Hank McCoy (Before the Fur)

So…let’s talk underrated/ underused heroes. Top of my list? I’m going to go with Steel. Now, I know most people look back at the nineties and the whole “Death of Superman” thing and go “God, what a joke.” The prevailing notion is that DC, essentially, sold out and all but flat out lied about the intention of the writers to truly “end” the run of this comic (at least, in the form that it had the “not-quite-death” of Superman has paved the way for the numerous “Heaven-apparently-has-a-revolving-door” storylines). Hell, I’m surprised Marvel has stuck to their guns so firmly on Steve Rogers, A.K.A. Captain America. But oh- in case you read Fallen Son? You notice how Tony Stark let Rogers’ body drift into the artic waters? Kind of like where they originally found him, when he got frozen? You see where I’m going with this, right? There’s always an out- see maybe he “died” the first time around but the super-soldier regenerates him, and we just don’t know it does that yet. Or maybe one day, a piece of vibranium or a cosmic cube, or who-knows-what is going to drift by the artic seafloor and “poof.” Steve Rogers. There’s always an out. Always. Whether it’s Barry Allen (Flash II) disappearing into the Speed Force or the X-Men not being able to find Banshee’s body (this has happened, recently), the popularity of a character is roughly correlated with the immortality of that character. So maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow- maybe not until we’re old and grey. But Rogers will be back. He just will. And I’m not unhappy with this state of affairs either. I’ve just accepted and embraced it. ANYWAY- Superman. He died but he didn’t. The thing is, I really love that whole year of DC comics, even to this day. The intricacy of the story, how every character, of every book was affected by it…believe it or not, I think “The Death and Return of Superman” is one of my favorite arcs. And for me, I kind of look at it as the “forefather” of the current era of comics. Like the story sort of “set the tone” for the next decade of comics. I can’t speculate as to how many of the writers at DC really intended to go all the way with killing Superman off, but in the mean time, they had this “Reign of Supermen” thing going on that I really was into. The basic premise was each of the four Superman titles running at the time (spinoffs were a little too big, in those days) got a new protagonist who claimed to either be A. Superman himself, reborn or B. the proper heir to the throne of Superman. In theory, the fans would decide which of the four characters they liked the best, and based on feedback from sales, letters, etc., the writers would decide which of them was going to be the “new” Superman (or his new form). If DC had stuck to their guns, I could picture this story ending with one epic mega-brawl between Supermen for the “title,” ending with the fan-favorite still standing when the dust settled. Other cool bit about this story- if I recall, the introduction of each character roughly corresponded with the title of the Superman book they appeared in. So, for example, Superman: The Man of Tomorrow ended up with a Cyborg Superman (now one of the most feared, bad-ass Superman villains ever and a card-carrying member of the Sinestro Corps-SINESTRO CORPS KICKS @SS, by the way) while Superman: The Man of Steel got, well, Steel. Of all the characters, the only one that I would have been okay with being the new Superman was Steel. I liked Kon-El, a.k.a. Superboy- only, that was just it. I liked him AS Superboy- not as Superman. As for the other two- the thought of Superman as a technologically reanimated corpse or just plain, well, alien and weird, didn’t sit well with me. Steel, on the other hand- he was a self made man. Steel was the only one of the four who actually strived to be what Metropolis needed. He got the point. My favorite scene involves the Eradicator (a sometimes good-guy/sometimes bad-guy pseudo organic machine, programmed to preserve Kryptonian culture- even if it means “eradicating” all other cultures in the process) burning up a court order that he was issued in front of a crowd. Suddenly, John Henry Irons just starts beating the crap out of Eradicator, EVEN THOUGH he knows that he could be burnt to a crisp at any minute. Irons screams: “You SAY you’re SUPERMAN!? Well then ACT LIKE SUPERMAN”. Even the Eradicator is totally taken aback here. I think that’s when Irons kind of won me over. The other thing that I think made him a good heir to the throne was- he’s