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before Watchmen: Shotaro Ishinomori’s Cyborg 009

June 13th, 2012 by | Tags: , ,

Shotaro Ishinomori’s Cyborg 009 (ultra-cheap DVD, used book) has one of my favorite concepts for any story ever. Nine humans are kidnapped by the Black Ghost, a terror organization, and turned into combat robots. Each person gets a specific powerset — some can fly, others are telepathic — and a swanky new costume. Instead of being used to wreak havoc all over the world, though, the nine robots manage to escape from the Black Ghost, thanks to a helpful scientist, and decide to fight back against their masters. (The Skull Man is a pretty great look at the origins of the Black Ghost organization.)

It’s a simple concept, but a good one, nonetheless. The cyborgs go up against spies, terrorists, armies, other cyborgs, giant robots, and monsters. Cyborg 009 has a lot of super sentai appeal, but I like how easy it is to update the concept to the modern day. The series dates from the ’60s, of course, and features fears and anxiety that’s rooted in that time period. But the concept is just loose enough that as long as you have the Black Ghost eager to upset the status quo and nine humans who are upset at how they’ve been treated, you can apply it to almost any time period. Later this year, Kenji Kamiyama’s 009 RE:CYBORG drops, which brings the series fully into the modern day. There’s a trailer here, which I think does a great job of showing off how cool these cats are.

Part of the fun of the series is that each cyborg has a certain power. Joe Shimamura, Cyborg 009, is the hero (more or less) and can move at super-speed by activating a circuit. 001, Ivan Whisky, is telepathic, and also a baby. Jet Link is 002, an American that has been given the power of flight. Each of the nine cyborgs has a specialty, so they all have their chances to shine. They’re a team, and they have to figure out how to work together and battle the Black Ghost at the same time.

I love the costumes, too. The giant buttons that Ishinomori gave them are fantastic. They’re straight out of Walt Disney, and lend the whole affair a cartoony, child-like feel. The golden scarves are the perfect example of “too much” actually being “just enough.” The scarves are a great visual, especially when the characters are in motion, and are an iconic touch at this point. A certain class of hero needs a cape to project majesty, and the scarves do that while also being distinctive. The cyborgs look decidedly sci-fi, and actually pretty retro sci-fi. They’re from the future of 1966.

I like all the cyborgs, but 008 has a special place in my heart. He’s the black dude, called Pyunma, and the only actual soldier in the crew. His power is that he’s able to function extremely well underwater, both in terms of surviving indefinitely and deploying sea-based ordnance. Also, he’s drawn like this:


WHOA.

I hate this stuff. It’s racist and ugly, and stupid on top of that. Ebony White and that one Tintin story just make me angry, in part because that sort of racism is inexcusable but mostly because comics scholars are like “oh, listen, Will Eisner was a legend, how can he be racist? It was the ~times~!” Yes, the times when black people were demonized and dehumanized, ha ha, what a time! Mad Men!

But 008 is a little strange. For one, even though Ishinomori is using explicitly racist iconography, he isn’t bringing the same baggage to it that Eisner or others did. 008 isn’t a Stepin Fetchit type, and there’s not a hint of the “yassuh boss, we’s sick!” garbage that makes Ebony White such a Strong Black Character. He’s just a regular dude, and he acts like it. It’s like Ishinomori adopted the art style but missed out on the baggage that goes along with it.

I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason why 008 is more acceptable to me, and more normal than Ebony, is the subtext of Ishinomori’s story. The cyborg team is international, with members from China, France, the UK, the United States, Russia, Germany, and Japan. They vary racially among that mix, too. 009 is half-Japanese and half-American, which suggests that he’s the son of a military man and a Japanese woman to me, considering the time period. 005 is a Native American. Some of them are broad stereotypes, which varies depending on which incarnation of the series you’re reading, but they’re intentionally from all over the world.

Ishinomori’s exploring the idea of weapons run rampant and what it’ll take to put the world on the brink of war. It’s about money, and how chasing money can make people evil. He brings in an international cast, like Hideo Kojima did in Metal Gear Solid 4, because he wants to illustrate that war ruins everyone and everything. No one is safe, no matter whether you’re a rich ballerina in Paris or a poor farmer out in China.

