A lot of the youths and young adults of the modern times are aware of ‘Ben 10,’ but less are aware of what I’m sure inspired that show: ‘Dial H for Hero.’ It was a comic series that was created in the sixties and has been rebooted or brought back numerous times since. There’s a lot of variation in the characters and plots, but generally the idea is that an average person gets a dial that turns them into various superheroes. I’ve always had an affinity for ‘Dial H for Hero,’ and today I’d like to briefly explain why I think it is the ultimate idea for superhero comics.
Superheroes and the American comic industry in general have an interesting dilemma. Here we have some of the most iconic and long-lasting characters (Superman was created in 1938!) still around in modern American media; these characters have had to have new stories told about them for decades, while still being true to who they are. Any major changes to a character are always met with huge pushback from audiences, and I won’t deny I have opinions about what they should and shouldn’t do myself (Superman needs his red leotard or it looks wrong).
What this means is that characters aren’t one person or group’s creative vision. They get tossed from writer to writer, artist to artist, generation to generation. A character, despite ostensibly being the same individual (barring universe resets and reboots, I suppose) really never is. The stories being told about these characters change drastically decade to decade, era to era. The way the characters are written can come across as wildly inconsistent if one is meant to stay true to canon. I don’t think it’s surprising that some of the most critically acclaimed comic series of all time are separated from the continuity, like Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ and Grant Morrison’s ‘All-Star Superman.’
There is no singular vision behind a character. They are fluid and ever changing, for if they were to stagnate audiences would surely tire of them. And yet, superheroes are one of the biggest current power fantasy outlets and certainly have the capacity to ensnare large swathes of consumers. Look no farther than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which as of this writing, stands as having the highest grossing film of all time contained within its silver screen.
Audiences like these characters. They’re fun and bombastic; they represent idealistic versions of what humanity could be like; they’re great escapist fantasies (how many times have you wondered about what super power you’d like the most?). And yet, I feel like these characters having to constantly be rebooting and reused so many times will wear thin. Superman was once a beacon of creativity and imagination, a modern reimagination of mythological gods, but is now the most bog-standard superhero template you could have. I’m fairly certain the only reason superheroes have strived for as long as they have is because of just how many there are. Can’t get bored of them if new ones are also popping up alongside your old favorites to mix them up!
And this is where Dial H for Hero steps up to the plate. Created in 1966, Robby Reed was the original wielder. Every issue he’d turn the rotary phone to spell out H-E-R-O and transform into a new superhero never to be seen again (and also Plastic Man one time for some reason). This concept works for so many reasons:
1) Robby Reed was essentially a normal kid. He could be a very easy audience surrogate. Now the power fantasy could be even more prevalent, since the reader is also a normal person. With this device they could turn into a superhero like Robby!
2) By having a new superhero every issue, it meant the audience was always privy to new wacky and fun designs and powers. They would never get old!
3) This one was probably unintentional, but it also created a concept that could be brought back without necessitating the character Robby Reed himself to be the protagonist every time. We don’t need to have Peter Parker be sent back in time after making a deal with a devil to keep him in line with what audiences think Spider-Man should be, all we need is the dial to change hands to a new person.
Think about it. How many times have we seen Krypton blow up? Or how many times have we seen a radioactive spider bite a high school nerd? With the dial, there can always be a new set of people later on down the line. There is no need for continuity contrivances or any crazy retcons.
On top of that, the concept can be used in a lot of interesting directions. The 80’s version, starring Chris King and Vicki Grant introduced having the superheroes they turn into being audience submitted, which while gimmicky is a lot of fun. The 2003 ‘H.E.R.O.’ series was more of an anthology. Every issue was not a new hero any more, but rather a new wielder and what happens when the get their hands on the device. The New 52 version, ‘Dial H,’ had a dial that actually stole heroes temporarily from other universes and the wielders (a schlub and an old lady) had to be careful not to lose themselves to their new identity. The 2019-20 version, once again called ‘Dial H for Hero,’ creates style shifts when they transform; having characters that are reminiscent of Dragon Ball, Tank Girl, and more.
What I’m getting at is that more so than any other comic series, Dial H is a wellspring of imagination. Coming up with new characters, both to transform into and to wield the power, without having to worry about being true to an original vision or changing executive mandates makes a series that’s consistently fun and, more importantly, fresh. The last word I’d use to describe the franchise is stale. The concept is great, and I look forward to when the next version of it hits shelves.
Dial H For Hero Is The Ultimate Version Of A Superhero Comic.