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Grumpy Old Fan | ‘Cyborg’ asks, what’s left of Victor Stone?

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | ‘Cyborg’ asks, what’s left of Victor Stone?

The comics I bought this week were full of ex-Teen Titans, and I don’t even read Teen Titans. Besides the usual mimbo antics in Grayson, Donna Troy and someone who looks a lot like Aqualad showed up as antagonists in Wonder Woman and Aquaman, and Wally West was mentioned but not seen in The Flash.

And then there was Cyborg, relaunching the Titan-turned-Leaguer under the guidance of writer David F. Walker, penciler Ivan Reis and inker Joe Prado. Last year, when a Cyborg movie was announced as part of Warner Bros.’ ambitious superhero slate, I thought DC Comics might well look to the original Marv Wolfman/George Pérez New Teen Titans stories as the foundation of any upcoming solo series. Now that series is here, and Vic isn’t quite the same character he was in the 1980s. The 2011 reboot severed his ties to the Titans in favor of an origin based around the Justice League. What’s more, 12 years of animated adventures as part of Teen Titans and Teen Titans Go! have no doubt affected readers’ perceptions.

Because I go all the way back to the beginning with Vic Stone and the rest of the New Teen Titans, it’s difficult for me to approach the character without being weighed down by 35 years of comics. Indeed, there are a couple of scenes in Cyborg #1 that seem like specific responses to foundational Cyborg moments from those early NTT issues. We’ll get to those in due course.

For now it’s sufficient to say that Cyborg #1 is a rather thoughtful, almost mannered, reintroduction. It’s more focused on the supporting cast and the bad guys than the main character, and because it’s not using those folks to define Victor, he comes across as somewhat bemused. As those years with the Titans have been replaced by a nebulous tenure with the League, it’s probably safe to say that Vic’s been through some stuff. The problem is, nobody in the story seems to appreciate how high the stakes have gotten.

SPOILERS FOLLOW for Cyborg #1 and for the free preview released as part of Convergence.

It may not be fair to say that nothing happens in Issue 1. There are battles on another world between the Technosapiens and the Tekbreakers, and Cyborg refers to a battle on Earth between the Tekbreakers and the Justice League. The latter was the subject of the free Cyborg sneak peek, so it helps if you’ve read that before you read this issue.

The plot kicked off there, when the Tekbreakers claimed that Cyborg “stole” his technology from them, and then killed him. Of course, Vic was revived, apparently by technology new to him. In the new Issue 1 he’s a little concerned about this, so he goes to STAR Labs with the hook that this was his third death. (His first resulted in the cybernetic parts and the second was when the Grid left his system in Forever Evil). The bulk of the issue involves various STAR personnel — including his father, Dr. Silas Stone, and colleagues Dr. Thomas Oscar Morrow and Dr. Sarah Charles (from the Wolfman/Pérez days) — studying Vic as he narrates internally about always being treated like an object. Eventually, Vic and Sarah (who, post-reboot, are childhood friends) leave the STAR building and are accosted by a protestor with a missing eye and prosthetic hand, before meeting a friend of Vic’s from high school.

Meanwhile, in another galaxy, the Technosapiens and the Tekbreakers have been fighting. The Technosapiens end up with Cyborg’s white-sound blaster (having learned about it through a fallen Tekbreaker) and, on the last page, vow to find out where it came from.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of that. Cyborg #1 is a decent first issue. It introduces all the characters, lays out the basic conflicts and relationships, and establishes a serviceable villain (or set of villains, depending on how things turn out). Certainly Reis and Prado, together with colorist Adriano Lucas, pack a lot of visual information into these 20 pages. The double-page spread that recaps Vic’s origins does so very efficiently, and the art team takes care to duplicate key sequences from the preview for those who might have missed it. Reis and Prado are definitely comfortable with Cyborg from their time on Justice League. I’d say it’s a sign of DC’s confidence in this series that they’re working on the character once more.

The key character conflict also comes straight from Pérez and Wolfman. As explained in early issues of New Teen Titans, and in detail in the first issue of the Tales of the New Teen Titans miniseries, Silas and Elinor Stone were scientists interested in exploring other dimensions. They wanted the same for their son, but the combination of their distance and familiar teenage pressures led Vic to the life of a star athlete. This, in turn, drove a wedge between parents and child. One fateful day, though, Vic was visiting his parents’ lab when an extradimensional creature broke through, killing his mother and injuring him critically. Only the cybernetic parts Silas grafted onto Vic’s body saved his life, but Vic resented his father even more for taking away his athletic aspirations. As Vic later explained to Raven in NTT #1, how could he compete against regular people? Silas ended up dying soon afterward (in NTT#7), but not before he and Vic reconciled.