Something about 008 and his attitude made me more willing to accept him than I would Ebony White or whatever that Tintin comic is. There’s a certain tension between 008’s looks, which have evolved over the years toward “actual human being” instead of stereotype, and the fact that Ishinomori is trying to show us how war affects all of us. I’m interested in that intersection. I don’t know how much contact Ishinomori had with black people, or where he first saw the racist iconography he employed. But I do think it is fair to assume that he employed that same iconography without the same cultural baggage as Eisner or Herge, who did it while reinforcing a very poisonous power structure. It looks like a duck but it quacks like a goose — what is it? It’s infuriating and interesting all at once, and if anything, makes me want to know more about the origins of the series and why Ishinomori made the choices he did. In a later series, produced after Ishinomori died, reinvented 008 as a guerilla soldier, instead of a refugee, which fits in even better with Ishinomori’s simultaneously global and personal focus.

I can see that Ishinomori was trying to tell a story that’s still progressive to this day, one that incorporates warmongering, weapons dealing, and the effects of war on a society. It’s about how war screws over all of us, from the people getting blown up on the front line to the people who don’t realize how often war is used in support of business interests. It’s about weapons possibly being used to prevent that outcome, and the importance of making humane decisions, rather than business-oriented ones, during the course of war. The cyborgs are weapons with free will and minds, and they make choices according to their own morality. That’s impossible with a nuclear bomb or drone. There’s a point there about where warfare and personal actions meet, but I can’t quite grasp it. Are the cyborgs us? Are they the leaders of the world? Just a cool superhero team? Something else?

It sorta bums me out to read a kids’ comic from the ’60s that gets that fact better than a lot of modern pop culture. The new Splinter Cell demo opens with Sam Fisher, American black-ops expert, torturing and murdering a terrorist on the Iraq/Iran border. Sam, if you aren’t familiar with the series, is a hero. The new Call of Duty features Oliver North as an advisor. Ollie North, the same man who funneled weapons to death squads and was involved in narcotics trafficking in order to fund his little hit squads and operations. You know where those drugs ended up? The inner city. He’s the guy consulting on a series that is increasingly less interested in showing the horrors of war, which it kinda sorta almost did at one point, and more interested in showing “AW YEAH!” moments. I mean, the news out of Iraq right now is that they’re pumping out enough oil to possibly make sanctioning Iran in the future easier without disrupting oil markets. I realize that holding up a children’s comic as a great example of social consciousness is stupid… but Ishinomori got it. It’s about money, and then men who control that money and want more of it, no matter what the cost.

It is what it is, I guess. Cyborg 009 is great, and I think Ishinomori has a strong message at the heart of the series. I hope the upcoming movie lives up to it, and I hope people keep reinventing it as time goes on. It’s a timeless idea, which is kind of sad, actually.

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20 comments to “before Watchmen: Shotaro Ishinomori’s Cyborg 009”

  1. The reason 008 looks as he does is exactly because the artist didnt have the same cultural baggage Eisner did. To him it was just another visual shortcut to be used like the squinty eyes on 005 or the big nose on 002, or the war paint on 006.

    Well, assuming he was typical of manga ka of his generation who just copied these images from American comics and cartoons without knowing what was behind them. He may indeed have spent his days going, “Yeah, this is gonna stick it to those black folks!” as he drew it. It’s certainly easier to think that when dealing with our discomfort over the ignorance of people back then.


  2. I hadn’t seen the 009 designs before. Right before you got to the page where we saw what 008 looks like, the “underwater” power had me ready to make a Flippa Dippa comment down here.


  3. hahaha ah man! mad men is awesome!


  4. Shotaro Ishinomori is definitely a name people into Japanese pop culture should know. Not only has this series maintained popularity, but he’s also responsible for the Kamen Rider and Super Sentai franchises that recently celebrated their 40th and 35th anniversaries, respectively. He trained under Osamu Tezuka directly, thus his simlarly cartoony art style.

