Dial H for Hero is a comic series written by China Mieville, whose day job is writing, I think, steam-punk novels. I’ve never read one, but maybe I should, judging from the quality of his comic writing.
The comic is a revival of a DC series from the 60s that has quite a cult following, about a teen-aged boy named Robby Reed who finds a telephone that gives him superpowers. All he has to do is dial H-E-R-O and he finds himself transformed–the catch being, it’s only for a short while, and he has no idea what set of powers he’ll gain until he has them. Often, the powers are spectacularly wrong for the situation he’s facing, and the fun is in seeing how Robby figures out who he can apply them to overcoming that issue’s villain or complication.
Mr. Mieville moves the action to the current day, and sets it in a run-down Midwestern industrial town, where Nelson Jent, a slovenly out-of-work loser, discovers a pay phone when on the run from some mobsters his buddy owes money to. He tries calling for help, only to discover he’s turned into Chimney Boy, the first of many improbable, comical heroes he’ll become in the following issues.
Along the way, he meets Manteau, an elderly lady who has a dial of her own, and who has secretly fought her own war against crime in the town for many years while researching the nature of the dial. One senses she’s inspired by the youthful reinvigoration of her various heroic incarnations as much as by a desire to help the downtrodden.
The latest issue finds Nelson stuck at home after the dial turns him into Chief Mighty Arrow, an embarrassingly un-PC hero who’s mission is fighting heap big crime. Manteau shares with him some of her more mortifying transformations over the years–Doctor Cloaca, Captain Priapus, etc. In the end, Chief Mighty Arrow’s flying horse thwarts a band of kidnappers in a disgusting, but horsily-appropriate way. Let’s just say you know what birds do if you leave your convertible under a tree, so imagine the damage a flying horse could cause.
The series is intelligently written and funny, in an absurdist sort of way. It requires no prior knowledge of the earlier series or other DC comics. For someone with at least a general appreciation of superhero comics an an off-beat sense of humor, Dial H for Hero makes for some quite enjoyable reading.