Humanity Not Included: DC’s Cyborg and the Mechanization of the Black Body

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cyborg_origin_ToTT1

A retelling of Cyborg’s origin from Tales of the New Teen Titans #1 (June 1982)

DC Comics’ Cyborg is my least favorite black character currently being published in comic books. He illustrates how the black body functions in a white supremacist framework and embodies so many different offensive stereotypes of black people that it is necessary to enumerate these characteristics as some of them may be missed by the casual reader, while others work as complicated dichotomies, masking the problematics beneath superficial attempts at “post-racial” inclusivity.

For the uninitiated, Cyborg (aka Victor Stone) was created by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez for their wildly successful 1980s revival The New Teen Titans. Back then, Cyborg was the black hero in a comic that mistook tokenism for diversity. He spent a great deal of time mourning his plight as an accident turned him from a star athlete into a human/machine hybrid. Even though this accident gave Cyborg powers beyond those of mere mortals, he considered himself a freak. All he wanted was to be a “regular” human being. The rest of his time was mostly spent secretly longing for a white woman, Sarah Simms, who teaches him how to love himself. During his emotional love affair with Simms, Stone was in a relationship with another woman, a black scientist by the name of Dr. Sarah Charles.

Cyborg-neuter

Batman and Catwoman delivering the ragged torso of Victor Stone to his father (from Forever Evil #2 – Dec 2013).

Victor Stone whined and complained and was possessed of a great deal of self-pity, which seemed to be some sort of subtextual commentary on how white people feel about black people’s complaints regarding structural and social anti-black racism and white supremacy. Through Cyborg, the white gaze was able to position black people and our grievances against our circumstances as not only invalid and pitiful, but also as self-inflicted (Victor’s mother and father, Drs. Silas and Elinore Stone, experimented on their son and Silas was essentially responsible for the accident that required his son’s transformation). It was always, to me, even reading these books as a teenager, a deeply problematic view of the plight of black people (it was white people, after all, who experimented on black people in this country). But this view of black people as the source of our own suffering was to be expected; these were the Reagan years after all. But, for the most part, Cyborg was all black kids had. So we ate the scraps we were given.

Wonder-Woman-Cyborg

Wonder Woman and Cyborg in the JLA Monitor Room (from Wonder Woman vol. 4, #36 – Nov 2014)

In the “New 52” retconning of the DC Universe, Cyborg is a founding member of the Justice League, the token minority replacing the former (imaginary) token minority, J’Onn J’Onzz, the Martian Manhunter, and sitting right alongside the token woman, Wonder Woman. This is no accident. For many white people, diversity and tokenism mean precisely the same thing, but beyond that, they are also looking for a particular brand of marginalized person to include; someone who will not disturb the existing state of affairs, who will operate, essentially, as a white, heterosexual, gender-conforming, middle-class man, but in slightly different drag. In his previous incarnation, it was unclear whether Cyborg was a fully functional, sexual being. In the New 52, it’s clear that Cyborg has no genitals. The accident that turned him into a cyborg has taken every bit of his flesh other than his torso, arms, neck, and head. Thus, it’s safe for him to be around Wonder Woman as he serves no sexual threat and no competition for Superman. (I should note that, at the same time, Wonder Woman loses her personhood to become the prize. Please watch the animated film Justice League: War if you don’t believe me. You’ll see the male members of the team, except Cyborg of course, each attempt to call “dibs” on her—including the pubescent Billy Batson/Shazam.) This, to me, is the comic book version of the historical castrations that white supremacists often enacted against black men, of whose sexuality (which they exaggerated and demonized) they were enormously envious and frightened of. Cities in this country were bombed to oblivion on the word of lying white women falsely accusing black men of rape.

New_Teen_Titans_35

New Teen Titans #35 (October 1983), in which Cyborg saves Sarah Simms from a hostage situation.

At the same time, conversely, Cyborg serves in the racist mold of “the Buck.” So, of course he’s an athlete; of course he plays football. White supremacy must always find some “productive” use in black bodies, must always be able to capitalize off of our labor. Oftentimes, when white writers are attempting to write black characters, they rely on stereotypes because they can’t imagine black people as actual human beings. These are the creations of people who don’t know any/many black people, but have seen plenty of them at basketball games or on television, or maybe even had a beer with one once, and considers them a “friend.”

Cyborg is also the resident chauffeur, “Boom Tubing” the Justice League wherever they need to go—Hoke Colburn to the Justice League’s Miss Daisy. He is their digitized administrative assistant, interpreting and relaying data at their command, serving, actually, as their very means of communication—as much of a tool for the League as a cell phone or as enslaved black people were to the plantation owners of the American antebellum period. And the stereotypes don’t end there. He’s best friends with a young white boy (who transforms into the adult hero, Shazam), a relationship that is nothing more than an updated version of Jim and Huck from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, encompassing the same racist subtext that places black adults on the same emotional and psychological level as white children.

Could Cyborg be the comic book superhero representation of white supremacy’s effect on the black body? To have a black person transformed from a metaphorical machine to an actual one? Whose fantasy is this? Cyborg has the distinct textual feel of some white person’s answer to the question: What would it be like to bring a lynched black person back to life? The problem is they’ve gotten it entirely wrong and I think that’s on purpose. They’d imagine that person being compliant, thankful, eager to please white people, and not a disruptive and liberating figure of rage? Mary Turner, her husband, and her baby, shaking the rafters of every house in America for nearly 100 years now, tell us a great deal about the aggrieved souls of lynched black folk. Compliant is not in their ghostly vocabulary. These haints mean business.

