Thematic Research: The Cyborg

November 15, 2011

I got my folders back today along with my submission essay for last module, so I figured I might post part of it here for the hell of it. I didn’t want to put it up before as it was still being marked – eep – but the blog’s been feeling a little light on theory stuff lately and some of the research I covered was pretty interesting  – well if you’re as much of a nerd as me that is ;)

Bits of it retread older territory and it is part of a larger whole, but hopefully it should standup on it’s own. It’s a little longer than what I usually post so I’ve thrown some pictures in to break it up a little and added a few additional links for good measure.


During a trip to London in July, I happened to visit the British Library and their ‘Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as you know it’ exhibition running at the time. By the entry, visitors were met with an introductory statement: ‘The imaginary worlds of science fiction can inspire us to re-examine our own world.’ Besides being an apt summary of what I respect about the genre as whole it is of particular pertinence to what I’ve discovered of cyberpunk and its subject cyborg technologies in my research.

The term ‘cyborg’ itself was coined by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline in 1960 in their proposal for an enhanced astronaut able to survive in space without an externalised oxygen environment.*1 However this is predated by the term ‘cybernetics’ – frequently used in description of the latter – coined in 1948 by Norbert Weiner, broadly covering a ‘unified science of communications and control theory’ the more startling detail being that it was devised for an anti-aircraft predictor.*2 It’s between worryingly militaristic origins such as these and idealistic intentions of Clynes and Kline that the dual potential of the cyborg in both fiction and reality is most readily apparent; and it is a duality which I too wish to explore through my comic ‘Branch’.          

On the other side of the fact/fiction divide the cyborg tends to be characterised by considerably more extreme representations but it is a divide which is by no means impermeable. To cite one recent example I might draw attention to the Terminator statue inside Deka Research Corp and the referencing of Luke Skywalker’s bionic hand from Star Wars in the naming of their prosthetic limb.*3 Inevitably fiction influences reality and reality influences fiction.

It’s a concept used as a basis for Donna Haraway’s seminal Cyborg Manifesto (1991) to communicate the potentially liberating or crippling consequences of our future technology. As she puts it Contemporary science fiction is full of cyborgs – creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted.’ (Haraway, 1991, p149). While, the cyborg described here is a fictional being, the ‘ambiguously natural and crafted’ world might be a succinct way of describing our own and as such reflects her additional use of the cyborg as a metaphor for our technologically driven society. With the literal cyborg inherently being composed of both natural and artificial components, a key question Haraway and many like her pose is whether this constitutes a legitimate continuation of human evolution or a perverse deviation. Even as she praises the possibility the concept offers for ‘regeneration’ she also refers to it being ‘monstrous’.*4

Again, in reference to science fiction she makes an analogy of the cyborg’s inevitable otherness and disconnection to the humanity of old:

‘Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos. The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust (…) But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.’

(Haraway, 1991, page 151)

While on some level it might seem illogical, it’s this contradiction which makes the human-machine meld such a compelling concept. The text emphasises the obvious disconnection from nature but suggests an enduring human uncertainty at the end regarding the will of offspring, disturbingly mixing technological invention with parenthood.

The portrayal of humanity as an elastic concept which is more often warped than replaced has formed the thematic basis for Branch’s narrative and indeed my entire project from an early stage. In essence; the idea that we humanise machines through their application just as easily as we might be dehumanised by our reliance upon them, as I stated before – a dual potential.

To offer a fictional illustration of this concept, take Chris Cunningham’s music video for Björk’s All is Full of Love (1999)*5. As Wegenstein and Hansen describe it in Getting Under the Skin (2006) ‘robots with interfaces resembling Björk interact with each other erotically in a human, lesbian way. The robots, in other words, behave humanly, but are themselves built according to the image of the posthuman.’ (Wegenstein, Hansen, 2006, p15) The video was doubtlessly made with aesthetic appeal in mind, but it does inadvertently capture much of the essence to the perverse reciprocal relationship between human and machine.

