Axel-In-Charge: Navigating the "Civil War II" Landscape, Bringing DMC to Marvel
Today’s giant-sized Reason extravaganza is brought to you by guest writer Graeme Burk! Slower connections beware– lots of images in this post.
For this entry we’ve dialed “H” for some help for the comic YOU create! (Archive.)
338. Dial “H” for Hero
This is not just a reason to love comics. This is the story how one boy became a comic book collecting fan.
In September 1980, this ad appeared in an issue of Superman Family among other comics.
I was 10 years old and had just bought a stack of comics with my Dad in anticipation of a school trip to my nation’s capital of Ottawa. When I saw that ad, I was hooked! A comic book featuring superheroes and villains that I created? That was the most amazing idea of a contest ever.
I loved superheroes but I have to say that as a kid, a lot of the bigger, cooler changes that happened in superhero comics were lost on me. I hated the moody characterization where characters argued with each other. I despised the fact that-gasp!-characters were beginning to say “Damn” and “Hell”. Both of these were innovations I had associated with Marv Wolfman, who had just come to DC Comics that summer and committed both sins in The New Teen Titans, Action Comics and Batman respectively. But worst of all these was the fact that DC comics were becoming more like Marvel with the moodiness, the swearing and…stories that took place over several issues. I hated that above all else. As a kid I was subject to the mercy of the spinner rack. The idea of intentionally buying the same comic month after month was completely foreign to me. You bought what you saw was available. The great purchases were the stories that were done-in-one. The lousy ones were the ones that were continued from a previous issue and would continue into the next. I bought Superman Family precisely because, as a DC Dollar Comic, it wouldn’t fail me-but even it did as Marv Wolfman (him again!) was now writing Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen in stories that were now serialized. But that was OK, because I was totally jazzed by Dial “H” For Hero and proceeded to send my own ideas to 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, New York.
When Dial “H” For Hero first appeared-in a special insert in Legion of Superheroes #272 (which I miraculously found at the local corner store)-I was disappointed to learn that my ideas for heroes hadn’t made the grade (there wouldn’t have been time– DC pretty much initially relied on ideas by fans given at cons that summer). But what unfolded was pretty darn cool. Christopher King was a new kid moving to the town of Fairfax. At Alexander Hamilton Junior High, he met Victoria Grant. Chris and Vicki hit it off and the next thing you know he’s taking her home…only his house is supposed to be haunted by the ghost of a wizard or a scientist. They hear voices and discover a chest with ominious words and watches that camoflague dials with H-E-R-O spelled out on them. Vicki and Chris try them out and become superheroes.
And so you had it… a comic book that was a contest as well! A format that had regular characters (Chris, Vicki, Chris’ friend Roger, Vicki’s ex-boyfriend Brad, Vicki’s friends-fashion-conscious Glynis and, er, overweight Frannie-and Chris’ dad who happened to be a police detective) but the superheroes were new every time! And if you were lucky, you too could have your name in a caption box saying you created a character!
I spent the majority of early 1981 running home from school hoping to have received a package in the mail from DC comics containing my “I Dialed ‘H’ For Hero” T-Shirt which was the prize for creating something in the comic. I never did. To this day I still wish I had gotten that caption box saying “HYDROMAN was created by GRAEME BURK, Age 12, Oakville, Ontario, Canada”.
But even if my creations never made it, the stories still featured colourful heroes and villain created by YOU. Like:
I still love The Wrangler in all his 1981 glory, like the secret identity WKRP’s Andy Travis might have. And the Dragonfly with the 360-degree vision!
But my favourite character was The Silver Fog, a tragic villain that was created by Harlan Ellison (who amazingly signed the work-for-hire release form). How my (by then) 11 year-old heart went out to this afflicted scientist.
And my favourite hero was the utterly daft and loopy 2D Mister Thin!
But it was the contest aspect of the comic kept me looking for the next issue, and I somehow found them (to this day I can tell you every place I bought every issue of Dial “H” in its Adventure Comics run before I got a subscription).
What was really great about Dial “H” For Hero was that it a comic for kids, not older people like the ones where characters swore and there were multi-issue stories and superheroes were unhappy. The first several issues (when the comic moved to Adventure Comics) featured multiple 8 page done-in-ones that were fast-paced and fun. And they were written by Marv Wolfman no less. Who knew?
