Dagger & Cloak [guest post]

strangetales2This here is an invited guest post by Jeffro Johnson.
I picked up a copy of Strange Tales #2 off of a spinner rack at a gas station. I immediately knew that I’d found something special. This was it… the series for me.
I knew vaguely that this was more how comics were done back in the sixties, so there was a retro-coolness factor from the start. But the stories… there was something stranger and weirder about them than anything I’d seen. They tilted toward horror and weird themes in a way that was completely new to me.
I had my mom drive me around to other gas stations until I could find the first issue. I was so happy. I followed the series religiously until about issue seven or so when it stopped showing up. I didn’t miss anything, though. When I was old enough to trek down to comic book stores on my own, I found out that the series had gone off the rails with guest spots from the Punisher and Power Pack. It was tragic to see really.
But those first seven issues, they were about the best thing I’d ever read in comics at the time. They actually even formed a coherent story arc which was something I hadn’t really seen outside of the occasional trade paperback. But money was tight, and it was a rare thing for me to get a look at any of those back then.
Now, I don’t have the issues right in front of me, but just going from memory… this was just about the best treatment that either of these properties had gotten, really. Doctor Strange was picking himself up from major setback at the end of his previous series. He’d lost most of his powers and had to start over again with an evil master. He actually had several close calls and ended up taking on more of a roguish look himself. His eye patch was completely badass and it was great to see him really work for his victories for once.
And Cloak and Dagger are so rarely done right. I mean they are just awful characters unless you don’t think about it. I mean… you have a darkness and light theme going on. It’s got beauty and the beast themes folded in, too. Their origin story is painfully topical, pulling in eighties anti-drug campaigning. It spills over into the characters with Cloak needing Dagger to feed him enough light that he doesn’t go crazy and start randomly attacking people.Honestly, a hot chick looking after a needy depressive not-boyfriend is not that plausible. And Tyrone just wasn’t ever going to be leading man material. I hate that. The two really need some challenges to get them focused on something other than themselves. The first seven issued of this series was really about the only time they got that in spades. They were all of a sudden creepy and freaky and unsettling and I loved it. They were then and forever my favorite characters, and even though I was disappointed by every other book I saw that featured them, that never changed.But that’s how it is with comics. Artists move on. Other people come along that want to slap “mutant” on everything it can conceivably be applied to. Some goof somewhere decides that Dagger would be a better character if she cut her hair and was blind or something. Oh, there was some occasional good ideas– like when the whole thing about what Cloak’s signature item really was. But for the most part, their stories were pretty underwhelming after that.

It doesn’t matter. I’ll always remember them for what I as a sixth grader interpolated their past adventures as being. I knew there was something to them… something more than Spider-man guest star and limited series material. I had a glimpse of it… and that was all that it took.

They never caught on like I thought they should. But for my money, the “strange” take on the pair was definitive. I’d have followed that for a hundred issues if I could. Unfortunately, like just about every other offbeat series to come out during the eighties and since, the Strange Tales revival failed to last even twenty issues.

I never got over it.

Links: Jeffro’s Space Gaming Blog

Want to do a guest post? Send me an email. 40-60% autobiography, 20-30% comics, 10-20% heartfelt something-or-other.

Next: Today is for taboo II

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on June 22, 2015, in Guest posts, Heroics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. I remember reading a few issues, but I can’t remember the story. Didn’t Bret Blevins draw it before he went on to New Mutants? I was such a highly-detailed art snob as a kid, I remember looking down my nose at Blevins and his “cartoon-like” characters. Now, I just remember the emotional intensity of the body language, but haven’t re-read anything in years. I need to see if this is available in the Marvel app.

    Thanks for sharing!

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  2. The Cloak and Dagger story in Strange Tales was written by Bill Mantlo, who created the characters in the pages of “Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man” (I had these issues but I sold them when they rose in value). did you read their initial apparitions?

    I liked very much Bret Blevins’ art, there were books that I brought only because he was drawing them. He was probably the perfect artist for Cloak and Dagger, being able to depict both the angelic (dagger) and the monstrous (Cloak)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Blevins was terrific for this, but IMO really awkward with the New Mutants, who looked like bobble-heads a decade or two before that term got invented. Maybe it was the inking.

    Cloak and Dagger strike me as a concept that works extremely well for a guest spot, but needs radical change to work as stars in an on-going series.

    When they debuted around 1980, they were Troubled Teens + Merciless Vigilantes + Proto-Goths. That’s a really nice set of traits, combined with a wonderfully hyperbolic visual hook / conceit. Note that in 1980, drugs and merciless vigilantes were still kinda edgy in super hero comics.