What remains of that here is expressed in Silas’ behavior with Morrow: They talk about Vic like he isn’t there, leaving Sarah Charles to call them on it. Vic doesn’t like this, but he spends so much of the issue facilitating his dad’s studies that when the big emotional moment does come, it feels like an overreaction. Indeed, it falls flat compared to Sarah’s related outburst from earlier in the issue, mainly because at that time, Vic had told her “it’s okay.”

Also not helping is the fact that the current versions of the Stone family have been seen mostly as part of the larger Justice League narrative, and therefore only intermittently. Put another way, it wasn’t the main job of Justice League to tell stories about Cyborg and his dad. Accordingly, this subplot can’t rely on reader awareness of random scenes from the past four years. It has to be more meaningful to Victor, and the issue just isn’t that convincing in that respect.

Finally, the issue includes a couple of scenes addressing Vic’s perspective on his cybernetic implants. The first one involves a protestor — apparently STAR Labs is being protested because it’s either gone too far or hasn’t gone far enough — who’s missing an eye and has a claw-like prosthetic in place of a hand. He says Cyborg is “part of the problem,” explaining “You’re off saving the world with all your fancy tech. How could you possibly know what it’s like for the rest of us? What can you do with all that tech they used to rebuild you? ‘Cause I can’t even tie my damn show with this hunk of junk.”

It may be my old-man attitude showing, but Bobby the protestor reminded me immediately of a scene in New Teen Titans issue 8. There, Vic is wandering through Central Park feeling sorry for himself when he stops to pick up a baseball hit his way by some kids. As he hands the ball back to the boy, he cringes, imagining the boy reacting in horror to his metal limb. Instead, the boy thinks it’s cool — much cooler than his own prosthetic hand. From there Vic befriends the kids’ teacher, one Sarah Simms, who becomes a longtime Titans supporting cast member.

Here, though, Vic doesn’t get a chance to respond to Bobby, because they’re interrupted by Vic’s old friend-slash-football-rival Sebastian. There’s nothing physically wrong with Sebastian that we can see, but he appears to be close enough to the protestors that he’s able to sideline Bobby. Vic and Sebastian renew their bro bond instantly, so I presume we’ll see more of their reunion in Issue 2.

The Sebastian scene reminded me of Vic’s meeting with Raven in NTT #1, where he was still resentful about not being able to compete in sporting events. (Back then Vic did track and field.) With Sebastian, however, Vic seems to have gotten over his resentment. Either that or he’s just genuinely happy that someone wants to talk to him about sports.

Neither scene sat well with me. While some of that is bias for the old days, a big chunk of it remains the notion that Cyborg should be an advocate for the differently abled. The two interactions show him fumbling to connect with an ostensible kindred spirit and being “saved” by the intervention of a fellow ex-jock. Again, no doubt more clarification is on the way; but it didn’t help the flow of the issue generally. Bookended by scenes with the Technosapiens, Cyborg #1 goes long on character work and ends up not as nimble as it needs to be.

That said, this Cyborg series asks readers to invest in a character whose roots are arguably outdated and who has been thrust into the spotlight with a backstory which is necessarily vague. When Pérez and Wolfman created Victor Stone in 1980, they did so fully aware of the tropes and stereotypes of “angry” African-American characters, and emphasized that Victor was angry for reasons specific to his character.  Subsequently, Victor moved past his anger and resentment, to a point where it was no longer driving the character. When Geoff Johns and Mike McKone relaunched Teen Titans in 2003, for example, Vic was an elder statesman (relatively speaking). The Titans cartoons then took Cyborg in an entirely different direction, for different audiences. I do like what Walker has to say about the character, and how today’s technology can inform his approach.

Nevertheless, the Cyborg of 2015 has to balance the character’s surviving motivations against the reality that those motivations may have shifted significantly. After three rounds of cybernetic implants, Cyborg’s story is implying there may not be much left of Victor Stone. Similarly, four years into DC’s overall relaunch, the Cyborg series needs to figure that out for itself. So far, the new series has the pieces in place, but hasn’t quite gotten there yet.

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