What is it to be human? That is a question that has perplexed philosophers for thousands of years. According to the philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, “[A human] is a part of the unity not only of the human race but of the whole universe because the essence of both the universe and man is the spirit.” According to Aristotle, humans were gifted with a “reasoning soul”. Later Descartes would determine that human could be defined by our ability to think and recognize our own reasoning. He explained this in the famous quote, “I think therefore I am.” The question of our humanity has become more complex and human technology advances ever closer to the creation of the AI.- a thinking computer that will be able to recognize its own existence and advance beyond its own original programming. Like all great questions, it is in fiction that this question is best explored. For instance, this is often the theme of Isaac Asimov’s robot series of books. In comics, this exploration of the tenets of humanity is being best explored in the current Cyborg series, by genius wordsmith, John Semper Jr. Semper Jr. is presenting a side of Cyborg’s humanity that has been rarely touched upon since the days where he was shepherded by the legendary Marv Wolfman. No longer is Cyborg simply the stoic member of the Justice League that often stood alone aboard the Watchtower. Now, Cyborg is being fleshed out into a complex character that allows readers to explore the measure of humanity.
So, who is Cyborg? Cyborg was created by Marv Wolfman in Wolfman’s revival of the Teen Titans. Cyborg was a star football player, whose real name is Vic Stone. Stone was caught in an explosion that mangled his body, and almost killed him. For better or worse, Vic Stone was saved by his father, Silas Stone. However, Vic’s life was saved by being turned into a cyborg, which means Vic is now more machine than man. Later, his origin was retconned during the New 52 initiative. Now, Cyborg is considered a founding member of the Justice League. I had the succinct pleasure of talking about Cyborg with the writer of his current ongoing series, John Semper Jr.
Note: Mr. Semper Jr.’s responses were transcribed from a recording.
Can you please describe your writing process?
It’s really hard for me to describe what I do for I tend to do everything but write. I’ll walk around and do things like go to the grocery store, go out with friends, or up to Universal and look at the light show like the Harry Potter light show. All the while I’m thinking about my characters and what I want them to do and how the story structure is and I start plotting out. If I think of something amazing and I don’t want to forget something that’s absolute gold I will write down on maybe a scrap of paper or card or something like that. I’m the kind of writer who figures out the story from beginning to end before sitting down to write so that when I actually do write, it actually goes very quickly because I have the story figured out already. Then I just go through the necessary step of getting it on paper. Once the story is on paper it goes to DC and then my editors will react like “what the hell is this?” or something along those lines and then we all kind of work it out somehow and they give me some notes and I incorporate their notes into what I’ve written and it all comes out alright. There’s always a process and it’s never an easy process. The art is then done and the words are married to the art. Then it’s kind of a whole other thing because suddenly you see things you could have said differently or you see errors, there can be a lot of errors I’m amazed by how many sometimes! Sometimes an artist will decide to leave a panel out because he thought I might have given too many panels to a certain situation and he could do it in fewer panels and sometimes that might leave a word bubble floating with no real place to be so I’ve encountered that. You find typos and all kinds of things can go wrong so that’s another part to be what I consider to be the writing process. Once you get the artwork back you look at how it all goes together and then you make corrections and sometimes the art is tremendous in terms of clarification.
I’ve worked with brilliant artists for the most part on Cyborg. Paul Pelletier and Will Conrad are two of my favorites. Allan Jefferson I have really enjoyed working with as well.
Cyborg is about to receive heavy publicity/visibility from his inclusion in the upcoming Justice League movie. Have there been any editorial edicts from DC due to this inclusion that has been incorporated into your stories?
No, I’ve had a tremendous amount of freedom for better or for worse so it’s pretty much what you see on the paper is representative of what I wanted to do. In the beginning, I met with Geoff Johns as well as my editors and Geoff had a pretty clear vision of what he wanted me to do in issues #1 and #2 But no, they’ve been very good as far as letting me do what I’ve wanted to do and I’ve had an amount of creative freedom. I think the most difficult aspect of doing this comic book for me was jumping in the very beginning delivering two comic books a month and I think we did that for about three months maybe four. That’s a lot of story thinking up and a lot of writing and that was probably the most difficult part of doing this. So that was really the toughest part of doing this. I am very excited that Cyborg is going to be in the Justice League movie; I always like to be in the cutting edge of the pop cultural zeitgeist. I’ve been on the cutting edge of this one and I anticipate the Justice League movie and I hope it’s going to be a huge success and I’m very proud of the work I’ve done on Cyborg leading up to it.
