John Semper Jr. is aware that a select few black superheroes hold a special place in the minds of fans. And when DC Comics hired him to write a new “Cyborg” series that debuted in September, he wasn’t sure DC’s highest-profile black character belonged in that category.
Cyborg’s pop-culture profile has been rising, from the character’s 1980 comic book debut (Cyborg was created by Marv Wolfman and George Perez) to a popular animated role in Cartoon Network’s “Teen Titans” and “Teen Titans Go” animated series to its membership in the Justice League (in the pages of DC Comics and in next year’s “Justice League” movie). But Semper said that he doesn’t think the character reached his potential for great storytelling — until now.
“I don’t think people have been given an opportunity to get to like him. I’m being 100 percent honest,” said Semper, whose writing/producing résumé stretches from “Fraggle Rock” to Marvel’s successful animated “Spider-Man” series of the mid-’90s. “I think he’s a fascinating character, but I don’t think the things that make him fascinating have really been front and center in the past. His place in the pantheon of black heroes right now, I don’t think is very high. My job is to make it very high.”
Semper’s “Cyborg” series — which has art by Paul Pelletier, Will Conrad, Timothy Green II and Allan Jefferson — puts more focus on Cyborg’s human alias (or what is left of it), Victor Stone.
Semper also dives into Cyborg’s relationship with his home town of Detroit, a place where Cyborg has always felt like an outsider, even before he became more machine than man. In “Cyborg,” you’ll see Victor Stone walking the streets trying his best to blend in (big hoodies help), taking in jazz concerts, flirting with S.T.A.R. Labs colleague Sarah and connecting with the disabled community of Detroit, which views Cyborg as their own personal hero.
“I think they’ve made [Cyborg] too much of a symbol, and they’ve never really made him a human being, and I’m really going out of my way to make him a human being,” Semper said.
Semper also created Variant, a character who debuts in the sixth issue of “Cyborg,” which is available Wednesday both digitally and in print. She’s a former spy named Scarlett Taylor who is caught in a deadly explosion while on a mission in Baghdad. Cyborg’s father uses the same experiment he used to create Cyborg to save her life, thus creating a female Cyborg.
“[Cyborg] has always been kind of alone as a cybernetic creature,” Semper said. “And now all of a sudden he has someone he can relate to that understands what the process is and what it feels like to be him.”
Semper uses Variant to give Cyborg something he has rarely, if ever, had: intimacy.
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen Cyborg in love before. We’ve certainly never seen him in bed with anybody before,” Semper said. “[Variant] brings out different aspects of his personality that we’ve never seen.”
As for being a black writer for a black superhero, Semper says superheroes of color, when featured in their own series, should have a voice behind them that feels authentic.
“I think it’s really important for there to be a person of color handling these kinds of characters because otherwise I think there’s a whole perspective missing,” Semper said. “It’s kind of sad that the question even has to be answered, but it’s very important. I can have [Cyborg] do things that a white writer [may not] feel comfortable having him do or having him say. Or may not even be aware of. This is the first time that I think [Cyborg] is being written not as a token. I’m writing from the heart here.”
Marvel has successfully turned many of its superheroes into characters of color (Miles Morales/Spider-Man, Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, Amadeus Cho/Incredible Hulk, Sam Wilson/Captain America). But what makes Cyborg special, according to Semper, and what makes him believe the character can reach the upper tier of black superheroes in the future, is that Cyborg is an original comic book creation, not a remixed superhero.
“I understand why they’re making a lot of the traditional characters suddenly have black alter egos. That’s great. It is a little funky. But I can’t really comment on that,” Semper said. “I think it’s very important for there to be a character [like Cyborg] that starts out black [and] has always been identified as black. … That’s what makes him so amazingly special in the pantheon of comic book characters in general. That’s one of the reasons I’m excited to be handling him.”