Monday, February 13, 2023

Black Superheroes: Natasha Irons

John Henry took sick and went to his bed
Polly Ann drove steel like a man, Lord, Lord

Name: Natasha Irons

First Appearance: Steel #1 (1994)

History: Natasha Irons is the niece of superhero and scientist John Henry Irons, better known as Steel. From early on into his hero career Natasha had been his steadfast supporter and ally, to the point where she was the only member of the Irons family to accompany him when John relocated back to Metropolis. One day, John was trapped under the influence of the Entropy Aegis, a powerful armor created by Darkseid. Designing her own armor using Aegis tech, Natasha teamed up with Superman and others to rescue her uncle from the clutches of Apokolips. While they were successful, John was too injured to continue on as Steel. Therefore, he passed the mantle to Natasha, something he had always planned on doing, and with his blessing and support she began her own heroic career as the new Steel.

Sometime later Natasha ad John had a falling out and he stripped her of the armor. Unable to recreate her own, she signed up for the Everyman Project, a superhuman creation program sponsored by Lex Luthor. The program gave her superhuman strength, the ability to fly, and the power to emit light blasts from her hands and she soon took up the name Starlight. However, after realizing that Luthor had criminal ulterior motives with the project she betrayed him to her uncle but was stripped of the powers for her efforts. Later still it turned out that the experiments had lingering effects and she developed new powers, the ability to phase into a gaseous form, and she took up the name Vapor.

Beta Says: Natasha is a bit of a difficult character to write about as she is a spin-off character of a spin-off character; a derivative of a derivative, if you will. Steel has never been all that successful as a character beyond being loosely associated with Superman and a lot the time that Natasha ends up donning the power suit herself it usually feels like current DC Comics’ current writers aren’t interested in John Henry Irons at the moment for whatever reason, and tag her in instead like she’s a back-up character when they need to add a woman or a black person or both to story. Considering she spent so many years as a supporting character to John in his solo series, I to this day wonder why exactly DC felt the need to replace him with her, and then keep replacing her back with her uncle anytime someone decided they had a use for him again. It makes me tired.

More on Natasha Irons after the jump.

Pretty sure this was the evil scheme from "The Incredibles"

I think my initial issue with Natasha is that at the end of the day I’m not the biggest fan of supporting characters in superhero comics getting powers and becoming crime fighters themselves. Yes, it can add some drama and there are plenty of instances where it works, but if all your supporting cast become heroes, then you don’t have a supporting cast to humanize the main character can make them feel less special. Then again, one could argue that you don’t need a supporting cast if you aren’t strong enough to consistently sell a solo book.

Anyway, Natasha Irons is the definition of black superhero character that consistently is forgotten about. As Steel, she makes an appearance and maybe act as a supporting character in someone else’s book or maybe a team book for a bit before disappearing for a few years. Usually sometime afterwards, John will return as Steel for a few more years then suddenly decide to retire and bam, Natasha is suiting up again. I’m not sure she’s ever been around consistently long enough to really make her mark as a hero, to be frank.

Add to the fact that I’m not sure DC ever had a definitive plan with her outside of her taking over for her uncle. Whenever a new writer gets their hands on the Steel IP they seem to have a different take on it, and sometimes that means that Natasha is often replaced by the “triumphant” return of John Henry. That said, Natasha most definitive take as a hero probably came during the maxi-series 52, a series that focuses on a lot of B, C, and D-Tier characters during a missing year in DC’s canon. Her story saw her have a falling out with her uncle, being stripped of her armor, and getting new superpowers and a new identity from Lex Luthor, only to don the role of Steel once more and reuniting with John Henry once she realized the villain’s true motives. That’s a pretty good story, to be honest, and the exact type of runway a character like her needs to jumpstart her notability. But soon after that she was retooled again, developed completely different powers and took on a completely different identity before fading into the background of the DC Universe yet again after the team book she was on ended.

Every picture I found of Vapor seems like potentially offensive gender talk

And then the New 52 happened and she came back as Steel with no explanation of what happened to her powers and no mention of it whatsoever…before she faded into the background of the DC Universe again. Sigh.

It can be hard to care about a character when a company doesn’t really want to invest in them. That all said, maybe her fortunes are turning. She has recently joined the cast of the CW television show series Superman & Lois, played by Tayler Buck (albeit an extremely different take on the character, including being Joh Henry’s daughter rather than niece). Plus, it looks like DC is having her become more connected with the Superman Family, as she seems that she may be a prominent reoccurring character in Action Comics for the new status quo of the Superman books (“new” as of this writing, of course). If the writers spend time on developing her as a person and giving us a reason to be excited to  follow her adventures, this could be a major turning point for the character.

Now, let’s say DC does decide to give Natasha more focus. Is there enough there to make an interesting solo series, if such a thing was on the table, based on her established history without just inventing a bunch of new stuff? Well, yes actually. It doesn’t sound like it comes up often since she donned the Steel identity, but Natasha has a crazy interesting backstory from when she was just one of John Henry’s supporting cast members. Did you know she worked as an intern for a US senator when she was only sixteen years old? Like, how goddamn smart and driven do you have to be to land such a role so young? Does she have an interest in politics? How would that balance with her commitment to being a superhero? Did you know her dad, John Henry’s brother, was an assassin/supervillain named Crash who ended up going to prison and literally never being mentioned ever again? Does she still have a relationship with him? Could he be an antagonist for her adventures? There’s a lot of hooks that have nothing to do with Superman that could be explored.

But will they be explored? My gut says “probably not” but who’s to say? All I know is that ever since she followed her uncle to Metropolis she has been little more than an ensemble player at best, though admittedly with bouts of cool stories here and there, and she will continue to linger in that role unless someone at DC who is interested in diving deeper is given that opportunity to do so. Until then, expect her to be replaced by her uncle any day now.

Apparently the hip new costume trends are hoods and jackets
The 90s are back, baby!

For a more straight forward history of Natasha check out he profile on World of Black Heroes. Next time we wrap up Black Superhero Month with a character who, like Ironheart, may have a role in the near future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but who brings with them a lot more uncomfortable baggage.

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