China Mieville’s been trying to break into comics a long time. The native Londoner has busied himself with becoming an award-winning fantasy and science-fiction author in the meantime, turning out acclaimed work like Perdido Street Station and last year’s Railsea.
A few years ago, it looked like Mieville’s big break was all set to happen, as buzz began to build about flirtations between the author and DC Comics regarding a possible run on Swamp Thing. That gig didn’t happen, though, and took on mythological status alongside other wished-for Things That Should Exist.
But Mieville’s finally getting a regular series from the storied comics publisher, debuting on a new version of Dial H for Hero. The title’s a more obscure one from DC’s catalogue, centered around a mysterious artifact that gives people superpowers for a limited time. In the interview that follows, Mieville talks about his excitement over finally getting a steady gig in comics and talks about why he’d love to write video games but, oddly, hasn’t yet.
Kotaku: You’ve written single issues of comics and are a well-respected science fiction and fantasy author. But what makes Dial H for Hero in particular perfect for you to finally jump into comics writing with both feet?
Miéville: Well, the main reason is it’s the comic that I have wanted to write for many years, and that I have pitched to DC several times. At one point the stars finally aligned and we were able to make it work. Obviously this is not evidence that’s it’s going to be any good. That’s a totally separate question.
But the fact is ever since people had started asking me about writing for comics, the title I’ve always wanted to do was Dial H. Because I was obsessed since I was a little kid. The idea to basically come up with new crazy superheroes every month is intoxicatingly delightful for me.
Kotaku: I remember the original version of the book was populated with reader submissions of various crazy superheroes and their weird powers. Did you ever email any of your made-up characters that you wanted to be in the original book?
Miéville: No. I didn’t. Because I was not a very systematic comics reader. This was in Britain. You had to be really dedicated to really follow the American comics. So I would pick up titles as and when I found them. Which, on the one hand, was very sub-optimal. But on the other hand, what it did do is it gave you this kind of crazy cut-up and chaotic continuity whereby you would constantly come in in the middle of storylines and leave again. Which was incomprehensible but also quite enjoyable.
And so, by the time that I would ever see any of these it might be months after they were out. I spent a lot of my childhood inventing superheroes, one or two of which we might well see in the pages of Dial H. But I never actually officially tried to pitch one. I think the very notion of sending a transatlantic letter would have been overwhelmingly intimidating to me at the time. I was very young.
Kotaku: Is there a teenage China Miéville character that we won’t be seeing in Dial H? An embarrassing creation that you think should never see the light of day?
Miéville: Oh my God, so many. Are you kidding me? Endless, endless, endless characters that you’ll never see. I think as I get older my quality threshold goes up, as it should. So, yes, there are many that you’ll never find out about.
Kotaku: Your fiction is well-respected for the way that you build these huge worlds, these huge fictional constructs that are multilayered and you run a theme throughout all of it. But here you’re entering into a universe that’s somewhat pre-established. How blank of a slate are you being given? Is this interacting with the DC Universe as it’s been put forth since the reboot?
Miéville: That’s a very good question. For a start, it is part of the DC Universe. There’s no evading that. That’s just a fact. But I think it is also the case that as much actually as the original two Dial H heroes were, it is part of the DC Universe, but it is also, the analogy that I would always use is that it’s semi-detached. So it’s like it’s happening in a relatively obscure corner. If you look at the original run, there’s certainly guest appearances from other heroes.
But for the most part, the characters kind of get on with their own thing. So you certainly don’t have ultimate freedom, but you do have a lot more continuity freedom than if you were playing with Batman or Superman or Wonder Woman or something.
And secondly, I think part to the appeal and the challenge is precisely writing as part of an already existing universe. I know that there are some writers who would never do that. They would just find that too oppressive. I wouldn’t want to do it for everything, but for this particular title part of the joy for me is the idea of this very, very strange kooky concept taking place within a universe that’s already established, and that already has continuity, and therefore I do have to make sure that I’m staying faithful to that narrative.
There is a certain kind of pleasure and I think there always has been in trying to both remain faithful to a continuity, and be as out there as you can without breaking the bounds of that fidelity. I think you see that in the best writing, in any continuity, whether it’s a game tie-in, or TV tie-in, or an RPG tie-in or whatever, part of the trick is to try to do the job, to obey the rules, but also to go into directions that no one was expecting.
Kotaku: Yeah, it’s funny that you mentioned tie-in stuff, because I think it’s kind of common knowledge that you’ve been pitching comics work before. Many people know about the Swamp Thing pitch. Is that something you’re able to talk about?
Miéville: Well, I can tell you it’s fairly simple. I didn’t pitch it. There was a discussion about me doing Swamp Thing. And we wrote quite a lot for it. For reasons that are probably pretty obvious for people who have been following DC and DC continuity, it ended up going a different way, and my run was mothballed. Obviously, at the time, I was very disappointed.
That’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re within an existing continuity. It follows from your other question about playing in another established universe. And the second thing is…and I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna. I mean yes it’s very frustrating anytime your stuff doesn’t see the light of day.
But I understand these things happen. I’m not a child. And the two things that have come out of it that were very good I think, one was it gave me confidence in writing because I am still very much a newcomer at comic writing.
And I think Dial H is going to be better than it would have been if I hadn’t had been through the learning curve of Swamp Thing. And the second thing, as much as I loved Swamp Thing — and I really do, I’m fascinated by Swamp Thing — Dial H is the only comic I have ever pitched at DC.
