A Darker John Henry – by Alisha Evelissa Rivera

The John Henry I found appears in issues 3 and 4 of “DC: The New Frontier” John_Henry_New_Frontiercreated by Darwyn Cooke. When I first looked at the picture, I noticed that like the other forms of art observed in the Nelson readings, the John Henry depicted in this picture carries with him the strength and hammer that is synonymous with in his name and story. Also, like many superheroes drawn for comic books, John Henry is imaged as “a balloon-muscled strongman” to emphasis his power and strength (Nelson 161).

However, unlike the many other recreations of John Henry, Cook’s Henry is created to look like a menacing character. The combination of the black mask on his head, with a rope around his neck, and the lyrics to those specific lyrics to his ballad, is unsettling. This picture looks like the opposite of the Communist/Black Power/American hero that Nelson talks about in his book. In fact, he looks like the villain of this piece. In order to understand this intensity, the picture forced me to read more on the comic book character version of John Henry.

I found out that in “The New Frontier” he isn’t introduced as John Henry at first. Actually, his name was initially John Wilson. In this version of the John Henry tale, John Wilson is a respectable man and a veteran of the Korean War. After returning home, he became a steel worker. Things changed when the Ku Klux Klan murdered his entire family while also lynching him.

Having survived his lynching, John Wilson avenges his family by using his signature hammer and by changing his name to John Henry. The only words that fill the page of the comic come from the song, and provide the background while he terrorizes the Klan.  He does this for three months before falling over and dying himself. There are two ways of reading this: either John Wilson is the reimagining of the John Henry story or John Wilson, having been presumably brought up on the John Henry story took up his identity, much like V took Guy Fawkes’s identity in V for Vendetta. I believe that legend of John Henry exists and is known within the DC Universe, and so the legend that a man strong enough to drill further and faster than a steam drill would be known. Much like the Communist Party used Henry as the poster child for hard work of a human verses the work done by machine (Nelson 152), Wilson is using the “strong, determined” version of Henry to strike fear into Klan.

Whichever way you view it, this John Henry leans closer towards the image of John Henry that was used to entice a “new kind of multiracial America” (Nelson 164).  By snuffing out the Klan with his hammer, he is simultaneously striking down the injustices created by racism.

Leave a Reply