brilliant. See, it’s kind of funny that the writers of other comics always kind of portray Superman as “a little bit slow.” Frank Miller is big on this schtick, for example. But actually, the original idea for the character was that he wasn’t such a bad detective or scientist himself. With the exception of the “mad scientist” strata of the DC universe, with guys like Will Magnus and T.O. Morrow, Steel is easily the most brilliant of the DC heroes. In fact, I can’t remember what story this happened in- but I could of sworn that Justice League had this on-going bit for a while where Batman couldn’t stand Steel, because for once, with Irons around, Batman wasn’t the smartest guy standing in the room. It was kind of cracking me up. Finally, if there was ever a character that really has a reason to hate a guy like Lex Luthor- it’s Irons. I mean, look at it this way- everything Irons has ever had, he has worked for. The suit he uses, the Steelworks workshop…and half of the time, he’s had to make sure the weapons he designs doesn’t end up in the hands of unscrupulous military-types (Iron Man-style). Now, Lex works too- in a fashion. But mostly, he uses anything he can to get ahead. Even when Irons needs the money, he doesn’t sell-out and sell missile systems to foreign countries or whatever. Lex, of course, doesn’t make such ethical discriminations when weighing a business deal. So the two are kind of the perfect for each other- they both come from little and have had to work to get ahead. But what they do- that’s the question. Ultimately, the fans agreed with me- they kept Superboy and Steel around and made the other two disguised Superman villains. Following Superman’s return, Steel got his own series. And it kind of seemed, in the mid-nineties, that the guy was going to be big. Like one of DC’s most popular characters. To date, I cannot think of one really epic, memorable story that really featured Steel as the main character. There are barely any trade paperback’s that collect his book. So what the hell happened? Well- Shaquille O’Neal comes to mind. Ouch. Another example of a very bad move on the marketing department at DC comics. Seriously. Who makes these kinds of decisions? I’m referring, of course, to the late nineties film adaptation of Steel. Maybe you never heard of it. Maybe you saw it and repressed it, as though it were a traumatic event. Either option is equally plausible. 52 used Steel a little- but I still don’t think the guy gets the spotlight enough. Originally I hated that his niece, Natasha, had kind of stepped in as the “new” Steel, but actually, after all the $&(# she went through in that book, she’s become one of my favorite characters. For a while there, they had this thing going on where Luthor had used some sort of chemical on Irons that actually made his body molten Steel. I kind of like the idea that Steel made the suit that he used himself, with his own hands, with his own money- even though the guy isn’t some rich millionaire with all the time in the world. But at the same time, I thought it was pretty frickin cool to see Steel actually made of, well, okay, Steel. In that excellent way in which DC takes the time to remind you why, exactly, Lex Luthor is actually one of the scariest villains in the DC universe, Luthor “turns off” the gene treatment that gives powers he’s given to a quarter of the population of Metropolis. With no warning. Tons of people are just flying around and enjoying their powers- and suddenly, their street pizza. The newspapers in Metropolis call it “The Rain of Supermen.” Funny. So back to the suit. Still, I’m just glad to see Irons in action again. This guy deserves his own series. For a little while there, Irons had kind of become Superman’s “runner”- kind of like the guy who stayed at a computer screen and let Superman know what was going on or, I don’t know, “analyzed” weird stuff. Sort of like Oracle for the Batman-clan these days. But I really think this guy deserves his own book. One last bit- I really think The New Frontier is a phenomenal story. It has this little aside tucked away in it about the African folklore hero, John Henry. In the DC universe, John Henry puts on a mask and grabs a hammer and fights against the KKK and other oppressive forces. It’s just a nice touch- there’s no mention of Irons per se, just this story about a self-made hero fighting against oppression. Maybe it’s where Irons gets the idea, or maybe Irons is a descendant. It’s the little touches like that, that make New Frontier such a great read if you are steeped in DC lore.