John Henry Irons
Disclaimer: These characters belong to the CW and DC Comics, not to me.
Title image by ctbn60, used with permission of the artist. Many thanks!!!
Some aspects of this story are loosely based on The Death and Life of Superman, by Roger Stern.
He saved me.
It was years ago now, when he was just the Blur, a dark shadow prowling around Metropolis. You'd find yourself in trouble-- a gang of guys pulling a knife on you, your house burning down around you in the dark of night, a car piloted by a drunk driver heading toward you at fifty miles an hour.
You'd figure you were dead, a goner.
And then suddenly, out of nowhere, there would come this streak, and you'd find yourself three blocks away, or safely out of the house, or placed carefully onto the sidewalk.
And unless you were very, very lucky, you'd never catch a glimpse of the man who'd saved you.
I was one of the lucky ones.
I heard screaming.
I'd been working as an ironworker on Newtown Plaza. I had a degree in engineering, but with the economy and all, I'd wound up working as an ironworker, and was glad for the paycheck.
Not that I can blame the economy entirely. The honest truth is that my life had pretty much crashed and burned at that point. Too many things had gone wrong-- the usual crap, nothing I really want to talk about. Let's just say it's the same story a million other men could tell, and leave it at that. To make a long story short, my life sucked, and I just didn't care that much any more.
Come lunch break, I'd left the work site and headed toward the McDonald's on Fourth and Main. There had been a time when lunch had meant sushi or Thai or French fusion, at some of the best restaurants in Metropolis.
But... well, things had changed. So McDonald's it was.
Anyway, I was striding along the sidewalk when I heard a woman cry out for help. I looked across the street and saw a big guy with his hand raised. He lowered it hard, slapping the hell out of a woman whose arm he held tightly in his other hand, and she cried out again.
All around me, people walked, and to my horror all of them-- all of them-- looked away.
My life might be in the toilet, but I didn't see why that meant I should ignore a woman crying out for help while a guy beat the hell out of her. So I darted across the road, dodging cars and taxis, and four seconds later I had the guy from behind, holding him firmly by the collar of his leather jacket.
"Let her go," I said.
He let her go. He let her go in a really big hurry, and as he spun around he suddenly had a knife in his hand, where none had been before.
No-- the knife was his hand.
I had just enough time to see that his hand had somehow transformed into a knife, and to realize it was headed straight for my gut. I was going to be disemboweled, right here on the sidewalk, and the blade/hand was so close I couldn't possibly dive out of the way in time. I knew I was about to die an unpleasant, bloody death.
And then there was a dark streak, and the guy was suddenly thirty feet away from me. I blinked, and my eyes were barely able to register a symbol, an S in a five-sided symbol. Everyone knew that symbol meant the Blur.
Before I could get my bearings, the streak was gone.
"Hey!" I yelled. "Wait! I need to talk to you. You-- you saved my life!"
I didn't expect an answer. But to my surprise, something streaked past me again, and a voice spoke. "You did more than I did. You tried to save her from a beating, and risked your own life doing it."
"Screw my life," I growled. "My life's not worth a damn thing."
Another blur. The guy was running circles around me, literally. I could feel the breeze, but I couldn't catch a glimpse of his face.
"Don't feel that way," his voice said. "If it weren't for you, she'd have been beaten. Maybe killed. You prevented that. Doesn't that prove you're worth something?"
"I guess maybe," I said sullenly, unconvinced. "Anyway... thank you. Thank you for saving my life."
A final blur flashed by me, and I heard a sentence I'd never forget.
"Make it count for something."
Two years later, Superman came to town. Everyone knew he was the same superhero who'd previously called himself the Blur, thanks to the Blur's habit of scorching his symbol wherever he'd helped out. Superman wore the very same symbol on his chest, an S in a five-sided shape. I wasn't sure what the S stood for, although I was certain that it didn't stand for Superman, because he wasn't the kind of guy who would have deliberately called himself that. He just got the name from the papers, and it stuck.
But whatever the S meant originally, before long it meant Superman. And it meant Metropolis. And it meant truth and justice. It meant that if someone was in trouble, they would look up to the sky and call out for help.
And, more often than not, help would come.
Those were good years for Metropolis, and for me. I kept remembering the words he'd said to me: Make it count for something. Somehow, I thought, he'd heard the rage and frustration in my voice, and known I was at the end of my rope. He'd known how far I'd fallen. He'd understood.
He'd saved me, saved a life I wasn't sure had any worth, and the only way I knew how to pay him back was to make the world better. I fought my way back into the engineering field. I started inventing again, creating machines that I hoped would make the world a better place, machines that helped injured people breathe or walk or move.
My work improved lives, and it had the pleasant side benefit of ensuring that I no longer had to get my lunch at McDonald's. But I never forgot what it was like to be at the lowest point of my life. I never forgot that once upon a time, I'd needed saving.
And then came the darkest day in Metropolis' history, a day everyone knows about, a battle that practically tore the city apart.
When the battle was over, Superman lay dead on the pavement.
I tried to help him as the battle raged. I picked up a sledgehammer and struck at the monster, as hard as I could. But what could any mortal do, in the midst of a clash of two titans? When I woke up in the hospital, I saw the images on the news, the pictures of Superman lying there lifeless, while a crowd of people wept without shame. I wept too. We all did.
It seemed unbelievable that he was gone. Virtually everyone in Metropolis watched the funeral procession, his coffin accompanied by masked, caped superheroes we'd all read about, and more tears were shed, by superheroes and ordinary people alike. Ten million people crying, all at once. Maybe more. I think the whole world cried that day.
And then everyone waited, thinking that surely it was a mistake, that surely, somehow, he would be back, that somehow, he'd rise from the dead.
But even Superman couldn't defeat death.
Tonight, a month after they buried him, I finally accepted he wasn't coming back. And it's unfortunate, because the city needs him now more than ever. We've all seen the news reports bemoaning the rapidly rising crime rate, the burglaries and the rapes and the stabbings, the terrible increase in murders and gang warfare. People are dying out there.
The people of Metropolis need a hero.
I'm no hero. I know that. I couldn't even help him in his final battle. And yet I keep hearing his words in my head.
Make it count for something.
The suit I've created, using the technology I developed to help paraplegics walk, is massive, impenetrable and strong, and yet in it, I can fly. Not exactly like Superman, not with his graceful ease. But it's flight nevertheless. It makes me, an ordinary man, something more.
I put it on, and look in the mirror. The gleaming S shield on my chest-- I think I shouldn't have used that symbol. It seems so presumptuous. After all, it was his.
But then I think, no. It wasn't his, not really.
It belonged to Metropolis, because he shared it with us.
I look in the mirror one last time, and I decide the S looks right. It's a symbol of hope, and Metropolis needs hope now, more than ever before.
I'm no Superman. But in my armored suit, wearing his symbol, maybe I can do a little bit of good. Help some people.
Make my life count.
I turn away from the mirror, away from self-examination, and head for the streets of Metropolis, wearing his S shield.
On my chest, it means Steel.
I don't know what the S meant to him, or why he chose to wear it so prominently on his chest in both his superhero guises. I don't know what its original meaning was. But to Metropolis, it will always mean Superman. It will always mean truth and justice.
It will always mean hope.