isn’t of much use.
If science fiction doesn’t count for much in the scale of things, how much do superhero comics matter? And yet as these narratives keep finding their demands for cash answered, doesn’t it seem reasonable to try to work out if we can do better?
Trying to make lasting systematic change in the real world is hard, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying. Making changes to how we create and consume fiction is far easier, and 33.33333333% of the time Dial H is a sneakily good vector for thinking about the how and they why of this.
Comics are just words and pictures, after all, and you can do anything with words and pictures…