Sunday, May 7, 2017

Cloak and Dagger: Shadows and Light

I didn't realize it until recently, but I am a huge fan of Bill Mantlo's Cloak and Dagger series from Marvel Comics. To be honest, until recently, I didn't even give Mantlo his due as a creator. He wrote so many comics for Marvel, and quietly did them well, I took him for granted. I think I also unfairly judged him for his work on licensed comics based on toys like Micronauts and Rom: Spaceknight. Today, however, I realize what a truly creative writer he was, and I'm really happy to see his creations getting their due, in the movies and on TV, as well as comics. And while I love seeing his Rocket Raccoon on the big screen, I may be even more excited about the upcoming Cloak & Dagger TV series on Freeform.

I wasn't reading Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man when Cloak and Dagger first appeared. My first experience with them would have been in the pages of their own limited series, written by Mantlo and drawn by Rick Leonardi and Terry Austin. At the time, I enjoyed that comic enough to follow the characters into their own ongoing series, although I believe I stopped reading it around the time Mantlo was fired from the series. I've read that miniseries in a reprint collection since then, and later read Cloak & Dagger's earlier (and some later) appearances in other titles when Marvel collected those stories into one volume. But with the recent collection, Cloak and Dagger: Shadows and Light, I finally had the opportunity to read all those stories--their earliest appearances in the pages of Spectacular Spider-Man, their limited series, and follow-up guest appearances before they earned their own book--in the order that they appeared.

By reading the stories in the right order, and seeing the characters develop from one story to the next, I really appreciated the work that Mantlo put into the characters and their world. From the very first page of their first appearance, we see the themes that Mantlo is addressing with the characters. We go from Spider-Man swinging from skyscrapers high above the streets of New York all the way down to street level. From above, everything is clean and pretty and shiny. Once we get down to the street, it's dirty and cluttered and crowded and detailed. In one page, before the characters even make their first appearance, we see the difference between the world that heroes like Spider-Man operate in versus the world of Cloak and Dagger.

Those first appearances in Spider-Man give the characters a bit of an edge by directly connecting their origin to the drug trade. As revealed in these issues, Cloak & Dagger gained their powers when the mob tested an experimental drug—intended as cheaper substitute for heroin—on a group of kids. The drug killed everyone except for the two who became Cloak & Dagger. At this point, their real names and backgrounds have yet to be revealed. 

Without doing any research, I would speculate that the pair are the first superheroes to get their powers in such a fashion. Today, drugs are so ubiquitous in our culture that stories and characters like this are almost commonplace. In the early to mid-80s, however, stories involving drugs, like Speedy’s addiction to heroin in Green Lantern, or Harry Osborn’s addiction in Spider-Man, were regarded as “very special stories;” events that the Comics Code Authority wouldn’t even approve. In context, making the illegal drug trade such an integral part of Cloak and Dagger’s origin feels fairly groundbreaking.

Otherwise, however, the stories are fairly typical Spider-Man stories, albeit well-written. The characters fight and eventually stop the dealers responsible for the deaths of all those kids, and Cloak and Dagger’s transformations, in a fairly violent and deadly manner. So violent, in fact, that the characters are much more in the vein of anti-heroes like the Punisher than heroes like Spider-Man. The story drives that point home even further by bringing the Punisher into the duo’s next Spider-Man adventure. They also fight a crime lord who has turned himself into a cyborg. Through these early appearances in Spectacular Spider-Man, Mantlo continues to develop the characters in a clear direction.

Their greatest development came in the pages of their own limited series, written by Mantlo, drawn by Rick Leonardi and Terry Austin. At the time, I thought this was a fantastic series, and while I didn’t realize it at the time, made me a huge fan of the characters. Reading it now, and thinking of it in its original context, it really breaks away from the traditional Marvel format. It takes the notion of that first page of their first appearance, that Cloak and Dagger operate on the ground, in the real world, and really drives it home. These four issues feature no costumed villains whatsoever. Instead, we see them fighting drug dealers, chickenhawks who are preying on runaway teens, and an ordinary guy who is poisoning drug store medications, in a ripped-from-the-then-current-headlines moment.

We also learn the truth behind Cloak and Dagger’s origins. We learn that their names are Tyrone Johnson and Tandy Bowen, and both were teen runaways before they were abducted and forced to take part in the mob drug trial that resulted in their powers, and the deaths of countless other teens. It’s a dark, depressing origin, taking the Marvel formula for tragedy and amping it up a few degrees. And certainly at the time, the issue of teen runaways was uncommon enough that when DC Comics’ New Teen Titans did an issue focusing on that problem, it was highlighted as a “very special issue.”

In looking at what other bloggers have to say about these issues, I see a lot of folks commenting that it feels very much like it’s from the 80s.That’s a very facile interpretation, I think. Of course the fashions and writing style are going to reflect the time in which the story was produced. That’s like pointing out that Shakespeare and Jane Austen don’t read like contemporary literature, as if that’s a flaw in their writing. Not that I’m comparing Bill Mantlo’s writing to Shakespeare, but if you look past the leg warmers and hair styles, the dark tone, the approach to real-world issues and problems, and the lack of costumed heroes very much sets it apart from other contemporary Marvel comics.

