A major figure from Superman's publishing history gets name-dropped in tonight's episode of Superman & Lois, appropriately titled "Man of Steel." John Henry Irons, better known to comic book fans as the hero called Steel, first appeared in The Adventures of Superman #500, and was one of four characters who stepped forward to take up the mantle of Superman after the hero died fighting Doomsday. While one of those turned out to be a new villain, one turned out to be a reformed villain, and a third turned out to be an imperfect clone, John Henry Irons never really claimed to be Superman like the other two did. He merely wore the "S" and stood for the same values as his hero.
After his appearance in Adventures #500, John Henry Irons became "The Man of Steel," and fittingly enough, took over the monthly adventures in Superman: The Man of Steel for a time. Each of the four Supermen was created by one of the four creative teams writing and drawing a monthly Superman book in 1993, with John Henry Irons having been created by writer Louise Simonson and artist Jon Bogdanove.
Spoilers ahead for "Man of Steel," tonight's episode of Superman & Lois.
As it turns out, John Henry Irons has been there the whole time. The Stranger (Wole Parks), also known since his supposed reveal in the series' pilot as "Captain Luthor," is actually a doppelganger of John Henry Irons. The rest of his backstory as previously presented -- that he loved Lois on his Earth, and that he comes from a world that was destroyed by an army of Kryptonians led by Superman -- appears to be true, with the wrinkle that on his Earth, John Henry Irons and Lois Lane had a daughter, whose name was Natasha (the name of John's niece in the comics).
The revealation that The Stranger is a version of John Henry Irons clarifies one mystery that has nagged at Arrowverse fans since his introduction: how he's alive at all. It's revealed in dialogue that the John Henry Irons of Earth-Prime died six years ago. The circumstances of that death are unknown, but it does mean that the hard-and-fast rule that you can't have more than one version of a person sharing space in the post-Crisis Arrowverse holds true. When it seemed as though Parks was playing another Earth's version of Lex Luthor, many fans asked why he got to survive when another Earth's Beth Kane had to die in order for Alice to live on Batwoman.
It also means a fundamentally different approach to the character as a villain.
"[When it was] Captain Luthor, it was very much coming from a place of it being a redemption story of it being like, we're going to understand why he's acting the way he is and what's happened on this other Earth, and all of that," explained Jai Jamison, who wrote tonight's episode. "But then, Adam Mallinger, our writers' assistant, pitched, 'What if we make him John Henry?' And that was the thing that just was like, yes. And it's funny because Adam sent an email to Todd, and then he kind of sidebarred to me, 'I think you're going to like this pitch.' And I was like, 'Oh yeah, I do like this pitch a lot.' I told them, I spent a lot of time in my head on John Henry's Earth. I just came in with a ton of ideas, like too many ideas for Todd. Stuff that we will never see, but I did all of his backstory, all of what happened. We'll see some of it, but I gave him way too much material. But it was just such a blast, and such an amazing, surreal, awesome responsibility to be able to introduce this character that so many people love, myself included, into the Arrowverse."
In the comics, John Henry Irons was a former weapons manufacturer who turned his back on violence and became a construction worker. After he fell from a skyscraper he was building after saving a co-worker's life, he was saved by Superman. When John Henry asked Superman how he could repay him, Superman told him to make his life count for something.
Later, when Superman was battling Doomsday, Irons tried to charge into the fight to help Superman, but a building collapsed on top of him, leaving him buried for the rest of the fight. It was the experience of waking up in the wreckage and discovering that Superman had died, which drove him to a life as a superhero.
What do you think of John Henry Irons coming to the Arrowverse? Hit us up in the comments or let me know at @russburlingame on Twitter!