John Henry was a man just six feet high,
Nearly two feet and a half across his breast
First Appearance: The Adventures of Superman #500 (1993)
History: A brilliant engineer and weapons designer, Doctor John Henry Irons (…sigh) diligently worked for AmerTek until he discovered weapons he created were being used to kill innocent people. Faking his death in order to escape his employers without facing blow back he relocated to Metropolis, living as a construction worker. One day while on the job he saved a co-worker from falling to his death in an accident, only to himself nearly die in the attempt. Irons was rescued by Superman who told him to live a life worth living. Later during the battle between Superman and Doomsday Irons was left buried in ruble. By the time he escaped he learned that the man he looked up to so much had died saving the city. Soon after this John discovered that upgraded versions of his weapon designs from AmerTek had made it onto the streets and become the focal point of a gang war. Hoping to right his past wrongs, as well as honor Superman, Irons created a high tech piece of battle armor and took to the skies as The Man of Steel to act as the new protector of Metropolis.
When Superman returned to life he endorsed Irons and encouraged him to continue his heroic career, but suggested he take a name that was less of a mouthful: Steel.
Beta Says: Seriously, his name is “John Henry Irons.” Honestly I can’t tell if this is racist or not. Naming your cool new, hammer wielding black character after that specific folk hero is absolutely intentional and absolutely weird as hell. Maybe if this had been 1973 or 1966 I’d be less bugged by this but one would assume by 1993 people writing comics would have understood how problematic naming a black character that could potentially be. I feel like calling him “John Henry” is only one step above creating a comic book superhero named Br’er Rabbit with a straight face.
Bring me back a TWELVE-pound hammer, please,
And I'll beat that steam drill down, Lord, Lord
“Guys, get this? What if his real name was John Henry? Maybe give him a last name that invokes metal. We can’t call him 'John Henry Steel', that’d be silly. What’s another alloy…? Iron! John Henry Irons! Holy cow, guys! We just made certified gold! This guy will be a top hero for decades to come!”
More about this modern day black folk hero after the jump.
But John Henry said, "Captain, just you stand aside--
It's nothing but my hammer catching wind, Lord, Lord"
John Henry said to his shaker,
"Shaker, boy, you better start to pray"
In 1997 Warner Bros. made a movie based on Steel, presumably in the hopes of presenting a African-American superhero to the masses. The problem was that director Kenneth Johnson apparently didn’t like superheroes. Indeed, he only agreed to make the film because Steel was pitched as more a of "modern knight in shining armor" than a superhero, which right away tells you the numbskulls in charge of this flick. So the vast majority of the superhero aspects of the character were dropped, including half the suit’s power set and all connections to Superman (they even took his cape). Also the movie was really bad; it was so critically panned and bombed so hard that most people have just forgotten that it ever existed, as opposed to Batman & Robin where its terribleness is pretty much celebrated. Also it starred Shaquille O’Neal, because at no point during the production of this film did anyone ever try to make a quality movie.
John Henry beat that steam drill down.
But he hammered his poor heart to death, Lord, Lord
Steel has appeared in the New 52 Reboot, again appearing in the pages of a Superman comic. I’ve been soured on DC the last few years so I haven’t really kept up much with the guy but it does look like he still isn’t considered a top player. Perhaps with the rise of Cyborg over the last few years DC has decided their “Black Guy Quota” is good for now. The fact is I really like Steel. He’s pretty derivative but I like that he isn’t just one thing. There’s a lot of potential for variety when using him; he’s a genius engineer with cool power armor who hits dudes in the face with a hammer. That’s awesome! I’m not sure if he’s a strong enough character to lead in his own series but then again with the right writer at the right time it might work. I’d love to see more of him in comics.
That said what I’ve seen of his New 52 armor is garbage. Best to use variations of his old armor or don’t bother using him.
The mountain was so tall and John Henry was so small,
He laid down his hammer and he cried
Now every woman riding on a C and O train
Says, "There lies my steel-driving man, Lord, Lord,
There lies my steel-driving man."