Overcoming steampunk stereotypes: How I learned to stop caring and love China Miéville’s “Dial H”

In case the fact that I have recently rebranded my Star Trek Blog into a place for all things terribly obsessive, I’ve lived a relatively pop culture soaked life. Whether I was spending all of my limited time on the internet compiling lists of comics, anime, music and movies that I needed to get a hold of or spending entire pay checks on books of modern criticism and social theory and Dungeons and Dragons sourcebooks.

That being said, just being able to look stuff up wasn’t the optimal solution for a budding obsessive. I had my weekly connection to the newest DC publications and a subscription to Rolling Stone that was only just beginning to piss me off but that was only second to what I was really waiting for every month.

That was Dragon magazine, the now defunct publication from Paizo publishing that offered “100% Official Dungeons and Dragons Content” on the cheap for those that were otherwise stuck buying $40 sourcebooks and then putting tons of time into learning the arcane, often fairly complicated rule sets. Dragon magazine offered all of that in a quicker, more contemporary and varied format that gave everything at least some of what they wanted and could use. For people like me that were looking for cool new stuff to constantly add to their game, it was a godsend.

And that’s why for many years, China Miéville ruined a solid month of my life when in Dragon #352, he consumed a month of my life with content that I would never be able to use.

Now, I know that I was being a dick. I shouldn’t be angry when a magazine decides to dedicate an issue to a influential, innovative and successful fantasy author who was combining steampunk and swords and sorcery in interesting ways. It was something that many players could integrate into their campaigns and enjoy. Me, I was running a rigidly traditional Forgotten Realms campaign (yeah, I was a big R.A. Salvatore fan) that was focused almost entirely on Tolkien-esque fantasy mixed with just a dash of Robert E. Howard’s dungeon-crawling and a healthy dose of undead creatures with links to otherworldly Lovecraftian gods. Naturally, I thought I was far too good to integrate robotic creatures, evil flying imps or semi-sentient half robotic swords that defied physics.

For years, I blamed China Miéville for giving me a shitty issue of a magazine and I only felt more cheated when Dragon ended up going out of publication later that year. I would try to read one of his most celebrated books “The Scar” a year later, and I was still too angry about Dragon’s cancelation to get through it and read one of the smartest fantasy books of the last decade.

Four and a half years after my beloved magazine’s cancellation, I still hadn’t gotten through an entire Miéville book when suddenly he reinserted himself back into my life. As DC began to relaunch the second wave of The New 52, letting one of my least favorite writers complete one of the best series of the last decade, kicking Rob Liefeld off of some shitty books and giving him one of my favorites and pretty much just try to ape Marvel’s “Runaways,” I came to find out that Miéville was being given a shot at my most beloved comic universe. His “Dial H” wasn’t too connected to the established DC cannon that I had invested so much of my time in but it still felt like an intrusion.

That being said, I picked up the recently released first issue of “Dial H,” partially because I’ll read the first issue of just about anything (yes, I even broke my own rules to read this monstrosity. And this one) but also, I desperately wanted to get over my problems with Miéville. I wanted to get over my preconceptions and deal with something that was a little outside my wheelhouse. I don’t know that I’m comfortable with where I ended up but I’m intrigued to see more.

I liked the first issue of “Dial H.” I really did. I had heard good things about the 2003 revamp of the series. That being said, the art always felt really wrong to me, awfully cartoony instead of being dark, stylized and atmospheric, which seemed especially wrong when the whole series focussed on the problems that the average city dwellers come to when they become heroes.

Miéville manages the balance much better, mostly with the help of Mateus Santoluoco, who has done art for “American Vampire,” is able to make the world fresh, wonderfully confusing, atmospheric and very memorable.

The premise of “Dial H” (guy walks into a phone-booth, dials H-E-R-O, morphs into a different superhero every time) isn’t a new one but the twists Miéville ads to the formula make it something that needs to be picked up, at least for the next couple of months. Nelson, the morbidly obese unemployed 20-something, still recovering from his cigarette smoking caused heart attack steps into the booth while his drug dealing friend is attacked by thugs, he changes to Boy Chimney, smothering everyone in the alley in endless clouds of noxious smoke. As he becomes more and more fascinated by the powers of the booth and what he’s capable of, he’s drawn back to the booth and experiences the power all over again.

As has always been the case with the variations of “Dial H,” what’s interesting isn’t the heroes or the crime fighting, its the man who steps into the booth. Nelson manages to to be entirely different from the young pretty boys who have formerly gained power in the booth. He’s more flawed in a thoroughly modern and physical sense, showing an entirely new side to the hero, one who is killing himself every second he’s not saving everyone else.

“Dial H” is ambitious, maybe not as ambitious as Jeff Lemire’s recent work but it is certainly one of the most visually distinctive books that DC is releasing and they seem to be putting some of their best talent on it and in a lineup that’s packed with little but disposable popcorn books and overly-gory schlock titles with the rare moments of thoughtful creation, “Dial H” certainly offers something very different, although it may only be something that longtime fans of the medium will appreciate.

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