Dial S For H-I-D-D-E-N-S-I-N-P-H-O-N-E-B-O-O-T-H

DC has just released Showcase Presents: Dial H for Hero was one of those late 60’s early 70’s concepts that came out of one of the more experimental times in mainstream comics. Originally debuting in the DC anthology series, House of Mystery in 1966, Dial H concerned Robert Reed, a teen from Littleville (a small Colorado town) who discovers the dial in a cavern.

The dial looked much like an old dial from a telephone but with cryptic symbols that Robert was able to translate into English. The mystery of the dial is never fully explained (it is hinted in DC’s continuity that it might have some connection to the 31st century Legion of Superheros) and this makes the dial into something of a McGuffin: a mystery that has no real purpose or solution in the narrative.

When Robert dials the letters H-E-R-O on the dial he is instantly transformed into a super powered being (like The Mole or Giant Boy). Dialing O-R-E-H causes him to revert to human form. This device is the motivation for Robert to operate as a powerful, but small town superhero in and around his town of Littleville.

As part of the dialing gimmick Robert has to contend with enemies who manage to steal his device and turn into supervillans by dialing V-I-L-L-A-I-N. At one point early in the series Robert’s girlfriend uses the device to dial H-E-R-O-I-N-E, which allows her to transform into a temporary superhero called “Gem Girl.” Towards the end of the House of Mystery run, Robert’s girlfriend gets a blow to the head which conveniently allows her to forget about the device, her boyfriend’s use of it and all the rest.

The gimmick of Dial H for Hero appeared off and on after the end of the original run in series like Plastic Man and a noteworthy arc in the Justice League where the dial transforms JLA members into other alternate superheroes. The early 80’s saw a serious reboot of Dial H, spearheaded by Marv Wolfman and Carmine Infantino. As part of this, DC offered a high degree of reader involvement by allowing readers to submit superhero/supervillain ideas which DC would then use as part of this book’s narrative (these characters became property of DC).

The new series had two dials found by a two young teens, Christopher King and Vicki Grant, who lived in the small town of Fairfax in New England. These dials were more readily disguised by the two teenagers as a watch and necklace. A couple of new catches were put into place during this run; mainly that the powers could only be used for an hour (and then not used again for another hour). In addition, transformations could only be done into superhero mold and not supervillain mold. The Dial H for Hero series ended with the M. Night Shyamalan like twist that the Hero dials had been planted by Robert Reed, the original protagonist of the 60's version of "Dial H."

As recently as 2003 DC resurrected the "Dial H" concept with the series H.E.R.O. This series had some connection to the original series with an older Robert Reed trying to find the missing Hero dial before a serial killer nabs it. The series ran for 22 issues and ended with Reed and several other internalizing the powers of the dial.

The Legacy and Influence of Dial H for Hero

Don Markenstein's entries on Dial H for Hero make the point that the series were kind of a pumped up version of the Captain Marvel idea, where there is an element of wish fulfillment on the part of the reader and the comic that is not so blatantly spelled out in other superhero narratives.
The idea that everyone can be a superhero is one of the hallmarks of contemporary culture (Survivor) and of course contemporary comics (Kick-Ass).

The animated series Ben 10 has a premise that is seemingly directly lifted from the "Dial H" series. Also, the idea to have fanboys in on the creative process was a new one 30 years ago. Today of course fanboys not only are in on the creative process, many would argue that they drive the creative process with Twitter, Facebook and even with sites like this one, influencing the casting, narrative and production decisions made by those antiquated Hollywood production companies.

At the end of the day "Dial H" is one of the quirkiest inventions of the Silver Age, along with Doom Patrol and the Metal Men, and it seems only a matter of time before a reference shows up on Brave and the Bold.