Most heroes have a flaw/weakness. What would you say is Cyborg’s?
Well, that’s easy. I mean this was given to me pretty much. The fact that he doesn’t know how much of him is still human and how much of him is this cybernetic creature. Also, the twist that I added was what is the alien technology that he’s been married to and it has it, in fact, turned him into a monster? So, in addition to just the confusion as to whether or not he’s human, I added this whole element of “Am I, in fact, beneficial to the human race or am I a danger?” I don’t know if we get to explore that as much as I would have liked to in this run but I always want to know what my characters fear and I think I explored that a little bit especially in the beginning of this particular run. I think for a lot of readers one of the problems they might have with the character is that they are not familiar with the current incarnation of Cyborg and they are very rooted in the past. I hear a lot “I liked Cyborg back when he was in the Teen Titans.” Well this is a different character in a way and his origin is a bit different and the kinds of things he worries about are different. So, I think there are a lot of people who are not as familiar with what this current Cyborg is all about. He has a lot of concerns about what he has become with being married to this mysterious alien technology. He’s part human and part something else and he really has no idea what this something else is. He knows it gives him a certain amount of power but what else does it do to him? I think that is an important aspect of Cyborg that a lot of people overlook.
How much of Cyborg is still Vic Stone?
Cyborg doesn’t know and that’s what he is exploring. We didn’t get to explore the monster side of things like “am I still human or am I a monster?”, but we did get to explore “am I still Vic Stone?” and even more importantly “do I have a soul?” and that gets into a whole kind of other [thing] where you’re trying to figure out what a soul is and what does it mean to have a soul? Certainly, religion is an aspect of that like in the big battle scene [which] takes place in symbolically a church. So, it’s an interesting question and one he hasn’t answered yet although I do feel that at the end of my run he will be a lot closer to understanding whether or not he is Vic Stone or if it even matters really, but that’s another question.
One great aspect of your series is that Cyborg is patrolling Detroit. How does adding this street-level aspect to Cyborg add new facets to his character that are not touched upon in his Justice League appearances?
Well, every superhero that I have ever loved was inexorably linked to a city. Superman had Metropolis, Batman had Gotham City, Spiderman had the very recognizable New York, and Fantastic Four also had New York so it occurred to me that was part of the reason, again, people [are] not connecting with Cyborg or understanding Cyborg. I think a lot of that had to do with not really knowing not only his origin but where he really did come from. In fact, I incorporated that into his own story where he doesn’t really understand where he came from. He was raised as a wealthy kid by these two scientists. So, I decided that he would suddenly discover that he was inexorably part of this city, that being Detroit, which is, in fact, the city in which all of his stories are set that were given to me. So, by exploration of his connection to the city it raises all kinds of other things like how it helps him become a man which I think every hero must do. Cyborg, in my run, has become more in touch with the common man and he has become more connected with his city and understanding his city and understanding what his city brings to him. He is a black man in Detroit and there is a certain baggage that comes with that. There’s a certain awareness, cultural awareness, that comes with that and so by exploring the city, I think, we had an excellent opportunity to explore the man himself and he as well to explore himself. So, I’m glad you liked that aspect of the series because it’s certainly been the thing that I have brought to the series and I’m very proud of it. I’m very proud of my run in Cyborg.
What is Anomaly? Why is it the perfect antagonist for Cyborg? How is it a reflection of our hero?
Initially, when I jumped into the river of the series, we wanted a big ending! My editors were suggesting that the big ending might be that this villain who is overseeing everything was his mother. But in fact, there was already a bunch of stories of Vic’s deceased mother in many different forms and I didn’t really think that brought anything to the series. So, I started thinking, “what if it’s some variation of his father?”, but since he already had issues with his father I thought that might exasperate it and I think that is one of the reasons he is the perfect antagonist for Cyborg. He is sort of a cybernetic clone of the father so he brings a lot of the baggage that Cyborg already has with his father. Then, of course, he is this mean badass villain with all kinds of cybernetic powers that match Cyborg pretty effectively. So, that is how he’s a reflection of our hero, the cybernetic side. I think the biggest issue is Anomaly is also wrestling with these questions, like what does it mean to be a little bit human and a little bit machine and he’s just deciding he’s going to renounce his human side altogether and embrace his machine side and simply eliminate the human race. He sees the machine side as ultimately being the perfect world. Even by the end of my run, as I’m writing the last issue with Anomaly, it’s going to be interesting to see him grow as an intellectual mind and realize things he didn’t realize before. So, I think he’s been a really good villain for this series. I think Anomaly being the bad guy for this entire season has really helped to sharpen Vic’s perception of things. That’s why I think Anomaly is great for Cyborg.