The 1980s version of Dial “H” For Hero had its impetus from DC publisher Jennette Kahn, who earlier in her career had some success with a magazine called Kids, which had “By Kids for Kids” content. She wanted to do the same for comics-the intention being (according to Marv Wolfman when I talked to him at a con years later) to not sell them on the newsstand but distribute them through schools-and went to editor Len Wein. Wein suggested updating an old 1960s series which appeared in House of Mystery.
Written by Dave Wood and initially drawn by Jim Mooney, the original 1966 Dial “H” For Hero (“The Most Original Character In Comic History”) is the epitome of DC Comics during their go-go check era of wackiness and camp for its own sake. In it, a boy scientist named Robby Reed (whose catchphrase is, believe it or not, “Sockamagee!”) finds an alien device that looks like a dial. He deciphers the alien letters and realizes four of them are H-E-R-O and uses them to dial into a whole lot of superheroes…1000 of them according the the blurbage!
As you can see, one of Robby’s claims to fame is that he used his H-Dial to become Plastic Man before the character had resurfaced in the Silver Age. Robby’s heroes were of the era he came from in that they were kind of gimmicky (The Squid had multi-coloured super dyes! Baron Buzz Saw had buzz saws on his hands). But Robby turned into some of the weirdest characters this side of Grant Morrison‘s brain. My vote goes to Howzis. Robby had already had an adventure turning into a human bouncing ball (“Whoozis”) a human boomerang (“Whatsis”) but Howzis…well I have to show you…
There simply are no words.
Robby’s dial had some extra slots that could spell V-I-L-L-A-I-N (and someone tried it, briefly). His girlfriend Suzy discovered from that you could also spell H-E-R-O-I-N-E.
Indeed a whole blog’s persona is modeled around Robby Reed, Dial “B” For Blog which has scanned an excerpt featuring another of Robby’s odder superheroes, Mighty Moppet.
Robby’s adventures spanned 17 issues of House of Mystery (and an inglorious epilogue in Plastic Man a decade later) and they were written with the same self-aware bizarre loopiness that made the Silver Age what it was. I remember reading those issues as an 11 year-old in August 1981 like they were ancient and holy relics from a strange and distant world. I had managed to convince my father to let me come into Toronto, the nearest city, from the suburbs where I lived to visit the Silver Snail, which was Toronto’s very first comic book shop. I’ll never forget to this day the thrill I experienced when I found three issues of Dial “H”-era House of Mystery (the covers for which are above.) I was buying comic books from three years before I was born! If there ever was a moment when my inner fanboy took hold, it was then.
We had actually come not just for the Robby Reed era books, but to fulfill what must have been the most bizarre quest my father and I ever shared. We were looking for the elusive Adventure Comics 486.
In July 1981, I was visiting Florida with my family and I was checking a spinner rack when I read in the “Daily Planet” house ad in Superman Family that Adventure 486 was out featuring a story called “Hell on Earth”. There was a postal strike on in Canada at the time, so my subscription wasn’t being mailed (and the distribution chain had begun to break down in stores in Canada). I excitedly scoured the spinner rack…and couldn’t find it. My Dad and I drove to a 7-Eleven nearby, scoured their spinner and found nothing.
Over the next 10 days, my father patiently stopped at every convenience store and book store in Florida to allow me time to find my comic and we couldn’t find it at all. I think the whole reason my Dad agreed to let me take the train to meet him in Toronto to go to the Silver Snail was to find that damn book. And even the Silver Snail didn’t have (though the did have the following issue-the nascent direct market circumventing the usual distribution). Eventually my Dad found it in early September in a store on his way to the Barber. (Two days later, the postal strike ended, my subscription copy arrived.) I read the issue and was disappointed to find all Marv Wolfman had done was dumb-down his Trigon story from New Teen Titans #5. My transformation from kid to fanboy was complete.
By the time Wolfman had ended his run with Adventure 487, the dream of distributing Dial “H” For Hero in schools was long over and Wolfman was gradually adding in gloomy characterization and serialized subplots when he had Detective King injured by a bullet. There was also the mysterious villain called The Master, who seemed to employ a whole cadre of villains across two issues. And by the end of his run, Chris and Vicki had temporarily separated. But by that point, I was hooked and I loved it! If there was a comic book with training wheels for new fans, Dial “H” For Hero was it.