    (And throwing 1980 Spider-Man against Troubled Teen Merciless Vigilantes is solid character work, just like throwing Cloak & Dagger into Power Pack. Teachable moments for everyone.)

    There’s no reason, except that Bill Mantlo was Frank Miller, that a series about Emo Teen Vigilantes couldn’t have done the whole gritty-street-crime-mixed-with-religious-overtones thing that Daredevil strayed into on occasion.

    But somehow it seems like this never quite worked. I gotta do some work right now, but I want to mull this over, because they’re great in principle but it’s never really been done.

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  4. I didn’t read either the characters’ origin story or the Strange Tales run. A friend loaned me a stack of the title series, which baffled me entirely – I’d never seen such in-your-face iconography with so little happening. I couldn’t tell whether this is about lost potential or confusion from the start. I haven’t read it since so the following is me trying to recapture what went through my mind then.

    Drugs are the new radiation accident, I guess. Bad drugs! No! (OK, that at least fits, it’s a message, such as it is.) The rest just left me staring.

    Are they lovers or not? Too innocent for that? What on earth?

    What is up with all the religious stuff? Why is the cross a cut-out onto her bare and nubile flesh? Is she a sexually expressive person? Is that a religious thing? Is she completely naive and wearing that, which would be hide-my-eyes horrifying?

    Imagine a relationship and dramatic come-of-age story with a young white woman and young black man, especially coded at street level, especially not safely embedded in the upper middle-class. However, at least in what I read, Cloak vanished into a less-and-less human, rage-all-the-time transformation, a.k.a. the Punt. And then there was this weird thing about her saving him or something.

    I’d like to know more about this Strange Tales run. It seems like it was something special.

    Is it wrong of me to characterize Shooter’s Marvel as a place of constant argument and atrocity, but no direct topical relevance?

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  5. I was not a Christian when I read these. But I’ve got to say… the religious stuff did manage to lend the series more than a little gravitas– at least as far as my sixth grade mind was concerned. I mean… they opened each issue with a garbled quote from the Psalms or something. It felt… I dunno… like there was something serious about this pair.

    But they are not religious characters. They are just a couple of random kids that end up using an abandoned (?) church as a base of operations. There was a priest that sort of mentored them I think in the previous limited series… but I think he is a bit of a foil to the gritty life on the streets.

    Dagger’s costume is simply her dance outfit. It’s not a cross that’s cut out, but a dagger. And I don’t recall anything about her that indicates any kind of awareness of her natural feminine powers. She is nothing like, say, Starfire from the Teen Titans.

    The thing that holds the pair together is a combination of loyalty and mercy directed from Dagger to Cloak. It doesn’t hold up unless there is some kind of fate or portentousness bearing down on them.

    But Cloak is quite literally some kind of instrument of hell. When he envelops crooks and bleeds the light out of them, they experience horrible nightmares. What this actually is and what it’s really supposed to accomplish is only rarely addressed. But if you don’t know how mediocre these characters are, it’s certainly striking enough.

    But yes. Definitely a lot of in-your-face iconography here.

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  6. @James Nostack : I agree about the New Mutants drawn by Blevins. I didn’t like them at all. The big problem were the stories, but even Blevins art was different, scratchier. I don’t know it it was the inking, probably in part at least.
    The comic book where I first saw Blevins’ art was “Bozz Chronicles” from Epic, where he inked himself, with Steve Oliff colors, on baxter paper. It was wonderful.
    http://www.comicvine.com/the-bozz-chronicles/4050-3473/
    After that I brought all the comics he draw for a while, but each time it was worse. After the New Mutants issues I stopped following him (I stopped a lot of series at the time) I did read that he works mostly as a storyboard artist and a painter from the middle of the 90s