Sufficiently neutered, Cyborg is DC Comics’ idea of a black character safe enough to be embraced by white people. So he’s leapt out of the comic books and onto television screens. On television, in Teen Titans Go!, Cyborg is the comic relief. To be fair, all of the characters are comic relief, though; it’s a comedy. But there’s a certain racially offensive tenor to Cyborg’s shenanigans. Like when he goes into stereotypical black woman pantomime: “Girl, that girl is bad girl news, girl!” and the like. And, since Billy Batson is unavailable in this version, he’s the best friend of the trickster white boy (who happens to be green) to keep that Huck and Jim vibe going.

cyborg-changeling

Cyborg and Changeling from Teen Titans Go!

Soon, Cyborg will have his own film (starring an actor that is at least three shades lighter than Cyborg’s color in the comic books) and his own comic book, written by a black writer, David Walker, and drawn by one of the best artists in the business, Ivan Reis, who hails from Brazil. That he’s being written by a black person and drawn by a person of color may prove to be meaningless and immaterial, however. People of color, including black people, are just as capable of perpetuating white supremacist ideals as anyone else (see Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas or CNN host Don Lemon). And the writer and artist are also subject to the whims of the corporation that owns Cyborg, a corporation that has proven itself to have neither the foresight nor the insight to produce anything but the most banal and unimaginative of material, catering, mostly, to the lowest common denominator, hoping that economic (and psychological) prosperity might be found there. Therefore, we cannot expect some radical shift in Cyborg’s depiction in Walker and Reis’ hands. He will not suddenly grow a penis. He will not refuse to be the mule for League business. He will likely not have any black friends of his own age to shoot the breeze with. He will likely not be in a healthy and loving relationship with a black woman. He won’t be saving the Aiyana Stanley-Joneses and Tamir Rices of the world from the police. He will likely continue his role as one of the police. And it is in this particular lost opportunity that I am most disappointed.

I’m not sure it’s fair to place such a heavy burden on Walker and Reis, as what they have to work with is 30 years of the problematic representation listed above. Nevertheless, this must be said: The mainstream comic book industry is afraid to tackle the notion of what a truly radicalized black person with superpowers would actually look like and what they do with those powers. They don’t want to discuss what they would tear down and who they would free, because to do so would be to frighten a great deal of the white people they believe to be their primary audience. So instead, we get a few of these token Negroes who are complicit with the status quo, who challenge nothing and who change nothing because, if we’re being honest, that’s just the way most white people fantasize about racial issues. White America wants black people either docile or caged. Or dead. (And I base that educated guess, as James Baldwin once said, on the state of American institutions and the performance of the country itself.) Isn’t that what the research reveals, that right alongside magical and impervious to harm, white people also see us as dangerous and scary? That is to say, White Americans see black people as both superhuman and quasi-human at the same damn time. Full ranges of humanity are reserved only for the people they consider full human beings.

If the Cyborg comic book and film do well, white supremacy will be fine with that since he was designed to be the epitome of black harmlessness and profiting off of blackness is something white supremacy has been doing so well for hundreds of years. If they don’t do well, however, it will be a…black mark on all attempts for a solo black character to have a franchise of their own. You know how it works in the world of white supremacy: If a product featuring a marginalized person does well, it’s a “fluke” (it is not as if the success of the Blade films, for example, led to a string of black superhero action movies); if it does badly, it’s because of their marginalized status. This, then, leaves black consumers once again deciding which is worse: bad representation or no representation at all. I don’t purport to have the answer to that quandary.

black-vulcan

Black Vulcan!

I was walking to the train station a few weeks ago and a black dad was having a conversation with his two elementary-school-aged sons. They were talking about Cyborg. The kids had so many questions and their father had so few answers. I wanted to intervene and share everything I knew and everything I thought, but there was no reason in the world for me to break those kids’ hearts. Those kids loved Cyborg. I could tell by the way their eyes lit up when they were talking about him. It reminded me of the first time I encountered Black Vulcan on The Super Friends. His appearances were few and far between, but I relished every one of them and in the schoolyard, all the black kids—boys AND girls (there were no black, female superheroes on television at the time; so the girls, too, had no choice)—fought over who would be Black Vulcan when we played superheroes because he was the closest thing to any of us that any of us had. So I walked on past the father and his children, but I still haven’t stopped thinking about those children. They’re me at their age and so they’re blissful and probably in their own schoolyards fighting over who is going to be Cyborg. They don’t yet have the gift of discernment that would enable them to recognize the not-so-surreptitious messages being sent to them via this particular piece of racist propaganda.

But I recognize it.

And so whenever I encounter Cyborg, I feel the same way I did when Condoleezza Rice went shoe shopping as thousands of black people suffered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—and didn’t, at first, understand what the big deal was. I feel how I do when Clarence Thomas co-signs on a ruling that penalizes marginalized people. I feel how I do when Don Lemon and Pharrell Williams talk about “respectability” and “new blackness.” I feel a deep, abiding shame, but more importantly, a rigorous distrust.

Whose heroes are these?

Not mine.

Cyborg

Robert Jones, Jr. is a writer and editor from Brooklyn, N.Y. He is the creator of the social justice media brand, Son of Baldwin. He is currently working on his first novel. Follow him on Twitter @sonofbaldwin.

153 thoughts on “Humanity Not Included: DC’s Cyborg and the Mechanization of the Black Body

  1. Thoroughly well constructed argument/polemic even though I disagree with much of it.

    A few points:

    Why should a black man (or any) be defined by whether he has a penis? Surely we’re past that.

    Is it a bad thing that he’s attracted to a white woman? Or is your contention that it’s a bit ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ in that he has to try and please white people/fit in?

    Perhaps Cyborg is a metaphor for what the ‘white man’ has to done to the ‘black man’ in terms of corrupting them with technology and their influence? Conversely Cyborg is a black man who rather than be viewed as emasculated has actually evolved more than his white peers? He’s no longer confined by the very trappings that others are consumed with? He’s not characterised, stereotyped or stigmatised due to his penis.. i.e. black men are seldom shown as being intellectual equals or superiors to their white counterparts and merely depicted as either being purely sexual beings or only good for one thing.. not to mention being depicted as sexually abusing white women (when in the past many were falsely accused of rape and stitched up not to mention the disgusting treatment of black women slaves by their white masters).

