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Comicbook: Dial H For HERO

Question: What series features a boy finding a device that allows him to change into random superpowered forms, and deciding to use it to become a superhero?

If you answered Ben 10, well, you'd be right. But decades before that show premiered, the concept was used in a DC Comics series titled Dial H For Hero.

The series began as a feature in DC's House of Mystery anthology comic, in 1966. In it, a teenager named Robby Reed finds a disk with a dial like that of a phone on it (back when phones used rotary disks). It had alien letters on it that Robby managed to translate. By dialing words on it, Robby found that he would transform into a superhero. The catch: he became a different hero each time—usually completely original ones, though he once turned into Plastic Man. Robby used the dial to battle crime around his small Colorado hometown. The series did not last long. It appeared in House of Mystery #156-173 (January, 1966-March, 1968). Robby had a guest appearance in Plastic Man vol. 2 #13 (June-July, 1976) but was otherwise forgotten.

The concept was however revived in the 1980s in Adventure Comics, another DC anthology series. The premise was now being used to showcase superhero characters that comics fans were sending to DC comics! Written by Marv Wolfman (who was at the same time having great success with another teenage superhero series, Teen Titans) the new version had two teenagers, a boy and a girl (in order to use hero characters of both genders, obviously) named Chris King and Vicky Grant, from a town in New England, who find similar devices in a "haunted house" (Chris's was a wristwatch, Vicky's was a locket) with only four letters in them (H-E-R-O) which allowed them to change into random heroes but only for a limited time period. Supposedly, a "wizard" left them there for them to find. Meanwhile, a mysterious figure known only as "The Master" kept sending super villains (also invented by fans) to try to get the Dials.

Eventually, Chris and Vicky find that (at least some) of the heroes they transform into were being invented by a classmate as a hobby! (this may have been a nod to the series' Audience Participation.) Further, they discover that the Master and the Wizard are actually two halves of the same person... ROBBY REED! Turns out that one of Robby's transformations caused him to split into good and evil halves, and the evil one had caused the Hero Dial to vanish. The Wizard created the new dials for Chris and Vicky so they could keep The Master busy while he looked for the original. Having found it, The Wizard used it to merge with The Master back into Robby. The series ended with Robby deciding to retire and giving his Dial to the kid whose ideas were being used in the transformations.

During the Dark Age of comics, the "Dial H" characters suffered a lot. Chris and Vicky lost control of their powers and Vicky joined a cult that abused her (which storyline was written by Wolfman himself over in Teen Titans). Vicky's dial later showed up in the 1990s series Superboy and the Ravers, where it was claimed by the gay Latino character Hero Cruz. At around the same time (in real world terms; a thousand years in the future in-story) a Hero-Dial of unknown origin was given to Lori Morning, the Threeboot Legion of Super-Heroes' Tagalong Kid, by the Time Trapper.

The original dial was lost to them and passed through many hands, usually ruining the lives of those who used it, in a 00's series titled "H-E-R-O". Eventually Robby himself showed up, having been granted permanent low level powers from long term exposure to the dial, and in the end the Dial was lost in time and space.

Robbie and the Dial both turned up in a 2009 issue of The Brave and the Bold comic book, though that story seems set in the past, as Robbie is still an innocent teenager in it.

In May 2012 a new version of Dial H For Hero, titled simply Dial H, and written by China Miéville, was introduced as one of the second wave of New 52 titles, rebooting the canon. It introduced a new dial, this one identical to an actual rotary phone dial, and two new wielders. The first was Nelson Jent, who had lost his job, let himself go to seed, and was on the path to self-destruction, and the second was Roxie "Manteau" Hodder, an occultly trained electrical engineer who acted as his mentor. It was cancelled the following year, after sixteen issues. A postscript issue, titled Dial E, followed as part of DC's "Villains Month" event.

This comic series was also the inspiration behind Dial B For Blog, a comic "blogazine" in which Robby (usually Jokerized) is the Author Avatar of Kirk Kimball.


