The man-machine: writer Morgan Hampton on finding the human in Cyborg
Cyborg stars in his own solo miniseries this May, written by Morgan Hampton and illustrated by Tom Raney. The new book, part of the Dawn of DC relaunch, sees Victor Stone return home to Detroit following a family emergency. He's surprised by how much he enjoys going back to his old stomping grounds, but this homecoming is not without danger as an especially personal threat looks set to change Vic's life forever.
Hampton and Raney's six-issue story kicks things off with a bang, with Cyborg taking on two familiar foes. Matching the big, bombastic action sequences are some grounded emotional scenes that make the adventure an intensely intimate one that builds upon years of background and characterization for Vic.
In an exclusive interview with Newsarama, Morgan Hampton reveals the origins behind the new Cyborg series, shares his own personal history and appreciation for the fan-favorite superhero, and teases what readers can expect as Cyborg launches May 16, with an unlettered preview of the first issue accompanying the interview, illustrated by Raney and colored by Michael Atiyeh.
Newsarama: You come out the gate swinging! Why did you want to jump right into the action?
Morgan Hampton: It's two things. One, is that it's six issues, so we don't have a lot of time to do things. Two, what we wanted to do was set the tone right off the bat that Cyborg is here, this is what we're dealing with, we're not messing around, and this is different from what you've seen before. To do that within the first few pages sets us up pretty well.
Of all the villains to choose from for the opening, why did you choose Gizmo and Mammoth?
I think they're goofy and they're just fun! They're classic Teen Titans villains and I grew up watching the animated show. With those two specifically, I think they're just fun to play with, and having a nice moment before things get heavy in the book was also necessary. The stakes are obviously high but they're regular superhero stakes that you get at the beginning of books that are also a little playful, because they're also a little dumb. And that's fun to play with.
With the Teen Titans show being one of your major gateways into this character, do you have Khary Payton's voice in your head when you're writing Victor Stone?
Oh yeah, absolutely! He's iconic. I've got his voice in my head, especially with the "booyahs". There isn't going to be one booyah per issue but, whenever I do have one, it's definitely his voice in there. I think he's on par with [Kevin Conroy] as the Batman voice, at this point, for Cyborg.
One of your mentors in the Milestone Initiative was Cyborg co-creator Marv Wolfman. How was it working with Marv and did he offer any insight on Cyborg that most readers might not be privy to?
To answer your question about what it's like, it's intimidating, for sure. [laughs] Marv didn't want to jump on something story-wise, even if I was doing things differently than when he wrote it. He was like, "This is your story. You do your thing." Marv mostly wanted to set me on the straight path on more logistical things that I might not have known, in terms of how many panels on a page, making certain panels bigger that you want to breathe more, all that kind of stuff.
That made the level of intimidation a bit better. We weren't necessarily talking about story but, at the same time, I think if I was writing something really bad, he would've stepped in, but he didn't so… [laughs]
Were there any threads that David F. Walker laid out in Cyborg's previous solo series that you wanted to follow up on?
David's actually kind of like a mentor figure for me. When I first started writing comics, he was someone that I cold emailed asking, "How do I do what you do?" and he was nice enough to answer and give me some insight.
I don't know if I did anything intentionally to tie things together. I know his run was a little transhumanist and those themes. I don't know if I did that intentionally; if it's in there, it's because I like those things.
My intention with the story is to focus more on the human side of Victor and I think [Walker's] run did that as well, not with the plot but expanding upon his character. What I want to do with this run is move past that age-old question with Vic, "Am I a man or a machine?" Why can't it be that he's both and how does he navigate that, because that's difficult. He's essentially got metal appendages - yeah, they've got superpowers attached to them - but he lost like 70-80% of his body. How does he navigate that while still having [his mind and identity]? That's really what I wanted to focus on.
Speaking of the human element, there is no one who hovers more over Vic's life than his father, Silas. How did you want to address that relationship?
I think what's interesting about the daddy issues between Silas and Victor is that it's all tied into the power of choice because Silas was a bad father before Vic was Cyborg, but he also turned Vic into Cyborg. I guess you could say he did the wrong thing for the right reasons but, when you already don't have the basis of having a good relationship with your son, that's not going to be the easiest relationship to recover from afterwards. I think that's what Cyborg is dealing with and has always dealt with.
What I wanted to hone in on with this story is that Cyborg had his choices taken away from him. Obviously, it saved his life but, if you read Tales of the Teen Titans with Cyborg's first solo story, the first thing from Cyborg is, "Why didn't you let me die?" That's heavy and that's something that I want to navigate with this. Over the years, it's always been "I hate my dad because he did this to me" but I want to contextualize that and bring Vic to a point where he can move forward from that.
I don't know if we've seen too much of that before. They're still butting heads but can Vic move past what happened and move forward?
How was it working with Tom Raney, especially in designing the look for Victor? When we first see him, he's wearing a tracksuit like Joivan Wade does as the character in Doom Patrol.