    Pardon me if this is rambling but a very interesting if polarising (not in a bad way) discussion as you can approach it differently.

    I actually quite like Cyborg, perhaps in part due to my affinity with technology but also because of what he struggles and deals with. I think his story can in part be an allegory for men who’ve come back from conflict with a limb or disfigurement and have to adjust to society. He’s effectively a walking talking prosthesis right?

    • You could only come to the “What’s the big deal if he doesn’t have a penis?” conclusion by ignoring the historical (and contemporary!) mutilations of black men in this way vis-a-vis American lynching, etc. Cyborg doesn’t exist outside of this history and neither do the people who made the conscious–or, even more frightening, subconscious–choice to castrate him. The casual approach to this castration only works if we could, for example, castrate Batman or Wolverine or some other white male character too, and it not be a big deal for anyone.

      Sexuality is as much a part of building a three-dimensional character as anything else. And while we don’t necessarily have to be precious with it, we should handle it with care. I would ask why, for you, Cyborg can only be intellectual OR sexual, but not both? In trying to cover for the “sexual stereotype” of black man, you run smack into another “the castrated, harmless, agreeable Negro.” That’s precisely the problem with not permitting him to be a WHOLE human being with intellect, sexuality, and everything else. When you say black men have been shown “as sexually abusing white women,” and offer that his lack of a penis eliminates that threat/stereotype, you do realize that’s the exact same conclusion racists drew and that’s why that castrated black men, right? They basically said, “If we remove his penis, he won’t be a threat. Then, he could focus on other things.”

      You, like they, fail to consider that the penis was never actually a threat to begin with–except in the white imagination.

      It’s not necessarily bad that he’s attracted to a white woman, but again, in the context of the historical and contemporary nature of love as rendered in the United States, which these comic stories do not exist outside of, black-on-black love is always viewed as exceptional or abnormal or undesirable–primarily because it’s white boys doing the imagining here. And they imagine that their white audiences need an “in” in order to be interested in black characters and one of their lazy shortcuts to both meeting the demands of diversity (by which they really mean tokenism) and satisfying their white consumer base is to pair a black character (or character of color) with a white mate. If I was a white person in the audience, I’d be insulted that these men think I can’t relate to or find value in anything except Whiteness, in whole or in part, reflected back at me–which would, by definition and action, make them incapable of what all other races have demonstrated to be capable of–since we can relate to and even root for situations and characters that lack any color whatsoever.
      If Cyborg was commentary on what Whiteness does to Blackness, we’d see some kind of agency in Cyborg, some sort of nod to consciousness of this burden, some way in which he would be fighting back against this system of reality rather than happily chauffeuring it around. I think it’s extremely optimistic to read it that way and, further, lacks any textual support. That reading seems to come more from a refusal to engage the obvious problematics for fear of one’s self being implicated alongside them.
      Cyborg himself is rarely shown being the intellectual equal of his white teammates. He merely does what they ask and it’s not even “him” doing it; it’s the tech from New Genesis grafted into him doing the work. He’s merely the vessel for it.
      I think Cyborg could be a great fictional champion for disabled folks if handled correctly. However, I’ve yet to see him handled correctly. He’s either inspiration porn (which is, in itself, ableist) or he’s pitiful (which doesn’t permit him much room for the full spectrum of humanity).

      In any event, thank you for your disagreement. We definitely have diverging perspectives on this one.

    • I just wonder how are black male superhero TV characters adjusting to their neutering?
      The really interesting approach is simply to birdwatch American entertainment media in general play out their racism as a study in intersectionality.
      Then we can be thoroughly entertained and fully appreciate their never ending fight against the portrayal of black men as sexually desirable. Of course, an alluring black woman is a given trope in modern mainstream entertainment media especially sci/fi.
      Another given is that she naturally finds her love interest in a man of another race.
      Any black man is, of course, a sideliner. Older, fat, defective, conveniently married off, or unsuited for some other perfectly innocent reason.
      Current entertainment media is directed by racial sexists who crave black women and fear black men.
      Oh well, I suppose it’s a step forward from all black men being crooks or pimps and all black women being maids or prostitutes.
      Still, I look forward to the time when TV allows black men and women to have relationships with one another aside from slapstick sitcoms. I would love to see black people as whole PEOPLE, not just props.

  2. Interesting and partially persuasive points. I think you’re trying a little too hard to force a pattern here. But I agree that DC is a terribly conservative company in some ways, and their output reflects that.

    I’m bothered by your attempt to condemn any echo of the Huck/Jim relationship. Surely the intended audience is the large proportion of the potential market who are white and not from great economic privilege? They are likely to identify with Huck (less so with Gar and Dick from the Teen Titans, who are wealthy). Huck’s relationship with Jim humanizes Jim for them. That’s not playing to a black perspective, no, but it’s not a bad thing.

    I’m not sure what you expect a “radicalized black person with superpowers” to do, in the Justice League. Maybe be some kind of “scary black” antagonist? Or perhaps be recast as the “social justice warrior” wet blanket on the team, as Geoff Johns used to write Wonder Woman?

    Would I like a little more social awareness in the Justice League comics? Yes, of course I would. I would like to see them hire a new writer, who doesn’t see “29-year-old white male mesomorph with a generic action-hero personality” as both default and necessary majority. But writing Cyborg better should be possible in this framework. A David Walker series may be a step in the right direction. I’m not optimistic, but I think I leave more room for subtle progress than you do.

    • Hi philippos42,

      Thank you for your comments. I’d like to address some of your points, which I’ve excerpted with quotations below.