There’s been titles put my way. There’s been ruminations over the table. The only title I have ever gone to DC on more than one occasion and said, “You guys should let me do this,” was this title. And after several years of me appending this to every single conversation I ever had with DC, all of a sudden the stars aligned and they were like, “Actually yeah, OK, let’s see what happens.” So from that perspective what happened with Swamp Thing was a shame, but it’s small potatoes in the big scheme of things.
Kotaku: Fair enough. What was in your first pitch, your first Dial H pitch, that’s going to be in the book? And what won’t be in the book from your first pitch?
Miéville: Well actually to be honest with you, my original pitch has not changed very much over the years. Those first discussions did not get terribly far. What happened some months ago was that I suggested the title as I always did. It was almost becoming a joke. Like it was perfectly good humored. Every time I spoke with a DC person, I would mention the title. And this time, instead of smiling politely, ears pricked up.
The idea I had has always been predicated on the same two things. One is, if you take this strangeness seriously, and you enjoy the strangeness, but what’s that going to do to somebody’s head to keep changing identities like that? And the other is the Dial H titles almost uniquely in the DC Universe have never really had their backstory explained.
We still don’t know where dials came from. Which, in the case of a universe that’s so thoroughly explored as the DCU, is kind of amazing. And so my pitch was always, “I want to enjoy the kookiness but also have a psychological edge to it, and I want to start talking backstory. I want to start talking mythos.” And that really hasn’t shifted. It’s more a question for the first time I was able to really go into that than that I had to shift it.
Kotaku: Is this going to be Robby Reed that we’re seeing or is this going to be one of the characters in Will Pfeifer’s run? You probably can’t tell us…
Miéville: Would you really expect me to tell you that? [laughs] Seriously. Come now. Whether it’s with books or comics or anything I’m always getting into battles with editors in any form. Because in my ideal world, books and comics would be put out with completely plain covers that don’t tell you anything. There would be no blurb and no cover copy. Nothing.
So, every time I have to give away anything, I feel like I’m dying a little bit inside. So I’m going to duck that question I’m afraid. But I will say this. I will say one thing. I will say that part of the trick and part of the attempt is to write something that you don’t have to know anything about Dial H history to read, but that does contain Easter eggs for the Dial H fans. So there will be things that if you had been following Dial H, if you are an old reader, will I hope recognise again.
Kotaku: Is there going to be any gender-bending in the run? Because it seems to me that it is a particularly seductive notion that you can fit into a book like this. I’m pretty sure in the old ‘60s run that there was never any gender-bending. But it seems like you could do it here if you’re talking about messing with the character’s head.
Miéville: You may remember that there was some gender-bending in the Pfeifer/Kano run of the early 2000s. So that wouldn’t be an original thing to do. Which is no reason not to do it, let me stress. I will say that I intend to explore all the possibilities and personas within the bounds of the Dial universe.
Kotaku: You mentioned tie-ins and and writing across different media tie-ins before. Are you a video gamer at all? Do you dabble? I don’t get a sense that you’re a writer who spends much time in that arena. What’s your awareness of video games?
Miéville: On very rare occasions I have gotten really into particular video games. I got really into Diablo. These are PC games. The last console game I got really, really into would be The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. So we’re going somewhat back now. And I’m constantly surprised. Because, on paper, I should be a big gamer.
If you look at the stuff I’m into, and if you look at what I like, and what I don’t like, I really, really should be a video gamer. And for the life of me, I don’t really know why I’m not. I think partly I find them very beautiful and very fascinating. I love watching people play them. And I’d love to write for them. But I think basically my theory is that I am so incredibly bad at them that I don’t actually enjoy playing them. All I ever really want to do is to go into God Mode and walk slowly around and look at everything.
Miéville: Which potentially might make me an awesome writer for them. I have no idea. But I was a tabletop gamer. I was an RPG guy. I was into RuneQuest and Dungeons & Dragons. I was not ever a serious video gamer.
Kotaku: If you had to adapt any of your book concepts, a fictional world into a video game, which would you pick?
Miéville: I wouldn’t. [laughs] I wouldn’t, because when I write fiction, I’m very interested in…I’m trying to make it very much for that particular fiction that could be prose which does something very particular, and I want to make it that what those books are about. In some other media it’s a bit different. Certainly I think there’s potential for video games.
I’ve got certain ideas specifically for video games. And I’ve talked to people about them. I’ve tentatively pursued it. I am much more interested in trying to create something from scratch that is designed to be that kind of environment than in taking one of my books and adapting it. Because no matter how good a job you do, you’re always going to be disappointing someone. Anytime you translates anything from one language to another something is lost no matter how beautiful the translation is.
So I’m fascinated in pursuing video games. And I do plan to keep an eye on what’s going on, and what’s being published, and what’s getting good reviews, and all that kind of thing. But I’d much rather write something from scratch than try and adapt.
Kotaku: Who did you talk to if you don’t mind me asking?
Miéville: I won’t say specifically simply because it’s all kind of speculative stuff. People have asked about video game stuff and I have certain ideas. I have the folders on my hard drive. I talk to people about them sometimes much as I did for comics until Dial H came up. Maybe one of these days we’ll make it work. Because I think my video game ideas are completely awesome. But I acknowledge that I’m not unbiased on the question.
Kotaku: Going back to Dial H. What superpower set is going to surprise people the most? Or is there a particular power that you’re proud of, the way you execute it in the comic?
Miéville: I wouldn’t tell you which one would surprise people, because if I told you, it would stop surprising you. But I will say that I am abidingly happy particularly with the first hero I came up with. So the first person we meet in the first issue of Dial Hbecomes kind of emblematic, I hope, of some of the directions that we’re going to go in. And I think that the powers and the effect and the aesthetics of something that I think worked well.