DC Histories: Steel

Welcome back to another DC History. In the wake of the New 52, we’re looking at the history of some of the people and groups being reintroduced to the DC Universe. Only by looking back at what came before can we understand where we’re going.

This week, we’re looking at DCU’s resident inventor and action hero, Steel!

Steel In-House Ad (1994)

Steel, whose real name is John Henry Irons, started out as a weapons engineer. He was brilliant at it. His designs were revolutionary and his genius helped him do very well in his field. Irons’ concern was with the design of his products. He consciously turned his mind off to what happened to his weaponry after it left his sight. However, when he learned that his design of BG-80s, handheld canons also known as Toastmasters, was being used by unscrupulous governments against their own civilians, Irons quit his job. Filled with guilt, he fled to Metropolis where he got a job on a construction crew.

While working on a high-rise skyscraper, Irons fell off after saving a fellow worker’s life. Superman, who had happened to be nearby, noticed the save and was able to catch Irons before he hit the ground.

From Superman: The Man of Steel #22 (1993)

This moment was the turning point in Irons’ life. Inspired by Superman to do good, Irons looked to those around him and helped out where he could. He spent time with disadvantaged youth at his local gym and when he found out that Metropolis gangs were beginning to use Toastmasters on the streets, he went ballistic. Seeing those guns in people’s hands, along with Superman’s death, drove him to become Steel.

Irons, with Superboy, the Cyborg Superman, and the Eradicator, attempted to fill the void left by Superman’s death during the ‘Reign of the Supermen’ storyline that worked its way through the Superman titles in 1993. Of these four characters, only Steel had nothing in the way of super powers. He was just a genius in an armored suit, trying to make up for past mistakes.

From Steel (Vol. 1) #0 (1994)

After Superman returned with a mullet, Irons got out of town. These two items may not necessary be related, but it feels like something that should be pointed out. Irons returned to live with his grandparents and his extended family in Washington, D.C. Among the family members was Natasha, Irons’ niece who will show up again later in this history. This new status quo made for a nice change of pace as it showed a close-knit African-American family in the pages of a mainstream comic book. It was like Family Matters, if Carl routinely got into a metal suit and fought street crime.

From Steel (Vol. 1) #1 (1994)

While he was in D.C., Irons took the ‘S’ symbol off of his suit as he felt that he didn’t deserve to wear it. He wasn’t Superman; he was just a guy trying to do right by his community. This sort of humble attitude spoke highly of Irons’ character.

The Toastmaster problem followed Irons out of Metropolis. Local D.C. gangs got their hands on a cache of new Toastmasters styles along with an intense, short acting steroid known as ‘tar.’  Steel had his hands full trying to keep the streets of D.C. from degrading into an all out war zone.

From Steel (Vol. 1) #2 (1994)

Steel’s solo series had a bit of a tone problem. While many of his early stories were street level adventures, Steel did spin-out of the Superman line of books which can go to some pretty exotic places. Irons found himself battling a multi-dimensional madman and an alien invasion only a few issue after he’d taken down a ruthless weapons manufacturer. This problem really showed itself when Steel appeared in a storyline that had Superman being held captive in outer space. All of Superman’s super powered supporting cast followed him and in a brilliant moment of insanity, Irons turned Superboy’s cosmic motorcycle(!) into the basis for an asteroid that could move at near lightspeed.

From Superman (Vol. 2) #107 (1995)

As the years went on, Steel’s solo series was canceled. However, around that same time, Irons was asked to join the JLA at Superman’s insistence. There he would completely leave the street level behind and help battle villains like Queen Bee, Mageddon, the General, and an ex-Justice Leaguer named Triumph. It was this last villain that gave Steel his greatest moment in the League. After having his armor destroyed while fighting Triumph at the League’s moon-based Watchtower, Irons made his way to a secret control room which gave him full access to the entire building. Every defense system and automated device was now at his fingertips. Triumph was quickly defeated.

From JLA #31 (1999)

After years of fighting as Steel, Irons decided to hang up his armor. He moved back to Metropolis where he set up a factor called ‘Steelworks.’ There, he helped both the community and Superman by inventing new technological marvels. It was also there that Irons gave his niece Natasha, previously seen in this article sitting next to her uncle at the dinner table, her own Steel suit. Irons decided he was done with the superhero gig but supported Natasha following in his footsteps.

From Adventures of Superman #640 (2005)

Infinite Crisis, and the disappearance of Superman immediately afterwards, changed Irons’ mind. Once again seeing the hole that Superman’s absence left in Metropolis, Irons got back in his armor to help protect the city. Lex Luthor also jumped at the opportunity that a Metropolis without Superman gave him. Lex developed a formula that gave people super powers, but he had the ability to take those powers away at a moment’s notice. After a seemingly ungrateful Natasha had her armor removed by Irons, she jumped at the opportunity that Lex’s formula presented her. In an attempt to show dominance over Irons, and to drive a wedge between Irons and his niece, Lex secretly injected the formula into Steel as well. Natasha took the code name Starlight and Irons got steel-like skin. They also got into a super powered family squabble.

From 52 #9 (2006)

Irons and Natasha would eventually lose their powers due to Lex’s meddling, but Natasha’s would sort of come back when she was a member of the second Infinity Inc.

Superman eventually returned to Metropolis, which meant that Steel went back into semi-regular retirement. Steelworks continued along and Irons keep the technology rolling out.

