Cyborg Vol. 1: The Imitation of Life spends five of its early pages in a jazz club, and the book is rife with enough little moments like these to mark John Semper Jr.'s Cyborg as worth watching. David Walker's Cyborg series from just a year prior started with an epic, self-contained, planet-in-peril story, and Semper's tale is smaller by comparison, often pulling in many different directions and far from wrapped up by the end. In many respects I like this; Semper's book truly feels like the start of a comics series on a meandering journey rather than a graphic novel written for trade and split into issues, and there's something refreshing about that.
The storytelling is far from perfect, but Semper imbues Cyborg and his supporting characters with a lot of heart. Semper also addresses race and the book's location, Detroit, more directly than Walker had a chance to, aspects that look like they'll grow in importance with the next volume.
[Review contains spoilers]
I finished Imitation impressed with the volume of story threads Semper had swirling around -- the conflict with the book's main mystery antagonist, the fact that the villain has Cyborg Vic Stone's father Silas captive, that Vic has lost memories, that those memories include a relationship with Sarah Charles, that Vic has begun working with a disabled veterans center, and that STAR is about to recreate the process of creating Cyborg to save an injured covert agent. None of this is even remotely solved by the end of the book -- indeed, this book only collects the prologue and five parts of the nine-part "Imitation" storyline; the end comes off a little sudden, but again I kind of liked that Semper's first volume was not so neat and tidy as an average six-issue book written for trade.
At the outset I'll say what slip-ups I felt there were in Imitation mostly came down to pacing and small details. The Rebirth special collected here opens with a fight with forgettable behemoth "Malware," and then Cyborg foils some criminals, and then he spends an entire issue fighting Kilg%re, and then again fighting the equally silly "wyrmms" in a dreamscape. (To be fair, Semper has almost two whole issues with barely any violence, a better average than most.) This, plus Semper's tendency to restate the major plot points (the flip side of not writing for trade), makes Imitation drag at times, not to mention that the book does tend to flit from storyline to storyline without resolution. Semper has Vic use slang-y phrases like "dipstick" and "true dat" that I didn't think were true to the character (and indeed Semper's depiction of Vic's privileged upbringing upholds this). And there's a handful of places where the book's art and story are slightly out of step.
That said, Semper seems to aim to take Cyborg in some interesting directions. The aforementioned first and fifth issues each involve Vic's new friendship with an elderly, blind jazz musician; in the first, Vic considers how live, improvised music could help himself overcome the monotony of knowing every digital fact, and in the last, Vic accompanies "Blue" to a home for disabled veterans. This latter is a wonderful throwback, and it's nice to see the Cyborg character working again with those who metaphorically have the same kinds of challenges as he does, as he did in his New Teen Titans days. Semper also addresses directly that whereas Vic is African American, his adventures (at least in the New 52) have lacked much racial component, depicting Vic as a "bou-zhee" kid, as Blue says, out of touch with Detroit's African American community. I appreciate that Semper embraces what we've seen (or haven't), rather than running away from it, in order to move this book in new directions. Clearly -- from the book's villain comparing abuse of machines to slavery, to the police harassment Vic encounters in the end -- Semper intends to make Vic's race part of the fabric of this book, and surely that's something necessary that's otherwise missing from the rest of DC Comics's lineup.
I was curious whether Semper would pick up Walker's having established that Vic could now shape-change to hide his cybernetic parts -- surely a massive change when most of Vic's historic angst has been about his appearance. Semper glosses over that Vic's been keeping it a secret, but does make it so that Vic can only shape-change for short amounts of time, and the scene where Vic's emotions cause him to lose his disguise is very effective. That all of this is absent the book until the third chapter, however, makes me wonder whether this wasn't something Semper learned of after the early scripts were already turned in.
I also found it interesting, and maybe a bit unsettling, that Vic apparently has lost memories that his father hid from him after his transformation to Cyborg. Foremost this seems a method for Semper to add in some previously-unestablished details of Vic's life, which feels a bit of a cheat (as opposed to the shape-changing that Semper integrates well). Also, what's established is that Vic had a girlfriend, Britton, whom he either cheated on or at least abandoned rather cruelly, and that the woman he left Britton for was STAR Labs's Sarah Charles, who may not have known about Vic's relationship with Britton. It's all shrouded in mystery now and should make more sense once more is revealed, but it's offputting in part because it contradicts some of what Walker set up with Sarah Charles in Cyborg Vol. 1: Unplugged. The implications don't reflect well on Vic; on one hand I like that Semper gives Vic some baggage and positions the accident that transformed him to Cyborg as transformative emotionally (for the better) as well as physically, but on the other hand this also seems too contrary to what we knew of Vic before to feel wholly true to the character.
Cyborg Vol. 1: The Imitation of Life end suddenly and with just a hint too much melodrama ("We're creating ... a female cyborg!"), such to make the book seem unfinished; this should be better, one would hope, with the second volume to read alongside. John Semper does well here, however, in penning a story that's authentically germane to Cyborg, and everything that's happening gives Vic Stone an expansive, fully-realized world. The "one fight per issue" comic book structure didn't originate with Semper, and frankly Semper does better than most, with most of the first (regular) and fifth issues favoring character development over action. I admit I'm dubious of Cyborg going up against the "Lord of the Rats" in the next volume, but Semper's got a strong start here -- especially to his first ongoing comics series -- and that's plenty to bring me back to see what happens.
[Includes original and variant covers, sketches by Paul Pelletier and Will Conrad]