China Miéville Dials S for Social Criticism

This week DC Comics relaunched an obscure superhero title called Dial H for Hero. The original series ran from 1966–1968 as a feature in DC’s House of Mystery. Its premise was that each time the precocious teenager Robby Reed dialed the letters O-R-E-H into a mystical rotary dial telephone, he became a new and different superhero for a few hours, each time with a new name, powers, and costume. The series had two reboots in 1981 and 2003 that were even shorter-lived than the original. Admittedly, it’s a comic only the dorkiest of the dorky have cared about. But its third reboot has a distinctly radical flavor.

What makes the new Dial H exciting is that its left-wing science fiction and fantasy author China Miéville’s first foray into the world of comics. Miéville describes himself as an “actual, genuine Trotskyist,” has served on the central committee of the British Socialist Workers Party, and stood as a candidate for Parliament on a left unity ticket in 2001. And while these particular sectarian credentials might naturally lead many of us to skepticism, he’s actually quite young and hip.

Miéville writes left politics into the DNA of baroque fantasy novels. The series that made him famous (among geeks anyway) is his Bas-Lag trilogy, set in a world the Believer called, “Middle Earth meets Dickensian London on really good acid.” Perdido Street Station, the first in the series, is primarily a surreal admixture of a crime and horror story aesthetically colored with steampunk, fantastical pseudoscience, and captivating if unsettling baroquerie.

Miéville’s socialist sensibilities can’t help but rise to the surface. A central theme in Perdido Street Station is how the rich criminalize the poor. The fictional city of New Crubuzon is marked by tremendous class divisions and is heavily populated by an underclass called the ReMade — poor people who have been magically altered into disturbing chimaeras of human, animal, and machine for their poverty-inspired crimes. It’s also worth noting that the novel’s protagonist is essentially a Communist mad scientist. Its sequel The Scar is a high fantasy adventure story set in a floating city made of boats that pirates have fastened together. Miéville’s left-wing preoccupations become central to the plot when a conflict between organized working people and the floating city’s government determines the fate of the city. The trilogy’s final installment is the most socialist of all. marries a naked allegory of the Paris Commune to a Wild West fantasy adventure about railroad workers and sex workers successfully overthrowing capitalism then throws in elements of the Golem myth.

The same left-wing/fantastic aesthetic has already asserted itself in the first issue of Dial H. Artist Mateus Santolouco opens the story with a vista of a rundown industrial town. The narration reads, “Littleville. Gotta love it. It’s had better days. But who hasn’t?” The city’s condition is tied to the condition of the protagonist Nelse. Like many of us, he is an unemployed millennial. The reader learns that since losing his job and girlfriend, the once curious and athletic Nelse has become dangerously obese and devoid of interests. Though under thirty, he just suffered a heart attack. The economy is literally killing him.

He encounters the H-Dial as an anachronistic pay phone when trying to call for help for a friend, a thug in the employ of organized crime, who is being beaten by other thugs for failure to perform a work task. As Nelse tries to dial 911, he finds himself transformed into a grim and whimsical Victorian figure named Chimney Boy. He uses the seemingly sentient smoke billowing from his top hat to form smoke gorillas and smoke wolves which nearly asphyxiate his friend’s attackers. The weirdness continues from there.

As Dial H continues, I expect the effect of the hollowing out of the Rust Belt on human lives to be a major theme. Miéville has expressed an interest in exploring this theme in the superhero genre before. Dig this rejected pitch from his tumblr:

The economic crisis bites. Flinton, MI, was built on industry, and the industry’s gone, since by far the city’s dominant company took the stimulus cheque, attacked wages, outsourced more and more, then finally all, R&D and production overseas. Flinton, like so many other towns, is dying.

An extraordinary figure in bizarre makeshift power armour the colours of rust and hazard-warning yellow has appeared, fighting burglars, thieves, drug-dealers, graffiti-taggers. Flashback: he’s Dan, an ex-worker in one of the high-tech heavy defence plants, horrified at the social breakdown, going through the many scrapheaps of the town and cobbling together his suit from industrial junk, trying to save his home.

It’s unclear how well Miéville’s brand of fantastic social criticism will do with fans of a genre some whose principle characters are Tony Stark (who’s actually the villain in Miéville’s rejected pitch) and Bruce Wayne. My friend who reviewed it for the local comic book store in Lexington, Kentucky, was unimpressed and I doubt my home store ordered very many issues. The weirdness of Miéville’s fiction is probably also a barrier to its success with the spandex crowd who remain primarily interested in spandex. If the book takes off, it will be because it develops a cult following amongst people who don’t usually read superhero comics. (Hint: this could be where Jacobin readers come in.)

However, the book does have some hope for attracting traditional comics fans. It’s notable that the book is being published as part of DC’s (stupidly-named) “Dark” group of comics which is the contemporary heir to the “mature” superhero and fantasy titles published under DC’s Vertigo imprint in the 1980s. These frequently surreal books often featured left-liberal social criticism. Neil Gaiman’s legendary series Sandman, which was about infinite god-like figures who embodied abstract nouns, went out of its way to denounce violence against queer people. In Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, the eponymous protagonist was a working class vegetarian who, between increasingly surreal and metatextual adventures, spent his time involved in animal rights struggles. Morrison also had Animal Man team up with anti-apartheid superhero Freedom Beast to fight the racist South African government. Miéville’s new comic may succeed at tapping into these works’ left-progressive/surreal juju and extending it into an artistic critique of political economy. Perhaps the small but loyal audience of titles like these will extend its allegiance to Miéville as well.