Steel (John Henry Irons)

Dr. John Henry Irons is the third hero known as Steel, a fictional superhero in the DC Universe. He is also known as the Man of Steel, and he was created by Louise Simonson and artist Jon Bogdanove in Adventures of Superman #500 (June, 1993). Aspects of the character are clearly inspired by the African American folk hero John Henry, as well as Superman.

Character history

The Death of Superman: The Man of Steel

The Death of Superman

Doctor John Henry Irons was a brilliant weapons engineer for AmerTek Industries, who eventually became disgusted when the BG-60, a powerful man-portable energy cannon he had designed, fell into the wrong hands and was used to kill innocent people. As the company would have coerced him to retain his services, John faked his death, and eventually came to Metropolis. While working a construction job high up on a skyscraper, he fell off while saving a friend from the same fate. His own life was saved by none other than Superman. When John Irons asked how he could show his gratitude, Superman told him to “live a life worth saving.” During Superman’s fatal battle against Doomsday, Irons attempted to help Superman fight the deadly menace by picking up a sledge hammer, but was buried in rubble amidst the devastation. Shortly after Superman’s death, he finally awoke and crawled from the wreckage, confused and saying that he “must stop Doomsday.”

He recovered, but to discover that the gangs in inner-city Metropolis (now unopposed by Superman) were fighting a devastating gang war using BG-80 Toastmasters, an upgraded version of his earlier AmerTek design. Irons created and donned a suit of powered armor in Superman’s memory in order to stop the war, as well as the weapons, which were being distributed by Dr. Angora Lapin (a.k.a. The White Rabbit), a former partner and lover of his during his time at AmerTek Industries.

During the Reign of the Supermen storyarc, he was often called the “Man of Steel” to identify him in contrast to the other Supermen, which was shortened to “Steel” by Superman himself.

Interestingly enough, although “Steel” never claimed to be the “true Superman”, Lois Lane seriously considered the possibility that he was a walk-in– someone who was now inhabited by Superman’s soul. Lois met all four “Supermen” that appeared after the apparent death of Superman, and while she never concluded that any of them was the one true Superman, she evoked less skepticism of Steel than she did of the others.

Steel solo series

Steel was spun off into a solo series, written by co-creator Louise Simonson and later by Christopher Priest, from 1994-1998.

The series began by having Steel leave Metropolis and return home to Washington, D.C., revealing that it had been five years since he had left. He erroneously believed that his old employers, AmerTek, would no longer be interested in him. This turned out to be false when they attacked his home (presumably for destroying their property back when he faked his death). Between this attack and his knowledge that the Toastmasters were now being used on the streets of D.C., he reforged his armor (it was now stronger than ever); he began his crusade against AmerTek, which he correctly knew was responsible for leaking the weapons onto the street. Steel decided not to use the “S” emblem, however, since he felt that his battle might take him outside the law.

Steel’s family was introduced in this series: his grandparents, Butter and Bess, his sister-in-law Blondell, and her five children Jemahl, Natasha, Paco, Tyke, and Darlene (the latter two are foster children)[2] (see Irons Family).

Steel’s early adventures pit him against AmerTek and against the gangs that are using his weapons. His nephew Jemahl is involved in one of the gangs, which he thinks offers him protection. He is proven wrong, however, when the gangs turn against him to get to Steel. Tyke is paralyzed by a bullet meant for Jemahl and Blondell is assaulted. Steel eventually takes down AmerTek and the gangs and focuses on who was helping AmerTek distribute the weapons. This leads him to track down a group called BLACK Ops led by the villain Hazard.[3]

Steel briefly joined up with Maxima, who was still on Earth at the time and working with the Justice League, to help her with an alien warlord named De’cine. During this time, Steel developed the ability to teleport his armor onto and off himself. At first, it appeared purely by reflex (whenever he was in mortal danger) but he soon began to better control it, although he had no idea how it happened. [4]

Steel continued his battle against Hazard’s BLACK Ops and against the return of the White Rabbit. A bounty hunter named Chindi attempted to take down Steel, but after realizing Hazard was experimenting with children, he ended up as an ally of Irons.[5] He was called away from Earth as part of the Superman “Rescue Squad” when Superman was put on trial for the destruction of Krypton.[6]

Tragedy would strike the Irons family upon his return from space. Tyke, frustrated and angry over his handicap, betrayed John Henry’s true identity to men working with Hazard. Hazard unleashed a cyborg named Hardwire who opened fire on the Irons family. Most of them received minor injuries, though Butter is seriously wounded. Child Protective services came to reclaim Tyke and Darlene. Tyke is later shown to end up in the custody of Hazard. Hardwire battles Steel at the Washington Monument, resulting in Hardwire’s suicide. Steel had to send his armor away to save his life–this resulted in his secret identity being revealed to the world at large. Steel is then taken by Hazard, but he manages to escape. Steel retrieves an anti-matter weapon, called the Annihilator, which he had designed and hidden years before, for his showdown with Hazard. He also learns at this point that he can teleport himself, not just his armor. He destroys Hazard and his lair and in the battle, three young soldiers of Hazard are apparently killed by Irons.