      “I’m bothered by your attempt to condemn any echo of the Huck/Jim relationship. Surely the intended audience is the large proportion of the potential market who are white and not from great economic privilege? They are likely to identify with Huck (less so with Gar and Dick from the Teen Titans, who are wealthy). Huck’s relationship with Jim humanizes Jim for them. That’s not playing to a black perspective, no, but it’s not a bad thing.”

      If I were a white person reading that excerpt, I’d be incredibly insulted. Your excerpt says, to me, that white people are possessed of such low empathetic/sympathetic responses, that it’s necessary to instruct them on how to be humane. The very fact that black people have to be “humanized” for a white person explains the essential problem with Whiteness and the White Gaze. No one has to “humanize” white people for people of color. We generally assume that humanity is present in all human beings. That a significant portion of the white audience has to be taught, through media, how to view other human beings as human beings (and, additionally, that they must be taught by being fed limiting stereotypes about those other human beings) is a most biting, and frighteningly unconscious, condemnation of Whiteness as I’ve ever encountered. I’d be tempted to ask these white people “What’s wrong with you?” if I didn’t already know. And the fact that you don’t think this psychology is a bad thing merely compounds/excuses the quite dangerous pathology.

      “I’m not sure what you expect a ‘radicalized black person with superpowers’ to do, in the Justice League. Maybe be some kind of ‘scary black’ antagonist? Or perhaps be recast as the ‘social justice warrior’ wet blanket on the team, as Geoff Johns used to write Wonder Woman?”

      I like words because words are so telling, even when the speaker/writer is attempting to skirt around what they are actually trying to say and what they really mean.

      Black people are not scary to me, so I’m not sure what you mean when you use “scary black” in air quotes. I don’t know who you’re saying is supposed to be scared of black people or why they would be scared. I also don’t know why “social justice warrior” and “wet blanket” are synonyms to you, but they fact that they are is quite revealing about your imagination.

      To answer your question, I would be loath to write Justice League because of the colonialist/imperialist mindset that I think undergirds that concept. And I wouldn’t actually want to write Cyborg either because of the reasons I enumerated in my original essay. But if I were forced to write a Cyborg comic, the first scene would be of him quitting the Justice League on sociopolitical principle.

      “I’m not optimistic, but I think I leave more room for subtle progress than you do.”

      It’s always oppressors, or people who identify with oppressors, who tell others to endure “subtle progress.”

      As James Baldwin once said:

      “It is quite another thing to…be told by the agents of that oppression, ‘Be patient; we will do better tomorrow.’ The question will cross your mind for just a moment: ‘You will do what better tomorrow?’”

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  8. I find this blog post to be quite conflicting. On the one hand I personally love cyborg as a character and will defend what he is quite valiantly. On the other i agree that there is a lot of issues with black represntation in comics and white supremacy as a whole in amaerican culture. With that said and my bias in the table i feel that there is some very over the top ideas being placed upon this character.
    The idea that the loss of his penis is about the castration of the black man seems like a complete lack of understanding of what the actual meaning was behind it. Its the loss of his humanity his ability to relate to any man or woman in a physically initimate way. Its the transformation of man into machine.
    I’ve always seen cyborg as a more superhero version of robocop. A man who losses his humanity to machinery and battles against this. Pretty much most if not all cyborg characters grapple with this issue. Its not unique to cyborg. Something that delves into the philosophical ideas about mans increasing dependence on technology to the point where they are one in the same.
    He also represents a lot of good for people who have gone through accidents that had a cost such as burn victims, amputees and the disabled.
    The character is also very well versed in technology which isn’t a common role that black man are placed in. The points of being the token black character and whatnot are quite valid and its sad that he is the only non white character on the team but its something.
    Also he represnts the future of man in a way. One completely integrated with machinary as one day many of us may be (i am a transhumanist so i applaud characters that do)
    I feel the writer of this neglected all postive aspects of this character because of his personal dislike and inability to see this character through the lens of his own struggles with race. I also would like to point out on the study about the pain tolerance of white and black people black people also believed that the black participants felt less pain than the whites.
    While i agree that black representation in comics needs to be far better i think cyborg is the wrong target to attack. Espically when it comes to those boys who love him. Far better than batman.
    He is a good superhero for black and white people and the problems that there are with this character can be fixed with writers who wish to change this.

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  10. Thank you for this. I appreciate the well thought out argumentation that sheds light onto deeply ingrained injustices in the comic-book industry, and in Western culture as a whole. I believe it’s only by having these conversations that we will be able to change.

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  12. thank you so much for this. what are the chances you’ll turn this in to a series examining black and brown super heroes? i would love to read about how storm’s anglisized features (blue eyes, long, white hair, thin nose, etc) help to make her palatable for white people, or go deeper into luke cage’s thick skin. i loved reading this. don’t get me wrong, i love cyborg, ororo, cage, and the like, but it’s hard not to miss some of the subtext that came with them, and it’s refreshing to read great analysis of it.

  13. This is incredibly interesting albeit sad. I grew up with teen titans, and this is a perspective I never took. Thank you for sharing and helping us to more critically evaluate, question, and call attention to what we can so easily and passively accept as commonplace

  14. I found this article to be very interesting and well written … You discussed things that never even crossed my mind while watching television with my young son, who is a huge comic book hero fan. Thank you for the insights. I’d like to add, that I feel bad representation is slightly better than no representation … but only slightly … because it gives you the opportunity to correct and educate … but, that’s the opinion of a very underrepresented Pacific Islander (from Guam) — I grew up having to check “other” for my race, which is very dehumanizing. On a side note — Mettle (Hawaiian) is also unable to transfer back to his human form, and he is unable to feel basic human sensations. After finally having sex with Hazmat, I think he is abducted and later killed.

