Let me take this opportunity to give a hearty endorsement for China Miéville’s Dial H – If you only read one of DC’s New 52 (and honestly, there is very little of that worth reading), make it this title.
It takes advantage of the conceit of dialing up an endless variety of absurd and strange superheroes incarnations with a winking self-awareness, basking in the weirdness of the genre and paying homages to the cosmic weirdness in a knowing homage to the Silver Age, while firmly planted in the grittiness of today’s comics. It doesn’t feel like a DC comic (and to me that is another plus) and while it ostensibly exists in the world with other DC characters, there has been no overlap with any of the common cast, which has been to its benefit.
But I want to talk about issue #6, which is where the panels above are from. . . The entire issue uses the title’s meta-position as simultaneously within and without the superhero comic genre to comment on depictions of race (and to some degree gender) in comics.
The entire issue (save for flashbacks) takes place in an apartment, where Nelson (recent recipient of a hero dial) is waiting out his latest incarnation at the behest of his partner, Roxie (aka Manteau), and long-time dialer. The thing is, the magic hero dial has transformed him into a ridiculous Native American caricature superhero, Chief Mighty Arrow – and she refuses to let him out in public in that guise.
Despite his protestations that she is being “too PC,” Manteau explains their ethical responsibility to not reinforce stereotypes. If someone’s life is in danger then yes, he can go out – but otherwise, he has to wait it out. In an effort to explain, Manteau breaks out a scrapbook of previous incarnations, including the ones that she refused to use because of their offensive nature. She calls it her Refusnik Dossier.
The brilliance of the issue is that Miéville creates a space to critique the representations of race (and gender) in comics without indulging the self-defeating desire to recreate all those representations. The names alone conjure mental images of the offensive incarnations without having to see them. The conceit of a series of dialed up superhero characters of various kinds over decades runs parallels in a meta-sense to our collective memory or archive of just the kind of characters that are objectionable and that to varying degrees still exist – so not only characters like Will Eisner’s Ebony White from The Spirit, but also the mostly naked giganto-breasted heroines of comics like Lady Death and Cavewoman. A flashback to Manteau in the guise of ElectroCutie reinforces the problem, by noting Nelson’s objectifying gaze, which she likens to that of a 13-year old boy – the ostensible age of comic book buyers, when in reality we know that the average age is closer to the schlub, Nelson.
The refusal to participate in the superhero world in the guise of characters like “the Golliwog,” depicts the power of non-participation. The urge to justify the “heroes” through the the tortured contortions of the identifying parties (whether it be the readers or the creators) is echoed by these two ordinary people who literally identify as their heroic incarnation when their own being is subsumed into the new being that overtakes them upon using the dial. The most frequent form of justification from readers/creators is usually historical context – the idea that since these problematic figures existed at a certain time means that not depicting them is somehow inaccurate or even a form of censorship, but as Manteau explains, it is this very context that explains why these figures must be verboten and why the allure of their nostalgia must be resisted.
Roxie’s explanation to Nelson that he needs to “protect his mind” conveys the power of over-identification. It is powerful enough that even disgusting figures (not pictured) like Doctor Cloaca or Captain Priapus (Marvel comics actually had a “Priapus” but managed to avoid his phallus) or SS Ilsa (clearly based on this) can seem acceptable. The issue’s cover depicts a full-sized depiction of Roxie’s hand atop Polaroids of the problematic incarnation, further reinforces this parallel identification as it is a visual echo of the reader’s hand turning the pages.
As China Miéville has made clear before, he is not in favor of banning objectionable comic material, but rather is again his expressing belief that the right to say/show something (which he defends) is not the same as the moral right to not be held accountable for it. Clearly, Roxie takes this accountability seriously.
It is rare that a comic so deftly takes on race/sex, and very few take on representation of race in their own genre so directly. It is just the kind of smart and thoughtful writing I have come to expect from Miéville, and I hope that DC gives him the opportunity to continue.