Over the past decade, manga has become more familiar to American comic fans than ever before. But while classic properties from "Astro Boy" to "Akira" had a head start on their way to becoming part of the American pop cultural firmament, one of the earliest hits of shonen manga is about to catch up: "Cyborg 009."
Created in 1964 by cartoonist Shotaro Ishinomori, "Cyborg 009" tells the story of a team of nine heroes turned to cyborg warriors by the mysterious arms dealer the Black Ghost and promptly rebel against him. The original manga ran for almost two decades and inspired a number of anime adaptations and will soon see a feature film launch in Japan. Meanwhile, Archaia has partnered with Ishimori Productions Inc. to help reinvent the property as mainstream superhero comic written by F.J. DeSanto and Bradley Cramp, and illustrated by Marcus To.
Fans may know DeSanto's name from his producing credit on "The Spirit" film or his writing of the "Immortals: Gods and Heroes" comic tie-in, but the writer is also a longtime follower of "Cyborg 009." Below, he tells CBR about his team's plans for the property from building directly off Ishinomori's original stories to presenting the multi-cultural team as they're supposed to be seen to letting To bring a mix of Western and Eastern art styles to the mix.
CBR News: "Cyborg 009" is a classic manga and anime that's come to America at a few odd times, most recently in comics when Tokyopop printed English editions of the first ten volumes. What was it that initially made you connect up with the series?
F.J. DeSanto: I think I just always inherently knew it. It's weird. Growing up in New York, I always had access to manga and anime whether it was "Gatchaman" or "Macross" or "Space Battleship Yamato." So I just sort of knew "Cyborg 009." I even had books in Japanese from it years ago and had seen some of the cartoons, but I never really knew the whole story until those Tokyopop books came out. By then I was already interested.
This all part of building the brand over here, which is what I've been tasked to do. We want to make sure people have access to that material. I'm not even sure if I have all that Tokyopop manga because it fell out of print. And I think they only did ten volume, and there's at least a couple of dozen volumes beyond those ten. I was just in Tokyo the other week meeting with the Ishimori group, and I went to the bookstore – a wonderful manga story I'd passed – where I ended up buying volumes of the old material that I had never seen before. I just wanted to know what it was all about.
So how did you go from being a fan of the series in general to taking forward your pitch of getting an American version made? I get the feeling that Ishimori himself was always open to new versions of the story being launched over the years that were slightly different than his original.
I think what it really boils down to is that the beauty of that manga as opposed to a lot of other manga and anime – and this really shows how forward-thinking Ishinomori was – is that we're dealing with an international group of characters. It's not inherently Japanese. So when you're looking at adapting something like, say, "Akira," you have a lot of people going, "You can't make this and have these characters not be Japanese!" But here, you've got a cast where this one was French, that one was Chinese and so on. There's a real international flavor to it that I think holds an appeal because in the end it's all about the teamwork and the team coming together. Especially since even though it was published in the Cold War, all the values held in it are relatable today. That's one of the reason we thought of doing this book. It's a way to introduce not just the characters and the property but also the values to a wider audience. This can speak to anybody of any age from any culture under the guise of a cool superhero project.
In some ways, the original manga and its faceless villain the Black Ghost brings a lot of that Cold War anxiety to the page. How do you think that aspect of the series holds up in the modern day in your version?
I think the timing is eerie in a way. There's an uncertainty, a question mark of "Where is this world going?" The atmosphere that existed back then is very much the atmosphere now, and that's why the timing is right for this kind of property. It's not like the X-Men where they have these powers and there's an angst to it. There's more of a hopefulness in "Cyborg 009" where the cast takes this awful thing that's happened to them – that they've been abducted and turned into weapons of destruction – and uses it for the exact opposite purpose for what they were intended to do. I think in there, there's a message for these times that it's not always about power but it's about what you do with them. I think that's an important idea if you have power in this world, and Ishimori was able to build that into a great sci-fi action property.
