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Comic Book / Dial H for Hero

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Question: What series features a boy finding a device that allows him to change into various 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, having a preview established as a special insert in issue 272, volume 2 of Legion of Super-Heroes, afterwards becoming a full-issue feature in issues 479-490 of Adventure Comics, another DC anthology series, before eventually being reduced to a back-up feature in issues 28-49 of New Adventures of Superboy. 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 Comic Books, the "Dial H" characters suffered a lot. Chris and Vicky lost control of their powers and Vicky joined a cult that abused her (in a storyline 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 by Will Pfeifer 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.

The 2000 Silver Age event, set during the titular era of comics, included a Dial H For Hero one-shot featuring Robby and the Dial, and had them play an important part in the event's climax. They also turned up in a 2009 issue of The Brave and the Bold comic book, though that story seems set in the past as well, as Robby is still an innocent teenager in it. Robby also appears in an issue of Teen Titans Go!, the comic book tie-in for Teen Titans (2003).

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.

A new Dial H For Hero series began in 2019 as part of DC's youth-oriented imprint Wonder Comics, under the pen of Sam Humphries with art by Joe Quinones. This time the Dial falls in hands of Miguel Montez, a small town teenager, who alongside rebellious runaway Summer Pickens embarks on delivering it to the only person who can protect it from falling into wrong hands: Superman. Unfortunately for them, Mister Thunderbolt has assembled a new Thunderbolt Gang out of the many people in the world who want their hour of power back. Originally planned as a six-issue miniseries, it was extended into a twelve-issue maxiseries.

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? Answer? Telekinesis used as an impossibly thin plane of force.
  • Abled in the Adaptation: Robby Reed notably lacks glasses during his depiction in the Teen Titans Go! comic.
  • Adaptational Superpower Change: In Robby's appearance in the Teen Titans (2003) comic book tie-in Teen Titans Go!, the dial essentially "borrows" the powers of a nearby hero to transform him into one with the stolen powers.
  • Adventure Duo: Several iterations starred two users of the dial working together on their adventures.
    • Chris King and Vicky Grant in the 1980s run that was featured in Adventure Comics and The New Adventures of Superboy.
    • Nelson and Manteau in Dial H.
    • Miguel and Summer in the 2019 revival.
  • Affectionate Parody: Monster Truck, first hero Miguel turns into in 2019 series, is one for the '90s Anti-Hero type of character.
  • 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 I'm the Queen of Sheba: In the story for issue 42 of The New Adventures of Superboy, a voice at a comic convention states to have heard that the owner has connections with Marv Wolfman and will get the winner a guest shot in The New Teen Titans. Another voice retorts his mother can introduce him to Sarah Lee.
  • 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 "S for Side" and summons sidekicks which have to answer to heroes, and 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 dialling "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.
    • The 2000 Silver Age event suggested the dial was an alien artifact.
    • In 2019 series the Operator claims to have made it from a piece of Forge of Creation where new worlds are born, a place introduced in Dark Nights: Metal.
  • Art Evolution: In the 2019 series, Summer's main dial idenity Lo Lo Kick You gains a different artistic design every time she appears. In her debut, she resembles characters drawn by Jamie Hewlett and Michael Allred. In her second appearance, she suddenly looks like Jem (the cartoon version, not the comic version). In her third appearance, she now resembles a combination of Kei and Lum.
  • Art Shift: The 2019 series has a unique art style and page layout for every hero dialed, from Rob Liefeld, Chris Bachalo and Jamie Hewlett to Akira Toriyama and Masamune Shirow.
  • Ascended Extra: As it turns out, both Abyss and the Squid in the Dial H series were both one-shot villains from Adventure Comics #490, which was during the Chris King and Vicki Grant era.
  • Ascended Fanboy: Miguel has idolised Superman since the age of ten, when Superman saved his life. His "inner hero" is SuperMiguel, an older version of himself with all of Superman's powers.
  • 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: The 1980s version encouraged readers to send in ideas for hero forms Chris King and Vicki Grant would turn into as well as villains they would fight, 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.
  • Big Bad:
    • The Master (who later turned out to be half of Robby Reed) was the main antagonist of the 1980s series, being the boss of most of the villains Chris and Vicki fought and sending those villains after the two in an effort to take their dials.
