Cyborg Re-humanized

Cyborg_(2015)_DC_logoLet’s start this one with a full disclosure. By the time I was old enough to read comics and understand them as more than just really cool pictures, there weren’t a lot of POC characters floating around. The first one I saw in print was Cyborg, and honestly, I think it affected me a lot more than I probably thought. Cybernetics and robotics remain some of my favourite things in comics, games, and in my own artistic dabbles. And as with so many things, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve looked back to examine things I liked in the past. Now, recently, partly in response to the DCAU’s Justice League animated features, Robert Jones Jr. wrote an interesting piece on the emasculation of Cyborg as part of a larger trope of neutering male POC characters. [1] I agree in parts, and disagree in others (for example, in the movie he cited, Batman, the Flash, and Cyborg do not call “dibs” on Wonder Woman), but things have changed since the original pre-Crisis Cyborg and the stumbling start of the New 52 Cyborg.

I’ve been collecting the new run of Cyborg comics, and the run more or less flies in the face of a lot of the issues that Robert Jones Jr. brings up. They key to it all is a combination of two factors. Victor Stone, Cyborg, is no longer a result of terrestrial technology. This has resulted in an evolution of his cybernetics that started with his death and a literal reboot. The new Cyborg comics, headed by Walker and Reis, features a slimmer, more human Cyborg. Building on that is that he is now able to take a human form, where his cybernetics are concealed and his humanity is “restored”. Now, I put that in parentheses because the new series is taking a new direction. One of personal exploration. The exploration in the new Cyborg comic isn’t new by any standard, it’s exploring the questions of humanity and identity. When Victor Stone discovers his ability to take on a human form again, he’s immediately beset by questions of who he is as a man and as a hero. I can identify with this to some degree, as a veteran who is still exploring his civilian identity after a prolonged period of service and deployments. In effect, the change that Robert Jones Jr. said was veritably impossible has, in part, occurred. Victor Stone has his penis back, and has moved past being the working “mule” of the Justice League, and is becoming more than he has been allowed to be in the past.

Where Robert Jones Jr. is correct is that no, we are unlikely to see a Cyborg who is “truly radicalized”, or who deals with topical issues facing POC in the USA. Aside from the difficulty in getting that past the higher ups in DC, I feel that that would be a demotion of the character. Throughout comic book history, the most persistent trope that has followed POC characters, particularly POC males, is that they exist on the periphery of the worlds they’re drawn for. They focus on fighting “street crime” and are painfully local; isolated to neighbourhoods (usually ghettos or slums). Cyborg is, arguably, the only POC male character in the DC universe to not only not get shoehorned into that role, but to also become an intrinsic part of major teams (Teen Titans and now the Justice League). Seeing a POC character holding their own beside the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman is just as important as having characters addressing topical issues.

The idea that every POC character needs to be a mouthpiece for the issues facing the POC community in the USA is not sound thinking, but that doesn’t mean that if they aren’t, they aren’t relevant. It also doesn’t mean that they aren’t good inspiration. As pointed out, Cyborg had a lot of really bad, and racist baggage. However, the New 52 and the current series have taken massive strides to break away from it. It isn’t a clean break, as over 30 years of stupid is hard to kick away in one go. Not giving it a chance, and immediately dismissing it as supportive of racist systems, is not the way to deal with this. Cyborg is an established character, who is finally getting the chance that other characters, like Luke Cage, Black Lightning, and Mr. Terrific have already had. The chance to develop past the generic, stereotyped, racist trope supporting character they were initially created as.

Critical assessment and analysis is important as DC and other comic book publishers push forward with their fumbling steps into actual, positive diversity. That means that things have to be watched as they develop, and that snap judgements are the wrong way to go. Encouraging good representation, good character development, and engaging stories is. For years, we’ve complained that POC characters are junk, and rightly so. They have been. So let’s give encouragement when it’s due. Walker and Reis are taking Victor Stone, Cyborg, down a path that should have been taken a long time ago. So while we support our own creations, and our own stories, lets support these positive steps too.