Tropes featured in the series:

  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: The serial killer in H-E-R-O used one of these through his power to use any superpower he could think of. When police come across one of his victims, their first question is "How could somebody do this?" Not morally, but physically, how is it possible to cut someone so evenly and neatly?
  • Adventure Duo: Chris and Vicky.
    • Nelson and Manteau.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The dials in all the series have a tendency to just give the worst super heroes or in some cases super villains.
  • Alliterative Name: Robby Reed.
  • And the Adventure Continues: Dial H ended halfway between this and Bittersweet Ending, with Nelson, Roxanne and the surviving members of the Dial Bunch having defeated their main enemies, but temporarily trapped in a devastated reality and uncertain if they'd ever make it back to their original homes.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: Exactly how the dial works, or its origin, was never explained in the original series. Dial H eventually explained that the Dials were created by a civilisation in another dimension as a means of social and technological progression, by copying things from throughout the multiverse. The civilisation was destroyed by an alliance of cultures upset at the use of their intellectual property, and the Dials scattered.
    • There appears to be different dials with different functions. One dial calls "H for Help" and summons sidekicks which have to answer to heroes, another can call "G for Gear." One dial copies the powers of nearby dials, and one can be used to jump from world to world by dialing "J for Jump."
    • In Chris and Vicky's team-up with Superman (DC Comics Presents #44), the dials were implied to be magical as their powers affected (Pre Crisis) Superman.
  • Ascended Extra: As it turns out, both Abyss and the Squid in the current Dial H series were both one-shot villains from Adventure Comics #490, which was during the Chris King and Vicki Grant era.
  • The Atoner: Bansa of the Dial Bunch. She had no idea she was stealing powers from other heroes and most likely sought out Open-Window Man as a form of Suicide by Cop.
  • Audience Participation: Readers were encouraged to send in hero ideas, with wildly varying results. Notably, Harlan Ellison sent a suggestion in (the Silver Fog, appearing in Adventure Comics #479).
  • Awesome, but Impractical: The zero issue of Dial H shows an ancient Babylonian version of the H-Dial: a huge stone sundial. In order to activate it, the extremely heavy slab of stone must be moved four days in a row so (the equivalent of) "H-E-R-O" is spelled out by the characters that are shadowed at noon.
  • Big Applesauce: Averted, the series were set in small towns up until H-E-R-O, and even then only some of the dial's users lived in big cities.
  • Captain Ethnic: Nelson spends a whole day not allowed to go outside because he dialed up Chief Mighty Arrow, a really offensive Native American caricature.
    • Call Back: Robby Reed actually dialed this hero during the Silver Age.
  • Captain Ersatz: Open-Window Man is one of Batman. He is specifically a man named Jed Oliver who saw his parents get killed in an alleyway and learned all about open windows for the sake of gaining a symbol.
  • Cool Old Lady: Manteau.
  • Darker and Edgier: Dial H, a revision along the same lines as Doom Patrol, The Sandman, Black Orchid, and the other DC titles which were transplanted to Vertigo Comics. Though China Mieville has lampshaded that this technique is not new. That said, its inherent goofiness was still a big part of its appeal in contrast to the serious nature of the majority of the New 52.
  • Deconstruction: Dial H #6 features Nelson and Roxie discussing Captain Ethnic, Stripperiffic, and other superhero costume/concept tropes that would, realistically, cause more bad press than good.
  • Fifth Week Event: DC's "Silver Age" comics crossover involved Robby and the Dial (transforming the Justice League of America into NEW heroes!)
  • Formerly Fit: Nelson Jent.
  • Future Loser: Robby Reed in H-E-R-O, a convict divorced from his childhood sweetheart and thought insane by everyone he knows.
  • Gender Bender: Turns up less often than you might think:
    • In one story, Chris King became the shapeshifter "Any-Body," and then used his power to take on the shape of Naiad, a villainess, in order to trick another bad guy.
    • In H-E-R-O, one man is turned into a female superhero by the dial and loses it before he can change himself back.
    • Again in Dial H #3, when Nelson Jent becomes Baroness Resin. The dialogue implies that Gender Bending only happens when the dial is broken, explaining it's rarity.
  • Grand Theft Me: Implied when Robby turned into the pre-existing hero Plastic Man, though the issue isn't directly addressed.
    • In Plastic Man Vol. 2 #13, Plastic Man faces off against Robby, who uses the dial to turn into his previous forms, including Plastic Man himself (much to the real Plas's confusion).
    • Confirmed in Dial H. Every hero a dialer calls actually exists on some world, though the dial only saps their powers for an unknown amount of time, and the dialer sometimes retains memories and dreams from the hero.