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  20. This is a classic case of a person forming a conclusion without first gathering all the facts. One should never attempt to use wisdom prior to gaining the prerequisite knowledge. I am a Black male who learned to read because of the Marv Wolfman/George Perez run that started with New Teen Titans #1 in 1980. When Cyborg was created, his first girlfriend was Marcy Reynolds, a misguided Black woman who was killed due to her affiliation with a cult. Her family blamed Cyborg for her death. Cyborg, from his inception, was depicted as being extremely gifted both physically as an athletic specimen and mentally with an iq of 170. He was at odds with his father because he was rebellious. He wished to pursue athletics and gang affiliation, not the mundane pursuit his father had in mind for him due to his intellectual gifts. His father was portrayed as a super wealthy, genius scientist so caught up in his work that he had not the interest to be present for what he perceived to be activities not good enough for his son. Cyborg was created to represent the ultimate amalgamation of physicality and intelligence. Homo Superior as Stan Lee’s Magneto would call him. Victor Stone is a rich character who has served to inspire children who have suffered cataclysmic injury to learn to achieve great things despite their physical limitations. The original Cyborg has also been shown to be a sexual character. But you have to have read those issues of Titans to be aware of that factoid. Sometimes in an attempt to impose White supremacy on EVERYTHING, we end up with something altogether different from the original intent. Don’t bastardize the character to support your agenda. It is not fair to the people who really know the character. What we need now is an end to race baiting. We need to let go of the handy crutches of oppression in order to embrace the rich opportunities available to us. Thank you for allowing me to express my opinion.

    • Thanks for commenting. I can’t speak to the individual stories/issues you bring up since I have read very little of this New Teen Titans run, but I do have a couple of responses:

      1. I think you are wrong to assume that the author has not read all these issues.
      2. He is reading Cyborg in the context beyond merely this run, but the questionable history of Black superheroes and representations of Blackness more broadly.
      3. The intentions of the writers/artist should not be overvalued. We can’t know what creators really meant (even when they tell us), and meaning emerges from varying contexts not just a creator’s view of their own work – nor is creator intention (even if we could inarguable access it) a particularly valuable way understand a text.
      4. The phrase “handy crutches of oppression” is deeply problematic, and is the notion of “race-baiting.” It is revealing to me that you are willing to be generous in considering Wolfman/Perez’s intentions, but skeptical and downright suspicious of the intentions of someone who is trying to critically and rigorously consider the varying ways in which Black representation in comics faces historical obstacles.
  21. Wow, what a great breakdown of Cyborg (sorry, I’m late to the party) One thing that really bugged me on Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans was that they’d fired Beast Boy. And when Vixen auditioned for the team, it was Cyborg who booed throughout it and didn’t want to give her a chance. It might be silly but it bothered me.

  22. Wow, this was a really great article and gave me perspective on a character I hadn’t given much thought to. I grew up with the original Teen Titans cartoon that ran from 2003-2006 and loved the character there, but after reading this, I’m looking back and considering how much that portrayal resembles what you’re talking about here.

    I was curious if you had an opinion on that version of Cyborg. It seems to me that it avoids a lot of what you’re talking about here, but due to my perspective I’m not sure.

    Either way, thank you for writing this. It gave me perspective on something I hadn’t thought of before.

  23. Wow, what an article. I have a lot to say that I don’t really want to say on the internet because people in comments sections are always looking for fights to start. I just want to say that when I first saw Cyborg on Teen Titans, my first thought’s weren’t “Cool, a black character.” My first thoughts were, “Cool, a cyborg.” The fact that Cyborg was black never fazed me and apparently I missed out on all the secret racism. Good for me, I suppose. Or it could be that the racism surrounding Cyborg isn’t there and you only found it because you’ve been looking for it. When I hear people talk about “social justice” online, what I typically see is people looking high and low for the racism and projecting it on to people. I am not saying racism has never existed in comic books but I sure as hell don’t consider it “racist subtext” for Cyborg to be friends with Billy Batson. Also, if you had read the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you would realize that Jim and Huck’s relationship was a positive one. I feel that you can describe Cyborg as black in the same way that you could describe the weather as cold but it doesn’t define the whole of his character. The same goes for Wonder Woman, for that matter. To me, Cyborg is on the same level as the Thing. The Thing is a character who also fits all of these qualities (no genitals, whiny, tragic accident lead to immense strength and power, etc.) but nobody has written an article on him because he’s white. Well, technically orange, but you know what I mean. The only reason this article exists is because Cyborg is a black man and I find it really sad that someone found it necessary to write it. I think it’s sad that someone felt it necessary to defend a black person who didn’t really need defending but because of the society we have built had a civic duty to do so. There was actually a Superman comic I read recently featuring an alternate universe in which white people were the minority and almost the entire Justice League was composed of black people with the exception of one token white guy. In the comic, Lex Luthor, who is still white, is attacking Superman, who is black in this universe. And he claims, “This isn’t a racism thing! I hate you for every other reason!” I thought this was a funny character beat but it also kind of rang true for me; It seems like in fiction if anyone does anything with a character of color, whether it’s positive or negative, it immediately becomes a race thing. Cyborg, the Falcon, Brother Voodoo, Black Vulcan, Goliath, Power Man, John Stewart, Black Panther, Vixen, Spider-Man, Mr. Terrific…I never saw these as specifically black characters. They were just people to me. They’re just superheroes trying to save the day and make the world just a little bit brighter, not secret symbols of oppression and prejudice. They’re comic book characters. They’re supposed to be fun. ‘Nuff said.

    • You are going to have to do a lot better than the old “you’re just looking for racism” and “I don’t see race” canards to have a productive conversation here. Please do some reading and research and then feel free to come back and ask some informed questions.

  24. This is a very interesting analysis! my only knowledge of Cyborg is through the old Teen Titans series, which was overall less comedic than Teen Titans Go but Cyborg is still largely a source of comedy compared to his peers.

