It's hard not to be infected by the enthusiasm with which fantasy author China Miéville describes his revival of “goofy old 1960s comic” Dial H for Hero.
“You know when you’re running around in the playground playing superheroes—part of the pleasure was trying to come up with names and powers and all that stuff,” he told Socialist Worker.
“What I’ve always liked about Dial H is how it celebrates that childlike pleasure of inventing.
“You get to come up with what you think is a really, really cool superhero who might then appear for literally one frame or one panel and then never come back.”
Dial H’s premise is simple. Every time young Robbie Reed dials his magic phone, he generates a new superhero identity for himself.
At a time when the cinemas are full of familiar costumed characters, it’s a format that makes for a lot of originality—something Miéville clearly relishes.
“As a very young reader I fell in love with it a few months in when he becomes something called King Coil, who is a giant animate steel spring and then goes off and fights crime,” he said.
“The Human Starfish was another one. It was all played for a kind of goofy laugh, but even then I felt like this is a much weirder and potentially darker comic than it seems to realise.
“How would that constant change and variation of supernatural identity mess with your head?”
Miéville has been trying to get his hands on Dial H for some time. His version has more overtly psychological themes and a recession setting, but he describes it as fundamentally an “homage” to the genre.
It has been well-received even among notoriously hard to please comic fans. Now he hopes to carry on with it “for as long as they’ll let me”.
“There are two things I’m trying to do,” he said. “I’d like to make it as strange as I can and as kooky as I can. But I want to play it with a completely straight face.”
That combination of playfulness and sincerity is also at the centre of Miéville’s new novel for young adults, Railsea.
“It started with a really silly gag that occurred to me years ago,” he explained, “and I like taking those ideas and being very serious about them to see where they go. It became the kind of story I could imagine telling my own younger self.”
That joke is taking the whale out of Moby Dick and replacing it with a giant mole. A fantastical railway takes the role of the sea. But while the gag runs right through Railsea, the two stories are very different.
As with many of Miéville’s previous books, much of the joy lies in taking the reader through the strange new world he has conjured up.
“It’s intended to read almost like a maritime adventure from the 18th or 19th century,” he said. “Think about things like Darwin’s Beagle manuscripts, where he’s seeing these amazing beasts and sometimes drawing them and writing these beautiful descriptions.
“It’s that sense of exploration that you get in an early Victorian naturalist’s notebook.”
As always Miéville’s fantasy is full of subtle nods to his Marxist politics, which he thinks of in the same way as the “Easter eggs” that are sometimes hidden in video games.
“It’s supposed to make you smile if you get the reference, but not get in the way if you don’t,” he told me.
“Those who are interested in politics will find a lot of jokes about finance and production and even a very prominent Marx quote. They’ll also find what I hope are some pretty cool mole chases.”
Miéville is keen to emphasise that these are “playful projects”.
And even for the not so young adult reader, it’s hard not to want to play along with him.