Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Victor Stone: Affirmative Action Cyborg

A little over four years ago, I didn't take Barack Obama seriously as a presidential candidate. After eight years of Bush and a couple hundred years of being America, I didn't think the United States could handle a black president. Just four years earlier, Morrissey had released a song with the lyrics, "In America, the land of the free, they said, and of opportunity, in a just and a truthful way. But where the president, is never black, female or gay, and until that day, you've got nothing to say to me, to help me believe." Well, we checked one off the list, so what have you got to say now, Mr. Gloomypus? Well, I suppose he could point out that there were immediate calls for Obama's impeachment over such shady, stupid, cheap shot baloney as his being a "secret Muslim" who wasn't really a U.S. citizen. I attended a comic convention where protestors outside had drawn a Hitler mustache on Obama's picture (clearly unheeding of Godwin's Law, basic decorum, and any reasonable historical perspective. At least make it a Marxist beard to adhere remotely to your own rhetoric.) Despite my own best hopes, in the year of Trayvon Martin and poor reading comprehension among The Hunger Games audiences writ large across hatefully moronic Twitter screeds, race is still our collective kryptonite.

...Which brings us to Cyborg, who I have a problem with. Vic Stone was created in 1980 as part of a strategically multicultural New Teen Titans cloned from the DNA of the All-New, All-Different X-Men. The core team was still a bunch of white kids from the Silver Age, but they were joined by the sexy space-Latina, the vaguely Indian mystical hell-spawn, and the black robot guy. That might sound diminishing, especially coming from an Anglo-Saxon edging ever closer toward middle age. The truth is, there was a time when those three characters were among the most popular in comics. That said, those days were short lived in the grand scheme of things (3-4 years,) were never seriously exploited outside the team's book, and have not been remotely rekindled in the quarter century that's passed since. White males like Nightwing and Deathstroke have had success with spin-off solo series, and the team itself has been reconfigured into different modes of varying profitability typically centering around a nucleus of honky. Cyborg, meanwhile, had some try-outs in anthology titles and a solo mini-series decades too late, but remains best remembered as the African-American Teen Titan who didn't completely suck his way into limbo (as opposed to Hornblower, Bumblebee, Joto, etc.)

A lot of the blame hangs on his creators. Vic was basically an '80s revamping of the Thing by way of Luke Cage. He talked as "street" as middle-aged cracker Marv Wolfman could muster, but he was secretly smart and articulate. Not smart enough to manage avoiding being partially eaten by a space blob, create his own compensatory cybernetics, or even perform maintenance on his own parts (thank you S.T.A.R. Labs,) but he was no hoodlum. For the team's robo-strong man, Cyborg had a nasty tendency to bare more sensitive swaths of skin than the average male hero. For this, artist George Pérez is to blame. I mean, the guy's pivot joints are wide open, his unsecured trunk is one huge liability, and his armor doesn't even protect the good half of his head. Despite being handsome and half naked, Vic was always whining about all that he'd lost. This clearly did not include sex appeal, based on a series of hot girlfriends, nor the ability to "enjoy" their company, based on the visible meat held up by his shimmering stripper banana hammock.

That said, Vic's cybernetic enhancements weren't that impressive. He was basically in the same league as the Six Million Dollar Man, likely on a similar budget. He's strong. He can jump kind of high. He's sort of half-assed bulletproof. Enhanced senses. He can do some R2D2 type stuff like link up with computer systems and control aspects of them. Mainly, he's got a white sound blaster on his hand with your typical point and shoot interface. However, Cyborg only had a 24 hour battery charge for most of his career, which the cannon drained quickly, creating Silver Age drama over the arbitrary weakness.

You know, when I type "the Flash" in Google image search, my screen turns red. It goes emerald when I type "Green Lantern." If I type "Wonder," the search bar's first suggestion for an auto-fill is "Wonder Woman." The word "cyborg" was coined in 1960, and was being used extensively in science fiction by the 1980s. Run an image search, and Stone is competing with hundreds of other cyborgs for space, including Jean-Claude Van Damme and Angelina Jolie. So essentially, Vic had a phony personality, a generic name, cried all the time about imagined problems, and wasn't much to aspire to in the super powers department. Why didn't he catch on, I wonder?

Cyborg was benched for much of the '90s, and even had his trademarked brand (for comics, anyway) handed over to a passable Superman villain for a while. They tried giving Vic more armor (but less brain,) turned him into a liquid metal Plastic Man, and even pulled the old frienemy heel turn under the unwise new monicker "Cyberion." In recent years, he's been repositioned as a contender in outside media through animated appearances on the Teen Titans cartoon and live action on Smallville, but at the end of the day, he's still just Cyborg. Look at the poor guy wearing silver sneakers and a vest as a "costume." Aquaman and Green Arrow got spin-off pilots ahead of him.