Moving into more practical factual examples, these ideas of blurred lines where human qualities are extended or replicated by technology might be noted in our ever developing set of prostheses too. High tech artificial limbs such as the Deka ‘Luke Arm’,*3 or Touch Bionics’ ‘I-Limb Pulse’*6 while invariably artificial and inferior to their organic counterparts, ultimately seek to replicate their function as effectively as possible. There are even signs of these creations beginning to (or at least attempting to) supersede their forerunners, as Chris Shilling outlines in his paper ‘Body in Culture, Technology and Society’:

‘Other developments with a robotic dimension to them have also weakened the boundary between humans and machines. Runners’ legs made for competitive athletes, for example, imitate the flexion of the cheetah’s leg and resemble ‘the suspension band in a pickup truck more than a familiar articulated leg’. Even more dramatically, some researchers are using computer technology with micro-surgery to create neuronal prostheses designed to recreate vision for blind people, while others are working on a new generation of hand prostheses ‘that will communicate with computers and bypass the keyboard hardware’. Such radically innovative prostheses seem to reveal a continued human desire to transcend the currently encountered limits of the body’

(Shilling, 2004, page 178)

As outlandish as these concepts may seem I would still argue they all have a basis in either human application or – as in the case athlete’s leg imitating a cheetah’s – a natural template to draw upon, moving them away from the dehumanising qualities so beloved of dystopian sci-fi. As different as they are, there are also familiar aspects to be found.

That said, it would be narrow minded to suggest there wouldn’t be any dramatic changes following and in the build up to the advent of a posthuman society. Selecting one of the largest potential alterations, let us consider gender in the case of an artificial body connected to a human brain; even supposing there were substitutes for genitals and gender characteristics, could we really deem it to be female or male in the traditional sense? Again returning to Haraway’s Manifesto, a reoccurring point in her argument (or possibly the whole point) is how the status of women in society will shift with these technologies accordingly:

‘One important route for reconstructing socialist-feminist politics is through theory and practice addressed to the social relations of science and technology, including crucially the systems of myth and meanings structuring our imaginations. The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self.’

(Haraway, 1991, page 163)

I mentioned before how she uses the cyborg as both literal construct and metaphor, in this case symbolically to represent how our ‘post modern’ identities will be disassembled and reassembled into a hybrid identity – a ‘reconstruction of self.’*7 I purposefully chose a female cyborg protagonist in my comic with the intention of perhaps exploring a similar notion of reassembled gender, introducing more typically masculine features along with the terminology ‘procedure’ for the cyborg transition creating possible connotations to a sex change – connecting it to a real topic for additional credibility while possibly presenting a challenge to the concept of stereotypical gender roles in narrative.

Returning to the topic I started with though, there’s no promise that the cyborg would necessarily result in utopian progression as the aforementioned continuation of human characteristics could likely result in the stagnation of our more regrettable tendencies. I already mentioned the military origins of cybernetics, something Shilling supports in criticism of Haraway’s more optimistic stance, referring to the cyborg as ‘a creature of the battlefield’*8. Once again, this statement can be seen reflected in a great deal of cyberpunk fiction, with Yukito Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita (1990) and Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995) both presenting the subject cyborgs as physically hardened beings orientated towards combat.

For better or worse, following my research I feel much of it affirms my belief in the equal potential for advancement and disaster embodied in the cyborg, a creation that should neither whole heartedly be condemned or condoned. Taking Haraway’s metaphor of society as a cyborg, can we really say ‘posthuman’ is even an appropriate term for a future concerning human-machine hybrids when so much of the concept is already present now? We already have what might be considered symbiotic relationships with phones, the internet and innumerable other technologies, so the question begs: are we already entering a cyborg society? It is in such notions that I hope to connect with relevant contextual issues, offering my work a greater depth than mere fantasy might afford.


