Cloak and Dagger are slated to be Marvel’s next television stars. This paperback collection brings together many of their early appearances in a convenient package. Is it good?
Cloak and Dagger: Shadows and Light (Marvel Comics)
Next year, Cloak and Dagger will become the latest Marvel Comics characters to appear on television, with a series slated to premiere on Freeform. It makes sense, then, to capture their beginnings in a volume that will serve as a handy introduction for new fans. Even for someone like me, who has a long familiarity with the characters, it’s nice to have a refresher and consider how they are likely to translate on TV. Now that I’m dipping back into their history with this over 400-page trade paperback, I’m optimistic.
It’s easy to see why cable execs might have been attracted to Cloak and Dagger, despite their relative obscurity in the Marvel Universe. They have a striking look, and their tortured love-story-with-superpowers seems closely aligned with the post-Twilight world of young adult fiction. Tandy Bowen and Tyler Johnson are a mismatched pair of runaways – one a white girl on a lark from a life of privilege, the other a black boy escaping a brush with the police – who were abducted by criminals and used as guinea pigs for a designer drug.
Through that comic book miracle of “unique body chemistry,” Tandy and Tyler don’t die like all the other test subjects. Instead, Tandy develops an ability to create and manipulate daggers of light that can either serve as a weapon or cure addictions. The light requires regular dispersal, or else she runs the risk of becoming overwhelmed. Tyler can teleport, make himself intangible, and send evildoers into a dark dimension. It gradually emerges that he has a vampiric need to feed off “light,” either from the people he absorbs or Dagger’s power, making the couple symbiotic or – less charitably – deeply codependent.
As for the stories themselves, there’s a wealth of good stuff here, depicting the vigilantes as they declare war on drug dealers and the gangster supervillains who supply them. With a little updating – and removal of the other Marvel characters the creators won’t be able to use – some of the stories in this collection could transfer very successfully to the small screen. The visual dichotomy of Cloak and Dagger brings out quality work from many of the artists whose work is included in the paperback. Co-creator Ed Hannigan’s designs are eye-catching and he contributes evocative, spooky pencils, especially in collaboration with inker Jim Mooney on the pair’s first appearance in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man#64, from March 1982.
That introductory issue is an intriguing combination of a formulaic Spider-Man superhero team-up and a ’50s EC horror comic. Admittedly, it’s a bit of an awkward marriage: the webslinger tries to stop these vengeful figures from meting out retribution on the criminals who made them until even the reader wishes he’d just get out of the way. However, the way writer and co-creator Bill Mantlo sets the origin and vengeance of the runaway teens at Ellis Island, tying their story to a long history of travelers let down by the American Dream, is a very nice touch. This first appearance does a good job of getting the reader interested in learning more about the figures Spidey describes in a thought balloon as “A girl –all in white — more beautiful than anyone I’ve ever seen! And a guy — as black as night — with a voice as cold as ice!”
The next couple stories are further guest appearances from the same series: a two-parter by Mantlo, Hannigan, and inker Al Milgrom that finds Cloak and Dagger going after the gangster Silvermane and a three-issue arc involving the Kingpin and the Punisher by Mantlo with Milgrom on pencils and inks by Mooney. These stories are entertaining and successfully flesh out the guest stars. Still, there’s definitely a sense of diminishing returns when reading these issues in succession, instead of spaced out over many months. Spider-Man’s constant concern with protecting the inexperienced teenagers from both the gangsters they’re attacking and their own vengeful tendencies starts to seem pretty silly once they’ve repeatedly defied him and committed murder.
Thankfully, Cloak and Dagger finally get to be the sole focus in their limited series from 1983. Again scripted by Mantlo, these four issues are loaded with moody, expressive art by penciller Rick Leonardi and inker Terry Austin. They are also refreshingly free of other superheroes, focusing instead on Cloak’s struggle with his own unnatural hungers, along with introducing a couple supporting characters and delving into the leads’ backstories. If you’re not sure you want to commit the time to reading the rest of this paperback, this storyline is the place to start, providing a fully formed concept of the leads without the baggage of extensive continuity. The only other non-team up story is taken from the anthology series Marvel Fanfare. Here, Mantlo digs into the pair’s dependence on one another, but the art from three different teams in 30 pages can be a little jarring.
The rest of the collection is back to guest appearances, the duo first appearing alongside Spider-Man and the New Mutants in a Marvel Team Up annual by Mantlo and Ron Frenz. Then come three more Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man issues, written and drawn by Milgrom with inks by Mooney, that also tie into some of the era’s long-running storylines, like the webhead’s time wearing the alien symbiote destined to become Venom and his deeply unhealthy romance with the Black Cat. All are solid comics for the period, but the Spider-Man issues will be the most jarring for new readers unfamiliar with 80s continuity.
Finally, the thick paperback closes with a three-part storyline from New Mutants in which Cloak and Dagger are stripped of their powers. The vigilante duo often take a backseat to Charles Xavier and his students in these issues, but that’s fine. It’s an opportunity to bask in prime-era Chris Claremont’s baroque plotting and fascination with dialect and, of course, the dark, gorgeous illustrations from Bill Sienkiewicz. The artist delights in bringing to life a script that spans various occult realms and has one of the young mutants possessed by Cloak’s horrific powers.
In certain aspects, these early Cloak and Dagger appearances seem just slightly ahead of their time, anticipating the bloodthirsty street-level antiheroes who would increasingly dominate superhero comics in the late 1980s and early 90s. However, they’re also dated in a number of ways, starting with the frequently stilted dialogue that never reads like it’s coming from a pair of teenage runaways (I don’t care to count how many times Cloak and Dagger dramatically introduce themselves when it seems totally unnecessary, but it’s a lot). The treatment of drugs and crime is ludicrously one-dimensional, showing much in common with the right-wing fantasies of films like Death Wish and some of the era’s more over-the-top public service announcements. Finally, the portrayal of Dagger frequently involves virgin-whore conventions that are in questionable taste, with her schtick of angelic purity met by an improbably plunging neckline and a tendency to find herself prone and helpless any time she’s separated from her moody and destructive partner.
Your mileage may vary on being able to look past these issues. For my part, I found reading this collection a very pleasant trip back into a childhood spent digging up comics from my older brother’s collection. Whatever red flags the writing may raise, Mantlo’s affection for his own characters and interest in getting a message across through his work at Marvel always shines through. All of the art is at least solid, and much of it is remarkable. Overall, Shadows and Light is an encouraging sign for the potential of these characters, both on the screen and in print.
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