My first encounter with Dial H for Hero was a single back issue that found its way into my collection as a kid: Adventure Comics #490 (1982) which ended a year-long run of Dial H for Hero stories, as well as the book itself. Adventure Comics would last another year, but without any original content appearing between its covers, just reprints from earlier issues – a fitting end considering Adventure Comics began life as a title devoted to reprinting comic strips from newspapers.
Dial H stories focused on regular folks given incredible powers after spelling out a certain word on a magical “H-Dial” (I’ll let you guess what that word was). And though I was about a decade too late to do anything about it, the 1980’s run of Dial H in Adventure Comics offered a unique spin on this premise: readers submitted character ideas (names, powers, costume design) via old-fashioned snail mail to DC Comics, and whenever Dial H’s plucky teenagers Chris and Vicky spelled out that magical four-letter word, they would transform into a user-submitted hero or heroine drawn and scripted by DC writers and artists, to the delighted squeals of winners across North America (who would also receive a free Dial H t-shirt for their efforts).
And though I was partial to Adventure #490’s Stuntmaster, Centaurus, and Spinning Jenny…
…some characters got a measly one-panel appearance, as though Bob Rozakis was desperate to get rid of those t-shirts:
There was a small caveat that the characters became property of DC Comics after being selected, which meant readers were essentially giving DC free content with little to show for it (how long do cotton t-shirts last?). None of the characters wound up being runaway successes, however, which meant readers weren’t being robbed of a potentially lucrative career (in theory). One character was submitted by a name you might recognize, but he doesn’t really count since his creator was already a success at the time:
Chris King would later show up in Marv Wolfman’s early-’90s “Titans Hunt” storyline in New Titans and recently made an appearance in the New 52 reboot Dial H. He was noticeably absent from the 2003-2005 series H.E.R.O., which did away with the idea of dual protagonists and multiple transformations and instead focused on the H-Dial’s (or H-Device’s) transition from user to user, like a Dial H version of Astro City.
In 2007, DC resurrected The Brave and the Bold, showcasing a different hero team-up in every issue, and in 2009 J. Michael Straczynski took over the title, his run commencing with issue #27’s Batman/Dial H for Hero team-up “Death of a Hero,” arguably his best contribution to the series (the Flash/Blackhawk team-up in the following issue is pretty good, too).
“Death of a Hero” opens with an old man and his grandson checking into a motel. The grandson’s name is Robby Reed (which, not coincidentally, was also the name of the protagonist in the original 1966 House of Mystery-set Dial H tales). Robby pulls out his H-Dial for some stealthy late-night adventuring and finds he’s gotten a little more than he bargained for:
Quickly deciding to end the evening’s would-be heroics, Robby exits the motel the following morning minus his beloved H-Dial. Things get complicated when a former Joker goon named Travers Milton decides to rob the now-vacant room and does what anyone would do after stumbling upon a magical doohickey:
Milton becomes a hero called the Star and suddenly has a chance to make something of himself rather than take a bullet for, or from, the Joker. Batman shows up to investigate Gotham’s newest caped crusader and…some other stuff happens.
There are two twists to Milton’s story that I won’t spoil here. The first is a poignant character moment and the second is more of an expository reveal, but they’re both effective in different ways. And while “Death of a Hero” isn’t flawless – I don’t agree with the justification Batman provides for the dick move made by one of the characters – it’s everything I’d want from a one-off, self-contained story, and I’ve already discussed my fondness for Straczynski. Dude can write.
“Death of a Hero” reminded me of one of my favorite Astro City tales, “Newcomers,” in which a doorman is given an opportunity to be a hero, despite nobody noticing or really caring (it can be found in Astro City: Local Heroes if you’re interested). Milton’s journey is similar, and like in “Newcomers,” the city’s biggest hero (Batman) doesn’t contribute much to the action beyond exposition and atmosphere.
The fringe characters in the DCU rarely get a chance to shine, and “Death of a Hero” is an interesting take on one of the nameless thugs populating Gotham. Issues of The Brave and the Bold can probably be found for a bargain price at your local comic shop, and this one’s definitely worth the three bucks (or less).