  1. Clynes ME, Kline NS (1960), ‘Astronautics/September: Cyborgs and Space’, Rockland State Hospital, Orangeburg, N.Y, page 27
  2. Shilling C (2004), ‘Body in Culture, Technology and Society’, Sage Publications Inc., page 180
  3., 19/11/2010, ‘Luke arm’ online article
  4. Haraway D (1991), ‘Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature’, Routledge, page 181
  5.,7/2/2011, ‘All is Full of Love’ music video
  6., 26/8/2011, ‘I-Limb Pulse’ news video
  7. Deitch J (1992), ‘Post Human’, Idea Books, page 33
  8. Shilling C (2004), ‘Body in Culture, Technology and Society’, Sage Publications Inc., pages: 186

Practice in Context: Finished!

September 26, 2011

Having handed in the requisite essay today along with my research and planning folders, this essentially marks a conclusion to the MA’s Practice in Context module – finished!

Ahem. Anyway; I’m feeling pretty positive about what I submitted, but I won’t brag or complain just yet lest it comes back to haunt me in the feedback… What I will say is that this leaves me freed up to start drawing pages again and update my blog more regularly. According the course handbook the next module will be Design Strategies and Practice so it’s about time I made a real push with the latter. More soon :)

Practice in Context: Proposal Feedback

July 6, 2011

Looks like I might have to rethink that former point I made about “doing less in the library” slightly

Having just received feedback on my recent proposal for the Practice in Context module there were some key criticisms of my plan for the next few months; in particular a strong point was made of me lacking much in the way of theoretical sources and journals,  something I can’t really argue with. While I’ve been doing a fair few write ups on films, books and comics in the cyberpunk vein – and more recently the detective/noir genre – its true that I’ve been making most of the connections and observations myself, rather than referring to published sources on the matter. Frankly, this is a dimension of my studies I’ve neglected far longer than I should have so it looks like I’ll be scouring library archives in the near future for relevant papers and publications on my subject matter – being better informed certainly wouldn’t hurt.

The other big criticism that was made besides this was my lack of a clear-cut question or goal to address in the module’s concluding academic essay. I’d outlined a vague intention to ‘build up a picture of the most successful approaches in the comic book industry’ without providing a firm statement of intent. The idea of having everything planned out in advance is one which doesn’t sit particularly well with me given the changeable nature of my schedule and possible approaches, many of the professionals I’ve contacted are yet to respond to my pleas for their time and I’m still not 100% exactly what I’ll be attending when.

Much as my plan of action remains tentative, so the question itself is liable to change but for sake of providing a fixed focus to begin working around I have devised the following guideline for myself:

‘Researching the context of my medium/chosen genre and identifying comparable conventions within them, which niches and publication/distribution routes would be most appropriate to my work?’

I realise that sounds a little clunky, but for now at least it gives me a better idea of the exact direction my research should be heading in. The best thing I can do for now is just to push forward and reinforce the ideas more considerately as they develop.

Hail to the King: My introduction to Jack Kirby

July 6, 2011

It’s funny; I’ve been watching cartoons populated by his characters since carefree childhood days and I’ve been at least aware of his historic contribution to comics for many years now, but up until a few days ago I knew precious little about the man himself and exactly how big a contribution it was.

Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) is a name almost invariably associated with brilliance in the medium. With many of the characters he helped create now deeply embedded in popular western culture few artists or authors can claim such an enormous legacy. Referring to Masters of American Comics (2005), Glen David Gold puts it into perspective in his insightful essay ‘Lo, From the Demon Shall Come – the Public Dreamer‘:

‘The superhero gig is a harsh one for creators – it seems that each person (or team) is allotted just one character that outlives them. Bob Kane and his many assistants got Batman – just Batman – and Siegel and Shuster got Superman. But Kirby? Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Hulk, Sandman, Thor, New Gods, Forever People, Mister Miracle, each of them with supporting casts that could carry their own comic books.  And what a variety of genres he contributed to (or pioneered): superheroes, westerns, romance, kid gangs, science fiction, adventure, crime, horror, Classics Illustrated, animation, creator-owned independents, autobiography, and even, when things got slow in the 1950’s, the bizarre ‘Strange World of Your Dreams’ and ‘Win a Prize’ comics.’

(Gold, 2005, p261)

These superheroes have not only seen decades worth of follow ups and spin off’s in their own medium, but cartoons, toys and recently film adaptions aswell. Thus, it seems rather fitting that I base this write-up around my visit to a Kirby inspired exhibition.

