Why Justice League's Cyborg is so important to disabled fans

Contributed by
Nov 14, 2017

Comics and related media have a long and complicated history with the portrayal of disability. The most positive and well-known example is, of course, Marvel's Daredevil; but for every Matt Murdoch there is a Hector Hammond or Dr. Poison. Then there are the missed opportunities such as Legion and Hawkeye, whose respective disabilities have either been lumped under an ill-defined umbrella of mental illness or ignored altogether, respectively.

Victor 'Cyborg' Stone is, despite what the forums might say, a very important character. He might not be John Stewart or Vixen or even the Martian Manhunter. But Cyborg is a hero of color whose condition is visible, two things that many disabled characters in comics will never experience. He has more than earned his place in the Justice League through a combination of innate heroism and giving a voice to severely underrepresented groups, especially people who are coming to terms with a new diagnoses.

What sets Cyborg apart from many disabled characters is that he is constantly forced to choose between who he was before and after transforming. Is he a man or machine? Unlike Daredevil or Professor Xavier, he is not given the opportunity to simply incorporate his condition into his identity. His artificial half is seen as something dangerous.  Something a reader with a disability can very easily relate to -- ableism is deeply entrenched in our society, and we are bombarded with messages every day, some well-intentioned, some not, to be more human. To be normal.

Interestingly enough, Cyborg's attempts to pass as "normal" often end in failure. Prior to the New 52 relaunch of the DC comics line, Cyborg was given an organic body through the efforts of Nightwing and alien Omegadrome powers, but a battle with the Thinker left him back in his silver form. A variant on the Omegadrome abilities have returned in the current Rebirth run, with Cyborg being able to shift between human and machine with the aid of motherbox technology and basically all his processing power. However, this new power relies heavily on his emotional state-if he becomes agitated and loses focus, he quickly reverts to his cybernetic self.

While this could be seen as yet another example of ableism in comics-the message being that no matter how hard you try to be part of the world, you will always fail -- a part of what makes Cyborg such a great character is that he never stops trying. Speaking from the perspective of someone with autism, it is very hard to keep a disability in check when you are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Heroes like Daredevil fight through sensory overload and resume punching Bullseye as though nothing happened. Cyborg, meanwhile, with his overt "otherness" suffers actual consequences for losing focus. Cyborg questions what all this says about him, whether he is weak or a monster, and if he will ever be capable of fitting in. And while he may suffer setbacks, while he might over think and feel insecure, Cyborg battles through and slowly carves an identity that incorporates all aspects of himself.

Being part of this journey is incredibly important for disabled readers, because this is our journey. Too often disabled characters are "ready-made"; they've had the years of self-doubt and self-identification off-panel and off-screen. Cyborg is going through it as we go through it. We can truly feel represented.

We can feel represented even if, like Cyborg, we don't necessarily identify ourselves as disabled. In researching this article, I came across conflicting viewpoints. Some people choose not to let their disability affect their view of themselves; some feel it has changed how they see themselves due to the amount of support they need in their daily lives. And there are disabled people who spend their lives invalidating their conditions because their conditions can't be seen.

Cyborg provides an anchor to people who might be unsure about their status by finding a home in the Detroit disabled veterans community. He might not explicitly consider himself disabled, but he still finds kindred spirits in the disabled community. This is a very important message; the idea that no matter your situation or how you view yourself, there are always going to be people willing to help. You are not alone. No matter how isolated your disability might make you.

The character has come a long way since his introduction in 1980. He was the cool big brother of the Teen Titans; he was a mentor to young heroes and ally to the Flash; he became an alien battle mech and got better; he was one of the stars of the Teen Titans animated series. Now he's in the Justice League and showing us that we are not defective or broken. We are different.

Plus his arm is a sonic cannon. What more could you want?

The following people helped in the creation of this article. Thanks to all of them. Please follow: Lydia Rivers (@planet_bork), James Cole (@jcole00), Erin Hawley (@geekygimp)