Friday, April 23, 2010

Storytelling Engines: Dial H For H-E-R-O

(Or "WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!?!?!?!?!?")

Sometimes, when trying to come up with ideas for ongoing series (whether in comics, TV, movies, books, radio, et cetera) creators make mistakes that are truly inexplicable. All you can do, on seeing them, is shake your head in despair and wonder what made them think it was a good idea to insert an idea into a series that was bound to do nothing but make them miserable in trying to follow it. 'Dial H For H-E-R-O', the mid-60s series from DC, is perhaps the textbook example of an obvious bad idea for an ongoing series--so much so that you have to wonder why they didn't spot the problem right away.

The series makes other mistakes, too, but they're understandable ones. It's understandable that they tried to duplicate the burgeoning "teen hero" craze by making a main character, Robby Reed, who combines all the worst traits of Wesley Crusher and Snapper Carr. (Every time you think you're about to stop hating him, he breaks out his "Sockamagee!" catch-phrase again...) It probably seemed like a good idea to give him an elderly grandfather who's indulgent about Robby's habit of wandering off, even though to modern audiences Grandpa seemed like he was skirting the child neglect laws. It might even have seemed like a good idea to set the series in the idyllic small town of Littleville, forcing Robby to do a lot of commuting to get to the exciting bank robberies and sinister schemes he had to stop.

But what on Earth possessed them to give Robby a magic dial that turned him into a different super-hero every single time he used it? (Which was, on average, three times an issue.) What made writer Dave Wood think that he could really come up with two to three interesting super-heroes (name, concept, powers and abilities) every single issue? To come up with a single good super-hero idea is exhaustingly difficult sometimes; even home-run hitters like Jack Kirby came up with the occasional dud. Trying to do three a month, well...it's no wonder we saw silly ideas like "King Kandy", cringe-inducingly racist ones like "Chief Mighty Arrow", instantly dated ones like "Robby Go-Go", or blatant rip-offs like "Plastic Man" and "Magneto". (The former was at least acknowledged as a deliberate duplicate of the existing character.)

A concept like this handicaps the creative team right from the start. Instead of generating story ideas, it consumes them voraciously, forcing them to come up with more concepts per issue than many writers use in an entire year of stories. Later reboots of the series tried to solve the problem by using fan-made super-heroes (these issues aren't included in the Showcase Presents collection, presumably because of worries about some forty year old trying to sue for a share of royalties on their character) but it's still a terribly exhausting idea. And when you're trying to build a series to last, the one thing you don't want is a series that burns you out, creatively, faster than normal.

And you also don't want a lead character that responds to everything with a rousing, "Sockamagee!" I cannot stress that enough.

8 comments:

Graeme said...

As I've indicated here:
http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2007/12/04/365-reasons-to-love-comics-338/

Dial "H" For Hero made me a comic fan for life, and I love the 1960s version too.

I don't think the fact that they had to come up with multiple heroes as a limitation any more than it was for Jack Kirby to come up with new animal based races in Kamandi or the average Richie Rich comic to come up with a new way to show the Rich family's conspicuous consumption. It was fun! Awesome fun! The guy could become ANY SUPER HERO. It was excitement in a bottle. Or a dial.

Anonymous said...

Why do they have to come up with separate superhero identities? Why not reuse a hero from a previous issue when you're stuck for an idea? Ben 10, an unapologetic ripoff of "Dial H..." solved the problem by only having 10 new things for the hero to transform into, and not an infinite number. When a new writer comes aboard, they can add their very own heroes to the mix, but there's no reason they should make it harder for themselves, like you say.

E. Wilson said...

To piggy-back off of the above comment, Ben-10's writers were clever enough to use the limitations of the concept as fodder for stories. I've only seen a handful of episodes, but a lot of stories seem to circle around Ben not being able to get the heroic alien form that he needs for the particular situation. Each time he transforms, there's some inherent drama from the fact that instead of the fire-powered alien that could easily defeat this particular menace, he may just as soon get a fish-themed alien that'd be completely useless for him.

Did Ben-10 rip off Dial H for Hero? Yes. But they made the concept work, which is a lot more than can be said for the original.

John Seavey said...

In fairness, Graeme, your column was mostly about the early 80s incarnation, which wasn't in the book. :) (I really wish it was, though. I know the kids all signed rights releases, but I can't think of any other reason why they wouldn't collect them beyond worries of inadequate legal coverage.)

The difference between "Dial H" and Richie Rich, though, is that if the writer can't come up with a clever "conspicuous consumption" gag, he can just structure that issue so he doesn't need as many. If the writer of "Dial H" is stuck for a hero idea, that month's issue is FUBARed. :)

viagra online said...

I think sometimes they get those mistakes so those mistakes sometimes are important in order to to create and develop a better story.

Bob said...

@John Seavey: This is the reason that it may not be worth DC's while to reprint the 1980s Dial H series.

@Graeme: I'm with you. The original Dial H series in House of Mystery was my favorite non-Schwartz-or-Weisinger-edited comic book of the Silver Age. It was a huge kick to see three new superheroes every issue... even the "lame" ones.

@Anonymous: They did occasionally reuse heroes. Giantboy, Radar-Sonar Man, and Chief Mighty Arrow each appeared twice.

Isabel said...

Animal/Plant/Mineral based aliens >>> Random heroes in collant uniform.Ben 10's original design by Steven Gordon was intended to be a Dial H for Hero tribute,but I'm glad it wasn't.Gordon is an awesome animator,but even his art style wouldn't have saved the show.I mean,Thomas Perkin's alien's design was way better than than all of Robbie's,Chris' and Vicki's heroes in the 60's and 80's.Besides,even if Ben didn't had to use the Omnitrix to become alien,(if he could switch forms just like Kevin 11 at the beggining of the series)this show would still be a major hit.Now,China Méville and Matheus Santolouco are doing a new Dial H for Hero series,and personally,I think it's going to surpass the 60's,80's and 03's versions,even though the 2003 version was really cool already.

Isabel said...

Animal/Plant/Mineral based aliens >>> Random heroes in collant uniform.Ben 10's original design by Steven Gordon was intended to be a Dial H for Hero tribute,but I'm glad it wasn't.Gordon is an awesome animator,but even his art style wouldn't have saved the show.I mean,Thomas Perkin's alien's design was way better than than all of Robbie's,Chris' and Vicki's heroes in the 60's and 80's.Besides,even if Ben didn't had to use the Omnitrix to become alien,(if he could switch forms just like Kevin 11 at the beggining of the series)this show would still be a major hit.Now,China Méville and Matheus Santolouco are doing a new Dial H for Hero series,and personally,I think it's going to surpass the 60's,80's and 03's versions,even though the 2003 version was really cool already