Last January, I posted a syllabus for a “Comics and Race” course that I constructed. At that time, I had not read any of David F. Walker’s work. A few months later, I read Nighthawk, and I was blown away. Nighthawk led me to other series by Walker such as Shaft, Luke Cage, Power Man and Iron Fist, and his recent work Bitter Root. When I posted the #lukecagesyllabus, I knew I had to have Walker’s work on it. The more I read, the more I think about constructing a syllabus centered around Walker’s work. As I continued to read Walker’s work, I became more and more engaged, seeing countless similarities between him and Dwayne McDuffie, specifically in his Cyborg run and McDuffie’s Deathlok. Today, I want to look at some aspects of Walker’s Cyborg: Unplugged (2016).
Walker’s Cyborg is not an origin story in the sense that it chronicles how Victor Stone became Cyborg. Rather, it’s a story about how Victor Stone becomes Victor Stone. It’s a story about a man seeking his own identity and having others understand he is a man. It’s a story for the political moment and the Black Lives Matter’s movement. In short, it’s an important story about representation and humanity.
Speaking with Hannibal Tabu in 2017, Walker talked about the importance of Cyborg to DC readers. He hones in on the fact that Victor Stone is not a cyborg; he is first and foremost a man. Speaking about his time working on Cyborg, Walker states,
There was a lot of struggle. I was like, “You don’t have enough Black characters, so you have to be cognizant that this character means more than you think he means.” It’s not the story about, “Is he more man or is he more machine?” He is more man. If he was 99% machine, he’s still gonna be more man. The story is about, he can see his own humanity, it’s always gonna show through. I know because comics meant more to me than they probably should have. Black characters meant more to me than they probably should have, because there were so few of them.
Walker’s comments here speak to issues I have been covering on my blog, specifically this past year when looking at McDuffie and MD Bright’s Buck Wild in Icon and Christopher Priest’s run on Power Man and Iron Fist.
Writing about Walker’s Cyborg, Christian Hoffer notes, “One of the core elements that jumps out in Cyborg is how quickly Walker establishes the character as a human being.” After dying and regenerating, Victor heads back to STAR labs so his father Silas and Thomas Marrow can run tests on him to see how he managed to come back to life. This sequence occurs in the first issue, and the whole time that Victor plays back what happened, Silas and Thomas stare in amazement, speaking with each other and occasionally asking Victor a question. They focus on Victor’s regeneration and the causes, not on Victor.
During the examination, Victor stands to the side or behind the scientists. Eventually, Sarah Charles points her finger at the men and proclaims, “Victor is here in the room with us right now. Can the two of you at least have the courtesy to acknowledge that?” This panel comes at the bottom left of a two page spread, and Sarah points her finger out of the panel, not just posing the question to Silas and Thomas but posing it to us as readers as well. Ivan Reis’ next panel zooms out to show everyone from above. Silas, Thomas, and Lori Carmichael all stand gathered together while Sarah and Victor stand off to the side. Immediately in the middle of the two pages we see a closeup of Victor’s face, with a half smile, gazing out at us, as he says, “Sarah, it’s okay.”
Moving from Victor, three panels line the right side. In the first, Sarah asks Victor, “How is any of this okay? You are not a piece of machinery Victor! You’re a human being.” As she walks away, she asks, “Or am I the only one who can see that?” The final panel shows the silhouettes of Silas, Thomas, and Lori as Victor, in full detail, looks at them dejectedly and walks out of the room. This sequence, and the framing within the issue, drives home the focus of Cyborg, Victor Stone’s humanity. The series works to show how Victor Stone exists, not Cyborg.
Later, Victor returns to get some blood work done. Sitting on the examining table while Thomas and Silas stare at images on the other side of the room, he think about his mother and father used to often argue about him. In one panel, we see a closeup of Silas and Thomas with Victor in the background. Here, he tells the reader, “They would talk about me, but never to me. It was like I was invisible.” This thought makes Victor mad and he screams at the two men, telling them to shut up and listen to him. Victor’s feelings of invisibility here relate to his family, but they can also be taken in a broader context of racial identity, especially when considering his thoughts that follow.
Victor gets Silas and Thomas to look at him, and he feels less invisible, but once they see what he wants to show them, he becomes invisible again. This turn causes Victor to continue thinking about his invisibility. He contemplates, “Being more machine than man brings a lot of unwanted attention.” Here, he begins to move away from his parents into societal reactions to his appearance. He continues by thinking, “Some people stare. Some people look away in horror. I hate both.” People do not know how to react to him. They see him, in his cybernetic form, as something to be gawked at or afraid of.
These reactions, though, make him feel more human. He thinks about how he hates to feel invisible because at those moments he does not even exist. He continues, “It’s better to be the monster in the room that everyone fears or pities than to be the thing they don’t even see. I hate being invisible.” Here, of course, Walker pulls at Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. In the opening paragraph, the eponymous narrator states,
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie extoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.
From the outset, IM asserts his very existence by point out he is “flesh and bone, fiber and liquids” with a mind. Those who encounter him, though, see beyond him, look through him, and see the surroundings. They do not see him! Victor feels the same way. He wants to be seen as a man, not a machine.
Victor leaves the lab and goes to see Sarah. He tells her, “It’s just. . . I don’t know what I am.” The use of “what” and not “who” signals that Victor does not, at this point, see himself as human. Instead, he views himself as others view him, a cybernetic entity. He looks agonizingly at Sarah, and in one panel she embraces him, comforting Victor in his anguish. She sees him as Victor Stone, not as Cyborg.
These moments all occur in the first issue, and the story evolves from there. Stay tuned next post for more on Walker’s Cyborg. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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