  • Heel-Face Revolving Door: Vicki Grant succumbed to some dark urges when she left Fairfax and Chris when the two were old enough for college, joining the villainous cult the Children of the Sun in the pages of NewTeenTitans. She later appeared in Superboy And The Ravers hunting down Hero Cruz for stealing her dial, but it appeared Hero may have been able to snap Vicki back to her old state of mind. She was reportedly recovering with heroine Sparx's family, but she later reappeared as a villain in Wonder Woman.
  • Heart Is an Awesome Power: A number of the powers shown seem incredibly useless initially but turn out to be really effective.
    • Case in point, Open-Window Man. He can travel through open windows and subdues enemies with his "Defenestration Punch." He's Batman with super powers and if he had been inspired by an open window.
      • That's exactly who he is.
  • Hero of Another Story: Dial H has implied that the personas the dialers become are actually heroes from other worlds. The zero issue supports this when Laodice, a Babylonian wielder of an ancient precursor to the dial, is attacked by Bumper Carla, a hero she became years ago. Carla explains that when Laodice called her away from her world, it was ravaged by an attack from a villain, and had Carla not been plucked away, she could've prevented it.
    • Confirmed as of Flash 18 and 19, and Dial H 11, where the Dial takes the powers of The Flash
    • It's later revealed the dials are supposed to copy powers, not steal them, and only a few dials have actually stolen powers and memories from heroes.
  • Hive Mind: Manteau dials the Planktonian, a hero made up of millions of sentient plankton to form an energy being, and the Fixer dials what appears to be a group of sentient balloons with faces drawn on them.
  • Homage: Dial H is a loving homage, right down to the art style, to Darker and Edgier late-eighties/early-nineties Vertigo Comics reworkings of old DC titles.
  • Hour of Power: Robby's dial had vague restrictions on its use; there was some ill-defined time limit to how long he would remain a given hero, and how long he had to wait before dialing again after time ran out. Chris and Vicky's dials had a flat one hour time limit on heroes. This didn't carry on into H-E-R-O, where the only way to turn back to normal is to dial out.
  • The Joy of X: The idea probably came from the title of the movie "Dial M for Murder".
  • Killed Off for Real: Boy Chimney, as revealed in issue 13.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: The Other Wiki's page lists every transformation the dials were ever used for, totaling over 200!
  • Metafictional Device: The Dials allowed comic fans to see their creations in a comic, if only once.
  • Most Common Superpower: Lampshaded in H-E-R-O, when a man is turned into a female hero. He tries on his girlfriend's clothes and finds that none of her shirts or bras fit.
  • Muggle Power: H-E-R-O opens with Jerry Feldon talking about how worthless he felt after he saw Superman in person. "He's everything and I'm nothing!"
  • New Powers as the Plot Demands: Justified, given the concept of the series.
  • Not Wearing Tights: The Centipede is pretty unhappy when his original government handlers try to get him to act like a superhero, with a goofy and sinister arthropod helmet. Although he does find some of the technology built into it useful.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The entire first arc of the latest series focused on this trope. It expands on one-shot villain Abyss, explaining that it's a living void which feeds off light and matter. Also, it's one of an entire species of voids that are studied and trained by Squid's people. The villain Ex Nihilo is a mage who studies nullomancy, as in the magic of nothingness. She literally works with nothing, and had been studying coma victims for the power of their empty minds by manipulating the void within them to try and contact Abyss. She's also been hunting down the witnesses who were there the day Abyss and Squid appeared in Fairfax, and wipes out their minds by filling their heads with Abyss's residue.
  • Our Demons Are Different: Unbled of the Dial Bunch is a literal red-skinned devil from Hell who found a half-broken dial.
    • Chris King once dialed Red Devil, with the power to turn into any classical demon.
  • Personality Powers: In Dial H #1, it appears the superhero identities which manifest through the dial act as personifications for aspects of the dialer's personality; Boy Chimney represents Nelson Jent's cigarette smoking, Captain Lachrymose his depression. This doesn't appear to be the case later on, though the briefly-seen Holepunch may have been based on Nelson's former career as a boxer.
  • Power Incontinence: Dwan of the Dial Bunch is stuck on auto-dial.
  • Power Loss Makes You Strong: When Nelson has to rescue Roxie but his dial has stopped working, he creates the identity of "Rescue Jack" with a Cheap Costume, Molotov cocktails, and a big wrench to hit people with. It's pointed out that it only works because he was fighting non-powered mooks who were already nervous about having to face superheroes.
  • Production Throwback: In the first issue of Dial H, Robby Reed, Chris King, and Vicki Grant are glimpsed through Boy Chimney's smoke vision. Word of God from China Mieville has explained that the series will have numerous Easter Egg references to the previous stories, but has neither confirmed nor denied whether the previous dial owners will have a bigger connection to the series.