    • Mr. Thunderbolt serves as the main villain in the 2019 series, his plan being to use the power of the Dials to turn everyone in the multiverse into a super-powered being. Much like the Master, he turns out to be half of Robby Reed split into two beings from using the Y-Dial.
  • Big Good:
    • The Wizard serves this purpose in the 1980s series, as he arranged for Chris and Vicki to obtain their dials and left said dials in a trunk with an engraving imploring that they use the dials to fight against evil.
    • The Operator, an Older and Wiser Robby Reed, serves this role in the 2019 series, being a voice of guidance for Miguel and Summer.
  • Black Comedy: H-E-R-O has a part focusing on a group of men who take advantage of the superhero forms' invulnerability and the fact that using the dial to change back will result in them instantly recovering from any injuries their superhero forms endured to create viral videos where they deliberately get themselves subjected to gratuitous bodily harm while transformed.
  • Broad Strokes: The 2019 series appears to take the original Silver Age feature from House of Mystery as canon, but doesn't follow on from any of the subsequent series' depictions of how adult Robby Reed turned out, such as the 1980s version establishing that he was split into two beings called the Wizard and the Master and H-E-R-O establishing that he lost the dial and subsequently served time in prison.
  • The Cameo: One of the heroes featured in #7 of the 2019 series is Element Lad from Legion of Super-Heroes, being a rare moment where someone dialed a preexisting DCU hero. Notably he appears in the section of the issue illustrated by Colleen Doran, who is well known as being the Element Lad fan.
  • Captain Ethnic: One of the superheroes Robby Reed turned into was an absurd Native American caricature named Chief Mighty Arrow, a form he assumed in the 167th and 172nd issues of House of Mystery. The offensive nature of this hero was later acknowledged in the sixth issue of The New 52's Dial H, where Nelson spends a whole day not allowed to go outside because he dialed up Chief Mighty Arrow.
  • 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.
    • In 2019, pretty much every hero summoned by the dial is one of these, including Zubu the Zonkey King (Ersatz of young Son Goku), Iron Deadhead (Briareos), Butterfly of Happiness (Shade, the Changing Man) and Lo Lo Kick You (based on a wide variety of characters drawn by Mike Allred). Not even the Distinguished Competition is safe from the Dial, as one girl turns into 2015-era Squirrel Girl and another turns into a multi-armed Spider-Man.
  • Character Catchphrase: Robby has "sockamagee!"
  • Cool Old Lady: Manteau is an old woman who has had plenty experience using the Dial.
  • Cool vs. Awesome: In 2019 series two times now an antagonist has stolen the Dial and transformed themselves, forcing Miguel or Summer to transform into a different hero to stop them.
    • First was Zubu vs Iron Deadhead - a Supernatural Martial Arts using alien zonkey and a powerful robot duking it out.
    • The we had a psychedelic mind-affecting Butterfly of Happiness fight Lo Lo Kick You, a jetpack wielding punk rocker using the electric guitar as a mace.
  • Crossover:
    • Robby Reed made a guest appearance in an issue of the 1970s run on Plastic Man, which alluded to the time he used the dial to become Plastic Man and ended with the real Plastic Man confiscating his dial (it's never explained how Robby was able to get it back).
    • Chris King and Vicki Grant crossed paths with Superman in the 44th issue of DC Comics Presents, the story taking place between the duo's stories in Adventure Comics and their adventures that were featured as backup strips in The New Adventures of Superboy.
  • Darker and Edgier:
    • H-E-R-O is considerably darker in tone than the original 1960s series and the 1980s revival, with the first arc focusing on a user of the dial who suffers from suicidal depression that worsens after his efforts to use the dial to fight crime fail miserably, some of the people who use the dial are shown to be not very noble or scrupulous and the narrative eventually culminating with Robby Reed trying to stop the carnage resulting from a psychotic killer obtaining the dial and using the super-powered forms it enables to murder people.
    • Dial H, a revision along the same lines as Doom Patrol, The Sandman (1989), Black Orchid, and the other DC titles which were transplanted to Vertigo Comics, mainly through exploring the effects constantly turning into a different person would have on the dial-bearer's psyche and establishing that at least some of the transformations consisted of taking the powers and persona of an already-existing hero, with devastating consequences occurring for the hero whose powers are taken. Though China Mieville 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.