    There are a few things Ishinomori seems to love. First off is cyborgs. I’d have to do some research to find one of his protagonist characters that’s an ordinary human, because all the ones I’m aware of are either cyborgs or androids (not counting his Legend of Zelda manga, obviously). Second is motorcycles. Lots of Ishinomori characters get around on bikes; they even factor into the names of two of his characters, Kamen Rider and Kikaider (a portmanteau of the Japanese word for machine, “kikai”, and “rider”). Third, his creations are often pitted against secretive criminal organizations. You mentioned Black Ghost, plus there’s Kamen Rider’s Shocker and it’s many successors, Kaikaider’s DARK, Himitsu Sentai Goranger’s Black Cross Army, and JAQK Dengekitai’s Crime. In fact, up through Kamen Rider ZX, all the Riders existed in the same continuity, and the usual explanation for a brand new Rider defending Japan was that the previous Riders were abroad fighting international branches of the evil organization du jour. It’s interesting to see how far he took his favorite themes; not only did they reappear in new series, but he continued working on Cyborg 009 until his death.

    I’m annoyed that I only ever picked up the first volume of the manga. I get the impression it didn’t sell well, as I was still buying manga at retail at the time, and nobody ever seemed to have volume two. I did watch the 2001 series on Cartoon Network, which became increasingly difficult as it was moved around the schedule. Of course, a lot of my love for Ishinomori’s work comes from the cheesy live action shows from the ’70s. I think the first one I watched was Kikaider. It’s crazy low budget; Kikaider busts through “walls” that are clearly single sheets of paper, monster masks seem to have been made with paper mache, and the minion robots are clearly wearing Converse high-tops. I, of course, love that kind of thing. So, apparently, did Japanese kids, considering the cache the properties he created still have. I’m not sure how accurate this analogy is, but if I wanted to explain how relevant tokusatsu heroes are in Japan to someone, I’d tell them Eiji Tsuburuya’s Ultraman and Ishinomori’s Kamen Rider are basically their Superman and Batman. I’d argue that it’s not just Cyborg 009, but Ishinomori’s entire body of work that remains relevant, due to its enduring popularity.


  5. Shotaro Ishinomori is a criminally under read and under translated author. He’s an older author not named Tezuka so he’s largely ignored by most. Which is sad because everything I’ve read of his is great. I would love to read Gilamesh or 009-1 in English but that will probably never happen in a fan doesn’t translate it. Bless the now defunct Tokyopop for being crazy enough to put out the first ten volumes of 009 at lest.

    Also in the 1979 version of the Cyborg 009 anime they made 008 purple for some reason.


  6. Man, I am super stoked for 009 RE:Cyborg later this year; it may not be GITS Stand Alone Complex season 3, but it’s easily the next best thing. And that one episode of the 2001 series where the shapeshifter (is that 003?) reconnects with his daughter has stuck with me for years.


  7. @William

    That’s exactly it. Manga artists didn’t mean anything by using blackface; it’s simply that there were no black people in Japan, so they had to rely on depictions and references from the West. And for their field, that meant the comics and animated films of the time. That meant blackface.


  8. Eisner is a legend, and absolutely deserving of the place he has in comics culture… but he fucked up. Why can’t people just admit he fucked up?

    I have the first Tokyopop trade of Cyborg 009 around here somewhere, I got it in a big box of random stuff along with a couple of those Galaxy Express 999 English translations that are actually of the second GE999 series. Gonna go dig it up and read it now thanks to this great article.


  9. Yeah, that ultra-cheap DVD? That consists of the first eight episodes, and that’s all that was released of the 2001 series on home video in the States, even though it was entirely broadcast (or at least most of it) on TV. Pains me to this day, as I never watched the arcs that were created especially for that series. Things like this are why the Internet exists, I guess.


  10. @ Lugh:

    For some idiotic reason, people tend to equate “Folks were pretty ignorant back then so you gotta accept it’ll be there” with “I fully support racism in all it’s forms”. No one thinks Eisner didn’t fuck it up.

    But then again, maybe Eiser was a big fucking racist. You’d think something like that would come out eventually, though.


  11. Man, what a coinkydink. I just picked up a used copy of the DVD with 8-epiosodes. Will have to look for more Cyborg 009, methinks.


