Day 21 of 28 Days of Black Super Heroes, today’s hero is the DC Comics’ character Steel.
Steel is one of those characters I initially liked a lot, but then dropped because it just wasn’t interesting to me anymore. I still like the basic idea of the character but I hadn’t really followed his adventures.
WHO IS STEEL?
Steel is John Henry Irons, a former weapons engineer who “went straight” in order to take his own weapons off the street.
This is a familiar theme in comics. The protagonist has committed some wrong, and they have to take extraordinary measures to assuage their guilt or otherwise make things right.
In his case, Steel discovered that weapons he made for his employer (a military grade weapons design company called AmerTek Industries) had filtered down to the street level of Metropolis and were being used in gang warfare.
Irons discovered this situation right around the same time that Superman was believed killed back in the 90’s. After Superman’s death, four possible Supermen showed up on the scene in the Reign of the Supermen storyline. John Henry Irons was one of them.
He was driven to this seemingly extreme action because Superman has saved John’s life years earlier. He felt he owed it to the deceased hero to carry on in his name, and with the discovery of his own weapons tech (some sort of “super-bazooka” called a Toastmaster) out in the streets, he thought it was the time to act.
He designed a suit of armor, and took to patrolling the inner-city areas of Metropolis hoping to put and end to the gang warfare. They played up the whole “John Henry” steel-drivin’ man thing a lot at first, but thankfully they realized we “got it” after a while.
WHAT CAN HE DO?
So Steel has built himself a suit of armor which grants him superhuman strength and a certain degree of invulnerability -though not at Superman levels, of course.
He carries a sledgehammer with him as an offensive weapon. Eventually Steel built in the ability for the hammer to hit harder the farther it was thrown, but I don’t think it had that ability at first.
Also on his left arm he had some kind of rivet gun for more distance attacks.
This was one thing I noticed right away about Steel: he was supposed to be this brilliant engineer, but most of his weaponry was actually mechanical. I didn’t really care for it.
Steel wasn’t like Iron-Man over at Marvel. Steel’s armor was kind of non-technical, like they didn’t want to get into the details.
The original artist never drew it with joints and we were just supposed to accept that the face changed expression all the time. Sometimes you gotta just go with the flow on these things, I guess…
REIGN OF THE SUPERMEN
So this was the debut story for Steel. I loved this storyline back in the day. After Superman “died”, four possible Supermen showed up on the scene, each one claiming to be the real Superman (or at least his clone). All of them except John Henry, anyway.
Let’s break it down real quick, the four contenders were:
- Superboy: Hormonal teenage glory-hound claiming to be a clone of Superman
- Cyborg Superman: Claiming to be Superman brought back to life by fusing his body with technology
- Last Son of Krypton: Ruthless, murderous being claiming to be Superman -he had a strange light-sensitivity
- The Man of Steel: Irons, wearing his suit of armor, actually the least powerful of all the Supermen. He quickly became known in real life as “the Black one”.
The best part about Irons is that while each of the four had some aspect of Superman, Steel was the one who had the ideals, the integrity and heroic aspect of Superman. Even though the Superboy adventures were more “fun” to me, I definitely appreciated what they did with Steel. This was a character who was intelligent, and driven by his ethics to step in and take super-heroic action.
And stepping in for Superman is no joke.
Eventually as the story heated up, Irons met the other Supermen. He teamed up with Superboy, chastising him about his glory-hounding, but was nearly killed (unbeknownst to him) when he faced off against The Last Son of Krypton, who really was as powerful as Superman.
The Last Son was poised to destroy Steel (he was pissed that he was using the “S” shield on his chest), but the fact that Steel was willing to keep fighting him to the death over a man he didn’t even know (Superboy had copyrighted the symbol, and it was his process server that was about to be killed), even when Steel was not capable of actually harming him, made the Last Son realize that maybe there was something wrong with him, and so he flew away, leaving Steel the winner.
It was the first time, but not the last, that Steel’s sheer determination would allow him victory over an enemy.
AFTER THE REIGN
After Superman returned to life, Irons decided to leave Metropolis and head to Washington DC, where his family was from.
I have to admit, I picked up the first few issues of the series and I didn’t care for it, so I dropped it.
Steel had dropped the Superman “S” symbol off of his armor, and it didn’t look as visually interesting. He had a different “S” on there, but I thought it was kind of generic.
Also, I found that Steel’s family issues were not interesting to me. I think Steel seemed more exciting when he was caught up in the Superman drama. His continuing quest to rid the world of Toastmasters wasn’t doing it for me.
Fun Fact: As we discovered over in Guy Gardner: Warrior, John and Guy were friends from back in college, well before either of their super-heroing days.
That meant Steel had to face off against Hardware, and while he technically lost, again his determination and ideals actually won the battle in his favor.
Hardware had remarked that Steel was “on that boyscout tip”, and also thought to himself that he admired it (Hardware himself could kill with surprising ease).
I lost track of Steel after that, until he showed up in Grant Morrison‘s run of JLA.
Obviously it doesn’t get any more big time than the JLA, so that should let you know the kind of high regard the other heroes hold for Steel. Although they did let Plastic Man in at the same time, so maybe it doesn’t mean anything…
I remember reading an interview with Morrison, where he said that Steel had kind of become a leader figure in the League, even though he hadn’t meant for the character to develop that way.
But I think that’s exactly what they were going for when they created the character back in the Reign of the Supermen. He was supposed to have the bearing of Superman, so to me it came as no surprise.
STEEL: UP TO DATE
That JLA stuff was a looong time ago. From reading the Wikipedia entry, I can see I missed a lot.
The latest thing I read was the launch of a new series in which Steel battled Doomsday, the creature who “killed” Superman back in the 90’s, touching off the chain of events that lead to the Reign of the Supermen anyway.
At this time, we’re not sure why the creature is back, or what the deal is, but it seems like it might be Reign of the Supermen all over again, and that means I’m in.
THE WRAP UP
I’m not going to talk about the Shaq movie. I never saw it, and probably never will.
Aside from that…Steel is a top-tier black character. He’s intelligent, powerful and he’s one of those extremely heroic types.
It’s funny because I don’t even know if DC thought the character would last as long as he did. I suspect every one of those Supermen except Superboy was meant to be disposable. Sure his actual series was cancelled but he didn’t disappear. He’s been around for a long time and it looks like even longer to come.
You can see that when you have a good idea, it just kind of carries on despite itself. I’m looking forward to reading more about this character now. For those of you on the fence hop over and check out that Wikipedia entry, then check out the latest comic.
For now here’s the pencil art for Steel, and I’ll see you all back here tomorrow for the next hero!