  • Depending on the Writer: How the Dial, well, dials.
    • In the original series, one could dial so long as they could figure out what the symbols on it meant. The number could be as little or as long as the word itself.
    • In H-E-R-O, Dial H, and the 2019 series, the symbols are standard numbers, and the powers could be activated by dialing the number the letters correspond to.
    • H-E-R-O and Dial H limited the dial number to 4, such as "S for Side", "H for Help", or "Q for Quib" (the latter series' version of "V for Villain").
    • In the 2019 series, dialing was a simple as pressing the 4/H, meaning you literally had to dial H for Hero. That being said, it's also able to teleport by dialing the name of the destination, much like the J-dials in Dial H.
  • Driven to Suicide: The first arc of H-E-R-O has a dial-user named Jerry Feldon try to end it all by flying and then dialing himself back to normal mid-flight after his attempts at saving the day using the dial go terribly awry and do little to improve his very low self-esteem. He ends up abandoning his suicidal outlook after an old woman he got the dial from tries to jump off a building to kill herself after being told he no longer has the dial.
  • Donut Mess with a Cop: Referenced in the second arc of H-E-R-O, where Matt Allen at one point derisively refers to police as "donut munchers".
  • Excrement Statement: Issue six of Dial H has Wingy the flying horse save lives by defecating on the criminals threatening them.
    Manteau: Smart horse.
  • Enemy Without: Mister Thunderbolt from the 2019 series is revealed to be the evil counterpart of the Operator, Robby Reed, who was split into two people by the yellow Y-Dial.
  • Face–Heel Turn\Fallen Hero: Members of the Thunderbolt Club in 2019 series are people who used the Dial in the past but have then lost it and become desperate to get their hands on it again, going as far as to try to steal it. Most of them likely used it for good but now seem to use it for purely selfish reasons.
  • Fifth Week Event: DC's 2000 Silver Age event involved Robby and the Dial transforming the Justice League of America into NEW heroes!
  • Formerly Fit: The overweight Nelson Jent in Dial H is mentioned to have used to be slimmer.
  • Frankenstein's Monster:
    • The Dial H for Hero story of House of Mystery issue 162 has Robby using the Dial to fight citizens of Littleville who have been transformed into monsters, one of them becoming a Frankenstein monster.
    • The story for House of Mystery issue 165 had Dr. Rigoro Mortis try to thwart Robby's superhero forms with his creation Super-Hood, a robot that had the appearance of a tall brute with stitching on his forehead.
  • Future Loser: Robby Reed in H-E-R-O, a convict divorced from his childhood sweetheart and thought insane by everyone he knows.
    • Averted in 2019 where Robby is The Operator.
  • 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 its rarity.
    • In issue #11 of the 2019 series, one of the four SuperMiguels (the one based on the Eradicator) is female.
  • 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.
  • Heart Is an Awesome Power: A number of the powers shown seem incredibly useless initially but turn out to be really effective with a little imagination.
    • 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.
  • 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 New Teen Titans. She later appeared in Superboy and the Ravers hunting down Hero Cruz for stealing her Dial, but it appeared Hero might 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.
  • Hero of Another Story: Dial H 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 The 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.
    • Every hero summoned in 2019 is a homage to a different comic series or art style.
  • 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 (deliberately imposed, among other restrictions, when Robby's "Wizard" persona created them, trying to prevent the mistakes Robby made with his Dial). This didn't carry on into H-E-R-O, where the only way to turn back to normal is to dial out.
    • Averted once when Chris became the hero "Mr. Opposite", whose powers were Exactly What It Says on the Tin. When Vicki's hour was about to expire, which would have caused her to revert to normal in public view, Mr. Opposite used his power on her Dial so that her hour was just beginning.
  • Instant Expert: In some iterations the user automatically knew what their powers were and how to use them after dialing into a new hero, but sometimes they have to play around with them a little to figure out what they can do, or at least the practical applications.
  • 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 of Dial H, was killed for good after Nelson assumed his form.
  • Lawyer-Friendly Cameo: The 2019 series has several hero transformations based on certain copyrighted characters, including a recolored Optimus Prime and the Thunderbolt Club trying to stop Miguel and Summer by becoming the Tweenage Irritable Librarian/Pirate/Gangster/Butcher Geckos.
