52 was a weekly series published by DC Comics starting in May, 2006. Because I had my 52nd birthday in late 2020, I thought it might be interesting (fun?) to examine this series for its 15th anniversary. I plan to post once a week about each issue. To read previous posts, click the link (52!).
“Man Ain’t Nothing But a Man”
Week 40, Day 1
Lex Luthor tells John Henry Irons that he has Irons’ niece. Irons contacts the Teen Titans as he dons his Steel armor, and they later storm the LexCorp building.
Steel rescues Natasha from Mercy Graves, but Natasha turns out to be Everyman. Everyman transforms into a giant crab and attempts to crush Steel in his claw, but Steel breaks Everyman’s claw, his armor crumbling off of him. Everyman stumbles back and falls several stories to his death.
Steel finds and confronts Luthor, who now has Superman-like powers, which he uses to shove the handle of Steel’s hammer through Steel’s side. They continue to fight, and Natasha uses the hammer to turn off Luthor’s powers. Steel tells Luthor he should thank them because the “Everyman treatment is toxic. … in six months, you’d be dead”.
On the street below, the Teen Titans wonder what’s happening above. Then, the Luthor insignia falls, and Aquagirl exclaims, “Look! Up in the sky!” and we see Steel and his niece stand over a defeated Luthor.
Week 40, Day 5
Things are not going well in Kahndaq: it’s been raining for a week and the crops continue to die; the people fight among each other, and they are getting sick and dying from long-dead diseases. Osiris believes all of this is his fault for his sin of murder. He tells Sobek that he needs to “purify himself on a pilgrimage. I need to release my powers … and gain new ones to set things right”. He asks Sobek to accompany him to the Rock of Eternity, so that he can “find a new family”.
The issue title comes from the folk song “The Ballad of John Henry” (aka “John Henry, Steel-Driving Man” or just simply “John Henry”) where the eponymous character tells his foreman that
“A man ain’t nothin’ but a man,
Before I let this steam beat me down,
Lawd, I’ll die with this hammer in my hand,
Lawd, Lawd, I’ll die with this hammer in my hand.”
It’s about the spirit of man, struggling against the odds and winning, if only briefly, because John Henry dies in the end, his premonition coming true. There are some similarities in this issue: Steel has been struggling with Luthor, a figure of power and oppression, this entire series. Luthor’s Everyman Project is the technology equivalent to the steam-powered drill that John Henry beats in the ballad, but where is the self-sacrifice here? Sure, Irons is without his armor (he ain’t nothin’ but a man) and he could have died fighting against Super-Lex, but he didn’t. Plus, aren’t they negating the man vs machine aspect of the balled by having Natasha use technology to save her uncle? If you’re going to evoke a powerful American myth like John Henry, you should be drawing more parallels.
And then there’s the legality of what Steel and the Teen Titans did. I suppose Luthor could be charged for what he did to all those people on New Year’s Eve, but Steel and the others assaulted Luthor’s employees and himself, not to mention all of the property damage. Morally, the heroes are supposedly in the right, but I wouldn’t put it past Luthor to file charges and sue, continuing to make the Irons family lives hell. Worse, however, is the callousness displayed by Irons and Beast Boy when Everyman falls to his death. Some “heroes”.
We’re now 3/4 of the way through this adventure, and this is the first resolution we’ve arrived at. Will the other major plots be given an issue (ish) to spotlight their respective denouements? Let’s get on with it already!
Given the focus on nearly the entirety of the issue (no “Origin of …” two-pager this time) to this melodrama, I certainly hope this is the last I see of the Irons family and Luthor in this series. But Osiris’ dark night of the soul journey has taken a new, perhaps interesting twist. Also, it’s been over a week of the suffering in Kahndaq, so where’s Black Adam and Isis? Last issue, we heard the boom telling the arrival of the Horsemen, so what happened then? It’s such an odd break from what logically should come next, but “keep them wanting more” I suppose.