    I was wondering just two things: firstly, is there an example of a superhero team that you feel isn’t imperialistic in the manner JL is? I feel that unless the teams were dismantled, Cyborg’s leaving would simply mean a continuation of white men in the highest positions of power, and it’d be nice to have a black man in a position of power that didn’t have these imperialistic connotations.

    Secondly, have you written anything regarding Marvel’s recent run of Sam Wilson as Captain America? it would seem to me that his writing has followed what you argued Cyborg would do, and I’d be curious to know how successfully you think they’ve done this, if at all.

  25. Spawn was another black man who had to have his junk burned off before he could evolve from punk/criminal/wastrel to hero/anti-hero.

    Aside from the occasional porn or rape-porn cover, today’s Marvel is a bit more progressive than DC (for the moment at least I don’t think we have to worry about some z-list villain raping/murdering/eating Ms. Marvel even if American Islamophobia worsens) and even they allowed the team replacing Reggie Hudlin on Black Panther to burn T’Challa to a crisp as public payback/apology for Hudlin’s “controversial” (translation: “uppity”) run.

    DC/Warners will make the occasional stab at diversity, but whether it’s “blacking in” a copyright-lapsing obsolete Golden Age property (Mr. Terrific, Crimson Avenger, Johnny Thunder) or actually trying something comparatively fresh (“Blacqualad” of TV’s Young Justice), it almost immediately gets rug-swept, mysteriously cancelled, or flashpointed out of existence–especially if the character becomes too popular. Where are all of DC’s black characters who haven’t had their heads slapped off by Superboy Prime or been slashed to death by Eclipso? Sure, Crimson Avenger’s an unworkable farce–an undead black girl wearing a bloody blindfold and enslaved by her magic guns? FFS–but they can’t do anything with Mr. Terrific? Icon and Rocket? Static?

    Instead, we got the black man with the prosthetic body (and in too many of the animated movies, he’s basically Batman’s talking remote batcomputer) and the black woman with jungle hoodoo zoo powers. …We good, right?

  26. Interesting, great and in depth article. I definitely learnded a lot and agree with many points while others are a bit of a stretch. There is very little similarity to hoke and cyborg. Boomtubes are awesome and are unique to him being integrated into his body. Its no mere chauffeur situation as he has no requirement to boomtube people around. He chooses to. Also, cyborg being a football jock is something black Americans take pride in for better or worse. Sports athletes, music stars and being from the hood are stereotypical but relatable. Static shock, im my opinion on of the coolest most poweful black heroes ever grew up in the hood. (I only have cartoon memory reference ) that was to make him relatable to what many black people know. What makes him and cyborg heros are their determation, intelligence and bravery. Those are common human heroic traits. And cyborgs internal struggle is also what makes and in depth 3 dimensional character. Im not saying that all your points are false. In wasnt even born in 1982. But cyborg is a great character and hero in all the ways that count. Besides he can make damn near anything with his cybernetics. You dont think he can make the Cyberdick 5000 if he wanted to??

  27. You do realize that Cyborg’s creator, Marv Wolfman, co-creator of Blade, is also a good friend of Marc Davis, co-creator of Static Shock?
    I’d address this essay to Mr. Wolfman and see how he reacts to the implications of white supremacy. I’d find his reaction rather interesting.

    • I must admit to being amused by the hurt feelings and righteous indignation in some of these more recent comments.

      I’m not interesting in debating this matter any further and I’ve said all I’ve needed to say over a year ago when I wrote this piece. I’m not going to defend my position perpetually each time a new person disocvers my older work.

      I will say, however, that Mr. O’Neill’s comment, which amounts to, “Did you know Marv Wolfman has black friends and therefore cannot be racist” is hilarious not only for its rigorous adherence to racist stereotype, but also because he thinks Wolfman’s “intention” is relevant. Impact > intention.

    • I pointed out that Marv Wolfman was not some isolated white dude writing in a basement, but someone who was not disconnected with the black comic creators and, in many cases, inspired them. The inference should have been clear enough, if you were not so busy engaging in looking for victimization wherever you could find it.

      And, since this always seems to happen- no, my last name isn’t “O’Neil”- it’s my nom de plume because I am from Ecuador, and I often openly criticize its government for being a totalitarian gag-happy regime. While I am immune from its persecution here in the United States, my family is not so lucky. Since the government has been known to go after people who criticize it on social media, and its family, I operate under the most distant and unrelated name to my real one as I can get. Because this is usually the point where the victim-mentality kicks in and people say to me “Right, you are a Latino and your last name is O’Neil?”

      Thought I’d cut it off before it predictably comes up.

  28. -Sigh- It started out with such promise, then went more and more over-the-top with each additional sentence.

    While I agree with the article’s overall issue, the writer does not serve the subject well with his extremely narrow focus. Certainly comic books are not the only, or most egregious perpetrator of this negligence (movies, tv, pick your medium); however, to be fair, this is a site devoted to comics, and the author may have similar polemics specific to other sites; so, let’s stick with this one.

    My first problem with this article is that the writer seems to originate his opinions from a foundation which many Blacks and Whites embrace….that there is a distinct, clear, monolithic difference between Black and White cultures in America. This, of course, is a fallacy on numerous levels; one would have to ignore nature (adaptation), a couple centuries of human history (Whites and Blacks have been joined-at-the-hip for more than 250 years), enormous amounts of practical evidence (language, food, music, science, fashion), truth (cultures are derived through environmental conditions), and common sense (babies grow into their cultural environment), to continue accepting that premise. What small differences remain exist through sheer effort and force of will.