  • Literal Split Personality:
    • The 1980s series concluded with Chris King and Vicki Grant discovering that the Wizard and the Master were actually the original 1960s series' protagonist Robby Reed split into two beings after he was forced to dial S-P-L-I-T while battling Shirkron of the Many Eyes.
    • In the 2019 series the Y-Dial is able to transform someone into a hero at the cost of splitting them into two, who can only merge back together if both sides are willing. Robby Reed used it to become the Operator and Mister Thunderbolt, and Mister Thunderbolt convinces Miguel to use it himself. Miguel first used it to become four version of his Supermiguel form, before becoming one Supermiguel and a character based on Shazam named Thunder Montez who briefly allied with Thunderbolt before the two merged back together.
  • Mass Super-Empowering Event: The 2019 series has Mr. Thunderbolt hack the Dial and give everyone in Metropolis the ability to use its power through their phones. Trouble starts when everyone in town becomes a super but nobody knows what to do.
  • Meme Acknowledgement: The Ben 10 comparisons were finally given form on the 2019 series, where one Metropolis citizen turns into a Captain Ersatz of Four Arms.
  • 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 is the dial almost always transforming its user into a different superhero, with different superheroes logically having different powers.
  • Noodle Incident: In 2019 series it's revealed that several DC characters, including Snapper Carr, Alfred Pennyworth, Robin, Lobo, Harley Quinn and Angel O'Day and Samuel Simeon, have all used the Dial in the past.
  • Nostalgia Ain't Like It Used to Be: Butterfly of Happiness in the 2019 series causes people to relive their joyful memories to the point they're unable to do anything else. It doesn't work on Summer, whose childhood was too horrible for her to have any nostalgia.
  • Not Quite Back to Normal: In H-E-R-O it's established that people who use the Dial retain some piece of the superpowers they gain when they transform back.
  • 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 Dial H 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.
  • Older Alter Ego: SuperMiguel, Miguel's "inner hero", who appears to be about the same age as Miguel's idol Superman.
  • 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.
  • Painting the Medium: Many kinds in the 2019 series:
    • Every hero is drawn in a different style, reflecting their seeing themselves as a "solo book" character. When Lo Lo Kick You returns in #6 to get help, she notably takes on the style of everyone else's issues instead of her own.
    • Whenever multiple people dial, their "issue" overlaps with someone else's. In some cases, the issue goes back and forth between styles (symbolizing a power struggle between the dialers), and in others, the pages are literally stacked on top of each other (showing different plots in progress).
    • When the Heroverse shows off the A-listers' origins, they take on the style of when they first appeared rather than the modern iteration of their pasts, indicating their origin stories are older than they are. This includes Robby, who has modern paneling and dialogue in flashbacks but Silver Age art in the Heroverse version of his origin.
  • 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.
    • Seem to also be the case in the 2019 series with Dial picking heroes reflecting what the dialer feels at the time. When Miguel feels angry and powerless it turns him into mighty but pointlessly destructive Monster Truck, when he is scared and desperate to stop Zubu he turns into armored Iron Deadhead. Barnaby, desperate to feel powerful again turns into mighty but immature Zubu the Zonkey King, a woman wishing to go back to her innocent past transforms into nostalgia-powered Butterfly of Happiness and rebellious Summer turns into an incarnation of punk-rock rebellion, Lo Lo Kick You.
    • While the connection in the 2019 series is only implied with the magenta dial, which turns the dialler into a random hero, it is made explicit with the cyan dial, which turns them into their "inner hero". When Miguel uses the cyan dial in an act of selfless altruism, he turns into a Superman-like figure called SuperMiguel; when he uses it in an act of greed to experience having powers again, he becomes an ineffectual joke hero with unreliable gadgets called the Early Adopter.
  • 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.
  • Power of the Void: Nullomancy, the power of nothingness.
  • 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 explained that the series had numerous Easter Egg references to the previous stories, but neither confirmed nor denied whether the previous Dial owners would 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?"
    • In 2019 series Miguel has no interest with the Dial and only seeing how dangerous it can be in wrong hands he decides to take it... and deliver to Superman, in hope he can protect it.