In the final days of the old continuity, Steel would step up to the plate one last time. When Superman was off walking across America, Doomsday reappeared in Metropolis. This time, instead of wanting to throw down with Superman, Doomsday wanted a piece of Steel. Doomsday also appeared to be sporting organic steel plated skin, an ability he’d never shown before. Irons, in a desperate attempt to save the city, went toe-to-toe with the killer but inevitably went down.

From Steel (Vol. 2) #1 (2011)

Eventually, with the help of Superman and every other super powered being on the planet, this Doomsday and its fellow creatures were defeated.

So, where is Steel in the New 52? John Henry Irons has already appeared in Action Comics, but Steel is finally showing up in issue #4. He’s looking a lot like the Teen Titan’s, or should I say the Justice League’s, Cyborg. I’m just happy that Steel wasn’t forgotten in the hubbub of the relaunched Superman titles.

From Action Comics (Vol. 2) #4 (2012)


Jeff Reid’s first serious collecting bug hit during the ‘Reign of the Supermen’ storyline. Man, he loves those characters. Help him figure out how many personalities the Eradicator had on Twitter.


  1. I really want to like steel, but on the other hand I think DC needs more Heroes of colour who don’t emulate others, depend on technology, or act as a “Back up ”

    What the Milestone Universe did in this regard is outstanding, and deserves to be more fully integrated into DC and goven a chance to shine.

  2. You had to know Steel would make an appearance since Grant Morrison likes him. He put him on the JLA and make him look good.

  3. this was fun and all, but what I really wanna know is:

    who is that guy on the asteroid in that awful, awful costume with the sunglasses and triangle symbol???

  4. He looks a bit too much like Iron Man with that glowing circle in his chest! (And with the name “Irons” and being black Tony Stark with a hammer – yikes.)
    Still, I’d prefer him to be on the JL than Cyborg, since Cyborg is younger than everybody else.

  5. My first experience with the Steel character was through the Shaq movie…so let’s not talk about that.

    After that, I became familiar with him though 52, and I’ve grown to really enjoy his character. That series did a great job in painting his character: good-hearted and humble, but not afraid to get into your face if you’re screwing with him. I’d like to go back and explore his post-Reign Of Superman solo series, but I’m currently doing that with COnner Kent, which is a daunting enough task on its own.

    • I read Superboy and Steel while they were both coming out monthly and i loved them both intensely. if you can, go back and at least read the first 25 issues of Steel, it’s badass

  6. I always liked Steel, even though he was basically an Iron Man ripoff. I think the John Henry Irons persona is what made it work. He was truly a good, noble guy you could root for.

  7. The very first comic I ever read was a Steel trade paperback. I don’t remember enjoying it, but I was young. Is the guy with the tubes going in his head the new Brainiac?

  8. Great column, Jeff.

    Can I just say how awesome the phrase “Lex Luthor has never played the bongos” is, especially out of context?

  9. I don’t like this new look at all. It’s terrible.

    • I’m guessing — since this is a sort of “Year Zero” Superman story — that STEEL’s look is a “prototype” in the same model as Superman’s jeans/t-shirt. Once we get to present day, I assume he’ll have a more familiar look.

  10. Love the column as always, Jeff, but I have to say you skimmed over one of my favorite STEEL eras — when the book was taken over by Priest and Denys Cowan. I really enjoyed that run, even though I think it lasted about 20 issues.

    BTW, if you haven’t read it yet, here’s a 90s esoteric book to track down: Priest and ChrisCross on XERØ.

    • Well, you’ve got me, Dave. Unfortunately, I don’t own any of those issues. I had to kind of skip that stuff. There is a good chunk of that run making its way to me as you read this thanks to eBay but it didn’t get to me in time.

      But fear not! There are some Christopher Priest written comics making their way to this very feature in the next little while. Keep your eyes peeled.

    • Excellent. Wait, this is all DC stuff right…? So, it’s gotta be The Ray or…. Justice League Task Force….?

    • I’ve said too much!

  11. Did Steel die for a while? Or am I misremembering? “Our Worlds at War” I think?

    • Yeah, he did kind of die during that whole Imperiex event. His soul was taken to Apokolips where it was restored. He even got new armor out of it, though it didn’t stick around for a very long time.

    • Haha I read the wiki entry. Pretty much every death during that event was undone either during or right after.

      The Fear Itself of the early 2000s, perhaps?

    • Our Worlds at War was a fantastic event. Maybe a bit too long, but so good. Come to think of it, my 2 favorite DC events of the late 90s/early 00s were both Superman events: Our Worlds at War and Emperor Joker.

    • I’ll admit only having a passing awareness about it. I remember something about Luthor having a daughter, which is intriguing.

  12. Man, the whole Return of Superman was a big deal for me too. I read it in TPB, but I was just engrossed. It was one of the first comics I read that didn’t feel like huge event comics (Kingdom Come, TDK, Watchmen, etc.). It’s what got me interested in month to month comics! I still love the 4 replacement Supermen. The Eradicator/Last Son of Krypton has got to be the most convoluted, great backstory of all time (except maybe Superboy Prime, but that’s up for some serious debate)!

  13. BTW, I think I liked the STEEL back up in this week’s ACTION COMICS better than the main story. 🙂

  14. This guy just screams out Iron Man. The new look in The 52 looks interesting but i think the character will always have that stigma of “oh hey, he’s just like Iron Man” unless of course you change his name, his origin story and alter his look. The whole steel skin idea I think would have worked better?