Carl Donewicz grew up in a bad part of Astro City
. From his window he could see the superheroes
flying around, and he called them angels
. Why, he dreamed of being one of them. But in the 'hood they have gangs
and if you don't want beaten up or your lunch money
taken you join one. So he joined. Tried to have it both ways for a while, hanging with his gang and studying to get to college
. Only one night he dropped his knife during a fight
, and the guy after him still had one. But Carl had grabbed a gun from someone else.
And it all went downhill from there.
Steeljack is the viewpoint character of the second Astro City graphic novel The Tarnished Angel. His name is shortened from The Steel Jacketed Man , which he is, 800 pounds of steel jacketed muscle. Physically, he resembles an iron statue of Robert Mitchum if the late actor were a bodybuilder with middle aged love handles. As the story begins, he is being released from prison on parole after 20 years in stir. He's changed in prison. Or maybe decided to become the person he could be.
Steeljack never wanted to be a criminal. He's still haunted by the boy he killed back in that gang fight. And with the folly of youth, he went wild for a time. He gained his powers hoping to be a superhero, only the transformation was backed by mob money. So he had to become a black mask to pay off his debts. He became part of the Terrifying Three with Cutlass and the first Quarrel. Instead of becoming a superhero, he found himself fighting them.
Though Donewicz has changed in prison, he finds life on the outside difficult. His steel jacketed body makes hin instantly recognizable. He thwarts a mugging and a murder, and the intended victim believes it is simply because Steeljack wants the money for himself. He can't find a job. The only people he knows are crooks. The only place he can afford to live is in a slum. His parole officer thinks him a snake. The only person he can legally consort with is a middleman for criminals.
One of issues that writer Kurt Busiek enjoys exploring in Astro City is that good and evil are really a continuum. Steeljack is a character whose circumstance and youthful folly leads him into crime, and then prison. Once out, the same circumstances conspire to pull him back in. In order to stay out of prison, he cannot be passive, but must literally will himself to move out of situations. The Tarnished Angel is a detective story, as the only work he can find is hunting down a killer of supervillians, and his only qualification his toughness. As he interviews them, he sees himself in the other supervillans. He made the same glib assumptions, thought he'd avoid the one avoid that big mistake that took others down. Each makes the same boasts he made. He sees in them how the desire for recognition and obsession leads men down the path to evil.
Steeljack sees himself as something of a failure, inadequate in every way but brute strength. But at the end he is not. His friends may be supervillians, but they're his friends, and he shows himself a true friend. Busiek, artist Brent Anderson and the rest of the Astro City creative team have created not a cartoon, but a living breathing character, a man in pain, but who wants to do good but is not sure how.
Steeljack is a supervillian, an ex-con on parole. But in the end, he's a pretty good man.