Steel, or John Henry Irons, was one of the four super-men that claimed to be the return of the recently fallen Superman. Created by Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove, Steel first appeared in “the Adventures of Superman #500 (June 1993). A brilliant weapons engineer, John Henry Irons made a career working for a company that designed weapons, such as his infamous BG-60 “Toastmaster”. Seeing his designs used against innocent people, Iron’s faked his death to shake of the military and took up residence in Metropolis.
Working as a steel driver on skyscrapers, Irons was knocked off a construction site and saved by Superman. When he asked how he could show his gratitude, Superman told him “to live a life worth saving”. When Doomsday rampaged through Metropolis, Irons was buried in rubble, when he emerged he turned his attention to building a suit of super-armor becoming the Man of Steel … temporarily, at least.
Post-“Death of Superman” Steel was given an on-going self-titled monthly, that would run for fifty-two issues between 1994 and 1996. Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove took their super-man back to Washington, D.C. to deal with his past; specifically, to find the person that released his BG-60 Toastmaster to gangs in inner-city Metropolis.
Steel was a fan favorite during the “Death of Superman”, but as far as I’m concerned it’s because he wore a bad-ass suit of armor and swung a big-ass hammer. What propelled Steel into a compelling character capable of sustaining an on-going monthly was the deep-seeded regret he felt regarding his past life. Regret is a powerful literary device, and John Henry Irons is full of it.
Simonson has described her character’s origins in Macbeathian terms:
“Steel was a character who had made a mistake in inventing weapons, doing what he thought was a good thing until they ended up in the wrong hands, and he felt guilty about it.”
It was enough to keep the character popular, but not far long. Fan interest waned pretty quickly, and if you were collecting the S-titles, you were already getting your Steel fix as he regularly appeared in those books.
The decision to give Steel his own ongoing could have been influenced by other business interests at DC Comics in 1994. That was the year that Milestone Comics, an African-American comic book company, began publishing Hardware, Icon, Static, and the Blood Syndicate, all black characters, all black writers and artists. It was through a partnership with DC Comics that allowed Milestone to kick off their company, and at the time no other DC title was selling like the S-titles, and so that summer the self-contained event “World’s Collide” brought the two universes together for thirteen issues. John Henry Irons would play a role in that event, as his book was one of the cross-over titles.
Questions of race and identity would follow Steel throughout it’s publishing run. Simonson would be fired from the book after issue #31, just as the movie adaptation of the character (played by Shaq) was garnering some attention. Officially, Simonson says she was fired because she took Steel into space, however she shared her personal thoughts on the matter in Larry Tye’s Superman: The High Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero:
I think I was fired because if there was any publicity related to the movie they didn’t want a middle-aged white woman being the face of Steel.
Who knows, having worked in public relations that would make sense to me.
And, indeed Simonson was replaced with an African-American writer, Chirstopher Priest, after fill-in issues #32 by Darren Vincenzo and #33 by Peter Tomasi. Preist’s work on Steel is really good. On the question of race Priest noted in Tye’s book that he “…wrote John Henry a lot whiter than Lousie wrote him, I wrote him droll.” In the end Priest said it didn’t really matter because very few people at DC were paying attention to Steel, “… and neither were the readers.” Issue #52, published in 1996, would be the second volumes finale.
Steel would continue to appear in the Superman titles even after his “retirement” and passing the mantle of Steel on to his niece Natasha Irons.