Steel bursts onto the scene. Artists: Don Heck and Al Milgrom.


Medium: Comic books
Published by: DC Comics
First Appeared: 1978
Creators: Gerry Conway (writer) and Don Heck (artist)
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Shortly after Superman burst onto the American comic book scene, the whole industry shifted toward superheroes — all sorts of superheroes, from somber-hued "creature of the night" types (e.g., Batman) to …

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… brightly-clad ones suggesting science as our hope for the future (e.g., Starman). One of the first sub-genres to emerge was the type that wore a variation on the U.S. flag, taking patriotism as a theme — The Shield, Americommando and, of course, Captain America himself. All of them exhibited the kind of gung-ho boosterism that was the style in patriotism during World War II.

The flag-wearing patriotic hero underwent periodic revivals after the war, but the tone was different — Cold War patriotism was less exuberant, more fearful. Fighting American (1954) started out trying to mimic the earlier style, but quickly turned to self-parody to avoid getting too grim; and a 1959 new version of The Shield fizzled. Marvel brought back Captain America in 1964, but mostly cast him as a man out of his time. Possibly the last old-style patriotic superhero (before they went post-Watergate with The American and suchlike) was Steel, whom DC Comics introduced in 1978. It's probably no accident that Steel was done as a World War II period piece.

Steel was first seen in Steel, the Indestructible Man #1, dated March, 1978. He was originally Hank Heywood, a promising biology student who joined the Marines when the war started, but long before the U.S. got involved with it. Still, saboteurs looking to weaken America in advance attacked his base, and he was severely injured. That would have ended his military career, if not for his college mentor, Dr. Gilbert Giles, who used experimental techniques to rebuild his body from the ground up. His new body, full of steel, mechanical devices and other artificial improvements over mere flesh and blood, had the strength and durability to qualify him as a superhero.

Steel was created by writer Gerry Conway (The Punisher, Ms. Marvel) and artist Don Heck (Iron Man, The Champions). They wrote and drew Steel's adventures the entire time his comic was being published — which wasn't long, as he, like The Secret Society of Super Villains, Firestorm and other DCs, succumbed to a tightening of the belt the company did, in which many titles were canceled. The final issue was #5, dated November of the same year.

Steel later found a home in The All-Star Squadron, which, at one time or another, included the vast majority of DC-owned superheroes who operated during the early 1940s. He joined in #8 (April, 1982), when the All-Stars fought his old enemy, Baron Blitzkrieg. That issue, along with the next, included most of the pages that would have been in Steel #6, which was never published. He stuck with the group for a while, then disappeared behind enemy lines. By that time, he'd been promoted to "Commander Steel" by none other than President Roosevelt himself.

He was next seen as an old man, set in the present day (which was 1985 at the time). He'd retired as an Air Force general and achieved wealth in industry. The original Justice League of America was on its last legs by then, with all of the old members except J'onn J'onzz being replaced by newcomers whom most readers viewed as lightweights. Commander Steel pulled strings to get his grandson, Hank Heywood III (who had been subjected to extreme surgery much like the elder Hank's own, only without the compelling reason of it being necessary to preserve life), into the League under the name of Steel.

The new Steel was killed off in Justice League of America #260 (March, 1987). The old one eventually died fighting Eclipso. Unlike many comic book characters, both seem reliably dead.

A few years later, another DC superhero began using the name Steel, but he isn't related to either of the old ones.


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Text ©2006-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art © DC Comics.