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Interview: Writer Sam Humphries and artist Joe Quinones on their new miniseries ‘Dial H for Hero’

DC’s bringing back its giant magic rotary phone through its Wonder Comics imprint.

“The most original character in comics history!”

That’s how DC described Dial H for Hero when it debuted in 1966 (House of Mystery #156). While there’s plenty of competition for the title, it’s hard to argue the franchise’s place in the comics canon.  A rotary telephone that allows the wielder to turn into a new superhero every time they dial up “H-E-R-O” really drives home the notion that anyone can be a superhero (yes, even you). Since then, the H-Dial has floated around the DC Universe, making eagerly anticipated appearances to allow some lucky citizen the chance to do real good.

Now, Dial H for Hero returns once more as a miniseries by writer Sam Humphries and Artist Joe Quinones. Before it hits shelves this week, we recently rung up the pair (get it?) to talk about the importance of the series, their creative goals, planning out individual issues, the power of transformation, and much more. 

AiPT!: The first thing I noticed was the wide range of work both of you have done.  You both have worked on different genres and styles, with different publishers and on a lot of different titles.  With such an eclectic portfolio, what drew you to Dial H? It is “the most original character in comic history,” after all.

Sam Humphries: The amazing appeal of Dial H is that there’s a new superhero in every issue. That is something that’s baked into the concept. With a new superhero every issue at a minimum — at least one every issue — I thought there was so much to play with that concept. It’s not just delivering crazy superheroes we’ve never seen before, but also when a character on the page picks up the H-Dial and transforms, the H-Dial transforms the comic book as well. It transforms the reading experience for the reader, so we can actually alter reality for the people who are enjoying the comic book as well.

Joe Quinones: Totally, yeah. When I was first being courted to come on the book, Andy Corey, who used to oversee the book with Brian Michael Bendis, pitched it to me, and the idea of designing so many original superheroes was very enticing to me. It such a joy for me to design new outfits, costumes, and characters in general. It’s great just figuring out the nitty-gritty of their silhouette, their facial features, and all of the little elements that make up that character from a visual perspective.

I’ve loved that for a long time, and before I got into comics there was this website from artist Dean Trippe called Project Rooftop that’s all about superhero redesign, and that helped to expand that love for me. There was also the fact that Sam and Brian were attached. I’ve worked with Brian before and have always wanted to work with him again, and I’ve known Sam for awhile and we’re friends, so they were definitely a big draw for me.

AiPT!: That’s awesome! I know speaking to my reading experience, I absolutely loved Monster Truck, Miguel’s first hero. It reminded me so much of the bombastic ’90s era of comics.

What is the hero design process like when you can draw upon eras, creators, other heroes, and your original ideas?  Are you going to stick to different eras or is there not going to be much of a pattern?

Quinones: It’s a new thing every issue. The way it starts is very collaborative, so Sam and I just get on the phone and we talk about what we want to happen. We’ve done that sort of broadly for the arc of the six issues, and we also go in-depth for the specifics of the issue ahead of us. We decided pretty early on that the first issue had to be ’90s. It had to be ’90s, Image, Liefeld, McFarlane, Jim Lee because that was when I was coming up as a reader in comics, and that’s when I fell in love with the medium. It just made perfect sense to me for that to be the first transformation. It was so much fun to pore over old books. I actually had my mom send me my old comics from home, and I just pored over them for a day or two to get a feel for them and blend them all together into Monster Truck.

Humphries: Yeah! In a lot of ways, the development of this book has been going on for years because Joe and I have been nerding about superheroes, manga, and animation as friends, so by the time we actually started working on this book, we already had a common language with a lot of things we knew we both loved. It became a conversation of what styles we wanted to work in and what comics we wanted to pay homage to. We had to decide what comics to bring onto the page in 2019 and say, “These things are awesome!”

It’s also about the juxtaposition as well. In the first issue, we have Monster Truck, and you see that there’s a style and art change, a color change, a change in dialogue, lettering, and narration styles, and the storytelling as well. It’s a fun way to dig into what makes these comics and comics as a medium so great, and we had to do it in such a way where we could hit the reader over the back of the head with something they’re not expecting and be able to do it at least once per issue.

AiPT!:  Joe, I love how your style is sleek and simplistic for most of the issue, but once Miguel transforms, becomes a style that so aptly matches that of the hero.  There’s a frantic and kinetic power here, where in things just pop and are often framed and shown in a way that they’re almost thrown at the reader. Could you a bit about that choice and the visual presentation of Dial H? What was key that you absolutely had to get across with a revamp like this?

Quinones: That was an early conversation that Sam and I had where we got on the phone before it had really formed into anything, and I knew that Sam was talking with Brian, and we just started spit-balling with what we wanted to do. We came up with the style change early on, and I love it. It’s a fun challenge to me, and with every book that I do, I want to bring something new to it every time. This felt like a very unique departure from what I’ve drawn so far. As an artist, I like to challenge myself as I go, otherwise things stagnate and get boring. Sam and I really enjoy comics as a medium, but we’re also huge nerds and fanboys at heart, so it’s just a way to show our love for the comics that formed us.

Humphries: This book is filled with love. One of the things that really excites me is that people think they know Joe Quinones. They think they know his style, and he’s got a beautiful style, but people don’t understand that he’s got styles upon styles upon styles that he’s just been sitting on and waiting to break out for everybody. The transformation you saw in the first issue with Monster Truck is just the beginning because in the second issue, we see not just one style but two styles. In the third issue we see even more. We’re not just surprising people with the styles. We’re combining and mixing them in new ways that we don’t think we’ve ever seen before in a comic book.

