DIAL H FOR HEROMedium: Comic books
Published by: DC Comics
First Appeared: 1966
Creators: Dave Wood (writer) and Jim Mooney (artist)
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One of the biggest comic book successes of the 1940s was Captain Marvel. And one of the factors in his success was that the main character was just a
kid, like many of the readers, and subject to a lot of their fears and frustrations — but when things were at their worst, he could instantly become a big, strong superhero and mop the floor with his foes. Captain Marvel sold in the millions and lasted over twice as long as most of his contemporaries.
The '60s wave of superheroes had no blockbuster success with that theme. But "Dial H for Hero", which sold moderately and lasted only a couple of years, has turned out to be a surprisingly enduring concept. In it, the Captain Marvel motif was "kicked up a notch", as young Robby Reed could count on turning into a superhero every time he dialed "H-E-R-O" on the strange device he'd found, but he never knew which one it would be.
The hero dialer was first seen in House of Mystery #156, which DC Comics published with a cover date of January, 1966, in a story written by Dave Wood (Animal Man, Sky Masters) and drawn by Jim Mooney (Ms. Marvel, Omega the Unknown). While being chased by criminals, Robby entered an old cavern, and was drawn right to the dialer. Its inscriptions were in some alien lingo, but Robby, instantly forming a mental link to it, managed to decipher them. His first use of the dial turned him into Giant-Boy, who thereupon took off after the crooks.
The new series knocked J'onn J'onzz, Manhunter from Mars, the former star of House of Mystery, completely off the cover and into the rear pages, as Robby fought crime and/or evil as Radar-Sonar Man, The Cometeer, Quake-Master, and many other superheroes — two or three per issue, fact.
Of course, the weakness in this formula is that it chews up superhero concepts like popcorn. Some were repeated; and once (#160), in one of comics' more unexpected crossovers, he turned into Plastic Man — whom even Robby recognized as an already-existing hero who had gone into retirement years earlier (tho he didn't elaborate on the metaphysical issues this raised). Despite these ploys, Wood (who continued writing the series as long as it lasted, tho Mooney left a few issues before the end) seems to have had a little trouble coming up with decent ones. Such heroes as Sphinx Man, Mighty Moppet and King Kandy would probably have been rejected by The Legion of Super Heroes, and the Legion admitted some awfully silly characters.
The series became lame and repetitive, enlivened only by occasional gimmicks like Robby's girlfriend discovering his secret and using the dial herself (in the September, 1967 issue). As of House of Mystery #174 (May, 1968), the format reverted to what it had been originally, an anthology of non-series fantasy/horror stories. Rather than find a new place to put "Dial H", the publisher opted to put it out of its misery.
Robby wasn't seen again for years, until Plastic Man, who had been rescued from the land of defunct comic book heroes by his appearance in Robby's series (he was back in his own comic less than six months afterward) returned the favor in his own November, 1977 issue. But this guest appearance didn't lead to a new series — in fact, the story ended with Plas taking Robby's dial away from him, for using it irresponsibly.
And that would have been that, but the "Dial H" concept was too interesting to turn loose of permanently, and too fondly remembered (at least in principle, tho perhaps not for the quality of the stories) by adults who had read it as kids. Just a few years later, DC launched a new "Dial H for Hero" series, with new protagonists. Naturally, Robby Reed quickly got tangled up in their back-story (tho how he got his dial back from Plas wasn't explained). But he's no longer the young teen who used to have real great adventures as Super-Charge, Hypno-Man and The Yankee Doodle Kid.