Now that Steel’s identity is out, his family has no peace. They are harassed by neighbors and mobs of people. Then the family is attacked by Doctor Polaris, Parasite, and others. John Henry’s beloved grandmother Bess is killed and the family is force to go into hiding, relocated by a friend of Steel’s called Double.

Steel learns that the three BLACK Ops agents were not truly killed. They briefly join him in battling a monstrous, animated form of his armor that attacks him. Steel speculates that the armor came alive because of his own guilt and the strange teleportation effects. He manages to banish the monster and recall his true armor.

The title received a shakeup when Christopher Priest became the lead writer for issue #34. Steel relocated to Jersey City with Natasha and began to work at a hospital. He built a new suit of armor that was significantly less powerful than the previous one (but one that featured the return of an “S” shield on it). His adventures in Jersey City are pretty mundane, despite the change in direction (which, in addition to a job, also included a love interest). The series featured the return of his brother, Clay, who was a hitman that everyone assumed had been killed. Clay assumed the alias “Crash” and managed to acquire a pair of Steel’s flightboots before turning himself in so that he could save his daughter, Nat, when she needed a blood transfusion. The series was canceled with issue #52 which featured Steel running the hospital after the unmasking of its previous coordinator, Dr. Villain (pronounced “Will-hane”).

Worlds Collide

During the Worlds Collide crossover series between DC and Milestone Media, Steel encounters his Milestone counterpart Hardware. Each hero questions the other’s motivations; Steel believes Hardware is too rebellious while Hardware believes Steel is too trusting and naive.

JLA and the Men of Steel

Around the time of Steel’s cancellation, he was recruited as a member of the Justice League, due to Batman’s concern that the League was already top-heavy in brawn and required more thinkers. During his time in the League, Steel played a crucial role in the defeat of villains such as Prometheus and the Queen Bee. He even served as the leader of the reserve team left in the present during the DC One Million crisis- a team consisting of Huntress, Barda, Plastic Man, and Zauriel. Following the battle against Mageddon, he ceased to serve as a full-time member of the League, although he stayed on as a supporting member for quite some time. He also became a regular member in the Superman titles, having relocated with Nat to Metropolis to run his own workshop there, called “Steelworks.” He also revealed at this time that he had known Superman’s identity for some time. The two became partners of a sort and John Henry helped Superman build a new Fortress of Solitude.

Steel retired from active duty during the Imperiex War after he was injured while wearing the Entropy Aegis, an alien armor created on the evil planet, Apokolips; it nearly consumed his “soul” after he was taken by the Black Racer while attempting to release Doomsday and use him against Imperiex.


During his retirement, Irons made a suit of armor for his niece Natasha Irons, who became the new Steel. Although he was no longer actively fighting crime, he remained an important ally of Superman. He unintentionally usurped the position of Emil Hamilton as Superman’s technology guru, one of several developments that led to the emergence of Ruin.



52 (comic book)

John Henry Irons donned his armor once more in the wake of the Battle of Metropolis during Infinite Crisis. Along with most of Earth’s heroes united, Steel helped defeat the Secret Society of Super Villains in Superman’s city, but has become extremely bitter at life and what he feels is the self-absorbed narcissism of Earth’s superhero community.

During the cleanup of the disaster, John baits his niece Natasha into an argument when he prevents her from leaving Metropolis in order to join the Teen Titans. John refuses to let her go and orders her to continue collecting all the debris in the city, culminating in him destroying her armor in spite.

He later identifies a recently discovered corpse as that of a Lex Luthor from a parallel universe, namely Alexander Luthor, Jr., exonerating the real Lex Luthor from all of his recent crimes.

A week later, at his Steelworks facilities, John Henry appears to be hallucinating due to the effects of an unknown metabolic toxin. Irons’ flesh appears to be in the middle of transforming into metal just before the lab explodes.

Three days later, Steel, again wearing his armor, is called in by Doctor Mid-Nite to help him with the wounded heroes returned from space after the Crisis. He uses Psuedocytes to aid in Mal Duncan’s recovery.

