It’s a good time to be a comic book fan. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, every other month there’s a new superhero movie and you can’t swing a TV remote without hitting a quality show, so of course it’s a good time to be a fan, Captain Obvious!
I’m sure all of us have our obscure little favorites, those awesome C and D list characters that we feel are every bit as important as Superman or Captain America. These are the obsessions that keep us going back to comic shops week after week and these are the obsessions that fill our personal little nerd universes.
To me, those came in the form of the members of the Justice Society, the All Star Squadron, and other heroes from DC’s Golden Age. For those not in the know, the All Star Squadron was a team of DC superheroes (or mystery men as they were known in the Greatest Generation) who banded together to fight the Axis menace. In the pages of All-Star Squadron (published by DC from 1981 – 1987), we met just about every Golden Age great that DC owned. It was a riveting period piece encyclopedia of DC lore and it was the first comic I ever obsessed over.
But the book didn’t just present characters from DC’s publishing history. Oh no, he also presented characters from defunct companies that DC had bought up. Characters from Fawcett Comics (Captain Marvel and Bulletman), characters from Quality Comics (Plastic Man and Doll Man), and characters from Charlton Comics (Judomaster), all made their way into the War era book and became my period piece, primary colored Pokemon. I wanted to know about them all!
The title also included any hero that had his or her roots in World War II, which brings us to Commander Steel or simply Steel as he was known as in All-Star Squadron. Since two generations of Steel are joining up with Legends of Tomorrow season 2, let’s examine the history of Commander Steel, DC’s newest Legend of Tomorrow.
Take That, Ratzi!
Actually, there were three different DC heroes that used the designation of Steel. For this article, we’re not counting the more famous John Henry Irons version of Steel (who replaced Superman for a time) because he isn’t part of the World War II lineage we’re discussing here. We love John Henry Irons as long as he isn’t being played by Shaquille O’Neal.
Anyway, our Steel in question was introduced in the pages of Steel, The Indestructible Man #1 (1978) and what a creative pedigree this little known hero had! Steel was created by writer Gerry Conway, the scribe who created Steel’s fellow Legend of Tomorrow, Firestorm, and was also the writer who killed Gwen Stacy over at Marvel. Conway was joined by artist Don Heck, who drew so many great Silver Age Marvel comics.
Steel was kind of an anomalous hero at DC. Yeah, DC had the Golden Age greats of the Justice Society of America but they kind of did their own thing over on Earth 2. It was almost unheard of for DC to add to its World War II legacy by creating a new hero of that era. But that’s exactly what Conway and Heck did, setting Steel, The Indestructible Man in the pre-war year of 1939.
Visually Steel looked like DC’s version of Captain America, it’s hard to avoid that because any character that looks like a walking flag is going to invite comparison, but listen, Cap wasn’t the first flag inspired hero (that honor would go to Archie’s The Shield), so DC had license to create its own patriotic Nazi smasher.
Steel was once Henry Heywood, a US marine and biology student who was injured by Nazi saboteurs. When Heywood was injured by those Ratzis, his mentor Doctor Gilbert Giles, performed dangerous experimental surgery that gave the Marine steel hard skin, super strength, and durability. What made the Steel, The Indestructible Man comic so unique was that Heywood felt like the Golden Age hero that time forgot. He had all the tropes and trappings of a classic World War II era character but he was a new Bronze Age creation by two true comic book greats.
It looked like DC had a hit on its hands…except it didn’t at all because Steel, The Indestructible Man was cancelled after five measly issues so what the hell do I know?
Like I said, All-Star Squadron was full of obscure Golden Age heroes. Most of these heroes (like Liberty Belle, Robotman, Jesse Quick, and the Tarantula) weren’t seen since the Golden Age until writer Roy Thomas and his artistic partners dusted them off.
Steel’s joined the team in All-Star Squadron #8 (1982), and here’s a neat bit of business, remember when I said that Steel was cancelled with issue #5? Well there was a sixth issue written by Conway and penciled by Heck but never published. Never wanting to let a good story go to waste, Roy Thomas wedged the story into All-Star Squadron #s 8 and 9 as part of a flashback. In these issues, Steel saves the life of Winston Churchill. Impressed by the patriotic hero’s bravery, Churchill invites Steel to a special commendation ceremony by President Roosevelt where he will be given the rank of Commander. Little does anyone know, that Steel is actually a secret agent brainwashed by the evil Baron Blitzkrieg and is programmed to kill the President. The brainwashing and capture of Steel is told in the Conway/Heck flashback while Thomas spins the yarn of Steel’s coming betrayal. Fortunately, the All Stars manage to defeat Steel and free him from Nazi control. Steel gets his promotion to Commander and joins the All-Star Squadron in an official capacity, and that’s where my nine year old Cheetoh dust stained fingers first discovered him.