Quinones: Totally! What’s so fun is that when these heroes come in, the comic itself morphs and changes. It’s not only the art style that changes but also the way the story is told, the way the dialogue and narration is written, and even the nitty-gritty such as how the world balloons look. All of these elements change, and they impact the way you experience the comic as a reader. We are definitely keeping that active as we go and letting it not just be on the surface, but rather something that has formed the comic and the characters.

Humphries: Exactly. This is a version of Dial H for Hero where the readers can feel the transformation of the H-Dial.

AiPT!: Yeah! I was definitely able to feel that in this first issue. I know there were some talks about modernizing the rotary phone, but you both insisted on keeping it that way.  I love it, too.  What do you love about the rotary dial?

Humphries: I love the rotary dial because it just looks ridiculous now. These two characters have to hide this big, bright red, bulky, ridiculous piece of plastic as they go across the country. Its kind of like in E.T. when they have to dress E.T. up as the weirdest looking ghost on Halloween just to get him to the woods. That’s the feel I wanted from it, and also we all look at apps all day long. I don’t think we need another app to look at in a comic book right now.

Quinones: Visually, I think an app would be pretty boring. Sam and I are among the last generation to remember rotary phones, so it was fun to bring in the rotary phone and the phone booth. It was fun to include those little throwbacks that are also rooted in DC comics history. Big red dials have shown up before. Batman had one, and obviously there’s Superman’s famous scenes in a phone booth. It’s about adapting all of those elements, and it is a lot of fun because Dial H is a DC book, so we can draw in from the legacy of all of this history of DC.

Humphries:  [Jokingly] In conjunction with this book, DC’s about to publish Who’s Who of Phones in the DC Universe.

(Laughs)

Quinones: Yeah, that’s the next DK book coming.

Humphries: It’ll be a huge seller.

AiPT!: [Laughter] Can’t wait. Speaking to its connection to the DC Universe, we see that existing heroes can feel the H-dial’s activation. You are essentially combining this “heroverse” we’ve seen in past iterations with the existing universe. Will you explore this a bit further, and can you talk a little about this synthesis?

Humphries: Yeah! One of the very exciting things about Wonder Comics right off the bat was that we were given a lot of freedom with how we thought about telling superhero stories. You’ve already seen that with Young Justice, and Naomi, and Wonder Twins, and now with Dial H for Hero. We wanted to firmly bring it into DC continuity. The other really exciting thing about this was realizing that even in DC comics time, even in continuity, we know the H-Dial’s been floating around for years. We know that the experience of transforming into a superhero has got to be extraordinary, it’s got to do something to people.

So there’s this idea that everybody who’s used the H-Dial once, when the H-Dial is used again, they can feel it. For some people, they’ll just sit back and thing, “Wow, that was a nice memory,” but a lot of people are going to be like, “I will do anything it takes to steal the H-Dial again. I will do anything I can. I will go to extremes perhaps even deadly or fatal measures to get my hands on that dial and become a superhero again. Even just for an hour.” We see that in this book. We see what has happened to some people after they’ve used the H-Dial and gone on with their lives. They feel that the H-Dial is back, and that changes the trajectory of their lives.

AiPT!:  That’s awesome and I can’t wait to see what else happens. I know a huge theme of Dial H comics in the past has been how this object, this extraordinary rotary dial, can affect ordinary people. I feel like there’s a pressure to both focus on the H-Dial itself as a phenomenon but also the wielder. How are you able to balance the focus on the H-Dial but also on Miguel and his story?

Humphries: Its all facets of one story, but in Miguel we have a really great lead character who both Joe and I have fallen in love with over time. This is a kid who’s been stuck in a small town in a terrible family situation, and he’s already been acting out and putting himself in dangerous situations, like BMX bikes and backyard wrestling and all that kind of stuff. The H-Dial to him represents not just escape, but transformation. Transformation of not just himself, but the world around him and his life. It’s kind of like you were a kid growing up and the coolest guy on your block drove a really badass hot rod or something, and you were like, “Man, if only I could drive that hot rod for an hour.” With Dial H for Hero, the cool kid on the block is Superman, and the hot rod are super powers, so its taking that desire to change yourself and that desire to escape, and its amping it up with metahuman powers.

AiPT!: I love that theme of transformation. I really think its an experience that you can’t really find anywhere else in comics. I love the other elements that you’ve brought back from the past, things like the Thunderbolt Club and also this new element in the Operator (who I have my own theories about). Can you say anything about that re-imagining?

Quinones: No spoilers obviously, but I think there’s a legacy that we are aware of and refer to and build off of. It’s a new story, but it exists in a world where the other Dial H issues have also happened.

Humphries: The beating heart of the DCU is legacy. Legacy is a part of all of the major core mythologies of the DC universe, and that was one of the really exciting things. A lot of people aren’t familiar with Dial H for Hero, or they haven’t read all the runs, or they don’t consider it one of the most important stories in the DC universe, and Joe and I firmly disagree with that. One of the ways we’re showing that is by showing that Dial H for Hero has a very rich legacy, and it has a depth and mythology to it the same way that the Bat-family does or Shazam. So, you picked up on a lot of stuff that we’re working with and we’re going to develop in these issues, and because of that, that’s about all I can say, but you’re on the right track.

AiPT!: Well, thank you. Every time the H-Dial appears in the universe, I get excited. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk a little bit.

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