With the help of Kala Avasti from S.T.A.R. Labs, John learns that he was injected with a small dosage of Lex Luthor’s new exo-gene therapy, causing his skin to mutate into stainless steel and back again. He returns to Steelworks to find Natasha attempting, and failing, to build a new suit. She then claims he is a hypocrite for accepting Lex’s exo-gene treatment, not aware of the truth.

Three days and two nights later, Irons appears, transformed into a man of living steel, (similar to the Marvel Comics character Colossus), at a party held by Lex Luthor. In a rage, he attacks Luthor, demanding to see Natasha and threatening or endangering anyone that gets in his way. However, Natasha herself soon appears to stop John before he kills Luthor. John, still enraged, is then beaten by Natasha one-sidedly until he comes to his senses. Realizing that Natasha was right to stop him from killing Luthor, he admits it, but maintains that he is right, too. He then asks Natasha to “give it up, come home”. Natasha responds by punching John repeatedly and sending him flying into the Metropolis bay.

He then resurfaces several weeks later, having built a new suit of armor for Natasha, to make up for his behavior toward her. He emotionally breaks down when he realizes that it is too late to make amends.

He later returns to active duty, saving lives and discovers from Kala that the exo-gene therapy allows Luthor to take away any powers he has given out. He then shares his suspicions with the Teen Titans and a former test subject who had his powers stripped away.

Investigating the Everyman Project along with Doctor Mid-Nite, Beast Boy, and Kala on Thanksgiving, John discovers that his metal skin is peeling off, realizing that the therapy grants powers only for a limited time before they disappear completely.

In week 40, after Natasha was captured by Luthor, Irons, in his full armor, leads the Teen Titans, consisting of Raven, Beast Boy, Aquagirl, and Offspring in an open assault on LexCorp. After defeating armed robot guards and Infinity Inc., Irons, with his armor destroyed, engages Luthor in battle. However, Luthor gained similar abilities to Superman and thrashes Irons. Natasha uses Irons’ sledgehammer to create an electromagnetic pulse that shuts down Luthor’s exo-gene and John Henry defeats him.

In 52 week 47, John Henry and Natasha reestablish Steelworks.

Infinity, INC

It has been confirmed that Steel will be the main character of the new Infinity Inc. miniseries, scheduled for September 2007.[10]A year after the end of the Everyman Project. Natasha is living with her uncle John Henry Irons and is in psychotherapy along with Erik, who refers to it as “our national religion” and Gerome. Another longterm patient, teenager Dale Smith, attacks his therapist and realizes his powers as a psychic vampire. Smith takes the name “Kid Empty”. Apparently, a side effect of the exogene therapy is that once the exogene itself is suppressed, the energies unleashed by the therapy remains, re-enabling the metagene in a different fashion. As a result, Natasha finds herself turning to a mist-like substance, McKenna gains the ability to duplicate himself, and Storn gains a powerhouse, overconfident, female alter-ego. The group gain new members in Mercy Graves and Lucia, an Everyman subject who can psychically inflict pain on others. In #8, the team gain official costumes and codenames, and go on their first mission.

According to DC Comics’ August Solicitations, this series will be ending with issue #12.[11]

Powers & abilities

  • John Henry Irons has no superhuman abilities; however, he is an extraordinary inventor and engineer, and wears a suit of powered armor which grants him flight, super strength, and endurance. A large hammer is also a key weapon in the suit’s arsenal.
  • Steel modified his suit many times through his career. The initial “Man of Steel” design was armed with a wrist-mounted rivet gun and the sledgehammer (like the one used by his namesake John Henry) that was ubiquitous for most of his designs. The original design on his breastplate featured a metal version of Superman’s “S” insignia in tribute to the (temporarily) deceased hero, which Irons removed after the return of the “real” Man of Steel. A later design incorporated a similar, but different, “S” symbol.
  • When he wore the Entropy Aegis, he had god-like strength and durability and could enlarge himself to giant size. He also had the ability of flight due to energy wings and could teleport throughout time and space, and could fire blasts of energy that could reduce a target to its composite elements. However, the Aegis made him very violent and was slowly erasing his soul.
  • His most current “smart hammer” hits harder the farther it is thrown, is capable of independent flight, and has an onboard computer guidance and analysis system capable of detecting a target’s stress points.
  • During the 52 event, John Henry Irons was altered by the Everyman Project and had become composed of stainless steel due to Lex Luthor tampering with John’s DNA without John’s consent. Steel’s strength and durability are now on a superhuman level. In addition, he can generate enough heat to turn metal fluid (including his own body, which he can then drip off of himself in small amounts). It is currently unclear exactly how he generates the heat, though it may be somewhat electric or kinetic in nature. In 52 #29, the metal skin peeled off completely, leaving him, again, a normal human.

