DC Comics’ Cyborg: Disabled Black Hero with a New Writer

Superhero (and related) comics are packed full of disability narratives, both good and bad, whether it’s the analogy between mutation and disability within the X-Men  (not Professor X, but mutation as disability) or characters who have “real” disabilities of various sorts, though they often deal with them in high-tech ways. I wrote about Daredevil and blindness, here’s a top-10 list, and here’s a list of lots and lots of disabled comics characters.

Among those characters is Cyborg. He’s black and disabled and an important character to many people in my community. Here’s some coverage from 2015 of the direction the storyline went and how disability was included. Here’s also a really interesting essay on the ways that black disabled superheroes tend to be physically altered to the point that they have trouble fitting in society, whereas white disabled superheroes get to remain fully included.

Last week, the writer Son of Baldwin alerted me to an interview from San Diego Comic Con with the new writer of the series, John Semper. As I read it, he downplayed the disability context of Cyborg.

Kanalz kicked off the presentation with “Cyborg,” introducing writer John Semper. The first issue of the series arrives in September, and Semper called the issue “so spectacular you won’t want to read anything else.” He recounted a conversation he had at the show, where an interviewer called Cyborg disabled. “I’ve never thought of him as being disabled,” said Semper. “He’s a superhero. You never think that Kryptonite makes him disabled. I think the biggest change for me in terms of the way I want people to perceive him. He’s not crippled in any way. He’s going to be doing superheroic thing. We’re going to focus in on his personality and his life and in doing so I think that will augment the notion of him as someone we admire. I did this 20 years ago when I reinvented Spider-Man for animation. You take a hero and you find his good qualities and you make him as interesting as possible.”

I was concerned about this. It seems to say that “good qualities” would not include disabled. Moreover, it suggested that he saw disability only as impairment – not an unusual position – rather than a core marker of identity. I reached out to him and, to my pleasure and surprise, he wrote back. I’ve quoted some of our conversation below, with permission.

It turns out that Semper was really talking about the previous Cyborg run, in which he felt disability was used to weaken the character. He wants to shift directions WITHOUT erasing disability.

My comments were actually an extension of my disagreement of how Cyborg has been handled in the previous 12 issues of his comic book.

If we consider him as “disabled,” then as a representative of disabled people, he was constantly being portrayed as someone for whom his disability was a major LIABILITY.

What I want to have happen now is to change that perception of him. I want him to be seen as someone for whom his disability is just a given and in no way prevents him from being a true HERO.

I don’t want his disability to stigmatize him as being “weak”, as it often was in the previous issues.

Semper then talked about his sister, who was blind, and her life of advocacy work. He also acknowledged that his words at Comic Con might not have come out the way he wanted them to, writing:

I’m sorry if my words on the panel seemed to imply the opposite of what I meant. Sometimes under the hot lights, the words don’t come out exactly as you want them to. And I appreciated the young woman’s question which gave me a chance to clarify my meaning. She and I also spoke immediately after the panel.

The good thing that came of this is that I am now more cognizant of Cyborg’s role as a symbol for people with disabilities and will certainly pay better attention to his representing them.

I wrote back to talk a bit about disability as identity, referring him to a piece I wrote about Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project, and the current state of assistive technology. Alice frequently likes to say, “We are all cyborgs.” I hope Semper reaches out to her and others I recommended as resources, as needed..

Semper finished:

The only thing I can add is that, after thinking about our interchange, it occurred to me that in my second issue of Cyborg, which I wrote many weeks ago (I’m currently writing issue four), I created and introduced a brand new character who is blind, and I didn’t even think to mention it to you. And he’s somebody who gives Cyborg great advice on how to live with the fears and insecurities that his condition has engendered within him.

In fact, last Monday I had a meeting with Geoff Johns, and Geoff is so excited about this character that he wants to see him become a recurring “mentor” to Vic.

Perhaps, from this dialogue of ours, I might have Vic realize that Cyborg is a symbol for people with disabilities and begin to take that role more seriously.

So that’s the interview. I’m enthusiastic about the future of Cyborg.

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