Steel Sterling | Origin | Later Detective Tales
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Steel Sterling was a Golden Age super-hero. He was definitely in the tradition of Superman. He had a super-strong and largely invulnerable body, could run fast, and could fly. He also wore a costume, like Superman, and was an all around super-powerful guy. Unlike Superman, Steel Sterling was an Earthman, an ordinary human who became transformed into a man with super-powers.
Steel Sterling appeared in Zip Comics from #1 (February 1940) to #47 (Summer 1944). He also was in Jackpot Comics, from #1 (Spring 1941) to #9 (Spring 1943). He was revived in both the Silver Age, and more recently.
Like other Golden Age heroes, Steel Sterling had comic sidekicks. Steel often helped out Officer Clancy, an honest and kind hearted but somewhat humorous cop, who did comedy relief in the tales. Both men were also friends with Alec Ben Lunar, better known as Looney. Looney eventually became a Corporal in the U.S. Army. All of these guys seemed distinctly part of the urban working class. They were the sort of ordinary guys one might meet on any big city street corner.
The Man of Steel (1940). Writer: Abner Sundell? Art: Charles Biro. Young scientist John Sterling prepares a boiling chemical cauldron, that converts his body to metal, and which gives him powers of magnetism, super strength, invulnerability and flight.
This tale concentrates on the origin and nature of Steel's superpowers. In fact, it gives a deeper dive into these powers than any subsequent Steel Sterling tale I've read. Later stories tend to show Steel flying around or with bullets bouncing off him; this story explains in detail exactly what is going on with Steel's powers and body. This is different from Silver Age stories, in which subsequent tales tended to go deeper and deeper into complex plots involving the hero's powers.
The panel showing the explosion is a remarkable piece of abstract art. It is full of astronomical and weather symbols: little planets with rings like Saturn, star shapes, lightning, a figure like an Aurora Borealis. It is also full of spirals, and other kinds of geometric figures. During the Silver Age, artists regularly used abstract panels to convey time travel, passage to a new dimension, and other state changes. This Golden Age story uses it to describe an explosion that gives birth to a super-hero. It is a different use of abstract art. The panel is quite beautiful. It is also full of energy and visual excitement, as are many of the panels in this tale.
All of the lab scenes are impressively drawn. They are full of boiling chemicals, and billowing clouds of smoke. Most of the clouds are carefully composed to create interesting geometric patterns.
Much of this story celebrates Steel's masculinity. It is a typical male desire to be strong, and the way the hero's body becomes literally made of metal celebrates this. Also, the hero now can interface with the forces of physics, such as magnetism and electricity, and machines that use these forces. This too plays into the male fascination with machines. The story allows men to fantasize about their bodies being linked to world of machinery. This is a very gratifying set of ideas. The ideas are developed into an almost poetic grandeur here. Both the story concepts, and their depiction in Biro's art, are memorably intense. The story also links Steel to macho organizations. At the end he is riding a motorcycle borrowed from state troopers, for instance. These police are almost as macho as Steel Sterling is. They are dressed in fancy blue uniforms, and are clearly idealized figures.
Also macho: Steel's costume. It is a brilliant red. It continues the man of metal theme of the story. Its pants are seemingly made of steel, and are full of rivets, like one might apply to a girder in a construction site. They also come to a complex series of curved points. The whole effect is impressively cool. There are also lace-up bindings on the sleeves of Steel's tunic.
Steel opens the story dressed in a white lab coat, working on his experiments. This white outfit reminds one of 1930's doctor's clothes, such as the one Joel McCrea wore in the film Internes Can't Take Money (1937). Steel look terrific in this outfit, as did McCrea. Spotless white coveralls were also worn by the airplane test pilots in the illustrations to the aviation thriller "Crack-Up" (American Magazine, March 1936). Such white uniforms were associated with Science and Modernity in this era. They showed men who were involved in momentous enterprises.
Steel is something of a solitary character throughout this first story. The tale mainly concentrates on Steel himself, and the wonders of his new body. It depicts Steve against many landscapes, both daytime and nocturnal. It also shows him relating to many kinds of machinery, from the science lab of the beginning to the motorcycle at the end. Biro's compositions are excellent throughout. The rope ladder dangling from the plane (p4) and the final scenes of the motorcycle are standouts.
The Black Knight's War on Brazonia (1940). Writer: Charles Biro? Art: Charles Biro. A villain threatens the South American democracy of Brazonia with invasion and attack, unless they surrender and make him dictator.
This is one of the least stereotyped depictions of a Latin American country anywhere in the comics, or the North American mass media in general. None of the condescending conventions of the media apply. Brazonia is presented as an admirable, modern democratic society. The attack here by the evil scientist could happen to any country in the world. It is clearly modeled on Hitler's invasion of peaceful democracies in Europe. Comics creators loathed Hitler. Watching Steel Sterling and the Brazonians resist this villain is clearly a deeply gratifying experience for them.
