Meet Joe Magarac. He’s basically the Paul Bunyan of steel. He’s 7 feet tall, like Paul; he’s a workhorse, like Paul; and, like Paul, he’s superhuman: lumberjack Bunyan’s ax-swing could clear an entire forest, while Magarac’s made of 100% steel, like Colossus from the X-Men. And both men represent their respective industries’ crucial roles in America’s development. But Bunyan’s symbolic reach is bound to the Northwoods forests from which he hails; immigrant Magarac, on the other hand, illustrates a broader American experience, and a more timeless one, too.
Joe Magarac is the brainchild of Owen Francis, a would-be screen writer who returned home to Pittsburgh after a disappointing turn in Hollywood. Still eager to make a name for himself, and familiar with Bunyan from a nationwide Red River Lumber ad that coopted the Northwoods folk hero, Francis decided he’d create a similar character for Pittsburgh’s steel mills. Thus, Joe Magarac.
But Francis knew he couldn’t just present the character as his own creation. To truly capture the national imagination, Magarac had to appear as authentic and organic as Bunyan. So, to provide his yarn some credence, Francis claimed he heard it from a group of “hunkies,” a derogatory term for indeterminably Slavic immigrants who worked the mills.
“[Magarac] is to the Hunkie what Paul Bunyan is to the woodsman,” writes Francis, in a line meant to hammer the Bunyan parallel, but which takes on greater importance years later.