Monday, December 17, 2012

I Dialed H for Hero

This summer, I became a member of a very exclusive group of comic book fans. It's so exclusive, that there are only three other members. But before I can tell you about it, I have to give you a history lesson. If you're already familiar with Dial H for Hero, feel free to skip ahead.

The 1960s was a boom time for superheroes. Between the successes of the young, hip Marvel Comics and the campy Batman TV show, publishers were racing to put out as many new superhero comics as possible, no matter how goofy. And there were few as goofy, or with as many superheroes, as Dial H for Hero.

  Arguably, the most popular superhero in the 1940s was Captain Marvel. He was a boy named Billy Batson who, when he spoke the magic word SHAZAM!, changed into the World's Mightiest Mortal. DHFH took that basic concept a step further. Boy genius Robby Reed discovered an alien device that resembled an old-fashioned telephone dial. Studying it, he learned that dialing the symbols corresponding to the letters H-E-R-O transformed him into a random superhero, until he returned to normal by dialing O-R-E-H. For a small Midwestern town like Littleville, an extraordinary number of supervillains and disasters struck in Robby's neighborhood, forcing him to become two or three different heroes in each issue of House of Mystery #156-173.

(A side note to all you young whipper-snappers with no appreciation of history. Yes, this does sound a lot like Ben 10. But DHFH came first, by about 40 years.)

I loved DHFH when I was seven, but it was cancelled soon after I started reading it. I was in college when I discovered back-issue stores, enabling me to complete my collection. Around the same time, DC Comics announced that they were bringing back DHFH -- but with a twist. Publisher Jenette Kahn had an idea for a new comic book in which the heroes and villains would be created by the readers. Writer Len Wein remembered Dial H for Hero, and thought that it would be the perfect vehicle for the new concept. (Marv Wolfman had been planning to bring back Robby Reed as a member of his New Teen Titans, but changed his plans when the new project was announced.)

The new series, running first in Adventure Comics and later as a backup in The New Adventures of Superboy, starred two middle-school students, Christopher King and Vicki Grant, who discovered their magic dials in an old attic. Unlike Robby, their transformations lasted no longer than an hour, forcing them to turn into even more heroes per issue. There were also some light high-school soap-opera subplots to connect the stories. Each issue included a form that readers could fill out to submit their own hero and villain creations. Readers whose ideas were used not only got credit in print, but also received an exclusive "I Dialed H for Hero" T-shirt. Today, those shirts are hard to find, and are something of a collector's item.

The third incarnation of DHFH was titled H-E-R-O, and it was much darker than the first two. The focus was not on the superheroes, but on the different people who used the device and how they handled potentially unlimited power. You see, no one seemed to be able to hold onto the device (it was a pushbutton gadget, not a dial, in this series) for very long. It changed hands every few issues, making this a kind of an anthology without a regular cast. Though Will Pfeifer did a fine job on the series, which began in 2002 and ran for 22 issues, I found it kind of depressing and only read it occasionally.

The device, a dial once again, came back for a fourth time this year as part of DC's "New 52." The current series, simply titled Dial H, by quirky fantasy author China Mieville, balances the goofy humor of the original with the edginess of the third, and has tied itself into continuity by bringing back some of the characters from the second. It's funny and a little bit creepy and just plain fun. The dialers this time are overweight, unemployed chain-smoker Nelson Jent, who's finding that being a hero brings purpose to his life; and elderly Roxie Hodder, who has been dialing for years while also investigating the origin of the dials. Yes, dials. It seems that there have been several of them throughout history, each with slightly different rules, and we're learning more about them every issue. After 48 years, the dial is finally getting an origin story.

This brings us back to the main topic of this post: that very exclusive group of comic book fans. There were over a hundred fans who contributed heroes and villains to the second DHFH series. Out of all of them, only four created characters that came back after that series ended.

One of those characters was the Silver Fog, created by noted SF author Harlan Ellison. He returned in the pages of Teen Titans, because -- well, because he was created by Harlan Ellison. Another was Zeep the Living Sponge, created by Stephen DeStefano, who later became a professional comics artist, and reused Zeep in the Hero Hotline series that he co-created with Bob Rozakis.

(ADDITION 01/03/13: I just learned that there's a fifth member of our little clique. Steve Mattsson,  who became a professional comic book writer, reused his character, the Flying Buttress from Adventure Comics #479, in Superboy and the Ravers and Legion of Super-Heroes. Steve appears to have lied about his age, as his Wikipedia biography says that he and I were born the same year, but his Dial H credit said he's four years younger.)

The last two were a sinister team from Adventure Comics #490 that China Mieville chose to use in the first story arc of the new Dial H series: the Squid, created by Lester English; and the Abyss, created by -- me.

I was about 20 when the second DHFH series was announced, but when I read the news, it woke up the kid in me. Being a fan of Robby Reed, I sent in lots of character ideas, hoping to become a part of Dial H history. Four of my creations were used. I'll write about the other three some other time.

I still remember how I created the Abyss. I minored in Fine Arts, and I was experimenting with different art supplies for a project. I bought a bottle of liquid frisket, a thin rubbery liquid that you apply to an area of a watercolor painting to preserve the whiteness of the paper beneath it. I sprayed a large area of paper with the liquid frisket, spattering it in tiny droplets with an old toothbrush. Then I painted a silhouette in India ink. When it dried, I wiped the frisket off of the page, and was left with what looked like a man-shaped window into outer space. Right away I thought that this would make a great DHFH hero.

My next thought was a little egotistical, I admit. I believed that, someday, someone would publish an index of all the characters that had ever appeared in DHFH, and I wanted mine to be first. So I read through the dictionary, and stopped at the first word I found that fit my creation: abyss.

The writers made a few minor changes to my submission. The Abyss that made it into print was a villain, not a hero -- which is a good thing, since he wouldn't have been revived otherwise. I imagined him as being the size of a normal human, but in the story he was a giant. And in my notes I described how he could use his space-warping powers to draw matter from distant locations -- high-pressure water from the ocean's depth, or hot magma from the earth's mantle -- but in the story, all he did was send people to other dimensions.

A couple of years later, I was at a comic book convention wearing my DHFH T-shirt. A fellow came up to me and introduced himself as Howard Bender, one of the artists on the DHFH stories. He asked me which character I had created, and he remembered the Abyss well enough to draw a sketch for me on the spot. That was really nice of him.

It was a huge kick back then, and it's just as much of a kick today to see the Abyss and the Squid back after all these years. I'm enjoying the new Dial H stories, even now that the Abyss arc is over. If you missed it, the arc is scheduled to be reprinted in a trade paperback collection in late April 2013, which should be available in major bookstores as well as most comic book shops.

I wonder where Lester English is now?