    I have been an avid comic book reader since the early 60’s; ‘Sad Sack’ was one of my earliest, along with the Harvey comics characters, then the Archie series. I’m familiar with every incarnation of Superman and his “family”. Needless to say I was around when Black Panther made his first appearance; purchased ‘Luke Cage, Hero For Hire’ #1 off the racks, as well as the debut of John Stewart in ‘Green Lantern’. From those heroes to the current Earth-2 Superman, Val-Zod, I’ve read all the major and been exposed to most of the minor creations.
    While the history of characters is not vast, it isn’t as narrow in scope as the writer portrays; his tendency is to invoke the history while not really delving into it, picking those areas that support his opinions. Not only are the three characters I mentioned, avoided, along with their complicated stories, but the author seems to ignore Steel, Mr. Terrific, Falcon, Batwing, JM Stracynzski’s Nite Owl (and the Daniel Way mini-series), Spawn, Marvel’s ‘Adam’ mini-series, Static (indeed the entire DC Milestone line), and numerous others, in an effort to drive home his point.

    Bringing up tokenism in the current Justice League is a further example of selective history, and ignoring logic; considering that most comic heroes, in the past, were White males, the pool of Black characters is already small; in addition, in a group of six or seven diverse people, “tokenism” is unavoidable.

    As skewed as the writer’s view seems to be, I found the overall article to indicate intelligence and insight, until the what-would-really-happen if Black characters got superpowers. How disappointing. The belief that they would express their frustration in some comprehensive negative action is not borne out by history; 1865, eliminating slavery did not result in Black people burning down the South or attacking White women and plantation owners, those freed individuals got jobs, entered politics, and tried to make lives for themselves, fought in wars, defending the country; ML King and Malcolm X didn’t advocate “burning down the house”, and Barack Obama didn’t become president to tear up the institution. I’m not sure what the author is try to say with this opinion; my experience says the most African-Americans want equality, fairness, and opportunity, not destruction or venting their spleens; they believe in “the American Dream” and wish to be a part of it.

    Say what you will about the limitations in comic books, it is unfair not to acknowledge sincere efforts by many creators to address the inequities. I’ve found that it can often be a no-win situation; Archie Goodwin has been castigated for writing the street-level Luke Cage, the vernacular falling into a supposed stereotype; whereas, if a writer has a Black character speak in common educated english, he’s a white-washed version. The writer strikes me as someone who falls into this level of expression; I failed to see any examples, in the article, of comic characters that satisfied his criteria. What I did see was the usual self-conflict; desiring multi-layered personae while, at the same time, limiting the heroes to their own neighborhoods, representing the race, and dating only Black women (posing no threat to the White guys); in effect, agreeing with racist KKK philosophy.

    Once again, I agree with the basic issue of lack of adequate racial representation, but I don’t believe Cyborg is the best example to present; frankly, I had more problems with the Falcon’s ‘Snap’ Wilson identity (came across as a pimp to me), than anything written with Cyborg. As numerous responders have shown, the examples in this article can be legitimately interpreted in other, more positive ways.

    • Here’s what I actually said:

      “They don’t want to discuss what they would tear down and who they would free, because to do so would be to frighten a great deal of the white people they believe to be their primary audience.”

      I was talking about oppressive racist structures. What were you talking about?

    • sonofbaldwin, I was talking about what really happens when Blacks acquire power in America.
      As far as tearing down “oppressive racist structures”, I’m not sure what you mean by this, but assuming that I do, where have you been? Heroes addressed these issues quite prevalently in the ’70’s and ’80’s; John Stewart’s first appearances, Luke Cage, to some degree, Lois Lane (as ridiculous as that was), much of the Milestone line of comics from DC, and others. Was/Is it imperfect? Absolutely. But the effort has been there; more, in many ways, than any other media. You want to pick on Cyborg, why not the gladiatorial nature of Blacks in sports? How most tv shows with a majority Black cast are comedies? Or that most of the small number of regular working African-American movie stars are over 50. Once again, I agree with your overall issue, but Cyborg is not the best example of the problem.

  29. http://www.titanstower.com/secrets-behind-teen-titans-20/

    So I don’t know if the author knows about this, but he might want to dig into Jericho. Cyborg is arguably the evolution of an earlier Wolfman-pitched character named “Jericho” that could basically be summed up as “White Guilt writes Black Robin without knowing any Black People”. It’s actually a fairly interesting story when viewed in the context of 60’s white liberals attempting to clumsily support the depiction of black superheroes.

    It’s been around a decade since I read the pencils, but it was pretty clear the writers were out of their depth. Unfortunately, I feel like they ended up both figuratively and literally neutering their character concepts when they split Jericho into Cyborg and Jericho (who kept the name and a bit of the costume design but nothing else).

    The other thing is that this article really didn’t touch upon Cyborg as an intersection between blackness and disability. Which is fairly rare – I can only really think of Star Trek ever tackling that intersection of humanity. The thing that always bothered me about Cyborg was the way the interaction between expectations of hyper-sexualized black masculinity played against the typical “does his pee-pee work?” de-sexualization of humans with disabilities. Both DC and Marvel are also guilty of pulling the same trick with a number of queer characters – trying to “de-fang” the scary homosexual predatory sexuality by literally removing the character’s gentalia with cosmic rays or what have you.

  30. Thanks for this article, I read comics occasionally but only knew Cyborg from the Teen Titans TV serie, and wasn’t aware of all this context.

  31. Pingback: Cyborg Re-humanized | POCGamer

  32. Very interesting and enlightening article! Things like these need to be discussed, always, at every possible moment, because by talking about it ignorant people (such as myself) can learn to see the patterns and, hopefully, react to them next time.