In the pages of All-Star Squadron, Steel was treated with the same reverence as character that had been around for 40 years. He was a major part of the All Stars until the book was cancelled, but the legacy of Hank Heywood would continue in a very unexpected, and very controversial, place.
Steel Hard Justice
Hey listen, mock if you will, but I’m not the only one who thought Steel was cool because when the Justice League of America was revamped in 1984, the second hero known as Commander Steel was front and center. This era of the Justice League, which would late become known as Justice League Detroit, began in Justice League of America Annual #2 (1984). Steel creator Gerry Conway was on board as writer and Chuck Patton did the art honors in this new era. It seemed like my Steel obsession was justified, because a new Steel was now a part of the Justice League…except everyone absolutely hated it.
Today, this period of JLA history has become pretty darn important as it also featured CW animation super star Vixen and Cisco Ramon/Vibe. We love these characters now, but back in 1984, fans didn’t exactly embrace them. But Steel was front and center, so I was happy.
Oh, but in the pages of this book; Steel was put through the ringer. The Commander Steel that eventually joined the League was actually Hank Heywood III, the son of the original Steel. It turns out that the elder Steel became quite the wealthy industrialist after the War and performed the same surgery on his son, much to III’s chagrin. The WWII hero transformed his son into the new Commander Steel who joined the Detroit League and was quite the tragic figure. He was a reluctant hero who tried to follow in his grandpappy’s footsteps and it was never quite clear if the older Heywood performed the surgery to save his son’s life or because the original Steel developed into a raging nutbag in his old age. Whatever the case, Steel was mortally wounded in battle with Professor Ivo and then his body was destroyed by the classic JLA foe Despero so…yikes.
Don’t worry! He was resurrected in the Blackest Night crossover event of 2008-2009. Actually, worry away because poor Heywood III was resurrected as a zombie and destroyed. After zombie Steel was blown up real good, the Earth 3 villainess known as Superwoman tried to bludgeon the heroes of the modern JLA to death with Steel’s severed legs. Seriously, DC…what the hell?
As for Heywood the elder, the original Steel put on the fighting togs one more time so it seemed like the heroic legacy of Steel may continue. Until he was quickly and brutally murdered by Eclipso. My life is a joke.
But you know who loved Steel as much as me- Geoff freakin’ Johns that’s who, because when you talk about respect for the DC Golden Age or WWII heroes there’s one name that should spring to your nerd brain first and foremost, and that name is Roy Thomas. But after that, it should be Geoff Johns!
First appearing in Justice Society of America (vol. 3) #1 (2007), Nathan Heywood was created by Johns and Alex Ross. Now this Steel didn’t die stupidly or disappear suddenly, and was a true hero in every sense of the word. Nathan Heywood was a football hopeful who had his career cut short by a brutal knee injury. He is the grandson of the original Steel and was chilling at a family picnic when the villainous team known as the Fourth Reich attacked his family. The Reich was ordered by Vandal Savage to wipe out the bloodlines of World War II heroes and that’s exactly what they did, massacreing most of the Heywood clan.
The villain known as Reichsmark turned Heywood’s mom and brother into statues. A horrified Heywood jammed his crutch into Reichsmark’s mouth causing the neo-Nazi to vomit molten metal on the heroic young man. Heywood went into a coma but when he awoke, he grew a new metallic leg. That’s not all; his entire body was now covered in a protective layer of dense steel. Sadly, Heywood lost all tactile feeling and could barely walk without causing the ground to crack, but the JSA fit him with a special suit that helped him control his body and a new Steel was born. This Heywood was dubbed Citizen Steel since he never joined the armed forces and took the fight to the Fourth Reich in the same way his grandfather fought the Third. From there, Citizen Steel not only protected the world as a member in good standing of the JSA, he also protected what remained of the Heywood clan.
Citizen Steel was an awesome character that had an edge of tragedy and showed the world that there was something special about Conway and Heck’s original creation. Once Johns left the JSA family of books, Citizen Steel faded into obscurity and was wiped out by the coming of the New 52, but for a moment there a hero named Steel who reached his full potential.
A new Steel appeared in the JSA inspired Earth 2 series but the heights of Thomas and Johns seemed very far away. But now, the legend of Steel is on TV, so who knows where the future will take us. I do know this though, the inner nine year old that still lives inside of me that fell in love with this little known hero will be very, very happy.
Unless a villain bludgeons the rest of the Legends to death with Steel’s legs, than you can all make fun of me in the comments.