Taking a day trip to Orbital Comics I found the exhibit to be small but densely packed with a variety of work in tribute; all interesting, colourful and intriguing with a host of familiar faces shown in some unexpected ways. Still, while there was plenty to enjoy at face value, reading about Kirby’s career afterwards gave me valuable insight into the inspiration behind these homages. Considering his artistic development during the longterm collaboration with Marvel and Stan Lee (1958-1970), Gold writes:

 ‘As Kirby’s imagination exploded, so did the storytelling. The “camera” moved closer, the characters’ expressions grew more vivid, the machines more complex, the violence more brutal. His forms became more geometric and stylised. Every surface, including human skin, gleamed like chrome. Every starscape exploded with mysterious dots and “Kirby Krackle.” Fight scenes, which had already looked sweaty, and punches, which had already resonated with the crack of bone on bone, found extra volume; they went up to eleven. When pencil wouldn’t cut it, Kirby got out the scissors and paste and made collages.’

(Gold, 2005, p261)

The energetic qualities described were present in spades for much of the art there with bright colours and packed compositions dominating the space, a particularly obvious acknowledgment to the ‘Kirby Krackle’ being Vlad Quigley’s series of Kirby Kosmic Kollage prints; psychedelic dreamscapes capturing much of the classic Kirby style while also curiously resembling something Moebius/Jean Giraud might have drawn – a favourable comparison to my mind and strangely fitting given his own collaboration with Stan Lee in the 80’s.

Oddly enough another piece I felt strongly resonated with this aesthetic – The Neon City (below) – was actually made by my tutor Mark Wigan; painted in his own signature style but capturing the often dense imagery of Kirby’s own landscapes along with its sense of scale and vibrancy.

(Please note that the exhibition images are ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere as judging by the disapproving look my camera got photography was disallowed at the exhibit ).

Along these lines much of the work is seemingly in pure celebration of the late master’s accomplishments, but at the same time much of it adopted a considerably darker tone perhaps in exploration of the subdued discord which ran throughout his career. Stan Lee wrote of Kirby in his autobiography “There have always been artists who concentrate more on producing impressive illustrations than on visually telling a story in a clear, compelling way. Jack wasn’t one of them. As amazing as his artwork was, he also depicted a story that you could almost follow without reading the words.” which might be seen as unfettered praise, however Gold’s thoughts suggest something of an implication:

‘there is very little pure Kirby in the world. Mostly, he penciled, meaning he was at the mercy of inkers’ interpretations. And Kirby is famous mostly as co-creator. He worked with Joe Simon first, and then with Stan Lee, who wrote (…) some of Kirby’s most memorable stories at Marvel comics. On his own, Kirby’s dialogue betrayed a tin ear, a hipster techno-pastiche something like Thomas Pynchon’s, groaning with the cargo-ship-tonnage conveying of theme.’

(Gold, 2005, p261)

Perhaps it was this reliance upon collaboration in the creation of his most famous works that caused Jack Kirby to feel underappreciated and leave Marvel in the late 1960’s. Only vague details are known as to the exact nature of the disagreement and it wouldn’t be the first (or last time) he changed employer, but a particularly telling incident occurred when Lee launched a standalone Silver Surfer comic (One of the characters they co-created no less) without Kirby’s involvement:

‘The 1968 ‘Silver Surfer’ comic book – made without Kirby’s involvement – failed. In 1970, Lee (somewhat insultingly) called Kirby to do a fill-in issue. It ended up being the last, or almost last, work Jack did for Marvel before leaving. And for eighteen of its twenty pages, it’s uninspired. Fight, fight, fight. Misunderstandings lead to more fights. But then on page nineteen, depriving readers and management of the final confrontation they wanted to see, the Surfer streaks away. It’s hard not to read this as driven by Kirby taking his toys and declaring ownership one last time of a defeated, embittered Silver Surfer.’