    • While never mentioned by name, the third issue features X.N. and the Squid attacking a man named "Mr. King", whose brother was responsible for witnessing an event involving the Squid's partner in the town of Fairfax. It's blatantly clear X.N. is referring to Chris and Vicki.
    • Dialer Yaaba makes mention of a dial user who won a battle as an immobile rag doll, which may be a callback to Vicki Grant.
  • Punchy Love: Vicky's personality.
  • Refusal of the Call: When asked by Robby to join him in hunting down the Dial's current, serial killer user, Jerry's initial reaction is to blow him off. That is, until Robby shows him he still has powers and that he's still a part of this. "Are you going to be a guy with superpowers, or are you going to be a hero?"
  • Recycled INSPACE: With Ben 10.
  • Self-Duplication: The Centipede has this as his superpower, after a failed time-travel experiment made it possible for multiple slightly-different quantum possibilities of him to simultaneously exist.
  • Shout-Out: One of the Dial Bunch channels a hero who is able to create distracting illusions which say "odradek" in a seeming homage to Franz Kafka.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Adding Vicky to the series.
  • Split Personality Merge: Commented on as a danger of excessive dial use in Dial H.
  • Squick: Invoked in canon in the issue where Nelson turns into Chief Mighty Arrow, in which Manteau explains that she's outright rejected and not used certain "heroes" created by the dial because they had Unfortunate Implications (such as, presumably, the unseen Golliwog and SS Ilsa), or because their nature or powers were downright unpleasant (such as, presumably, the unseen Dr. Cloaca and Kid Torture).
  • Starfish Character: Robby Reed.
  • Stout Strength: Nelson Jent is fat, but strong, though unlike many examples he was once fit and has since gained a lot of weight. He's self-conscious about it and embarrassed to go to the gym.
  • Super Empowering: The dials turn normal people into superheros by default, in H-E-R-O, everyone who uses the dial is left with some kind of permanent powers, including Robby.
  • Super Power Lottery: The dial usually gives you cool powers of some kind, but, as Robby says in H-E-R-O #15, "every so often, the device coughs up what I call a jackpot."
  • Super Zeroes: Sometimes the heroes aren't quite up to snuff. Robbie suffered from lame transformations the most — on one occasion he thought the Hero Dial was actually making fun of him after it turned him into three ridiculous heroes in a row.
    • In H-E-R-O, Jerry specifically razzes the heroes Robby would turn into. Granted, Robby gave examples like King Kandy and the Mighty Moppet.
    • In Dial H Nelson and Roxie both received some odd-ball heroes both past and present. Nelson still puts one to really good use despite the dial being broken and his failure transformations during the battle.
  • Take Our Word for It: Some of the heroes Manteau dialed but never used because they were so offensive.
  • Take That:
    • One of the offensive or creepy heroes mentioned by Manteau but not shown, Golliwog, is almost certainly a shot at Alan Moore for his use of a Golliwog character in some later parts of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and his somewhat dubious claims to be "reclaiming" what was good about the character from racists.
    • Dial H #13 includes a criticism of Bruce Wayne for beating up criminals instead of using his power to change society positively.
    • The Exchange was destroyed by cultures from other dimensions who were unhappy with the Exchange copying their stuff. They formed up into two armies called the Material Protection Alterity Army and the Rapid Interreality Assault Alliance.
  • Technology Marches On: Is there any device today that uses rotary disks? Other than combination locks.
    • Lampshaded in Dial H #2, as Nelson wonders about this.
  • Title Drop: The first trade paperback for Dial H is titled Into You, which appears in the actual comic during a scene where Nelson's Dial is broken and he protests to Squid that he can only change into himself; Squid replies, "Into you? That'll have to do."
  • The Vamp / Ice Queen: Interestingly played with the heroine Frosty from the Adventure Comics era. She has the power to make things turn brittle and shatter like glass just by giving an icy glance. However, her costume is made up of warm colors and don't give the impression that her powers are ice-related. She seems to be a play on the concept of a beautiful woman that can destroy things just by looking at them.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: In his second adventure as Giant Boy, the first hero he ever turned into, Robby was poisoned. He turned back, but feared that if he turned into Giant Boy again he would die.
  • Whole Episode Flashback: The #0 issue of Dial H is an entirely self-contained story set in ancient Babylon, with none of the usual regular characters.
  • Wild Mass Guessing: Is the Omnitrix an Alternate Continuity Hero Dial?


Demon KnightsDC Comics SeriesDoom Patrol
The DefendersSuperheroDoctor Fate
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. AgentsThe SixtiesAgent 13

alternative title(s): Dial H For Hero
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