  • Running Gag: The 2019 series has a recurring gag of every superhero form given an ounce of prominence having the narration mention that they've never been seen before, will likely never appear again and proceed to explain their "secret origin".
  • 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.
  • Sheep in Sheep's Clothing: In the 2019 series, an alien heroine by the name of Guardian Angel goes around helping people with no demand for reward or giving out her name. A newly-turned detective hero follows her around to see what her motive might be... and finds out she was originally an assist dog, doing an exaggerated version of her normal duties.
  • 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 heroes battle a Living Statue version of the Great Sphinx of Giza. However, it conveniently turns out to be an imitation and not the real deal, so they destroy it without any more hesitation.
    • Everywhere in the 2019 series. Every single issue includes amazing homages to all kinds of different comic books – not just with the Captain Ersatz versions of their characters, but also in the Painting the Medium incorporation of their distinctive art styles.
  • Sick Episode: The story in New Adventures of Superboy issue 31 has Chris King suffer a cold. To his dismay, he finds using his dial to turn into a superhero does nothing to get rid of the illness.
  • Split-Personality Merge: Commented on as a danger of excessive dial use in Dial H.
  • 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 superheroes by default; in H-E-R-O, everyone who uses the Dial is left with some kind of permanent powers, including Robby.
  • Superhero Origin: Deconstructed in the 2019 series, as the Operator explains that an Origin Story is the moment the person decides what they'll do with their abilities, not the moment they gain them. Just witnessing the origin of the guy you got your powers from doesn't mean you yourself know what to do, as the citizens of Metropolis learn the hard way.
  • 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. Robby 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.
    • Chris and Vicki's Big Bad, The Master, discovered that their friend Nick, a budding comic book artist, was subconsciously influencing the Dial's transformations. So, The Master had Nick kidnapped and strapped into a machine that would force the dialers' next identities to be the most ineffectual characters Nick's mind could conceive of — changing Vicki into the immobile "Raggedy Doll", and Chris into "Puff Ball", a living version of an in-universe Captain Ersatz for Pac-Man with no offensive capabilities but the ability to jump. The two managed to turn the tables on The Master when one of his minions, a power-draining villain, accidentally absorbed some of their perceived weaknesses and made them effective enough to free Nick and escape.
    • 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.
    • In the 2019 series, Miguel briefly turns into "Lil' Miguelito", a powerless toddler who (in his comic) is only playing superhero. Every attempt to change into something else turns him into another newspaper comic pastiche, eventually stopping at a Hägar/Charlie Brown/Nancy/Cathy hybrid.
  • Take Our Word for It: Some of the heroes Manteau dialed but never used because they were so offensive. Golliwog especially was not shown on panel, but we do see Nelson's utterly horrified expression of disbelief when he sees the photo.
  • 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 The 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.
  • 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."
  • Values Dissonance: Discussed in-universe in Dial H when Manteau shows Nelson a dossier she's kept of all the heroes she dialed who were totally inappropriate or too offensive to be seen in public unless it was a life or death emergency. The worst of them was Golliwog. This occurs while Nelson's dialed "Chief Mighty Arrow," a hero Robbie Reed summoned during the Silver Age. Manteau clarifies she has no idea where or when the heroes are coming from, but while some might've flown in the past, by the present day many are unacceptable.
  • 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.
  • Water Is Womanly: Naiad is earth's water elemental and appears as a beautiful woman made of water.
  • 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.
    • In 2019 series Zubu the Zonkey king is weakened by touch of "eldritch metal". which just conveniently happens to be whatever alloy the otherwise clearly outclassed Iron Deadhead is made of.
  • Weapons of Their Trade: In one issue of the China Miéville run, Nelson, a former industrial worker, has to rescue a friend from villains while his Hero Dial is non-functional, and cobbles together a "Rescue Jack" costumed identity with a Cheap Costume and a pipe wrench as a weapon.
  • 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.
  • Witch with a Capital "B": The Dial H for Hero story in New Adventures of Superboy issue 34 has Camp Pocahontas owner Mel Burnley call Sherri Lancer a "witch" when she retaliates to being forced to leave the camp in response to the water monsters summoned by Naiad while she was shooting a movie there by cancelling the contract that would've entitled Burnely to his cut.