    @Ron Edwards: it’s difficult to remember the stories, after all these years. Honestly Cloak and Dagger were never among my favorite characters. They were visually cool and all, but they went nowhere. From what I remember they had the same introduction the Punisher had: as vigilantes in the pages of Spider-Man. But they were not allowed to actually BE vigilantes as the Punisher did.
    Spider-Man encountered a lot of vigilantes, thinking about it: they probably worked well in contrast with him (and they were useful for the usual Daily Bugle front pages linking Spidey with them). With Cloak and Dagger Mantlo pushed the envelope probably too much: they had religious undertones, sexual underageundertones, drug abuse undetones, a vengeance mission, homelessness… probably they got too scared to follow these threads in the comics, because (at least for the time I did read them) they went nowhere and avoided touching any of that with a ten-foot pole.
    Their “vengeance” was toned down with the same silly bloodless idea they used later with Ghost Rider II “penance stare” (a true late -80s action hero power: act tough, look people in the eyes, and go away without doing him anything really bad). Cloak’s powers were visually less silly (and they had an edge of danger in the risk of losing people forever under the cloak) but still, they were a way for the writers to avoid touching the issue of vigilantism in any real sense.
    The same with Dagger’s exposed skin, their race, sex (no teenager ever was ever so chaste as these two. It’s even less realistic that their superpowers. I mean, it was not necessary that they had to have sex, but they never even touched the subject in the comic book), Cloak’s addiction to Dagger’s powers… nothing was followed to any logical conclusion.
    To make them work, in the way they were first presented, they should have been published by Epic or later Vertigo or any other more adult imprint (The “a little more adult” tone of Strange Tales probably helped… a little), OR changed in their presentation and costume to tone down the adult undertones. They did neither and they were left stuck in the middle.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Moreno, that’s a really interesting set of observations. It’s like Mantlo said to himself, “Okay, let me take the most over-the-top victimized population I can imagine–drug-addled dropout homeless teenager runaways, and give them the power to actually change their situation–OH NO, WAIT, I MIGHT SAY SOMETHING, UH-OH” and backed off completely.

      The comment about the sexuality angle is interesting too. It’s impossible to imagine either of these characters having (a) friends, (b) casual flings, (c) serious romances. They’re in this weird, totally isolated pairing. And I think part of the reason they’ve failed at their various attempts at on-going series, is that they’re not conceived of as characters, but as a plot element, as a foil.

      In the United States this past Spring, many comics nerds were very excited about the “Daredevil” TV show on Netflix. Parts of it, the fight choreography in particular, were very well done. But they made this terrible decision to treat the Kingpin as if he were a character, instead of a human-shaped weather front. By showing us the Kingpin’s inner life, we’re left with Big Bald Baby Kingpin, who may be a recognizable human crime boss, but is no longer an allegorical representation of Corruption.

      Similarly with Cloak & Dagger: whatever they’re good for in a story, it’s really hard to imagine them as actual people in their own right, with their own agendas and social relationships.

      But boy, it would be tempting as hell to run these bastards as Sorcerer characters and see what emerges. Cloak is of course bound to a demon; Dagger is bound to an angel per the Sorcerer’s Soul rules which may be mostly a cosmetic difference.

      Hmm.

      Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I do hate that Care Bear Stare thing. Total cop-out.

      Like

  7. Ha! I was ripe for Sorcerer even as a sixth grader!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ron, I don’t know if you read this one: Cloak & Dagger (second series) #10 is, like the review says, a pretty decent Dr. Doom story, including some nifty character moments as he interacts with the pair’s spirit-based powers. It may have been my first exposure to Doom, and manages to hit a lot of the character beats: ruler, mad scientist, mystic, ulterior altruist, world-beater, ego-maniac, momma’s boy.

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    • I’ll hit up my not so secret source for older issues, probably to do a full-on, every-issue-ever Cloak & Dagger reading. More possible Doom posting is yummy icing for sure.

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  9. The discussion has led me to more thinking about “it’s awesome.”

    1. Awesome as execution: not too hard to understand, is it. What interests me most is that execution can be awesome even with a pretty ordinary, even ridiculous starting point. I think success in this lies hard in the core of what makes stories good, when they are, in that the human mind’s need for stories and skill at processing them really doesn’t care about the “raw material” once the story is under way. If the story-under-way addresses the raw material well, or refines it well enough and soon enough into stronger material, then all is good.

    As a secondary point, one phenomenon I’d like to see studied is how selective memories can be about a story, if it embarked well enough long enough before it collapsed and became crap. Try to get someone to state simply how one of their favorite for-shit movies (or a good one they rely upon for pop culture cred and never really watched) ended – you might be surprised at how skillfully they dodge the issue or state things which are straightforwardly false.

    2. Awesome as starting concept: this is more complicated, and presumes that we’re talking about crap execution. Here the raw material is packed with provocative content, so the person encountering it knows full well, accurately, that if it gets addressed even in the most adequate execution, it’ll be a story like no other. This provocation can be either frighteningly frank or maddeningly opaque, it works either way. “If they really do this, then I am going to be blown away.” The more provocative, the more enticing – and loyalty-building, right there.

