THE COMIC COMPENDIUM #47: Steel: The Forging of a Hero (1994)

Ed grapples with the implications of a non-Caucasian Superman. 

Who made it?: Louise Simonson, Jon Bogdanove (Writers), Chris Batista, Kevin West, Jon Bogdanove (Artists), DC Comics.

Who’s in it?: John Henry Irons/Steel.

Original run: Steel: The Forging of a Hero #1-6.

Released: 1994.

As you might be able to work out from the title, Steel is an origin story of sorts although it primarily focuses upon the events following his “birth” with his origin cut down to a single issue. That said, we do discover the reasons behind John Henry Irons becoming Steel in the first place. So, as some of you may be asking, who the hell is John Henry Irons?

Occurring during and after The Death of Superman arc, he was one of the four “Supermen” that appeared to help defend Metropolis after the apparent murder of its greatest protector at the hands of Doomsday. John Henry is originally known as the literal “Man of Steel” as his costume is composed primarily of metal, but he also wields a damn big mallet to go with it. His reasons for becoming the “Black Superman” begin from around the time of Doomsday’s appearance, giving us the overall picture of a goody-goody, complete with being unable to save the life of an innocent at the hands of technology that he had an extremely large hand in creating. Because of this completely clichéd origin, it’s actually quite lucky that he’s improbably muscled, as when we see him creating his original costume, it looks like it should be impossible to move in it. The get-up is made literally from sheets of metal, and don’t get me started on how he’s supposed to breathe! We are given a “kind of” explanation about his bulk, apparently because his ancestor was once beefy himself, although this doesn’t explain why no-one else in his family appears to have inherited this enviable trait.

We start our story proper following the return of Superman, and we see Henry revisit his hometown of Washington where his family still reside, giving him a handy base to work from. It turns out that his resurgence has created interest at AmerTek, his former place of work, due to Henry having faked his own death to escape after discovering some underhanded shenanigans. It’s when the company attack Steel in his own home, putting his own family at risk, that things get really serious. It’s quite convenient that his family knew all along that he was the black Supes, although the latter is something that Steel is adamant he isn’t, feeling he needs to find his own identity. His family’s knowledge is also handy in that it makes things easier when dealing with sudden disappearances or secret costume changes. That they know also allows him to build a very useful skylight in his room, meaning that if he goes out in his Steel costume he doesn’t have to sneak out the front door.

Whilst Steel is getting settled back at home, it transpires that people are running around the city waving toastmasters at people. I know, fricking toastmasters! If you’re going to name an extremely powerful gun choose something like the Lawgiver, the Deathray 3000 or even the BFG, don’t name it after a goddamn breakfast. However, despite the ridiculously bad name, it appears to be quite a serious problem as, unlike guns that use normal bullets, being hurt by one of these means an automatic gruesome death. As it happens, half the gangs in the city seem to have at least one of them. The problem is not that these thugs can’t afford one toastmaster per member, but that the other half have replied to this limited escalation of power by using some serum called Tar (I know, the names keep getting worse) that turns them into massively strong beasts for a short period of time. But worry not, Washington, as a man with a hammer has turned up to help! My major gripe with Steel using a sledgehammer is not that it’s a lame weapon, but that he appears to use a completely ordinary sledge with a wooden handle. I have no idea as to why the grip of this seemingly ordinary mallet never appears to break, but if you can design an all-powerful suit of metal armour that lets you fly, I’m sure that designing a better goddamn hammer with special features wouldn’t be too difficult?

Even though its supposedly a superhero series, we focus on the gangs a disproportionately large amount of the time, seeing as they don’t really advance the plot much. While they do affect Steel and his family, with his nephew Jemahl involved in an attempt to help his kin which naturally goes awry, it feels a bit odd to spend so little time on the main hero, while the use of toastmasters and hulk-out serum escalates everything to a level beyond the expected. I want to see more about Steel, as his scenes seem strangely limited. If I was after a series about neighbourhoods affected by cut-throats and and a greedy capitalist business who don’t care who they hurt in a bid for more knowledge and riches, a series involving a former Superman would not be the first place I’d look.

I understand that they wanted to include a family aspect, but even the addition of a foster child doesn’t really do much for originality, as the family makeup as a whole is almost completely clichéd and stereotypical, with the entire lot living under one roof for no other reason than storytelling ease. Do the writers think that every black person was raised by their grandparents, and that the grandmother has to be a big plump lady who may be strict but is always fair, offering wise words of wisdom along the way? You also have the obligatory single parent raising multiple children by herself, one of whom is smart and always does the right thing, another who always gets themselves in trouble, and another who just copies the others. It’s like the writers watched a few 80s sitcoms and just copied everything from the archetypal selection, although it does raise the question as to whether superheroes are actually allowed to have normal families. It’s also further evidence that DC scribes in the 90s seemed to have trouble with any form of boundary-pushing, going for stereotypes instead of attempting any form of creativity. Thankfully, the problem is less pronounced with modern comics.

There’s not much that can said for the art, coming from an era of comics when absolutely everything had to look the same, meaning that it lacks real excitement and passion. It’s not helped that the colours used are blocky rather than well-shaded, meaning that it looks neither cartoony nor realistic but instead nailed to the page as an afterthought.

For all of you long-time Compendium readers, you’re probably a bit fed up that I always seem to slate DC comics, but I’m afraid the fault lies with the company themselves. Apart from the occasional gem, they seemed completely unable to print anything of much quality in the 90s. Steel appears to be just one of those comics produced to capitalise on the popularity of the character at the time, as being a black protagonist who happened to also be Superman meant that a solo series would do fairly well. Sadly, Steel: The Forging of a Hero is boring, irritating and concentrates far too much on the mundane when it could have been exciting. It’s a waste of both your time and money, as well as having also been a waste of the creator’s time and money as well. Thank you NEW 52 for wiping this crap out of existence!

Useless Trivia

(Via Wikipedia)
  • He first appeared in The Adventures of Superman #500 (June 1993).
  • In 1997, a feature film was produced based on the character. The film Steel stars professional basketball player Shaquille O’Neal in the title role and Judd Nelson as a new villain named Nathaniel Burke. The film was originally designed to be a spin-off of the new Superman film that used the Death of Superman storyline that first introduced the character in the comics. The project languished in development hell for so long the spinoff moved forward without the film it was to be attached to. The movie (released on August 15) was considered a flop both critically and financially. Steel was produced for an estimated $16,000,000 but grossed $1,686,429 at the box office.

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