How many times have you heard the phrase “a Superman for the modern age?” This oft used, clichéd phrase gets tossed around all the time, especially when it comes to heroes that betray some effect of the modern age. Maybe they’re techies or created in some unholy fusion of YouTube videos and Monsanto products. Superheroes with semi current surface details are constantly labelled as modern day Superman. More often than not this is a falsely earned title based around shallow, meaningless details. In fact the mainstream Superhero that might actually deserve this title is Batman, but that’s an essay for another day. China Mieville’s Dial H seems to have been crafted with this common phrase in mine. Mieville’s comic series has truly created a Hero that reflects the modern day- warts and all.
The Clark Kent Factor
The mild-mannered reporter has been cast aside for Mieville’s comic, instead the protagonist is one Nelson Jent. Nelson is obese, out of work, and depressed. He’s a heavy smoker and he spends all his time on the couch. He’s a manifestation of the problems huge percentages of Americans face. If Nelson Jent is a mirror aimed at the working class American of today it is not a flattering one. Nelson’s best friend was also laid off. Instead of wallowing the way Nelson does he’s turned to crime. He works with the mob, and when the mob is trying to kill him Nelson discovers something. Nelson, having followed his friend outside, sees him getting beaten, tries to intervene, then tries to phone for help. He accidentally dials HERO on a nearby payphone. With a crackle Mieville’s first Superman appears.
The Superman Factor
When Nelson first activates the dial he is transformed into the first of many manifestations of modern problems. He becomes Boy Chimney, the avatar of pollution. Boy Chimney belches smoke and smog, his tall top-hat constantly oozing pollution. He represents both modern-day pollution and Nelson’s smoking tendencies. Nelson transforms into a new being every time he uses the dial, and each one is similarly representative of some modern day problem. He transforms into Captain Lachrymose, a manifestation of his depression and the depression if the larger world. He transforms into Control-Alt-Delete, humanities obsession with the interned made tangible. He transforms into The Iron Snail, a over-the-top condemnation of America’s war-mongering. He transforms into Baroness Resin, perhaps society’s revaluation of gender turned physical. He transforms into Cock-a-Hoop, which at first seems like a simple gimmick but may be a message regarding the fast food industry. He turns into Chief Mighty Arrow, who is blatantly used to discuss casual racism. And then he turns back into Nelson.
One of the important themes of Dial H is personal identity. The transformations that Nelson goes through come with new memories and new personalities. Each of these beings are just that- fully formed people with minds of their own. It takes Nelson a lot of effort to maintain his sense of self through all this. He struggles with his depression and obesity. I’m fact the entire first arc sees Nelson fighting his own depression, which takes physical form as The Abyss.
China Mieville’s use of Superhero imagery is absolutely fascinating. Instead of simple wish fulfilment he perverts the Superman dichotomy- for Nelson becoming a superhero isn’t an escape, it’s a grim reminder of the changing world. Most of the transformations seems negative, but some of them may not be (the gender-bending one, for instance, challenges Nelson’s preconceptions and seems like his reaction might be the critique, not the transformation itself). China Mieville brilliantly takes the concept of a Modern-Superman to it’s logical conclusion, creating a brilliant commentary on the modern world.