Admit it – we’ve all wished we had super powers at some point in our lives. Some of us may have hoped that the itsy-bitsy spider that bit us when we were a kid was actually radioactive, or that the perennial haze in Malaysia was actually Terrigen mist, here to turn us into Inhumans.
If these creative theories have ever crosses your mind, chances are DC’s Dial H for Hero adventures would be your cup of tea.
In case you have never heard of this magical Dial, just imagine the universal remote in Adam Sandler’s Click, but with the power to transform any zero to literal superhero. All you have to do is dial/press/type the letters H-E-R-O in order and voila! You will be granted a random temporary superpower, complete with costumes and even different genders!
While the title of the series pays homage to the 1950s Alfred Hitchcock Dial M For Murder crime mystery, the main suspense here comes from the random super powers granted in every adventure. There are times they are super cool and sometime just plain ridiculous, which explains the turbulent state of this 55-year-old franchise.
This week we revisit the Dial’s roots and evolution, while pondering whether Dials are still in fashion in this modern age of smart phones!
Dial H for Hero made its debut in House of Mystery #156 (January 1966), courtesy of co-creators Dave Wood (writer) and Jim Mooney (artist). The protagonist of the series is Robert “Robby” Reed, a highly intelligent (but also highly annoying) teenager who finds the Dial in a cavern.
Using the device, which resembles a rotary telephone dial, Robby is transformed into a different super-powered being each time he dials the letters H-E-R-O. To revert to human form, he has to dial O-R-E-H.
So, with unexpected powers come great responsibilities, and Robby thus becomes the self-appointed guardian of Littleville, Colorado.
In later stories, we learned that the Dial can also be used to “dial” other transformations like V-I-L-L-I-A-N, H-O-R-R-O-R, etc. But by virtue of it being synonymous with H-E-R-O-ic acts, it is commonly referred to as the “H-Dial”.
Wondering what “heroes” the Dial actually produces? Well, Robby alone has transformed into the likes of (deep breath): the Squid, Quake-Master, King Coil, Hornet-Man, Shadow-Man, Mighty Moppet, King Kandy, Future-Man, Human Bullet, Super-Charge, the Mole, Mr. Echo, Hypno-Man, the Cometeer, the Human Starfish, and even a doppelganger of Plastic Man!
Post-Robby, the H-Dial’s other beneficiaries (including the Justice League) further contributed to the proliferation of heroic characters.
While its House of Mystery stint lasted only 17 issues, Dial H for Hero was given a new lease of life in 1981 by Marv Wolfman and Carmine Infantino, starting with a special insert in Legion of Super-Heroes #272, before sharing the pages in Adventure Comics (#479-#490) and New Adventures of Superboy (#28-#49).
The biggest draw this time around was allowing readers to submit their own suggestions of hero and villain characters to be used in the stories. Successful contributors were credited (by way of a T-shirt with the series logo), but the characters end up as DC Comics’ property.
When Robby wielded it, the H-Dial’s potential was confined to his Littleville exploits. Wolfman and Infantino, however, introduced two other H-Dials and two new “Dialers” – teenagers Christopher “Chris” King and Victoria “Vicki” Grant, and relocated the action from Littleville to the New England town of Fairfax.
Most notably, the Dials were given a makeover – Chris’ came in the form of a watch, while Vicki’s was a necklace. The H-E-R-O modus operandi remained, but the gifted powers were now restricted to just one hour.
Sadly, despite the massive overhaul, the Dial H franchise was cast back into into limbo, with only brief appearances in the pages of the New Teen Titans (vol.2) #45, Superboy & The Ravers #5 (1997) and DC’s 2000 Silver Age crossover event with a returning Robby applying the Dial’s effects on the Justice League.
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For me, the 2003 H.E.R.O regular series (which also happens to be the 1st solo outing for the Dial H franchise) was the game changer, as Will Pfeifer (writer) and Kano (art) injected modern day realism into the application of the H-Dial.
The series shelved Robby from the main protagonist role, instead allowing average Joes and Janes the opportunity to dial in, albeit with humorous and drastic circumstances!
Lasting a decent 22 issues, this series featured several standalone tales with a common nexus at the end of the run. Frankly, you can ignore all the past (and even future) Dial H tales and just stick to this series.
Surprisingly, Dial H was part of DC’s 2012 New 52 initiative but what’s even more surprising is that they ignored Pfeifer’s proven formula.
The creative team, however, boasted the talents of highly-acclaimed sci-fi and fantasy author China Miéville and the art of Mateus Santolouco. Together, they turned the H-Dial from a mere dial to a, er, phone booth! (Go look up what it is, kids).
Other far-fetched changes they included was the introduction of an S-Dial (for sidekicks), a J-Dial (for world-jumping purposes!), a G-Dial (to summon any technological gadget), a Dial-Tapper (to copy any H-Dial in range), and the Auto-Dialer.
To sum it up, even the usually enticing Brian Bolland covers couldn’t quite connect readers to this series.
The latest attempt at reviving Dial H was 2019’s Dial H For Hero, part of the Wonder Comics imprint for younger readers. Two new protagonists in Miguel Montez and Summer Pickens were chosen to champion the Dial with Robby back in a mentor role.
Overall, this 12-issue series by Sam Humphries (writer) and Joe Quinones (artist) was just a tad over-adventurous, as it tried to cram past and present DC milestone events, various genres and shifting art style into a dozen issues. While this was a very bold attempt at modernising the Dial H franchise, the idea of forcefully ramming down nostalgia down unfamiliar readers’ throats was just too much.
Reflecting on the Dial H tales and revamps, I feel that the franchise’s Achilles heel is Robby himself and his trademark “Sockamagee” phrase. I feel its time future Dial H revamps be given a clean slate, taking out Robby and his Sockamagee baggage, like what Marvel did with Nova, in which they gradually removed the original Nova (Richard Rider) from present continuity. For now, let’s hope we all find a H-Dial lying somewhere at home while spring cleaning!