  12. @William George: I’m not sure what you’re saying, exactly, because you’re just repeating my exact point back to me.

    @Gaijin D: You’re incredible. Thank you for this comment.

    @Jimmy: There’s a 009-1 anime series available on Hulu (I think? that’s where I watched it, anyway) and DVD. It was pretty okay. I liked the setting.

    @William George: No, the problem isn’t “Oh, you gotta accept it’s gonna be there.” It’s “Will Eisner wasn’t a racist, even though he did this thing that is racist by any other measure, because he’s a great artist.” Which is untrue. I’m not stupid enough to think that Eisner was out burning crosses and lynching coloreds, but Ebony White is an explicitly racist caricature. Not just that, either. He’s a racist caricature that was sustained long past the time when that sort of garbage was considered acceptable.

    @Rikkan: Yeah, I wish someone would have put out the entire series in a fancy boxed set. I mean, Witch Hunter Robin gets to go the distance and not 009? C’monnnnn.


  13. @Cleofis: The shapeshifter is 007 (he’s British and acts as a spy, you see).

    I’ve only read the first 5 volumes of the 009 manga, but I’ve heard about the ending, and it’s apparently in keeping with Ishinomori’s tradition of not just refusing to pull punches, but actually saving the roundhouse for the endgame. The one time I’ve had a chance to see him actually deploy this was the Android Kikaider anime (which BTW strongly reminds me of the Bill Bixby Incredible Hulk TV series – I think Kikaider’s opening theme even references the Hulk’s), and it was kind of like the series went immediately from punching me in the face to “the end”. But it was one of those perfect surprise endings – in retrospect, things had to go that way and it was the perfect conflicted note to end on.


  14. @david brothers: Actually, it occurred to me later that I completely failed to mention that he uses the theme of the hero having been intended to be a minion of the evil organization often. Cyborg 009 may be the first time (I’m afraid I’m not sure up on this), but it recurs in several Kamen Rider series (starting with the original, where Takeshi Hongo is kidnapped and turned into a cyborg by Shocker, only to escape before he can be brainwashed into following their orders), and Kikaider (Dr. Komiyoji is kidnapped by DARk which forces him to build evil robots, but he secretly gives Kikaider a “conscience circuit” so that he’ll have free will), off the top of my head.


  15. The fact that Ishinomori studied under Tezuka makes me wonder if he got the images of 008 straight from Tezuka as well, since at least in Black Jack, there are similar characters. They appear to be racist caricatures as well, but behave as normal people instead, at least most of the time.


  16. […] David Brothers talks about why he likes the classic Cyborg 009. […]


  17. […] Manga | David Brothers discusses the classic manga Cyborg 009, why the caricatured black character doesn’t bother him as much as Ebony White or the black characters in Tintin, and what he sees as the overall significance of the series: “I can see that Ishinomori was trying to tell a story that’s still progressive to this day, one that incorporates warmongering, weapons dealing, and the effects of war on a society. It’s about how war screws over all of us, from the people getting blown up on the front line to the people who don’t realize how often war is used in support of business interests. It’s about weapons possibly being used to prevent that outcome, and the importance of making humane decisions, rather than business-oriented ones, during the course of war. The cyborgs are weapons with free will and minds, and they make choices according to their own morality. That’s impossible with a nuclear bomb or drone. There’s a point there about where warfare and personal actions meet, but I can’t quite grasp it. Are the cyborgs us? Are they the leaders of the world? Just a cool superhero team? Something else?” [4thletter] […]


  18. […] Ishinomori adopted the art style but missed out on the baggage that goes along with it.” [4th Letter!] Pin It Filed Under: NEWS Tagged With: GeGeGe no Kitaro, JManga, Manga Movable Feast, Midtown […]


  19. […] Cramp, and illustrated by Trevor Hairsine. In case you missed it, David Brothers recently wrote a fascinating piece on the original. [Anime News […]


  20. Technically the Skull Man anime only does that. The manga version sets him up as the creator of Ninja Arashii and the backer behind several other heroes. 002 and Kamen Rider 01 even guest star in certain chapters.