(I learned a lot about comic books through it. Not the least of which the value of an inker, as I discovered that Larry Mahlstedt’s sketchy pen work made Carmine Infantino‘s pencils look even sloppier, while Dennis Jensen made Infantino look slick and polished. Jensen was a brilliant inker, I wish he had done more!)
Bob Rozakis and E. Nelson Bridwell, who were the mainstay of DC’s backup feature writers became the regular writers, just in time for Dial “H” to be cancelled in Adventure and moved to the back-up in Superboy.
By that time, I was collecting literally dozens of comics. My favourite books were probably The New Teen Titans but I kept collecting Dial “H” in Superboy. Even as a kid, I had found Rozakis and Bridwell to be kind of staid, but teamed together (Rozakis scripting and Bridwell plotting) they did some of their best work together. Over the course of two years, they introduced a kid named Nick Stevens, a would-be comic book artist who, it turned out, was indirectly creating the superheroes Chris and Vicki became.
There was a lengthy and intriguing storyline featuring a character called the Sihlouette. And the Master returned-it was revealed his villains were actually the creations of the same Evil Factory used in Jack Kirby‘s run on Jimmy Olsen (Rozakis and Bridwell loved continuity).
The Master tumbled to Nick’s role in creating the Dial-created superheroes and during the last year of the back-up feature in Superboy there was a storyline where the origin of the H-Dials was revealed. The Wizard who created the dials and the Master both turned out to be…
Robby Reed! It turns out that on his last adventure he split himself into two beings: a good wizard and an evil scientist. Robby retired and gave his dial to Nick and there were supposed to be even more adventures.
Only there weren’t. A putative miniseries by Bridwell, Rozakis and Bender never happened. The next time Chris and Vicki appeared, in New Teen Titans, was post-Crisis and Nick was long forgotten. Chris and Vicki had grown up and Vicki had become evil by meeting some weird cult and using her dial backwards to create villains. Chris lost his dial but had internalized the power to briefly become a hero in Titans West. Only the heroes now were really lame not being created by kids, comic fans and somewhat deranged writers from the 1960s. The dials resurfaced in Superboy and the Ravers when Hero Cruz used it. Vicki reappeared briefly and became sane again.
For the most part it’s Robby Reed who keeps resurfacing, with Robby and his H-Dial playing key part of the 2000 Silver Age event. (Mark Waid is a huge fan, reportedly).
The last time the Dial “H” concept, and Robby eventually, appeared was 2003’s series H-E-R-O by Will Pfeifer and Kano (and other artists)
Here the device is no longer a dial but some weird push-button thingie but it does the same thing. The innovation here is that no one person has the Dial, er, “Hero Device” but rather like 100 Bullets (or actually more accurately, the TV series Dead Man’s Gun), the “Hero Device” inadvertently winds up in someone’s possession, where they face the thrills and consequences of becoming a superhero.
H-E-R-O was great fun. Pfeifer breezily ran the gamut of oddball adventures from the guy who finds being a superhero so thrilling it destroys his life to the kids who wreak havoc on the schoolyard as superheroines. One of my favourite storylines had a loutish male stuck in the body of superheroine.
Towards the end, Pfeifer went the same route as Rozakis and Bridwell and brought back Robby Reed, who now has red hair and apparently used the push-button thingie instead of a dial (it was back when Superboy was punching walls, I presume). It ended, I presume, because it was breezy, entertaining and fun. Which is a shame.
By the time H-E-R-O came out, I was in my 30s. I had collected tons of comics by then, read the great masters of the field (Moore, Eisner, Miller, McCay, Kirby, Krigstein) and experienced the amazing capabilities the medium has to offer (Maus, Watchmen, V For Vendetta, Dark Knight, Sandman, The Invisibles, early MAD). And yet, if my house was on fire and I had only one thing from my comic book collection to rescue, it would probably be the entirety of Dial “H” for Hero in Adventure Comics, Superboy and House of Mystery. Because that was the series that made me a comics fan in all its obsessive and fan-rific glory. And if that’s not a reason to love comics, I don’t know what is.
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