I figured since Fred’s Gunn has been focusing on African-American super heroes of notoriety due to Martin Luther King’s birthday, that maybe I should talk about a few that I feel people should be more aware of.
John Henry from Darwyn Cooke’s DC: New Frontier
John Henry’s costume is made of three elements: the characteristic hammers of his namesake, a black Ku Klux Klan uniform, and the noose that he was hung on. John Henry is not an in-continuity character in the DC universe, though loosely based off from the character Steel. John Henry is representative of the void of African-American super heroes in the early silver age; well before Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, or Rosa Parks. DC: New Frontier is what DC comics would have been in the late 50s if the comic code had not existed. If Leave It To Beaver or Andy Griffith are glossed over visions of the late 1950s world of Jim Crow, nukes, and Joseph McCarthy; then the reality of the silver age of comics would be New Frontier.
John Henry gets a total of 16 pages of the story, which is only three less than the Flash. His story is pretty simple, our introduction to him is his family’s lynching. We do not get to see what John Henry’s life was like before his family gets taken away from him but in a Batman sort of way it fits the story. From there we see his uprising against the Ku Klux Klan, dulling out justice by crushing KKK member’s skulls with a hammer. His story, unsurprisingly, ends tragically as he is captured by the KKK. The real tragedy is the terms in which he is captured. Shot and bleeding, John Henry crawls into an alley, only to be met by a little girl. Dying he asks the girl “Please child… help me. Hide me.” The little girl pauses and yells “He’s here! He’s here! The nigger’s over here!” This is the first time, and only time, that that particular word occurs in the entirety of New Frontier, including John Henry’s story. Obviously an artistic choice, the word is more jarring when it cements the character’s death and moreover comes from a child’s mouth.
John Henry’s story is not particularly deep or long at 16 pages, however the simplicity of the story allows for reaction and interpretation by the other characters. A few people when reviewing New Frontier have stated that John Henry seems to be a thinly veiled attempt at diversifying the heroes in the story and a superfluous addition as he has no direct interaction with any other major character. In truth, John Henry (or any black superhero in the 50s) would not be shaking Eisenhower’s hand along with Superman and Wonder Woman. His segregation from the rest of the characters is purposeful, and his crusade and death seems no less important to the characters than the main plot. Martian Manhunter seems to find a kindred spirit in John Henry as a fellow outcast. Lois Lane and Superman are shown appalled when Edward Murrow reports of John Henry’s demise.
If you have ever wondered what African-American super hero would be like during the early silver age, you should look no further than John Henry. If you have not read DC: New Frontier, I strongly suggest that you do.