    Crap execution, in this case, can have two effects: pure recoil, which is more or less what I experienced in my too-limited contact with Cloak & Dagger (“this makes no sense, these people have no idea what they’re doing, I can’t bear it”); or all the more embracing of the potential as such.

    I’ve done the latter tons of times, one of which will occupy a whole post regarding Cyclops. James’ discussion of the Falcon is the same thing: “This was a great concept, great enough to value as such, and the fact that it never worked well, was written or illustrated well, or provided with any value in execution, well that doesn’t change the greatness.”

    The Falcon sucked! The Falcon was awesome! All that’s revealed is that there’s something worth talking about. Neither judgment means a damn thing as such, but together they matter immensely as autobiography and as a touchpoint for emotional and intellectual connection.

    Jeffro: we don’t know one another all that well, but we’ve connected a bit more than the usual internet ships in the night, so …

    – Scots-Irish. From the region of the U.S. Colin Woodard calls “Greater Appalachia,” a remarkably significant sector, especially in how invisible it is in ordinary discourse. (My dad moved from Oklahoma to central California as a boy, in the 1930s. I know a bit about this stuff. Johnson. Edwards. These are ethnic names.)

    – 80s kid. Started looking around and paying attention right around the time I describe semi-humorously as the “wet, hollow, national snap sound,” in which the bulk of the 60s and 70s were completely forgotten and re-written into caricatured form, and also during which the Cold War tendency not to tell one’s kids anything reached its inflection point, kids who knew literally nothing about their own family’s regional and political history except for hard and never-explained platitudes. (Hard enough for my lot, ten years earlier; I can’t imagine what it was like for the next round.)

    Anyway, that’s enough armchair, but enough for me to say, yes, I get it – Cloak & Dagger in the Strange Tales run (which as you describe it was very 70s-ish, just as Moreno said at G+ was the last gasp/moment of that 70s type of writing) was off-message, in the larger culture. “Hey! There’s something going on here! We have issues! You have issues! Here are the visuals of the issues, in your face! Come see what we can say!” If my little and obviously incomplete profile is important at all, it’s what a bright and inquisitive kid would desperately need, would home toward unerringly in a sea of bland or assumed or strident, non-negotiable statements presented as the universe by everyone else. In a world in which everyone pretended that his or her personal profile of TV shows was indeed the real world, Cloak & Dagger in their plain visual existence threw a rock into every such profile.

    … Awesome in concept. In my taxonomy above, in the “maddening” category, not at all clear with where it might go, but obvious that it had to go somewhere that absolutley no one was claiming as comfortable territory.

    It let you down. I completely see that. One of these days I’ll post about another Mantlo creation timed perfectly to my life as this was to yours, and which played precisely the same role for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • James Nostack

      Cyclops is awesome in execution. He’s a submissive who constantly craves validation from Professor X, then a series of telepaths who can see exactly what an obedient boy he’s been, and then he’s absolutely furious (and thus subconsciously in ecstasy) that Logan constantly berates and chastises him. Cyclops ending up with Emma Frost, the ice queen dominatrix, isn’t a coincidence.

      But the best moments are when he’s doing stuff that’s genuinely out-of-character rebellious and “not right,” like abandoning his wife and child for his teenage crush, or finally killing the old man and trying to be a heroic version of Magneto without all the Magneto-is-secretly-full-of-crap stuff.

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    • “awesome (or, at least, interesting) initial concept, bad execution” I think it was Manto’s speciality. Apart from his later injuries, his work as a lawyer, the themes he inserted into his stories hint at a really nice guy who wanted to help people… He was probably one of the marvel writers most interested into social issues. In a phase of Marvel history where almost everybody shied away from social issues (or moved them into their works with independent publishers or Epic) he was relentless into pushing them on the forefront in his “marvel universe” comics.
      He was the one who created the first Puerto Rican superhero for Marvel (the White Tiger),
      His first Iron Man fill-in, as recalled in this article…
      http://www.sidekickcast.com/bill-mantlo/
      ..was about Vietnam.
      And you have just to look at Cloak and Dagger, they are a shop list of social and personal issues.
      The problem is that the execution was rarely on a level with the premise. Both in sheer technical ability, and the depths of analysis (just look at the way drug use is depicted in Cloak and Dagger).
      The cliff between the ambition of the premise and the execution increased the perception of Mantlo’s weaknesses as a writer. At the time I considered him the worst writer Marvel had on staff, and talking with other readers I was by far not the only one to think that.
      Reading again some of his stories after all this time, that title was unwarranted. I have read far, far worse later. Mantlo’s “fault” was to be published at the same time Marvel published some of its best-written comics ever (and not only Marvel, it was really a good time to be a reader of comics at the time: in Europe that phase it’s even called “the American comics renaissance”). Mantlo’s was not really worse than Conway or other Marvel writers, but he had to be compared with Moore, Miller, Byrne at its best, Simonson, David, Claremont at their best, and all the independents too.
      And what I did not know at the time (but probably it would have made very little difference in my judgement) was that he was to one called for quick last-minute work when there was a story to be written fast for any comic book: an attitude that endear you to your editor that gives you steady work, but certainly don’t make you a fan-favorite.

