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365 Reasons to Love Comics #55

Let’s take a look at another character who rules as a concept but has suffered mightily under execution. My God, there’s a lot of them in our spotlight in Black History Month, isn’t there? Then again, loads of characters of various races have the same problem. I don’t think it’s a race thing, I think it’s a complex issue involving missed potential, lacking subgenres, and not thinking things out as completely as they should be.

Anyway, onto today’s hero! I really, really want to make a “hammer time” joke. For God’s sake, I must be stopped.


55. Steel

Steel 1.jpg

Steel (let’s not confuse him with these guys or even this guy) is a terrific concept with a great theme a cool origin story. John Henry Irons was a weapons designer who gave up the life when he saw the horrors he had indirectly inflicted on man, and got out of dodge, faking his own death and becoming a construction worker. Working on the job one day, he risked his life to save another, and almost fell to his death whilst doing so. Superman saved him, however, and John Henry would remember this after Superman’s death. The weapons he designed were showing up on the streets of his Metropolis neighborhood and there were no heroes left. John Henry stepped up, built himself a suit of armor, picked up a hammer, and went in to save the day, hoping he could live up to the mythical heroes that inspired him: not only his namesake, but also his hero Superman.

So, yeah. Besides the fact that he’s yet another black “neighborhood hero,” the kind writer John Ridley decries in a recent interview, it’s a good concept, one of a man trying to live up to the tale of his folk hero namesake and the memory of everybody’s hero, Superman. It’s about making good and redeeming oneself. It’s about the indomitable spirit of a hero.

Steel 3.jpg

So what went wrong? Steel even got his own series that lasted over four years. Solid (though underrated) creators like Louise Simonson, Jon Bogdanove, and Christopher Priest all contributed to it! So what’s the problem? Chaos happened.

Steel’s never managed to keep one story going for long enough. He’s moved around; he’s died once or twice; he’s gotten superpowers, lost them, gotten new ones; his armor has changed, sprung to life, and all sorts of stuff; he’s gone from being a very smart and capable technologist to a super-genius tech guru who can out-build Tony Stark; etc. I can’t keep track of what’s going on with him anymore.

Steel 2.jpg

I’d like to see him engage the reader again, and get a set status quo that lasts longer than six months. He’s a main character in 52, though he hasn’t shown up as much as a lot of the other stars; but already in that series he’s gone from having powers to losing them and whatever else. I don’t read it, but I try to keep up, and I have difficulty doing so.

Admittedly, I liked John Henry as the working man’s hero, as a guy who never gave up and kept on pounding. Yeah, I’m slipping into the folklore John Henry, but I think Steel should invoke that feeling more, and skew a little toward the mythological. The DC Universe is an over-the-top land of gods and geniuses, sure, but Steel doesn’t have to be a super-scientist to keep up. I know it sounds like I’m trying to relegate him to a stereotypical black character, but I’m really not trying to; I just think they’ve screwed around with him so much that he’s become overextended. He’s being pulled apart.

If he’s going to be a future-y science hero, he’s gotta live in that world. In doing so, I think that takes a lot away from him. Remember, his hero career started when he forged some armor in a basement. His story is about what it means to be a hero. His name comes from a man who outpaced a machine. Don’t make Steel’s story about the armor, or the sci-fi; make it about the man. That’s the part of his character that makes him great.


I guess I have trouble seeing what it is about Steel’s origin or character that makes him unique. It seems like a tired story in superhero comics, and it hits every wrong note.

And I just cannot get past his name.

What I think is cool about Steel is the same thing that I thought was cool about Blue Beetle. Both guys were placed into a situation where they felt they had to take over for a hero (Beetle for the original Beetle, Steel for Superman), only they didn’t have the powers of the guy they were replacing.

So they used can-do spirit to become superheroes ANYways, even withOUT powers.

The changes to Steel over the years I have not been a big fan of, though.

I love the Iron Man meets Thor look. I read some of the Death of Superman stuff and liked him there. I never read his solo book, but I’ve liked him in 52. I think Steel would work better in the JLA than in his own title. I much prefer armored human to superpowered Steel. Has Steel been seen OYL?

As Steel is a main character in 52, he won’t be seen OYL, well, until 52 is done and it’s one year later.

From my own interpretations, it seems that everything you want Steel to be has come to fruitation in 52. The writers have played up the John Henry folk hero aspect, and the whole what it means to be a hero question (expecially in comparison to his neice Natasha in 52). It’s not that convoluted a story, and quite a nice read.