How are you approaching this in terms of introducing the world to a new audience? I assume that the full cast and their origin with the Black Ghost is going to be there at the start, but in what ways are you developing 009 as a lead to walk fans into the fabric of the series?
We're entering this world next to Joe – 009. That's really the only way to do it. Brad, my cowriter, and I went through these wonderful encyclopedias of the property that the Ishimori group gave us that had the entire history of the characters. We spent a lot of time looking over those and saying, "What can we take from this original property and turn it into a story that can appeal to a wider audience today?" What we quickly realized is that the audience needs to learn alongside the character. That's what Joe did in the original manga, and that's what it's going to be like here. We'll meet Joe, and in this version we've fleshed out his back story a little more and given him some more stakes in the story, but it's nothing that deviates from the original. The foundation of all of this comes from Ishinomori's original material. We're trying to take I guess what you'd call a "Batman Begins" approach to it where we can create a new story that takes the best of the original stuff.
Are you adapting a specific story from the original, or are you looking to craft a whole new set of action beats to carry the cast through this series?
It's a combination of both. It definitely becomes an original story, but the origin and the characters and all that are from the original material. We crafted a new, modern thrust that they need to stop. It's obviously the Black Ghost, but he's done in a new way. And there are a couple of new villains. It's all rooted in Ishinomori, and everything we've done has been sent back to the Ishimori group, and they've approved it. They're smart enough to understand that this is for a new audience and would let us craft something new. But definitely certain dramatic beats are inspired by or even taken from the original manga.
The "Cyborg 009" manga has had its own spotlight shined on it in the comics blogosphere recently by David Brothers who wrote about how despite having some non-P.C. racial caricature in the design of the original heroes, their personalities were often far from stereotypes. What do you feel is your responsibility to balancing the international team in a way that doesn't say "Here's a token Black character and a token Native American character" and so on?
I read those pieces, and I think that's really the beauty of the property. It's almost like you're being given a gift in material that's so forward-thinking. What I've learned about Ishinomori in preparing for this was that when he was young, he went to a bunch of different publishers and took advances. Then he spent that money on traveling the world. He did that because he wanted to be a film director, and while that didn't happen, that travel influenced him in a way because he understood what the world was. It broadened his mindset and experience, and that really shows in the material. These aren't stock characters. They have rich back stories – all of which we get into in this book. While this is a relatively new story at this point, the background of all the cast and their origins stays pretty much intact. There are modernizations here and there, but it wasn't something you really had to tweak for modern audiences because it was so rich to begin with.
Marcus To is doing the art for this series, and he's got a very traditional mainstream superhero background. What does his work bring to this series in general, and specifically how does it help shape this idea of selling the concept to a new American audience?
It's funny. I'd been a fan of Marcus from his "Red Robin" stuff, and while we were looking at artists, Stephen Christy [at Archaia] suggested him for the project. I Googled him again, and I saw this pencil sketch of Tim Drake that he had done where he looked like he could have been 009's brother. I knew then and confirmed later when I talked to him and learned he was a manga fan that Marcus had an understanding of both worlds. He bridges that gap between manga and American storytelling. I mean, if you just look at the big group action shot he did for the promo, you just know that the whole project makes perfect sense. He knows how to take what's great about the original characters and make it modern. If you love the original manga, you're going to love this. And if you don't know what it is, you'll look at it and go, "What's this?" I can't wait for Marcus to dive in.
Overall, what's the most important thing for you as you're in these early stages of putting the new book together?
I feel a responsibility to the property because it's never been done like this before. I've been challenged, and I feel like Brand and I when we put together the story worked really hard to do something respectful of both Ishimori and the fans – which there are legions of around the world. Since the news came out, I've found so many people out there who are fans that I never knew of. I feel like one of the reasons we brought this to Archaia is that they get what it takes to put in the kind of quality that Ishimori would have brought to this. Our goal is to bring this to a whole new generation and a whole new audience, which is a daunting task but exciting at the same time. So we're all very excited about it, and we're all very serious about making this the most perfect book we can achieve.