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Comic Book / Steel

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Drop the hammer...

Superman: Well, Steel, you're gonna be getting this a lot, so you might as well hear it from me first.
Steel: What?
Superman: Thanks.

Steel is a fictional superhero who appears in comic books published by DC Comics created for The Man of Steel series, which normally starred Superman, during The Death of Superman storyline. DC had decided to delay bringing Superman back to exploit the success of this event, but that left them without a protagonist for Superman's four titles. Their solution was to create four Superman pretenders and make a mystery of which one of them could be the real Superman Back from the Dead. (It's also possible that DC wanted to make sure they didn't lose the trademark to the name "Steel" from lack of use.)

In any case the character first appeared in The Adventures of Superman #500 (June, 1993), created by Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove. This Steel was John Henry Irons, a construction worker whose life had been saved by Superman once, and who decided to become a hero to uphold his legacy. As it turned out, Irons was actually a former weapons designer hiding from the government; the fact that weapons he had invented were being used by some street gangs was also part of the reason why he created a suit of Power Armor to fight crime with (along with a really big hammer.) There was also a hint that Superman's not-quite-dead soul had linked to Irons, keeping a hold on this world before returning to life. Of the four beings claiming the title of Superman, Steel was also the only one who freely admitted that he was not Superman (nor a clone thereof), but was working to uphold his legacy in his honor.

Steel was also obviously partially based on the legend of John Henry, and happens to be the first black character to be a major part of the Superman mythos (though his armor hid this fact from the public).note  Later on, Steel would join the Justice League of America, and his identity would become public. His niece Natasha, who like him was a Gadgeteer Genius, also became a power-armor heroine (and later gained actual powers as part of an Evil Plan by Lex Luthor in the series 52).

Steel starred in his own comics series for 52 issues, from February 1994 to July 1998. In 2022 a new book was announced, titled Steelworks and written by the voice actor for S:TAS's Steel, Michael Dorn.

Adaptations wise, Steel has appeared in:

Not to be confused with the other Justice League of America member known as Steel.

Steel provides examples of:

  • AB Negative: In one story, Steel's niece Natasha Irons is injured and in need of blood. It's stated that she has a rare blood type, and John Henry's is incompatible. This necessitates Natasha's father, who had been thought dead and was acting as a vigilante, to come to the hospital to save her life. Interestingly, in a later story, Natasha is able to provide an emergency blood transfusion to John Henry without issue, apparently meaning the incompatibility is only one-way.
  • Adaptational Early Appearance: Steel was first introduced in the aftermath of the Death of Superman storyline that was published in The '90s, long after Superman had been established both in real life and within the timeline of the DC Universe. By contrast, the New 52 version of Steel made his debut during the early months of Superman's career, showing up to help the young Kryptonian hero during his very first clash with Metallo.
  • Anti-Hero Substitute: Inverted; the other Superman pretenders trying to replace the Big Blue Boyscout after his death were varying degrees of Anti-Hero, but Steel is just as heroic as the original, if not MORE so. Which may be related to why he had the best reception of them all. It also probably helped that unlike the others, Steel never actually claimed to be Superman or his substitute, but was just operating as best he could in Superman's memory and honor.
  • Affirmative-Action Legacy: He really wasn't trying to be (he only wore the "S" in Superman's honor), but that didn't stop many people from calling him "The Black Superman" during the Reign of the Supermen.
  • Appropriated Appellation: He began as "The Man of Steel", a literal version of Superman's famous definition. Superman himself found it too long and called him just "Steel" and it stuck.
  • Arm Cannon: The original armor packed a wrist-mounted rivet gun.
  • The Blacksmith: He has many elements of this, including being a weapon engineer and making iron armor.
  • Brainwashed and Crazy: John Henry ended up becoming this after taking up the Entropy Aegis armor, a special Power Armor designed by Darkseid using the shell of a Imperiex Probe.
  • Brought to You by the Letter "S": Played with. When Superman returns, John removes the "S" from the pentagon on his chest. Superman tells him he earned the "S", and says he's perfectly fine with him wearing it.
  • The Cape: Out of all four Superman pretenders, he is the only who can be considered unambiguously good. Put this together with the fact that he's simply an ordinary man working a blue-collar job, and you'll see why some consider his heroics to be even more impressive those of the big man himself.
  • Character Witness:
    • In the Steel movie.
    • He's kind of this in the comics too. Who knew saving one high-steel worker would pay off so well for Superman?
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: In his introduction, there is a flashback in which Irons, working high steel, prevents another worker from falling, only to be the one needing rescuing. When he is rescued by Superman, we get the following exchange:
    Irons: I owe you my life!
    Superman: Then make it count for something!
  • Empowered Badass Normal: He may be most known for his awesome Power Armor, but he's got an astonishing natural physique and more than enough combat aptitude to be a Badass Normal even if he lacked it.
  • Expy: Gained one in Milestone's Hardware, who had a similar background and M.O., but was on the opposite side of the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism.
  • Forging Scene: Steel usually does this every time he makes a new suit of armor. Especially in Grant Morrison's JLA, since Morrison saw him as the Hephasteus of the League's pantheon, and therefore would rather show him sweating over a forge than adjusting servomotors with a screwdriver.
  • From Shame, Heroism: John Henry Irons first donned his armor when experimental weapons he'd designed somehow made their way into the hands of street gangs, and a young boy from his neighborhood was brutally killed by one of them. Knowing the nature of the weapons, and his responsibility in creating them, Irons becomes The Man of Steel, later simply Steel, to help take those guns off of the streets again.
  • Genius Bruiser: He's a brilliant scientist, and is more than capable of kicking ass without his armor.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Half his gadgets in his armor are his own inventions.
  • Gentle Giant: Despite everything he still considers himself a scientist and not a fighter.
  • Good Counterpart: In the New 52 continuity, he's envisioned as this to John Corben (Metallo). The two of them start out as colleagues in the US military's "Steel Soldier" project, which was created to neutralize the perceived extraterrestrial threat of Superman. Irons resigns in disgust after the military has Superman tortured, and steals the project's prototype armor to rescue Superman when he's in trouble; Corben stays loyal to the military until the end, and is driven insane by his armor's alien technology.
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: When a young boy was killed by a Toastmaster gun, a weapon he designed years ago, enough was enough and it would motivate him to create the first Steel armor.
  • A Master Makes Their Own Tools: Forged his suit of power armor in the very same way as Tony Stark in a cave with a pile of scraps - however, he was a techie living in a major city and working out of his basement, and probably could have arranged some better tools than a hammer and anvil.
  • Meaningful Name: John Henry of legend and the famous song was a "steel-drivin' man", a rock drillernote  who worked on railroad tunnels and raced against a steam-powered rock drill. He won the race, but "died with his hammer in his hand".
  • My Greatest Failure: When John Henry was part of the U.S. Defense, he had designed high-powered weapons, only to have the designs stolen and sold on the Black Market. He ran and changed his name to get away from this... only to find out the weapons were being used in Metropolis. When one killed a young boy, that was enough.
  • Never Be a Hero: Steel to Natasha.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: His physical appearance was originally based on Shaquille O'Neal. So naturally, when the movie came out, Shaq got pegged for the role.
  • Not That Kind of Doctor:
    • Has to deal with this off-frame in one issue when he's visiting a friend's hospital during a busy period.
    • When he was employed by a hospital in the Christopher Priest run, he objected to being called "Dr. Irons", because it was misleading. The hospital administrator said it was good publicity.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: His helmet is more or less molded like his face (similar to Destro). Thankfully, only his family recognized him.
  • Paying It Forward: Irons was inspired to become a superhero after being rescued by Superman.
  • Powered Armor: His suit is powered armor powered by many sources.
  • Pronouncing My Name for You: Dr. Villain. "Will-hane. It's French."
  • Scary Black Man: Averted in his out-of-armor hours, he's the most noble of Superman's expies. He does tend to scare the shit out of his enemies, however, and for good reason.
  • Steven Ulysses Perhero: The "Irons" aside, it's also a shout-out to American folklore hero John Henry.
  • Take Up My Sword: Inverted when Superman returned, Steel briefly quit wearing the S-Shield. Superman was quick to tell him that he had earned the right to wear it.
  • Thunder Hammer: Steel's hammer has a variety of features revolving around electromagnetism. It can measure electromagnetic energy, generate EMPs to disrupt machinery and be tuned to the Earth's magnetic field making it impossible to move. When not in use, the hammer can be magnetically attached to Steel's back.