(Gold, 2005, p267) 

The final page of the aforementioned issue (above) is almost certainly Kirby projecting his own frustration onto the Surfer in a surprisingly personal move; an artist fed up with being constrained and misused. It foreshadows his imminent departure back to DC (then known as National) Comics but also suggests an unexpectedly emotional involvement with his creations rather than the business like attitude some have suggested.

It’s a frustration which was blatantly emphasised in exhibit pieces such as the Feroze Alam’s Kirby-Hulk want Stan Lee Dead (the title says it all really) and Angela Edwards’ violent mutilations of classic Kirby imagery such as Barda Gets Filthy and Nasty (below). These are tributes loaded with as much resentment as they are appreciation.

Following his departure from Marvel Kirby’s work pushed into experimental territory seemingly in an attempt to cast aside his former restrictions and push his work in a new direction. Again it’s a development I might compare to that of Jean Giraud when he assumed the mantle of Moebius for his more controversial output, however while Giraud thrived under his new found freedom Kirby wasn’t so fortunate. Of his departure from Marvel Gold writes:

‘he withheld his most interesting ideas, and in 1970 took them (and himself) to rival publisher DC. There he launched New Gods, Forever People, and Mister Miracle, actually one incredibly complex saga that became known as the “Fourth World” (…) His characters were fantastically colorful, flawed, Shakespearean in their triumphs or dooms. Each plotline became not just a series of fight scenes but an allegory about Vietnam, religious fervor, poverty, the nature of aggression and evil. The panels got bigger again, and doublesplashes became a normal part of each issue. And yet it wasn’t popular. You had the sense as reader that you were grabbing on to a train thundering down a mountainside at a dangerous clip, the scenery a blur. In part, Kirby was learning about his dreamworlds as he wrote; in part it was hard to keep track of everything. None of the series lasted past eighteen issues. The remainder of his work is generally that of a man tired of having the rug yanked out from under him.’

 (Gold, 2005, p262, 266)

While in recent decades this work has received more critical acclaim, even now it remains more or less eclipsed by his contributions to Marvel. All the same it’s nice to see his somewhat edgier side being represented by a portion of the exhibit; Jason Atomic’s ‘Non Submissive Female’ below embodies an aggressive image of the empowered woman while another series of Vlad Quigley prints show some of Kirby’s black characters dressed in provocative attire – it’s worth noting in this regard that his character Black Panther was comics’ first black superhero.   

By his death in 1994 Jack Kirby may have been far from his highest point, but the legacy speaks for itself. Going full circle – back to the flyer image at the start – I’ll finish with two pieces of Kirby’s Devil Dinosaur (the original and the homage) and a particularly interesting final quote from Glen David Gold:

‘At age sixty, he was still producing art like the Devil Dinosaur doublesplash, which illustrates an ancient myth about a dragon that eats the moon. At a glance, it’s abstract, but, like his fantastic machinery, each element resolves into something entirely functional. Freud, who was onto myths like a hawk on field mice, suggested that myths were sacred because they were, by avenues not yet understood, public dreams. So sidestepping that “genius” epithet, here’s a title we might agree upon: Jack Kirby, public dreamer.’

(Gold, 2005, p266, 267) 

Between the faceless comics ‘genius‘ I knew of before and the flawed ‘public dreamer’ I definitely know which I prefer.

Practice in Context: I’m still alive!

July 2, 2011

As the title suggests, this quick post is mostly just to confirm I’m still going after my recent absence since I spent last week finalising my module proposal and planning how to tackle its new requirements.

With a more proactive and involved approach required to meet these demands, this module will see me doing less in the library and more in the way of trips/visits in order to connect with my chosen medium’s surrounding context. As such I’ve contacted a few key publishing figures for Q & A sessions and have my eye on several relevant events, however much remains uncertain at this point and subject to change.

I will definitely be making a start though with a visit to Oribital Comics this Monday and their tribute to Jack Kirby: A key figure in the development of the American comics scene from the 1930’s right through to his death in 1994. Expect a full write up on the exhibit and his work in the near future.

And yes, despite the massive hold up all being well I should have another page up very soon.