Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Top Ten Steel Covers (John Henry Irons Edition)

John Henry Irons was introduced during the bestselling "Reign of the Supermen" epic. In and of itself, that was enough to make the character just about the most highly visible hero of color in DC Comics history. Unfortunately, he was then written as such-- the good negro Tom Robinson of the lily white Superman Family. Steel was branded with an S-Shield, given his own terrible token series, and was dutifully included in all crossovers for years thereafter. The salvation of the character came in the strength of his original concept as a working class armored hero, his glorious design, and a late term creative team change that redeemed the Steel series with just over a year's worth of compelling stories.

After his series' cancellation, John Henry Irons became a co-star/regular supporting character in Superman: The Man of Steel, which emphasized his engineering genius. Steel's presence was also a highlight of the Morrison/Porter JLA's second half, especially his infamous conversion of the Watchtower headquarters into a virtual armor, prompting the hilarious declaration "I am now wearing this building!" Unfortunately, Irons "retired" as a super-hero around the time The Man of Steel was canceled and the JLA pared down. This left Irons and his one consistent supporting character, precocious niece Natasha, to drift through one title after another.

Attempts to employ the Irons pair in recent years have left much to be desired. Natasha made use of her own Steel armor for a time, then acquired super powers from Lex Luthor, prompting the involvement of John Henry in an inevitable confrontation. The pair were part of the painfully misguided Infinity, Inc. reboot, and Steel once again played substitute Superman during the World of New Krypton hubbub. The essential appeal, and perhaps even a basic understand of the Steel premise, continues to elude writers. The further out the world gets from "Reign of the Superman," the less likely it seems Steel will ever fully come into his own, and I find that a terrible shame.

10) Superman: The Man of Steel #117 (October, 2001)

I was really up-in-arms about the apparent death of Steel, but he returned in the same storyline. However he was briefly burdened with an excessively powerful new armor built by Darkseid out of an Imperiex shell. I think it was called the Entropy Aegis, and I know it totally missed the point of John Henry Irons, but the cover was cool.

9) Steel #41 (August, 1997)

Racially charged much?

8) 52 #8 (June 28,2006)

I love a good propaganda poster!

7) Steel #34 (January, 1997)

After three years of increasingly bad stories and art, DC finally began to treat Steel as more than crossover fodder before the release of his motion picture. Unfortunately, from what I've heard, the movie was about as bad as the comic had been. It's a shame, because DC's premier black super-hero finally began to be shepherded by actual black creators, with writer Christopher Priest turning in probably the best scripts of his distinguished career.

6) Superman: The Man of Steel #26 (October, 1993)

Not recognizing the full implications of the moniker, I declared "Iron John" my favorite of the Supermen, and the most likely to embody the soul of the Man of Steel. If any of the Supermen could stand beside "the real steel deal," it was John Henry. Plus, no one ever drew Steel quite as well as co-creator Jon Bogdanove.

5) Steel #45 (December, 1997)

Into a comics world where it was often up to the colorist to assign race, Steel was undeniably a black man, even when covered head to toe in armor.

4) Steel #23 (January, 1996)

This was such a powerful image that the forgettable story within is doubly disappointing.

3) Steel #3 (April, 1994)

Friggin' awesome perspective! You're going to be eating that hammer if you don't move out of his way.

2) Steel #37 (April, 1997)

This one is quite literally iconic, with most of the image consisting of silhouettes and high contrast head shots. I love how the DC bullet has been turned into another gear in Steel's (or is it Dr. Villain's?) machine.

1) Superman: The Man of Steel #22 (June, 1993)

This one is a bit of a cheat, as there's technically three covers (regular, deluxe exterior, and deluxe interior.) Regardless, they're all cool, and this is the first full Steel story, which made me an instant fan.

Honorable Mentions:
52 #14 What's with all the black male heroes being stripped down to bare chests?
Action Comics #807 (The Natasha bot gets a lovely cover.)
Hardware #17 (Similar concepts with wildly divergent characterizations played off one another.)
Steel #1 (Too static to rate inclusion.)

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