Recently, Exxy has been added as a kind of sidekick to Cyborg. Please explain the reasons for his inclusion in the series. Which attributes does he bring out of Cyborg?
Exxy was something I wanted to do early on and I had to wait a bit to do him because I couldn’t get started. For me, I really felt like Cyborg needed something that humanized him. He needed somebody playing off him where we could get a better sense of Cyborgs personality because he seemed to be lacking in personality when I inherited him. There didn’t seem to be any way that a personality had been defined and I thought it would be interesting to give him an opposite so that they become sort of an odd couple and we get to experience more of who Cyborg is just based on how he reacts with this other character. Also, Exxy always brings out the human side of Cyborg and I think that’s a good thing. I think when you have this superhero, if you’re writing him badly, there’s a tendency to rely too much on just the powers, the super powers and super villains. I actually think that is what is killing a lot of comic books and I really wanted to explore more of the human side of the character and make him more relatable. Exxy has been the conduit through which I’ve been able to do that with Cyborg. I really love the interaction between the two of them and I think he’s been a really strong addition to the Cyborg series.
Can you please discuss the naming of Narcissus? Why has the character chosen that name?
The naming never really made it into the comic book and this is where the interaction with editors becomes significant. Right off the bat when I introduced Black Narcissus I wanted to explain who she was and what her real identity was and why she was doing what she was doing. I literally wanted that right at the beginning, and my editor, Harvey Richards, said “well we don’t do that at DC. We don’t just explain who characters are; you really have to save it and we really want you to reveal that down the line.” So, I didn’t get to explain all of that right up front and by the time I really did get around to explaining who she was I had to do it in a hurry. Her husband had been in fact murdered by this high-tech hitman so she ended up using this technology she had access to and turn herself into a street level superhero, so that when the hitman showed up again she would be ready. That all did get explained but I didn’t have time or room to explain her naming and how this was part of it. The black narcissus is actually her favorite flower and when her fiancé got abducted, that was the flower he was bringing to her and it was found at the scene of his abduction. So, it held significance for her and what she was doing. I never got to explain that because sometimes you just run out of room with a comic book and there just isn’t room for extra dialog bubbles and I thought that I would maybe get around to explaining it further down the line. I don’t know I might at some point. So yeah, that is the reason for her name Black Narcissus. Maybe I’ll try to squeeze it in the next issue somehow, we’ll see.
What can readers expect from future issues of this series?
Well I am writing right now the final development of the Anomaly story. That is what you can expect. Issue 18 is when it all wraps up and I just handed in the final draft of issue 17. I’m just about to start issue 18 and you can expect everything to get explained and resolved and that’s I think going to be well worth paying attention to. Everything has lead up to this point to one big moment. Prior to that, I guess this isn’t out yet, we finally found out who this voice is in Anomaly’s head and where she has been leading him. Why she has been calling him and that big machine at the end of the current issue you see transports them into a giant vortex, well that all leads to something that kind of gets off to a whole separate adventure and story arc. Everything will end with issue 18 so you can look forward to that and its going to be a pretty big deal.
All and all I love Cyborg. I love how the series is played out and my hope would be Cyborg, because of the Justice League movie, becomes extraordinary well known and people will come back and look at some these issues and really get excited about them because I think we’ve done a really good job. I think the art has been spectacular with a few exceptions and I think the whole thing has really been a blast. I thank DC for the opportunity to do this character and for the opportunity to add to his mythos and I look forward to doing more exciting projects in the future. Robots have been my life and while I’m writing Cyborg I’m also writing an animated series that will be out next year. We are doing it now and it’s going to be on Netflix. It’s called Robozuna. Basically, about a boy and is robot where robots are trained to fight against one another. He and his robot get involved in this sport. That’s going to be a prominent series on Netflix. My entire year last year and so far, this year have been writing robots and cybernetic creatures. May that continue! Thanks for reading Cyborg!!
THANK YOU, JOHN SEMPER JR. FOR TAKING THE TIME TO ANSWER ALL MY QUESTIONS!!!!
Special thanks to Joey Lynn Berthiaume for transcribing Mr. Semper’s recording for me!