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Dial ‘H’ for Hero History

Reprinted in Best of Amazing Heroes #1, 1982


In contrast to the Robby Reed series, the new Dial “H” for Hero stories – at least the initial ones – were by a writer and artist as well known as Wood, Miller, and Mooney were obscure – Marv Wolfman and Carmine Infantino. With the exception of the basic concept, the characters and background owed very little to Robby’s; they were a lot closer to the main characters in Nova, on which Wolfman and Infantino had previously collaborated for Marvel. Dial “H” For Hero featured a teenage boy (Chris King) who lived with his parents and kid brother and was the favorite victim of the class bully. Unlike Robby, Chris didn’t seem to be near the top of his class, though he was equally shy. Even so, on his first day in a new school, one of the prettiest (and richest!) girls in his class, Vicki Grant, took the initiative and asked him out – perhaps indicative of how society has changed between 1967 and 1981. But with luck like that, who needs an H-Dial?

Nevertheless, Chris and Vicki found not one but two H-Dials in the attic of his family’s new house – one for each of them. These dials were much smaller than Robby’s, conveniently camouflaging themselves as a watch and a locket when not in use – and they have only the four letter H-E-R-O on them (no worries about any more Daffy Dagans, and Vicky’s worked just fine without the feminine suffix). Otherwise they operated just the same as Robby’s: HERO turned them into heroes, and O-R-E-H changed them back. However, Robby’s occasional weakness of not being able to dial a new hero right after dialing back became permanent for Chris and Vicki. And they were given the additional weakness of reverting back to their normal forms after an hour, even without dialing O-R-E-H.

Perhaps these additional weaknesses were added to counter the force of two heroes rather than one, but they eliminated Robby’s occasional problem of losing the dial and being unable to return to normal, as well as the curious question (the original inspiration for G.L.U.N.K of what would happen if someone dialed into a hero without any fingers…

The idea of allowing readers to suggest heroes and villains was a perfect way to ensure that the writer wouldn’t run out of ideas: it was also a logical extension of the large number of unsolicited suggestions received by the Robby Reed series**

[** An earlier Adventure feature, Tales of the Legion of superheroes, actively solicited new heroes from the readers in its “Bits of Legionnaire Business” section of the letters page. (Interestingly, the Legion now has its own magazine – which featured the first new Dial “H” story.) A few such suggestions actually made it into the strip as villains, walk-on characters, or members of the Legion of Substitute Heroes. At least one, George Vincent and Mike Bickford’s Shadow Lass, actually became a full-fledged Legionnaire.]

Drawbacks and Distractions

At present, it appears unlikely that any of the characters supplied by the readers will be used again – even though Wolfman did seem to plot some of the stories so as to keep open the possibility of bringing back the more interesting ones (such as Harlan Ellison’s Silver Fog) in their own features. As Al Turniansky, a longtime comics fan, has observed, the increasing popularity of the Marvel approach seems to have led to more and more characters with relatively undefined powers. The result is that Chris and Vicki’s adventures have gone too far in the other direction from Robby Reed’s, tending to feature boring battles without the variety and suspense of Robby’s exploits.

Initially, the most serious drawback of the new Dial “H” series was DC’s insistence on dividing each issue into three short stories. Even though they may have been linked by threads of continuity, each tale featured different heroes (and usually villains). According to Wolfman, this was an attempt to squeeze as many different readers’ contributions as possible into the same issue, but in practice it allowed each hero an average of only two or three pages of action. The constricted format made it very difficult to fit in any subplots or character development. Wolfman tried, but none of Chris and Vicki’s classmates or teachers were more than stereotypes.

It also ran a serious risk of alienating the vast majority of readers who didn’t contribute – and irritating even the minority-within-a-minority of those, who did and got their concepts accepted, by failing to use their creations to anything near their full potential. Some issues had heroes appear for only a single panel.

In later issues, the originators Wolfman and Infantino were able to use longer stories, but by this time the strip was clearly on the wane. Carmine Infantino’s art quickly gave way to that of Don Heck and Trevor Von Eeden. Nor did Marv Wolfman remain with the strip for very long: he was replaced by Bob Rozakis and E. Nelson Bridwell, who experimented with several different styles of collaboration before settling down to their current arrangement, where Rozakis provides the dialogue for Bridwell’s plots. There was also greater experimentation with the format, and several issues of Adventure featured longer stories, but by then it was too late. Adventure Comics Featuring Dial “H” for Hero simply was not selling and was actually cancelled after four decades of publication, before sentiment brought it back in its current format of a largely-reprint digest.

That would have been the end for the Dial “H” revival too, except that Jenette Kahn still wanted to keep the strip going, especially since there had been serious talk of a Saturday morning cartoon based on it. The cartoon, like the comic book feature, would have used characters created by readers and viewers, although if the idea was to be used to its fullest advantage, its production schedule would have had to vary from that of most new cartoons, which generally make 14 or fewer episodes at the very beginning of a season and then rerun the same episodes for a year or more.

So Dial “H” for Hero survives as a very short back-up feature in The New Adventures of Superboy. Its page page count has been steadily decreasing, and it’s rarely had any opportunity to live up to its full potential in a mere seven pages. The unspectacular but often innovative art of Heck and Von Eeden has in turn given way at first to Alex Saviuk (a staple of Julius Schwartz’s backup strips), and then former Richie Rich artist Howard Bender. With back-up features being increasingly on the decline at DC, and no further word of a cartoon adaptation, it would seem that the revival’s days are numbered.

Yet Dial “H” for Hero, in both its versions, was an original and clever idea, In the current version, it also has the welcome side benefit of encouraging readers to use their own imagination. DC has recently announced a new book, to be edited by Dial “H” co-creator Marv Wolfman, that will feature complete stories written and drawn by newcomers to the comic book field. Evidently, despite the near failure of the original experiment, Wolfman has not forgotten his desire to assist newcomers in getting their ideas into print. For that alone, Dial “H” was worth its brief time as star of the DC stable.
Contract and Creator’s Rights

There’s been a great deal of derision in fan circles toward the only compensation the creators of all these “potentially lucrative” characters appearing in Dial “H” For Hero receive: a T-shirt with a stylized dial bearing the DC symbol and the sentence “I dialed ‘H’ For Hero.”

It may not seem like much in these days of arguments and lawsuits over creators’ rights, but it’s more than the creators of the bits of Legionnaire business and Katy Keene’s clothes ever got. The real thrill to most contributors lies in the use of their creations in print. The T-shirt in merely a bonus.

More relevant criticism has been directed at the release form all contributors are required to sign, which grants DC total and permanent rights to such contributions. However, some of the terms of the release (such as those granting DC rights even to unused submissions, for which no consideration – either publication or a T-shirt – is given) are totally unenforceable, as would be obvious to anyone with a background in contract and copyright law.

The other terms are no more than the same releases every professional creator must sign – and which aren’t always enforced as written. The company does pay royalties on reprints and on any outside merchandising income received on characters created after 1976 or so (one reason several former Marvel writers have given J for being more willing to create new characters for DC).

Wolfman has stated that DC Publisher Jenette Kahn’s original intent was to treat the creator of any Dial “H” submission that becomes successful enough to warrant reuse or merchandising the same way as any other professional creator. Wolfman has further said that DC is seeking “to be fair” and draw up contracts to “re-buy” characters for more than one use, even though the company seems to feel assured it has full rights of ownership to all the Dial “H” characters it uses.

End of transmission. About this author:  Bill Walko is an author and artist and the man behind He's been reading and drawing comics since he was 5 years old and hasn't stopped since. Read more from this author