The tale, so it goes, is that John Henry was the greatest steel-driver ever to work the railroads that would go on to open up the American frontier. A former slave of enormous strength, he was working the railroad in Virginia, or West Virginia, or maybe Alabama, or Kentucky, or Jamaica when the Boss bought himself a steam drill to do the work of 20 men. Well, someone had to stand up for the jobs of the work crew, and so John Henry challenged that steam drill to a race. It was an epic conflict, but John ran that hammer down, only to collapse and die of exhaustion on the finishing line. And his wife, who was called Julie, or Lucy, or Polly Ann, wept for her man, as generations of musicians sang songs about John Henry.
I’ve written before about how the revamp of Action Comics has been informed by themes that are current to both today’s world and the early 20th century of the Great Depression, when the original run of Action and the character of Superman were first introduced. Well, issue 4 (script by Grant Morrison, art by Rags Morales) is where one of those themes emerges with full force.
Metropolis has been struck by an alien computer virus that takes over automated production lines and uses them to churn out rampaging robots, all of which intend to kill Superman no matter who gets in their way. It’s a combination of fears – the fear of how technology will eventually take over and supplant humanity (linking with everything from the Luddites to Henry Ford’s assembly line techniques) is one that goes back centuries – heck, I bet people were twitchy about the wheel – but Morrison links this with the stereotyped Hollywood-version of hacking, where dark forces can get into your computer and unleash robopocalypse.
In a way it’s symbolic of the revamped Action Comics as a whole – the 1930’s talking to 2011 about what they have in common, soundtracked by Springsteen singing protest songs and live-streams from citizen journalists covering the Occupy movement; the design of the robots is deliberately retro, possibly because of this conversation. And at the end of the issue, dehumanised technology wins (although this is just a cliffhanger, so come back for issue 7).
However, although the evil head of science wins in the main story, it’s a different tale in the back-up story. This introduces hero Steel to the new DC Comics continuity, a character based on the folklore of John Henry. Steel, an engineering genius in a high-tech suit of armour (and armed with a bigass hammer, which is awesome) represents the positive side of science – we’re told how one of his heroes was Richard Feynman, not just because of his genius but because he played the bongos. It’s a depiction of science that supports humanity rather than oppresses it (as Steel points out, Lex Luthor, personification of warped technology and corrupt capitalism, has never played the bongos).
Unlike the John Henry of legend, Steel isn’t killed by his victory over the villain of the piece – ironically, he beats Metallo using a computer virus, which mirrors the virus that caused all the chaos in the first place. It’s not technology that’s bad – battlesuits and hacking are used for both good and evil throughout the issue – it’s how we relate to it.
And that’s the story of Morrison’s Action Comics as a whole. It’s about people and how they’re affected by the use of abuse of money, technology, the media, whatever. Superman returns to his roots as an activist crusader because, although he’s expressed some cynicism about the world, he’s still a hero of the people, not because of his powers but because of his heart – Metallo had his heart broken and became a monster, while Superman may be an alien but in many ways he’s more human than some of the humans. It’s not external factors that necessarily make us, it’s how we respond to them. You can quit, give up, get trampled by that steam drill.
Or you can run that hammer down.