Also, unfortunately, the fact that Ty’s reason for running away is that he and his friend were accused of being part of a robbery, and his friend was shot by the police, simply because they were black, is something that still feels very contemporary. 

The limited series also features perhaps the most New York of New Yorks that I can recall reading in Marvel Comics at that time. Sure, Spider-Man swung from building to building in Manhattan, and lived in Brooklyn, and Captain America lived in Red Hook, but this really felt like the characters inhabited the streets of New York. The detail of the art and the focus on regular people over superpowers really felt street-level in a way that Daredevil’s constant fights with ninjas did not. Plus, the supporting cast featured a priest who felt like a human being, not a stock asshole.

This volume collects two more stories by Mantlo. The first teams up the characters with Spider-Man and the New Mutants, another series that I loved. This sets up a relationship between Cloak & Dagger and the teen mutants, which is followed up later in this collection. The second is a self-contained story from Marvel Fanfare, with some really nice art by Tony Salmons, Leonardi and Austin, and Kerry Gammill inked by George Freeman. In that story, Cloak and Dagger get to spend some time apart, and we get the sense of how differently Tandy and Ty feel about their powers and situation.

The collection continues with another Spectacular Spider-Man guest appearance, this time written by Al Milgrom. It’s fun, and I remember buying those as they came out as a kid, but it is very much a traditional guest-star appearance. Cloak & Dagger help Spider-Man stop the cyborg gangster from the previous issues, but it doesn’t really advance their own story the way the various Mantlo stories did.

Finally, we get a three-part story from the New Mutants, by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, following up on their team up from the Marvel Team-Up Annual. This does feel like a continuation of Ty and Tandy’s story, as they lose and regain their powers. By all accounts, Claremont and Mantlo were friends, and were even discussing writing a New Mutants/Cloak & Dagger miniseries together, so I have to believe that Mantlo at least consulted on this story. Plus, the art by Sienkiewicz, is fantastic.

Rereading these early Cloak and Dagger stories genuinely made me happy. Hairstyles and writing style aside, it really tackled the kinds of issues we frequently see in comics today, and consequently still feels fresh and modern. And the art, by folks like Ed Hannigan, Al Milgrom, Rick Leonardi, Terry Austin, Jim Mooney and Bill Sienkiewicz, is fantastic. This particular book includes a lot of ephemera, including reproducing a poster and art portfolio by Leonardi and Austin, and articles from Marvel’s in-house promotional fanzine, Marvel Age. The interviews give some background to the series, including how Leonardi and Austin ended up drawing the series instead of the creator of the characters, Ed Hannigan. (Although Hannigan did produce layouts for the whole first issue, which, while unused, are reproduced here.

Marvel has already put out a second volume, collecting the follow-up Cloak & Dagger solo series, written by Mantlo, mostly drawn by Leonardi & Austin, with some fill-in stories by folks like Mike Mignola and Art Adams. I’ll be writing about that soon.

Just yesterday, I saw Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, featuring Mantlo’s creation, Rocket Raccoon. Early next year, Freeform will be launching a Cloak and Dagger TV series. The origin looks to be a bit tweaked, but the character and tone feel very familiar, at least in the trailer that has been released.

Unfortunately, Bill Mantlo won’t be able to bring us new stories of his creations himself. As detailed in this article, he was injured in a rollerblading accident in 1992, and has been hospitalized ever since. However, according to his brother, he is very happy with Rocket’s appearances in the film. Even happier, Marvel has compensated him for his creation, enough so that he can move out of the nursing home he has been living in, and his family can afford in-home care for him for the rest of his life.

Bill Mantlo was a true creator, and we can only imagine what he might be creating today, if he were still able. While most of his creations are owned by Marvel, he did create one property that he owned himself: Swords of the Swashbucklers, a pirates-in-space comic cocreated for Epic Comics with artist Butch Guice, and drawn by Guice, Colleen Doran, and Geof Isherwood. I loved that series as well when I was a kid, and was very happy to hear that it will be reprinted later this year by Dynamite Entertainment.

To help fund this reprint, Dynamite raised funds through a Kickstarter campaign. I pledged enough to get a signed hardcover, because I genuinely love this series. I still own it, but having a really nice edition, signed by one of my favorite artists, was something I couldn’t pass up. 

The campaign is still going on for a few more days, and if they reach $50,000, they will produce new Swashbuckler stories. Obviously, they won’t be written by Mantlo, but they will be produced with the participation of his family and Guice. I want to see Bill Mantlo profiting directly from his creations, so I encourage you to contribute to this campaign.

This week’s Pop! of the Week is Hoth Han Solo on Tauntaun from the Smuggler’s Bounty Empire Strikes Back box. It’s so huge and detailed, it’s a definite prize item in our collection.

See you next week!

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