I wasn't super-duper involved with the look. Me and Marquis [Draper], my editor, wanted to put Vic in clothes. I did the DC Power short that came out a few months ago and he was wearing a tracksuit thing there but it was sleeveless and more navy blue. I just assumed we were going to be doing something like that but Marquis sent me over an email - I didn't even know they were working on another redesign - and it's what everyone ended up seeing. It's incredible and I'm 100% here for it. The Doom Patrol has orange jackets, like, Robotman has one, so I'm probably going to make some jokes about that.
Working with Tom is cool! I've self-published a little before I got to this point and working with the Milestone Initiative and every artist is a little different. Early on, I was told to give your artists as much room as possible to do things the way that they want to do them because obviously they need to have agency as well. It's visual and they're better visual storytellers than some of the writers are. I was a little surprised that Tom actually wanted more direction. I give Tom a lot of reference photos when I'm having a hard time describing something with words.
With character designs, he wants references for those too and that makes it fun as well. It's already a collaborative thing and it subverts what I was expecting going into it. I was like "Tom's going to take what I have and run with it" but Tom wants a little more input, which is really fun too.
How was working on the DC Power anthology and then pivoting to this larger story?
I keep going back and thinking about that, the past year and a half with the Milestone Initiative too. I didn't think any of this was going to happen. Once I got into Milestone, I thought it was a talent development thing, I'll do a story, and that was probably going to be it.
In the interview, I remember them asking what characters outside of Milestone that I'd like to write. I guess I was pitching Cyborg at the time but I didn't mean to. I was like "I love Cyborg and here are all the reasons why because all these things haven't happened in the comics yet. He's got all this potential." It was all the stuff we're going to see in this book, basically, that I was telling them in this interview.
When I eventually reached out to Marquis last summer after the Milestone Initiative ended to see if there were any opportunities, he was like, "Yeah, we're doing this book DC Power and I really liked what you said during your interview for the Milestone Initiative about Cyborg. Would you like to write a Cyborg story?"
When I did that, the series was not on the horizon for me - they were probably talking about it internally - so I wasn't attached to that. I think a lot of freelancers try to do the best they can on what they're currently working on to get their next gig and that's what I was doing. I was like, "I'm going to knock this out of the park so I can get something after this" whether it was another eight-pager or whatever. I definitely wasn't expecting a series; that is still shocking to me, but the rest is history.
A couple months later, Marquis hit me up and was like "We're doing a Cyborg series," which I had heard about but wasn't attached to. He was like "Do you want to do it?" and I was like "Yes!"
Between the animated series and Geoff Johns' comic book run on Teen Titans, what was it about Cyborg that made you so passionate about the character?
One thing: representation is important. Growing up, I was 10 or in my early teens around that time and there wasn't as much Black representation in comics as there is today. Cyborg is one of those guys where I thought, "This guy looks like me!" On top of that, I have a bleeding disorder called hemophilia. Basically, I'm the opposite of Wolverine, I have no healing factor whatsoever! Seeing a Black person with a disability is something that resonated from a very early age and, on top of that, he just looked dope and was cool. I just wanted to be Cyborg.
While you've got big emotional stakes to ground the story, there are also plenty of fun set pieces. How is it balancing those tones?
I think that's important because, I think above all else, comics should be fun. They've definitely evolved to a point where the medium can take itself more seriously than it used to. At the same time, some of these characters are goofy and it's kind of hard to take a Gizmo and a Mammoth super-duper serious in a scene like that, so you play it out because that's what they are. You don't want to be disingenuous with that.
This series is launching at a time when the Titans are the premier superhero team in the DCU. They are the tip of the spear and Cyborg is a huge part of that. How was it acknowledging Cyborg's place, not only among the Titans, but in the DCU as part of this story?
That's something that's just personally really cool for me because, before I got to this point, I was always clamoring that we should move some of these characters up in the spotlight. I love the trinity but you've got this rich roster of characters who are built to kind of take this next step but we hadn't seen it at this point. So it's really cool to see that.
With Cyborg being a part of that, it's cool because one of my issues with Cyborg up until this point is that he's always been a character that's been around, like in the backs of panels, but the agency hasn't always been there. He'll be incapacitated in the first few pages or he'll be the guy in the chair and now he's actually got agency, he's actually got stuff to do, and he's going through some heavy things that humanize him a bit. It's really exciting!
What else can you tease about Cyborg to get readers excited as the first issue is ready to launch?
I'll give a little mood board because that's what I did when I pitched this series and I'm in film school so I do this stuff all the time. It's a little bit of Severance, a smidge of RoboCop, and a little bit of Black Mirror, specifically, an episode called San Junipero. It's Severance meets RoboCop meets San Junipero meets Motown, how about that?
Cyborg #1 is written by Morgan Hampton, illustrated by Tom Raney, colored by Michael Atiyeh, and lettered by Rob Leigh. It's published on May 16 by DC Comics.
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