Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Steel #39

Steel #39, June 1997, DC Comics
writer: Priest
layouts: Denys Cowan
finishes: Tom Palmer
letterer: Pat Brosseau
colorist: Stu Chaifetz
associate editor: Ruben Diaz
editor: Frank Pittarese

Blogger's note: Entry for Monday, February 4, 2008.

I couldn’t resist kicking off my series of Black History Month reviews with a comic book featuring Steel, a prominent black superhero, wrestling a black panther on its cover. Interesting, the scene that this image represents from this issue’s story stars a lion, not a panther, which makes me wonder if cover artist Dave Johnson had an ulterior motive. Eh, he was most likely instructed to illustrate Steel battling “a jungle cat” or something long before this story was even finished. Still, as I was flipping through Steel back issues with my Black History Month goggles on, the image was striking.

Before I delve into this issue’s specifics, I’d like to comment that Steel is perhaps the best thing to come from the years-long “Death of Superman” story arc. Originally conceived as one-fourth of a “Which one is the Resurrected Superman?” mystery, John Henry Irons’ character demonstrated more potential than a crossover footnote, not only earning his own series and a coveted place among Grant Morrison’s reconceived JLA, but his own feature film starring none other than basketball great Shaquille O’Neil. Sure, the movie was terrible (or so I’ve heard), but think about it -- Steel beat some of DC’s longest running heroes to the silver screen. The movie rights to Marvel’s superheroes have been spread out over seemingly dozens of production companies yet almost all of their core properties have been adapted to film, but the best Warner Brothers can do, as the sole owner and distributor of DC’s stable, are the Superman and Batman franchises, Catwoman, and Steel (excluding the TV series and direct-to-DVD projects).

Looks like Steel is still one-fourth of a DC Comics mystery. What assured his mainstream success? Was it the concept of an incredibly intelligent, industrious black man becoming a self-made superhero? Did Steel inadvertently play the race card? Honestly, these questions aren’t for me to answer (nor are they even for me to ask, I suppose), but considering America’s current political climate and the possible outcome of Super Tuesday, the retrospection has an interesting contemporary context.

Yes, I’ll go over the top and actually say it: If Barak Obama wins the Democratic Primary, he’ll have John Henry Irons to thank.

Steel #39 is a good example of its title hero’s strength of will, as he attempts to determine the party responsible for implanting a powers-inducing microchip under his skin. Irons has apparently narrowed the list to the enemy Hazard or his former employers at Ameritek, and in this issue, he enlists the help of fellow vigilante/spy Hazard all the way in Zaire. Hazard eventually sends Steel a message and denies involvement; in the meantime, his family flees the tenacious villain Skorpio, and a man abandons the safety of witness protection to pursue revenge against the thugs that killed his family. He and Steel share a glare for a panel or two, but their confrontation is inevitable, since this self-styled vigilante, calling himself Crash, thinks Steel is his brother. Do I smell the makings of a Bizarro-Steel here?

Writer Priest does a decent job of maintaining this issue’s merit as a single unit of storytelling despite its context in a greater story arc, but the most interesting element is Steel’s physical demeanor. His armor only appears in that Dave Johnson cover; otherwise, Irons flies around in a nondescript white sports coat. At this point in his career, Steel might be the sharpest dressed hero on the block, but how he got those big metal jet-boots through airport security, I’ll never know. (Yes, he takes a plane back to the States. Did Steel take a page out of Wally West’s handbook and reveal his identity to the world?)

Steel isn’t carrying his own series anymore, but he still plays a significant role in the DC Universe, and from what I understand, his niece has even become a superhero in her own right. I wish every crazy marketing scheme from the early ‘90s creating such endearing characters. Sure, we had Azreal and Ben Reilly, but when it comes to resiliency . . . Steel has earned his name.

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