Sunday, February 21, 2016

Black Superheroes: Steel

John Henry was a man just six feet high,
Nearly two feet and a half across his breast
Name: John Henry Irons (…for real) 

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
I bet who ever came up with that name really patted themselves on the back for that one.

“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"
Aside from whole “John Henry: 1993” thing the big gimmick associated with Steel’s first appearance was that he was a replacement for Superman, kind of, which makes him an example of Minority Replacement, sort of. He was one of four characters calling themselves “Superman” introduced in the wake of the Death of Superman storyline. (This storyline was called “Reign of the Supermen, which to this day is one of my favorite storyline titles…but not the storyline itself. Yuck.) There the murderous, visor wearing, energy blast wielding “Last Son of Krypton”(aka “The Eradicator”, character who is basically only remembered for this storyline), the Cyborg Superman, who turned out to be the insane techno wizard Hank Henshaw out to ruin Superman’s reputation (who also led Hal Jordan/Green Lantern to become a super villain during the 90s) and, of course, The Metropolis Kid better known as Superboy, a shitty clone of Superman who likely is the most relevant of the four. And then there was the Man of Steel, who was the only one of the four who admitted to having no connection to the now dead protector of Metropolis, which made him the most likable and easiest to root for of the group, especially as all the other ones turned out to be fakes.


John Henry said to his shaker,
"Shaker, boy, you better start to pray"
At the conclusion of the storyline Superman returns and Steel and Superboy manage to escape crossover alive and promoted to full fledged characters in the DC Universe. John did have a solo title but like many titles starring black leads it didn’t last that long, though in this case it may have to do more with Steel being a weird cross between Superman and Iron Man than anything race related. However for a while, really beginning towards the late 90s, Steel prominence began to rise which ultimately ended up being cool, weird and also really bad.

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
This was the height of Steel’s popularity. Around this time or a bit later he joined the Justice League in the comics. Not just any version of the team but the circa ’98 version that was made up of all of DC Comic’s most popular and iconic characters, and also Plastic Man. Steel was the “tech guy” and for a little while was standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the most recognizable/top superheroes in the industry….and also Plastic Man. This didn’t last very long, however, as John Henry found himself dropped to the lower levels of the DC hierarchy to the point where the character actually retired, presumably because no one writing at DC at the time could think of anything to do with him. He had a niece who tried her hand at being a superhero, Natasha Irons, but she didn’t really catch on. John and Natasha were major characters in the maxiseries 52, but since then Steel has not been in the limelight. For years, at best, old John Henry Irons was an occasional supporting character but nowhere near the top of the superhero food chain he once flirted with.

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
For more information on Steel click here. For the poem used in this blog by Anonymous click here. Next time (and I’m hoping I can actually get to it in time) we’ll look at a character who is one of the few superheroes in comic book history with a disability…but also someone everyone kind of just forgot about.




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."

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