This tale develops the mythos of Steel Sterling extensively. In fact, it is almost a second origin story. It gives Steel an ingenious secret identity. The construction of this identity is different from those in most other comic books, and gives the series originality. This secret identity also gives Steel a "real life" personality, with which he can interface with the world at large. Steel emerges as a full fledged character here. Steel looks good in his secret identity. He is dressed in a 1930's style suit with a vest. This is a whole evocation of the tough, smart alecky private eye during the Depression.
The tale also provides Steel with a girlfriend, Dora Cummings. Her scientist father also is introduced as another continuing character.
This story is a riot of exuberant invention. It is full of one wild plot idea after another. Most of them show a welcome sense of humor.
The Radium Robbers (1940). Art: Charles Biro. Thieves steal radium from a hospital. Dora Cummings returns here, and vigorously aids Steel. Unlike many shrinking violet heroines in the movies, Dora is anxious to get right into the action.
This story is a close follow-up in approach to the previous story, "The Black Knight's War on Brazonia", although it has nothing to do with the country of Brazonia. It has the same characters, the same snappy tone, and the same secret identity premise as before. The story also does some nice plot twists using Steel's secret identity. In his secret identity, Steel wears a horizontally striped shirt with his suit and tie. Such shirts would later become associated with the takeover trader Gordon Gecko in the film Wall Street (1987).
This tale is one of the few to extend Steel Sterling's super powers. It further develops ideas present in his origin story, "The Man of Steel".
The submerged island in Lake Superior here somewhat recalls Siegel and Shuster's Federal Men tale, "The Invisible Empire, Part 2" (Adventure Comics #9. October 1936). Such underwater places will become a standard part of comic books' repertoire.
Biro's cover here shows Steel manning an anti-aircraft gun, a huge cannon that sticks right up into the air from under Steel. It is about a macho an image as one could imagine, and well done.
The Disappearing Diamonds (1943). Art: Irv Novick. Looney is assigned by the Army to guard a series of diamond shipments that keep getting mysteriously stolen. This story looks at daily life within the Army during World War II. This was a much more frequent subject in the comics than in the movies, which tended always to show soldiers on leave. Soldiers themselves were heavy readers of comics.
This story also has a simple but logical mystery puzzle plot tale.
The Little Men Who Weren't There (#38, July 1943). Art: Irv Novick. Steel copes with two small, mischievous invisible beings called the Yehudis, who seem to know all facts, and who have been feeding them to Axis spies. The Yehudis are explicitly in the tradition of gremlins, as is mentioned right in the splash. Gremlins were a popular World War II era myth, of little fantastic beings who messed up everything around them. The name Yehudis recalls the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin. This tale is far more fantasy oriented, than some of the mystery tales that appeared in the series. The Yehudis are full fledged fantasy creatures, who are both invisible and omniscient. Steel uses his super-powers extensively in this tale, too.
The tale emphasizes male bonding. Steel discovers that he misses Looney when he is shipped overseas by the Army. There is also a good portrait of the handsome cop O'Shea. Cops were everywhere in the Sterling tales. Steel seemed friendly with many of them.
Irv Novick does a good job with the art. The airplane hull on the splash shows a circular hull receding in perspective; it is nicely composed.
Murder Out of This World (1943). Art: Irv Novick. Steel and his friend Officer Clancy investigate Oom the Mystic, a phony fortune teller. This is a pure detective story. Steel does not use his super powers anywhere in it, and there are no elements of fantasy or science fiction.
This is an archetypal tale about a phony medium. Comic books regularly ran such stories, right up to and including the Silver Age in the 1960's. Such tales appeared in other media as well: Fritz Lang's film Ministry of Fear (shot 1943, released 1945) featured a spectacular fake seance, and prose mystery novels like Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944) also looked at the phony supernatural. These tales were popular partly because they were educational: they warned the public about con people who were trying to exploit them. They also are splendidly exciting, with much spooky atmosphere and dramatic events.
This story is in the tradition of Weird Menace stories, in the prose mystery pulps. We see a full range of fake "supernatural" events created by the fortune teller, along with explanations of how they actually happened. Weird Menace stories were also featured in the tales of costumed crime fighter The Web, who appeared along side Steel Sterling in Zip Comics.
Novick includes a nice symbolic splash panel, showing Steel in a crystal ball. There is also a good close up of an angry Steel. Novick regularly included such portraits in his tales. They show Steel at the height of machismo. Steel's portraits were clearly inspired by Alex Raymond's depiction of Flash Gordon in the comic strip. Steel has the same heavy musculature as Flash, and similarly rugged features.