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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

I read Max Barry’s Machine Man on my flight home from California. I read it without a pencil in my hand. I’m an English professor, so that’s harder than it sounds. The pencil, according to some definitions, also makes me a cyborg.

Comic book artist Geoff Johns offers a better example: “If we have a cellphone and we’re texting on it, we are a cyborg — that’s what a cyborg is, using technology as an extension of ourselves.” Johns is drawing the character Cyborg into the recently rebooted DC universe, making the part-human part-machine superhero a founding member of the Justice League.

I don’t own a cellphone — I know, it defies the imagination — but I would be legally blind without my contact lenses. And in a great amount of pain without the metal capping my childhood cavities. The three earrings sticking out of my head I could survive without, but I wouldn’t be happy about it.

I was born the same year as the Doctor Who Cybermen, the first cyborgs to invade pop culture. I was also there when American TV found the technology to rebuild Colonel Steve Austin for the now shockingly low sticker price of $6M. Actually, my bedtime was 8:30 in 1974, so I was only allowed to watch the first half of each episode.

Marvel Comics’ first cyborg, Deathlok, booted up the same year. I bought the original Astonishing Tales issue from a rotating display rack in my 7-Eleven. I was in high school before DC cranked out their Cyborg, the least original superhero name since Superman. Robocop was way catchier, and the last of the cybernetic goody guys off the assembly line.

Apparently there’s something sinister about human-machine hybrids. Think of James Earl Jones breathing life into Darth Vader’s asthmatic voice box, or Arnold Schwarzenegger thumping around as a homicidal android disguised in a layer of artificially grown flesh. By the time I graduated college, Doctor Who’s Cybermen had upgraded themselves into Star Trek’s “resistance is futile” Borg.

DC revising their timeline to include Cyborg in the “original” Justice League — I wasn’t alive when the team formed in 1960 — is a welcome if obvious act of affirmative action, apparently necessary because the black Green Lantern got the boot. Cyborg was also the first African American cyborg. It’s a good metaphor, one that Dwayne McDuffie soldered to his retooled and newly black Deathlok for the 90’s reboot.

The Cybermen and the zombie-shuffling Borg are multiculturalism’s secret nightmare. The ultimate melting pot where even the pot gets melted in. A cyborg — an abbreviation of “cybernetic organism” — is all about mechanical miscegenation. It’s no coincidence that the term emerged during the Civil Rights Movement.

Isaac Asimov wrote about cyborgs for the first time in 1967. He imagined a future where robots and humans are indistinguishable. After replacing a human patient’s heart with a mechanical one, the surgeon (we don’t know he’s a robot till the end) wishes humans and robots would stop mixing. Asimov titled his short story “The Segregationist.”

The first time I saw Deathlok, I thought the human half of his head sported a tightly trimmed afro. The remains of my childhood comic book collection are piled into an ancient liquor store box in my attic. My favorite cyborg did not survive. So I can’t fact check my memory that his wife is black. They had a son too. This is back when the President of the United States thought abortion should be illegal except for cases of rape, incest, and interracial pregnancies. Barry Obama had just entered his teens.

It’s also not a coincidence that cyborgs entered the collective consciousness during the Vietnam War. Prosthetics technology always spikes with an increase of maimed soldiers. Technically there’s no difference between a cyborg and a prosthetics wearer. It’s an aesthetic divide. Cyborgs are sexy. Prosthetics are pathetic.

Max Barry illustrates the difference in Machine Man. After his narrator loses a leg in a work accident, he’s a victim, on object of pity. The best prosthetic available only heightens his social and self estrangement. But when he intentionally removes another limb so that he can sit comfortably in a matching pair of robot legs engineered to outperform their human equivalents, he’s an instant celebrity.

Cyborg stories always begin with mutilations. The first, Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 “The Man That Was Used Up,” is a supposedly comic tale of a Brigadier-General who returned limbless and featureless from his battles against the western “Bugaboo” tribe. I prefer Frank L. Baum’s twelfth Oz novel, The Tin Woodman of Oz, published near the close of World War I. In addition to the better known Tin Man, a Tin Soldier joins the cast. Both lost their human parts one enchanted axe or sword blow at a time, and employed the same tinsmith for replacements.

Actual maimed veterans of U.S. wars have to settle for Purple Hearts.

Even Tony Stark, wounded during a cold war excursion in communist Asia, gets to be Iron Man. Sure, removing the chest plate would mean instant death, but at least he can fly and shoot lasers from his palms. It’s the standard cyborg formula. Disabilities romanticized into cartoon super-abilities.

Austin Grossman, author of one of my all time favorite novels, Soon I Will Be Invincible, applies the formula to superheroes. His cyborg narrator woke up on an operating table after most of her memory and body were lost under the wheels of a runaway truck. Superheroing is the only job she can find, a desperate attempt to give her mangled life meaning. Her teammates aren’t so different.

Grossman explores “how violently altered the normal body is for a superhero” and “the larger theme of superhero life as trauma and recovery from trauma.” He explained to Girls Read Comics: “It seems like the trauma element gets glossed over a little bit in superhero comics; it gets glossed over even though it’s the motivating, defining attribute of the superhero. I guess it’s kind of the hopeful element of superhero comics; the idea of the trauma that shapes you is not just pain; it’s also the thing that makes you special.”

South African athlete Oscar Pistorius is a real-life example. The New York Times Magazine says Pistorius is nicknamed “Blade Runner” because of his J-shaped prosthetic legs, but it’s a more obvious allusion to the Philip K. Dick film adaptation and its nearly human robots. By some  calculations, Pistorius’ “posthuman” legs outdistance their meat-and-bone equivalents by twelve seconds per Olympic lap. But according to at least one biomechatronics expert, what makes Pistorius a “mutant” and “freak” is his innate athletic prowess and drive. The fact that he was born without enough calf bones and so had his legs cut off below the knees as an infant is beside the point.

But Pistorius and his superhero counterparts are the exceptions. Cyborgs are usually tragedies or horror tales. The first screen cyborg, the Automaton of Harry Houdini’s 1920 serial The Master Mystery, is a Frankenstein monster, a mad scientist who cut out his own brain and placed it inside a robot body. Never mind that the robot looks like a Sesame Street character. Audiences knew to be horrified.

DC’s Cyborg didn’t chose to become half-machine. He woke up on an operating table saved from death but lost to his former life. Leave it to comic books to turn that into a good thing. Now he even gets to be a founding member of the Justice League, right up there with Superman, Wonder Woman, and that guy who talks to fish.

That’s way better than Max Berry’s narrator. He ends up a little gray box with USB ports instead of limbs. I’m trying to get one of my colleagues to teach Machine Man in his first year writing course. I read it in paperback, which technically makes me a cyborg, if a laughably outdated one. I’m sure it’s available in Kindle and Nook editions, probably iPhone too. Whatever that is.

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