Dark rebooting: HERO: Powers and abilities

DC’s 2003-5 series H-E-R-O is an interesting example of doing a darker, grittier, grimmer reboot that actually works.

The series was based on Dial H for HERO, a Silver Age series about “Robby Reed — the Boy Who Can Change Into a Thousand Superheroes!” Created by Dave Wood and Jim Mooney, this has teenage science whiz Robbie Reed discover an alien dial. Translating the instructions, he learns that by dialing the equivalent of the letters H-E-R-O, he transforms into a superhero. To return to normal, he transforms back (other letters allow someone to dial VILLAIN).

I loved this series as a kid. In the first place, it was the only series besides Spider-Man that had a non-sidekick fteen protagonist. And where Spider-Man had powers, Robby was ordinary. If I’d found the dial, hey, I could be just as super! Plus the appeal of a series that offered more superheroes even than the Justice League of Avengers books was irresistible.

Rereading recently, I can see the flaws in it. The stories and villains are bland, and got sloppy near the end of the run (Wood forgets his own ground rules, like Robby having to dial back to normal before becoming another hero). Robby lives with his grandfather, but we never learn why, or where his parents went. Being a science whiz is his only personality trait.

When Joe Orlando took over as House of Mystery editor at the end of the Silver Age, he saw that the superhero strips sold poorly compared to the supernatural anthology approach of times past. He switched House of Mystery and House of Secrets to anthology books hosted by Cain and Abel, a format which made them steady sellers on into the 1980s. I was baffled and disappointed to discover Robby Reed and backup the Martian Manhunter had suddenly disappeared, and I never became a fan of the anthology approach (with rare exceptions such as the first Swamp Thing story, they were mostly mediocre).

Robby popped up occasionally after that, including a 1980s Dial H series with different protagonists (it was a lot less fun). Most of these stories followed the premise of the original faithfully but H-E-R-O (by Will  Pfeifer and Jose Angel Cano Lopez) took it in a different direction.

While Robby eventually shows up, the hook is that the H-Dial passes from hand to hand in the course of the series. A guy who feels like a nothing becomes a superhero — now he’s a somebody, right? A stressed-out businessman uses the dial to give himself some fun. A little girl makes herself cool at school by offering to share the H-Dial. A group of slackers film themselves using their powers, then stream it to YouTube. Trouble is, the dial eventually falls into the hands of a psycho who hits the jackpot — Superman-class powers. Robby saw this future back in one of his super-identities and now that it’s arrived, he’s taking steps to prevent it …

This was definitely on the grim-and-gritty side of comics. Suicide, death, heroes dealing out gratuitous violence, extremely flawed protagonists and then more death. I think the reason it worked for me is because it’s a perfectly logical outgrowth of the original series — what if someone less heroic found the H-Dial? It’s not violating the original canon at all. That’s a vast improvement over the many, many reboots that go with Everything You Know Is Wrong! DC’s 1980sreboot of Silver Age space adventurer Adam Strange, for instance, assumes that Rann (the planet he adventures on) despises him and his presence there is just to provide breeding stock (Rannian men are sterile). It was grim and gritty at its worst, undercutting everything fun in the original series (when I read the classic Adam, I just ignore the reboot exists).

Pfeifer and Lopez, by contrast, got it right.

#SFWApro. Covers by Jim Mooney and John van Fleet, all rights remain with current holders.

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Filed under Comics, Reading, Writing

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