I’ve also heard Steel’s story in 52 called Hamlet-esk, but I’ve yet to really see the comparisons.

“esk”? Wow.

This goes for Tony Stark too. How can you be a weapons designer and not know that people are going to get hurt?

This goes for Tony Stark too. How can you be a weapons designer and not know that people are going to get hurt?

The same way you can be a pilot dropping bombs on stuff and never think of the consequences until you see the injured children. Before, it was just pushing a button. After, it’s bringing death and wreaking havoc. Maybe I’ve been watching too much MASH lately.

Maybe John and Tony could design and build the things but they never really thought about what would happen afterwards. It’s about convincing yourself you’re doing the right thing and finding out you were wrong.

I also liked Steel in the ‘Death of Superman’ stories, and saw great potential for the character beyond that. Following ’52’ reminds me of that fact again, although I’ve got to say that I was irrationally rooting for him to keep his newfound powers (making him something more or less like X-Men’s Colussus) which I see now just adds to the confusion for writers building the character.

Steel’s 1950s incarnation in “The New Frontier” was the only time I found the character remotely interesting.

Steel’s a great character in the main DCU (even more so than in New Frontier, where his story was compelling but ultimately felt completely tangential — almost tokenized — to the rest of the action). John Henry’s had a good storyline in 52. I really like him becoming Luthor’s primary adversary while Clark’s been on the sidelines. (Though they botched the climax (his final showdown with Luthor) a couple weeks back, unlike the so-far satisfying rides of the Ralph and Booster storylines.)

Morrison wrote Steel really well in JLA, where he played a very valuable role as tech/security expert that made perfect sense for the team. (Not unlike Mr. Terrific’s role in JSA, though Terrific was also team leader for a time.) After experiencing a League with Steel, Oracle and J’onn, any other roster without them (or someone filling their roles) is an understaffed team.

I’d like to see him become a character akin to Alan Moore’s Big Brother from Alan Moore’s brief collaboration with Steve Skroce on Youngblood. Big Brother was a guy who had armor in various sizes, even one as big as a skyscraper that the team flew around in. To get him away from the comparisons to Tony Stark, make the suits into big, heavy, industrial, mecha battle suits that he operates, instead of slipping on.

In his series, Steel lived in the Washington, DC area to be closer to his family. To emphasize his “man of the people” status, DC could just move him down the road a piece to Virginia, where he could reopen one of the old shipyards as an armor factory. Some would be two-seaters, and built like tanks. Some would be as big as a submarine, bristling with non-lethal weaponry. Steel could be like a one-man cavalry, arriving on the scene with the right tool for the job.

By reopening shuttered shipyards, Irons could give manufacturing jobs to people building these suits, where they would all have a sense of pride in contributing to keeping the world safe, and feel like heroes in their own right.

I doubt any character is going to come out of 52 stronger than Steel.

They gave him a huge push, down to beating Lex Luthor and standing triumphant at the end.

I’d be amazed if he didn’t get an ongoing out of this.

The Kirbydotter

March 10, 2007 at 3:46 pm

I know next to nothing about Steel.
He came out with another of these Big Events multi-crossovers (Death of Superman) that I’m allergic to.

I like what Darwin Cooke did with the concept in his seminal NEW FRONTIER (this title HAS GOT TO BE INCLUDED somewhere down the line before this series end or I will buy a gun, go through sniper training, and hunt you down!)

I still haven’t purchased or read New Frontier, so you might want to go gun shopping tomorrow. Just in case. Of course, I have lasers from space. So watch yourself.

I wouldn’t want steel having an armor like his niece. I never understood how that thing grew. I like his original look(heh not the bearded one that left his face exposed). I think they should give him a five component suit(gloves, hands, chest), and some sort of face mask, and then have the rest of the suit be some sort of liquid metal. He shouldn’t be so super strong (like tony starks). He isn’t abou that, they should give him a known limit of about twenty men or something, some neat gadgets that last instead of a new one every issue or apperance(Damn you stark!). Then you just need a good characterisation and the character would fit nicely anywhere. He could even just appear more on superman’s titles. They could fly by each other while they’re handling different cases, and if one finishes early, they help the other.(he could have an action comic arc or issue devoted solely to him everyonce in awhile)

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