Geoff Johns has spent several years trying to build Vic up in readers' minds, first in the pages of The Flash, on through a pivotal role in the Flashpoint crossover, and now as part of the New 52 DC reboot. The problem is, Johns has been doing this as an act of sheer will, without any serious support by the actual readers. He's a member of the current Justice League, the premier super-team at DC comics for much of their history. Unfortunately, the JLA has a shabby history with race relations, from the embarrassing Black Lightning refusing membership to the infinitely more embarrassing Vibe becoming the first actual non-white Leaguer 24 years after the team started (and it's noteworthy that he was also the first ever casualty and most tenaciously deceased of those who followed.)

The Justice League cartoon came up with the most widely accepted solution to date, by having one of the team's most powerful and prominent heroes be the African-American Green Lantern, John Stewart. It didn't hurt that Stewart is a layered character with a solid fan base, many of whom were pretty miffed about the honky Hal Jordan getting the nod for the big budget flop Green Lantern movie. Coupled with bypassing Hawkman for Hawkgirl, the League finally had diversity without having to bring in a third tier nobody who exists only to be non-white. Ideally, there would be non-derivative heroes for those roles, but as it stands, at least the minority version and the female half of a duo are better options than their forebearers.

Depending on who you ask, the Justice League was founded by either five or seven heroes, only one of whom was not born white or male (one each.) Martian Manhunter was the team's "person of color," though said color was green, and on his off hours he played a peckerwood police officer. Since John Jones was often played by African-Americans in media outside comics, and more recently in the direct-to-DVD animated movie Justice League: Doom the actual character of John Jones was made black, why not have him be the official negro Leaguer through a mild retcon massage? Yet, there are decades of comics out there with a white John Jones, and no sense of ownership in the black community of J'Onn J'Onzz. Besides, who wants their race represented by the least popular member of the team? Accommodating the passage of time is tricky business.

...Which brings us back to Cyborg, whose prowess in form and sales has been a fraction of even the Manhunter from Mars'. J'Onn J'Onzz appeared in a solo strip for thirteen years, had a self-titled series for three, and numerous mini-series and specials to his name. The guy's got more powers than Superman, and Cyborg is going to step into his role as a JLA founder? The aforementioned Doom movie was something of a hand-off to Cyborg, who was a special guest star elevated to member status thanks to his heroism. However, the turn required Cyborg to be portrayed as far more competent than he's ever been in the comics, and his pivotal role and congratulatory dialogue had the distinct odor of Poochie.

Moving on to the New 52 Justice League, the creators have smartly ramped up Cyborg's powers, including the addition of being the team's teleportational mode of transit. However, the method involved his being merged with a Mother Box, marrying the character to Kirby's New Gods mythos at the level of his very origin. In fact, since Stone's becoming Cyborg played out in the team book's pages, he is now wholly "owned" by the Justice League. Right from jump, his personal integrity is compromised, because his creation and continued existence is now wholly dependent on the whims of the book's creative team. All of his prior history has been erased, since he was no longer a Teen Titan with no seeming connection to any of his longtime friends from the prior continuity. As a Leaguer, his overarching lineage traces back to Steel (the armored scientist who was also a more developed and successful hero than Cyborg, but also entirely derivative of Superman) and Red Tornado (the robo-hero prone to being broken to bits.) This is not an admirable legacy.

As much as I would like to see a non-white hero with a significant role in the Justice League and the DC Universe as a whole, I really think Cyborg does a disservice to the goal. Barack Obama was elected as President of the United States by a clear mandate with much hoopla and hope. Barack Obama won his role, rather than having it handed to him. Cyborg was given founding status in the Justice League as a conciliatory gesture to the masses for never having a firm place for a hero of color among the DC pantheon. As much as we need to address the wrongs in this country with regard to race, making Cyborg a Justice Leaguer seems to diminish the team, and the means of his inclusion undermine the character himself. In spite of his many flaws, Cyborg deserves better than to be a token among titans, his entire canon stripped bear for the privilege, while the black community and readers as a whole deserve better than Cyborg getting a guilt ticket into the JLA.

Post-Racial DC Comics?

1 comment:

The Disfactor said...

I totally agree with you.What was often over looked about Cyborg was the fact that his father was a obvious brain -- scientist and engineer on cutting edge technology. So you really wouldn't have dumb kids especially if you married a woman even half as smart. Secondly, to go through and survive as much as Vic who's gone through more than Bruce and Clark combined that's a level of sheer will power that is truly worth of a Titan.

You have all this combined that he's obviously DC's Iron Man long before Steel ever appeared. If we were really honest about it -- if MIT had an athletic team Vic would be at least garden variety genius (IQ 145); thus the average brain power of combined MIT students and captain of their track team.

In short, when Vic returned to Earth, it should have been as a being with Bat Man like intelligence, Kryptonian level knowledge and Iron Man abilities times 3; a real titan to be reckoned with. A Super Man level threat 1! Instead, he's been held back by racism as opposed to moved ahead in spite of it.