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.
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.
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.
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.