    It is unfortunate that the comic book industry (and the speculative fiction genre as a whole) has such an overrepresentation of white writers, because while they are trying, arguably not very successfully but still trying, to create more inclusive stories, it’s hindered by the fact that they are still written by white, straight men who don’t have any personal experience with oppression. So when they try to talk about it, it comes off as condescending despite all the best intentions (assuming they do have good intentions). This is a structural problem in society as a whole – white people, especially men, are the loudest voices, and other white people are more likely to listen to them, which leads to misinformation when these white people don’t know what they are talking about – band the comic book industry is always slow on the uptake. Fantasy, science fiction and other speculative fictions have the amazing possibilities to explore worlds where people have always been equal, where skin colour isn’t an issue, where the Africans colonised Europe, where Vikings are dark-skinned and Samurai live in the North Pole and ride polar bears, but yet they keep writing worlds where “white” is the majority and “black” is a minority, sometimes exoticised, or worse, doesn’t exist at all. They don’t want to talk about the real world issues but they still create worlds where these issues exist – or, if they do talk about them, they do it from a very privileged standpoint. They talk about “black” issues from a “white” perspective, “gay” issues from a straight perspective, etc. Likewise, a POC character in a story written by a white person will, sadly, be written as a token or a minority and therefore almost always be defined to a big extent by their tokenism. I think the reason for tokenism is that by using it, a white writer can deflect any claims about being racist while still not having to actually talk about things minority characters have to deal with; we can just have the character there in the background, not bothering give them more than the most basic of characterisation, and somehow think that is enough. Cyborg is one such example, both when he was created as the token minority for Teen Titans and in his rebooted role as the token minority for the Justice League. Considering that DC do have other non-white characters, the fact that they decided that “eh, one is enough to fill the slot” is very strange indeed and speaks of structural problems. The real world doesn’t have a check list – “one black man, one woman, great, now we can fill the rest with white men and still be diverse!” – so I don’t understand why it’s acceptable that fictional worlds have one.

    Here’s the big question, though. As an aspiring, white writer myself, I want to write POC characters and I want to represent them right. I see all my characters as characters first; skin colour is quite incidental, or at least I believe it is. All my characters are people with different experiences and motivations, and hopefully they will feel like real and complex people, not just informed by what they look like and where they come from. The problem is that I don’t know what the best option is: to let my characters deal with and discuss problems with racism they might face, even though I have no personal experience with it, or to not discuss it at all? Each option brings up its own set of problems. Saying “I acknowledge racism exists” is easy, and obvious, but that doesn’t mean I know enough to talk about it from the perspective of someone who have to face it. On the other hand, pretending to be “colour-blind” and act like it doesn’t happen is not exactly ideal either. Sure, I could say that these particular characters never faced any racism or other structural oppression, but how often can I do that before it sounds like denial or naïveté? It might be okay if I put the characters in a world where racism has never existed because multiculturalism is ingrained into the world from the very start of civilisation, but what can I do if I set the story in our world?

    The other solution would be to whitewash all of my POC characters, but as you can understand I refuse to do so. It certainly won’t solve the problem in the long run, either.

    I don’t demand an answer, but it would be interesting to see other thoughts on the subject. I also apologize that this comment might not have that much to do with the article itself, but these thoughts came up as I was reading it. Also, sorry for being so ridiculously late.

  33. Actually, I’m kind of curious what the author thinks about the original Teen Titans Cartoon. I’m not a huge reader of comic books so this was my first introduction to the character and I’ve only seen him since in “Teen Titans Go!”.

    In the original cartoon, he is a vital part of the team, often assuming leadership when Robin is absent. Highly skilled with mechanics and cooking, without much mention of athletics. Both of them are hobbies which he does because he enjoys them rather than to ‘serve’ the team. The animated series aimed at kids obviously doesn’t tackle the question of his, um, equipment but he at least gets a potential romance lined up (admittedly with the only other black cast member) and some shipping fodder for fans of other groupings.

    He also doesn’t really tackle deeper social issues, but not every show needs to. A lot of the more general issues with the justice system are sidestepped by the surreal nature of most of the villains; Villain Highschools, the embodiment of thunder and rain, A 1960 Mod with hologram technology, several aliens and other magic beings.

    Before this, I knew I grew up with an image of Starfire which was treated with far more respect than her comic counterpart but would it be fair to call this another case where the Teen Titans animated series did a significantly better job at portraying a character who is not essential a white male than the comic books? If this version of Cyborg still falls into the traps mentioned in the article, then I’d like to have that broken down a bit.

  34. Pingback: Bumbling: DC Super Hero Girls and the White Racial Imagination | The Middle Spaces

  35. Which one is your favorite black character currently being published in comic books? Mine is Roy Greenhilt, but as a webcomic character, I don’t know if counts as a “comic book” for you.

    (sorry for the english. brazilian huere)

  36. “Your excerpt says, to me, that white people are possessed of such low empathetic/sympathetic responses, that it’s necessary to instruct them on how to be humane.”

    This is true. History shows us that all people of all races need to be instructed on how to be humane and that has largely been the goal of philosophy for at least 3,000 years. It is very dangerous to deny this and pretend that we are all born with this ability and do not need to be taught it. The result of that idea, of course, is that we then stop teaching it and Hell follows close behind.

  37. I found this post to be a great read and enjoyed and agreed with quite a bit of it, but I’m extremely uncomfortable with the idea that Cyborg having no genitals is a fault or that it means he poses no sexual threat; not all people with no genitals or sexual functioning are asexual. There is very little representation of people who are physically sexless in media, and most of them are completely inhuman; one who’s even partially human feels like something. We do exist, and many of us do have sex, for that matter.

  38. They do this, because Black people are real-life superheros (Michael Jordan, Mike Tyson, Michael Jai White, Serena Williams). So they give robot parts to black people in comics to make them appear weak and in need of prosthesis to equal their white counterparts. They did the same thing with Jax in Mortal Kombat.

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  40. Pingback: Let’s Talk About Cyborg | Green Lantern John Stewart Website

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  42. Thanks for the interesting perspective. It rendered the character and context which he has been used into a new frame. Justice League: War was trash and admittedly, I’d not thought of Cyborg in this way, however it changes my mind on how to read and understand how Cyborg exists in DC continuity entirely.

  43. Pingback: 2016: Nothing To Be Done (But Pay Writers) | The Middle Spaces

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