Other versions

  • In the DC Comics mini-series DC: The New Frontier, a black man takes on the name John Henry while donning a black hood secured by a hangman’s noose and produces a sledge hammer in an attempt to avenge his murdered family by the KKK. He kills two Klansmen and injures many more before being injured, while hiding in a barn he is discovered by a young white girl. He is then killed by the Klansmen. John Henry Irons is seen in the epilogue reading near John Henry’s gravestone. This serves to further emotionally connect the hero Steel and his namesake to the Silver Age folk hero.
  • In the events of the Elseworlds’ Kingdom Come series, Steel is seen to have joined Batman’s faction, due to Superman’s self imposed exile. His suit now owes its stylings to Batman, rather than Superman, and he carries a Bat-shaped axe rather than his hammer.
  • In the story “Hypertension” in the comic Superboy #62, it shows a Steel in an alternate reality who joins Black Zero, an alternate adult version of Superboy (Kon-El) in a war for clone rights.
  • In the Steel Annual #1, “Steel: Crucible of Freedom“, John Henry Irons is a slave who builds a suit of armor for his master to fight in the Civil War. However, John fits the suit for himself, and uses it to lead the slaves in a revolt when his infant son and the children of the other slaves drown due to the carelessness of the Overseer.
  • In the crossover Superman vs. The Terminator: Death to the Future, Superman was temporarily transferred into the future of the Terminator universe, where he encountered an older version of Steel who fought alongside John Connor’s resistance against Skynet as one of the last costumed heroes. Although old by this point, Steel remained as intelligent as ever, having fitted his hammer with a voice-activation and anti-gravity unit that allowed him to call his hammer to him in the event he was ever captured.


Other media


In 1997 a feature film was produced based on this version of the character. The film Steel stars basketball player Shaquille O’Neal in the title role.

The film was originally designed to be a spinoff of the new Superman film that used the Death of Superman storyline that originally introduced the character in the comics. The project languished in Development hell for so long the spinoff moved forward without the film it was to be attached to. A similar incident happened with Catwoman, a spinoff of Batman Returns, where so much time had passed and the project changed so much the connection was lost.

There is apparently no Superman in the universe of the movie, but Irons wears a tattoo of Superman’s symbol with the caption “Man of Steel”, a tattoo that Shaq already had. The movie (released on August 15) was considered a flop both critically and financially. Steel was produced for an estimated $16,000,000 but grossed $1,686,429 at the box office. It is directed by Kenneth Johnson, creator of the television series The Incredible Hulk, The Six Million Dollar Man, Alien Nation, and V.



John Henry Irons has also appeared in Superman: The Animated Series (voiced by Michael Dorn) and in Justice League Unlimited (voiced by Phil LaMarr). In the animated series, Irons, a designer for LexCorp, worked to create a suit of powered armor for the Metropolis SCU, but the suit’s neural interface system had adverse psychological effects on its user. Encouraged by Superman, Irons worked to perfect the suit with the help of his niece Natasha, becoming the superhero Steel just in time to help Superman in a battle against Metallo. Steel later appeared as a member of the Justice League in the 2004 premiere of Justice League Unlimited, appearing regularly in the company of Superman and Supergirl.

The animated Steel is missing the cape he adapted from Superman after he saved John’s life in Superman: The Man of Steel #19, and lacks his ‘S’ shield.

A very young John Henry Irons appears in the animated film Justice League: The New Frontier.

Video games

Steel is a main character in the side-scrolling beat ’em up video game, The Death and Return of Superman for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis



  • Adventures of Superman #500 (June 1993)
  • Superman: The Man of Steel #22-25 (June 1993-September 1993)
  • Superman: The Man of Steel Annual #2 (1993)
  • Steel #1-52 (February 1994-July 1998)
  • Steel Annual #1-2 (1994-95)



  1. ^ The Unofficial Steel Biography
  2. ^ Steel #1
  3. ^ Steel #2-8
  4. ^ Steel #11-13
  5. ^ Steel #14-19
  6. ^ Steel #22 (crossover with the regular Superman titles)
  7. ^ Steel #23-27
  8. ^ Steel #28-29
  9. ^ Steel #30-31
  11. ^ DC Comics (2008). “INFINITY INC. #12“. Retrieved on June 10, 2008.

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