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It's a Giant Dial! Run!!

Question: What series features a boy finding an alien watch-like device that allows him to change into random superpowered forms, and deciding to use it to become a superhero?

If you answered Ben 10, well, you'd be right. But decades before that show premiered, the concept was used in a DC Comics series titled Dial H For Hero.

The series began as a feature in DC's House of Mystery anthology comic, in 1966. In it, a teenager named Robby Reed finds a disk with a dial like that of a phone on it (back when phones used rotary disks). It had alien letters on it that Robby managed to translate. By dialing words on it, Robby found that he would transform into a superhero. The catch: he became a different hero each time—usually completely original ones, though he once turned into Plastic Man. Robby used the dial to battle crime around his small Colorado hometown. The series did not last long. It appeared in House of Mystery #156-173 (January, 1966-March, 1968). Robby had a guest appearance in Plastic Man vol. 2 #13 (June-July, 1976) but was otherwise forgotten.

The concept was however revived in the 1980s in Adventure Comics, another DC anthology series. The premise was now being used to showcase superhero characters that comics fans were sending to DC comics! Written by Marv Wolfman (who was at the same time having great success with another teenage superhero series, Teen Titans) the new version had two teenagers, a boy and a girl (in order to use hero characters of both genders, obviously) named Chris King and Vicky Grant, from a town in New England, who find similar devices in a "haunted house" (Chris's was a wristwatch, Vicky's was a locket) with only four letters in them (H-E-R-O) which allowed them to change into random heroes but only for a limited time period. Supposedly, a "wizard" left them there for them to find. Meanwhile, a mysterious figure known only as "The Master" kept sending super villains (also invented by fans) to try to get the Dials.

Eventually, Chris and Vicky find that (at least some) of the heroes they transform into were being invented by a classmate as a hobby! (this may have been a nod to the series' Audience Participation.) Further, they discover that the Master and the Wizard are actually two halves of the same person... ROBBY REED! Turns out that one of Robby's transformations caused him to split into good and evil halves, and the evil one had caused the Hero Dial to vanish. The Wizard created the new dials for Chris and Vicky so they could keep The Master busy while he looked for the original. Having found it, The Wizard used it to merge with The Master back into Robby. The series ended with Robby deciding to retire and giving his Dial to the kid whose ideas were being used in the transformations.

During the Dark Age of comics, the "Dial H" characters suffered a lot. Chris and Vicky lost control of their powers and Vicky joined a cult that abused her (which storyline was written by Wolfman himself over in Teen Titans). The original dial was lost to them and passed through many hands, usually ruining the lives of those who used it, in a 00's series titled "H-E-R-O". Eventually Robby himself showed up, having been granted permanent low level powers from long term exposure to the dial, and in the end the Dial was lost in time and space.

Robbie and the Dial both turned up in a 2009 issue of The Brave and the Bold comic book, though that story seems set in the past, as Robbie is still an innocent teenager in it.

In May 2012 a new version of Dial H For Hero, titled simply Dial H, and written by China Mieville, was introduced as one of the second wave of New 52 titles, rebooting the canon. It introduced a new dial, this one identical to an actual rotary phone dial, and a new wielder, Nelson Jent, who had lost his job, let himself go to seed, and was on the path to self-destruction.

This comic series was also the inspiration behind Dial B For Blog, a comic "blogazine" in which Robby is the Author Avatar of Kirk Kimball.

Tropes featured in the series:

  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: The serial killer in H-E-R-O used one of these through his power to use any superpower he could think of.
  • Alliterative Name: Robby Reed.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: Exactly how the dial works, or its origin, is never explained.
    • In Chris and Vicky's team-up with Superman (DC Comics Presents #44), the dials were implied to be magical as their powers affected (Pre Crisis) Superman.
  • Audience Participation: Readers were encouraged to send in hero ideas, with wildly varying results. Notably, Harlan Ellison sent a suggestion in (the Silver Fog, appearing in Adventure Comics #479).
  • Big Applesauce: Averted, the series were set in small towns up until H-E-R-O, and even then only some of the dial's users lived in big cities.
  • Captain Ersatz: The creators of Ben 10 used to work in comics, so the similarities are likely not a coincidence.
  • Darker and Edgier: Dial H, a revision along the same lines as Doom Patrol, Sandman, Black Orchid, and the other DC titles which were transplanted to Vertigo Comics. Though China Mieville has lampshaded that this technique is not new.
  • Fifth Week Event: DC's "Silver Age" comics crossover involved Robby and the Dial (transforming the Justice League into NEW heroes!)
  • Gender Bender: Turns up less often than you might think:
    • In one story, Chris King became the shapeshifter "Any-Body," and then used his power to take on the shape of Naiad, a villainess, in order to trick another bad guy.
    • In H-E-R-O, one man is turned into a female superhero by the dial and loses it before he can change himself back.
  • Grand Theft Me: Implied when Robby turned into the pre-existing hero Plastic Man, though the issue isn't directly addressed.
    • In Plastic Man Vol. 2 #13, Plastic Man faces off against Robby, who uses the dial to turn into his previous forms, including Plastic Man himself (much to the real Plas's confusion).
  • The Joy of X: The idea probably came from the title of the movie "Dial M for Murder".
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: The Other Wiki's page lists every transformation the dials were ever used for, totaling over 200!
  • Metafictional Device: The Dials allowed comic fans to see their creations in a comic, if only once.
  • New Powers as the Plot Demands: Justified, given the concept of the series.
  • Personality Powers: In the new Dial H series, it appears that the superhero identities which manifest through the dial act as personifications for aspects of the dialer's personality. Boy Chimney represents Nelson Jent's cigarette smoking, Captain Lachrymose his depression.
  • Production Throwback: In the first issue of Dial H, Robby Reed, Chris King, and Vicki Grant have been glimpsed through Boy Chimney's smoke vision. Word of God from China Mieville has explained that the series will have numerous Easter Egg references to the previous stories, but has neither confirmed nor denied whether the previous dial owners will have a bigger connection to the series.
  • Punchy Love: Vicky's personality.
  • Recycled in Space: With Ben 10.
  • Super Empowering
  • The Smurfette Principle: Adding Vicky to the series.
  • Starfish Character: Robby Reed.
  • Technology Marches On: Is there any device today that uses rotary disks? Other than combination locks.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: In his second adventure as Giant Boy, the first hero he ever turned into, Robby was poisoned. He turned back into himself, but if he ever turned into Giant Boy again (and remember the dial is completely random), he'd die.
  • Wild Mass Guessing: Is the Omnitrix an Alternate Continuity Hero Dial?