Edited by Robert Beach
Awhile back, I posted a piece about what Hourman and the Justice Society of America could mean for Legends of Tomorrow season 2. Though there are a lot of possibilities, the most likely outcome I came to was to expect more Justice Society members to pop up in Legends of Tomorrow season 2. Now, we have our first confirmation that this will be happening with the casting of Nick Zano as Nathan Heywood AKA Citizen Steel.
Much like Hourman, Citizen Steel is one of the members of the C-list JSA members that make up the team’s rank and file without being powerful enough to strain CW’s FX budget. The most complex thing about this guy is his star-spangled costume, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s dive into comics history to find out who is Citizen Steel.
Like all JSA members, the origin of Citizen Steel is rooted in comics history. For the new readers in the audience, here’s the skinny: when superhero comics first got big in the ‘40s, it was referred to as the Golden Age of comics. This lasted till about the mid-'50s and flooded the market with all kinds of weird characters like Hourman, Robot Man, Phantom Lady, and Commander Steel.
Commander Steel was one of a plethora of patriotic-themed heroes to emerge at the time, owing to the growing impact of World War 2. The chief of this trend was obviously Captain America, but there was also Miss America, Uncle Sam, Super American, Fighting Yank, the Shield, and Commander Steel. Like a lot of Golden Age heroes, Commander Steel lasted for a handful of issues before quietly slipping into obscurity for several decades.
In the intervening years after the Golden Age but before Commander Steel’s return, DC would reinvent a ton of its Golden Age characters to form the Silver Age. Standouts like Green Lantern, the Flash, or the Atom all were revamped of Golden Age heroes.
The revamped heroes led to renewed interest in the older characters, so eventually, DC chose to resurrect its Golden Age heroes in a series of Justice League/Justice Society crossovers. These proved popular enough to launch a new comic combining the 1940s characters DC had slowly accumulated over the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s entitled All-Star Squadron, which is where Commander Steel reappeared.
Thanks to All-Star Squadron, Commander Steel actually got a more fleshed-out identity and back-story (basic one). Like fellow Golden Age hero Robot Man, Commander Steel was a normal guy who suffered a terrible accident and got made into a robotic humanoid.
He looks human despite being a strong android. All-Star Squadron was a fun series, but it faded away around the ‘80s when DC attempted to shift direction and reboot their status quo. However, around the same time, DC decided to introduce a new Commander. A member of the Justice League Detroit, the descendant of Commander Steel was Steel, and he was NOT played by Shaquille O'Neal in the 1997 film Steel.
I don’t really have the time to fully explore the glorious lunacy of Justice League Detroit. Suffice to say, they were a failed attempt to take the Justice League in a more hip and urban direction. Nowadays, their 2 most prominent additions to the DCU are the much beloved Vixen, who’s already appeared on Arrow, and Vibe, a major supporting character on The Flash.
Steel was more or less a direct copy of his grandfather Commander Steel, another normal guy that got turned into a bizarre robot person. It was later retconned that this second Steel had been turned into a synthetic humanoid against his will. That's never been all that important a part of his history. Honestly, this Steel is even more of a footnote than his grandfather thanks to the sweeping fan rejection of the Justice League Detroit era.
After the end of Justice League Detroit, the Steel family pretty much dropped off the map. They didn’t show up again till the late 2000s when Geoff Johns was finishing his epic, multi-year run on Justice Society of America. This was in the wake of DC’s 2005 soft reboot Infinite Crisis when a bunch of books reset back to 0, and the JSA was rebuilding itself from the ground up.
As part of the team’s origin story, Vandal Savage, immortal conqueror caveman, was looking to eliminate the entire family tree of several America-themed superheroes like Mr. America, Major Victory, and Commander Steel.
When a team of super-powered Neo-Nazis crashed the Heywood family barbecue, it fell to Nathan Heywood, a football star who’d become badly injured in an accident to try and save his family. Nathan managed to save some of his family, yet he was exposed to weird organic metal when he speared one of the Nazis through the mouth.
The organic metal gave Nate incredible strength and even healed his leg, though the strength quickly became a liability: he couldn’t control his powers. To keep him from destroying everything he touched, the JSA coated him in steel and modeled it after his grandfather’s costume. Thus, Citizen Steel was born.
As you can probably tell from the fact I just burned through 3 variations on the same theme (injury, metal humanoid, super strengths, stars and stripes), the various Steels of DC have never really found much of an audience. DC even tried to bring the Commander/Citizen Steel concept back recently in the comic Earth-2, only to be met with widespread apathy. I think the big problem is that the consistent origin for every variation of Commander Steel is far too close to the origin of a bunch of other heroes.
It’s pretty much the exact same origin as Cyborg without the TV shows and diversity angle to give poor Citizen Steel any name recognition. It also doesn’t help the name has changed with every incarnation or there’s another hero named Steel, a black guy in power armor modeled after Superman, who’s infinitely cooler and also Shaquille O'Neal.
Normally I’d assume that track record means we shouldn’t expect much from Legends of Tomorrow’s Citizen Steel. By the same token, Steel’s comrade Vibe was even more despised in the past. Now he’s the breakout character on CW The Flash. One thing is for sure. If CW wanted to put together their own version of Justice League Detroit, they’ve got 3 of the 4 heroes they’d need to pull it off now.