John Henry Irons and the LA Riots – by Alison M. McCarron

John Henry Irons is the full name of the DC Comics superhero Steel. In this illustration, Steel is depicted in his iron suit of armor carrying the iconic sledgehammer. On his right arm is a weapon that shoots out large metal spikes, similar to the ones John Henry laid as railroad tracks. Just as in the Benton illustration found in Scott Nelson’s book, Steel is depicted as larger-than-life, with exaggerated musculature that still fits proportionally with the rest of his body. The red cape is reminiscent of Superman and Captain America, the first superheroes designed overtly with the John Henry in mind.

steelIn searching for my image, I learned a bit about the character of John Henry Irons from the DC Comics. In the DC Comics world, there are many multiverses in which the characters exist. In the universe I have researched, Steel replaces Superman upon his death. Steel has no true superhuman skills, like the ability to fly or regenerate after being injured; he is simply an extremely large, strong, man with amazing athletic ability, much like the man upon which he is based. Steel is a skilled craftsman, and he crafted his steel uniform and weaponry himself. According to his backstory, his great-grandfather had worked with the original steel-driving John Henry, and he was likely named after the hero.[1]  While the superhero is not outright political, his backstory does liken him to Henry.  Irons was raised by his grandparents, two prominent members of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. This speaks to the how the image of John Henry was used by union organizers and the Black Power movement as a tool to illustrate problems in the South during this period and with race relations throughout the country.

However, DC Comics includes women in their version of John Henry legend, while Nelson explains the difficulties the Communist Party had in including women in their work, and points out that the Party seemed to devalue the contributions of women to the worker’s movement (Nelson 159). However, within the story of Steel, women are an important part of the story. Irons’ niece, Natasha, is prominently featured in the plot, as an intelligent student who worked at one point for a U.S. Senator. The role of Steel is even passed on to Natasha when he becomes injured.

During WWII, John Henry was used as an American icon to combat the racialization of America and find “a common nationalism that transcended race,” distancing the country from German Nazis and the Japanese (Nelson 163). Interestingly, the character of John Henry Steel was introduced in The Adventures of Superman #500 in June 1993. This was similarly a time of extreme racial tension in the United States. The Los Angeles Riots following the Rodney King verdict occurred in late April and early May of 1992, and the federal grand jury trial of the officers ended in April of 1993. Perhaps the introduction of this ingenious, powerful, black superhero, was an attempt by artists and writers to do, in the name of nationalism, as the generation before them did, to quell or simply obscure racial unrest.

[1] Andrivet, Sébastien Alexandre. “Steel – Man of Steel – DC Comics – John Henry Irons.” Write Ups. Ed. Joshua D. Marqua. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2015. <>.

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