      But yes, if he had not tried so much to talk about social issues and real problems, if he had stuck more closely to the usual super-hero fare, his weaknesses as a writer would have not stood up so much. At the time I did see only the weakness of execution, not the ambition of the attempt.

      Liked by 2 people

      • James Nostack

        Moreno, I think you’re absolutely right: if Mantlo had been writing in the 1960’s, 70’s, or 90’s, I think he would be regarded much more favorably; it was his bad luck to work at a time when titans walked the halls at Marvel.

        Apparently Shooter thought Mantlo was a hack who couldn’t put a plot together, and required a lot of hand-holding / ass-kicking in the late 70’s but later shaped up into something kinda tolerable. (This is on Shooter’s blog but I don’t feel like digging for a link.) But he does mention that Mantlo was extremely hungry for work and wasn’t shy about creating new characters all over the place.

        And you’re right: he wasn’t afraid of world politics. At one point the Hulk goes on a world tour and meets the (infamous) Arabian Knight, as well as the Israeli super hero Sabra (published a year before the massacre of the same name).

        Another strike against Mantlo is that he tends to be associated with some of Marvel’s licensed comics: the Micronauts, Rom, and Team America; maybe some others. Curiously these dudes were inserted directly into the MU (by the early 80’s, Marvel’s lawyers apparently learned that licensing deals expire, so they segregated later titles like G.I.Joe and Transformers away from the main world).

        My recollection–speaking as someone who hasn’t read the stuff in about 30 years–is that Rom was actually a pretty awesome comic, especially around issues 40-60 when shit got intense. I’d be very curious to know if it holds up; the critical consensus is that it’s head-and-shoulders above Mantlo’s other work.

        Personally what I find most impressive about Mantlo is that decided to go to law school at night–which is a really demanding slog that I can barely imagine–and then worked for a social justice non-profit that does important work helping the impoverished of New York City. I don’t know if that’s what Mantlo intended for his legal career, but comic book idealism was one of many things that pushed me into a somewhat similar path.

        My understanding, by the way, is that after the success of Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel provided a pretty big check to Mantlo’s family.

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    • Adding to my previous comment: I did read some web pages and posts about Mantlo and Cloak and Dagger to refresh my memory, and it’s staggering the amount of things and characters created or added by Mantlo, that become associated with other writers more capable of developing them or simply more successful.
      At the time, comic book writers had already seen comic creators being screwed by publishers that did steal their creations (Siegel and Shuster, Kirby, the legal battle between Gerber and Marvel for Howard the Duck, etc.) and the market was full with new “indipendent” publishers that promised more creator-ownership (even Marvel began to offer it with Epic). So Starlin stopped writing Thanos for years to create Dreadstar for Epic, Chaykin left Marvel to create American Flagg for first, etc… and even writers who still worked with old Marvel characters preferred to recycle characters that were already owned by Marvel, rather that risk giving away the next Howard or Superman for free.
      I have read a comment from Shooter saying that Mantlo was the exception, and he was always created new characters or new angles for old characters. Seeing how much he worked (one time Marvel published 8 issues written by Mantlo in a single month) most of these are forgettable, but some were not. And the other writers searching for things to use that were already owned by Marvel often took these concept and made them theirs, developing them.
      For example, Mantlo was the one who come up with the concept of Bruce Banner being abused as a child (another social issue…) and that being the root of Hulk’s rage. And that did nothing with the concept. Until Peter David took that single-issue idea and recreated the character around that. (even the idea of having an intelligent Hulk was by Mantlo first)
      Mantlo was the one who created Rocket Raccon. (He will never see a dime from the movies, but at least he was credited in Guardians of the Galaxy for that). I have never seen the original comic book, but it seems from description I have read that he used Rocket Racoon.. to talk about “proper care foir the mentally ill”

      Reading about all these characters, and remembering about their editorial history, each story reminds me of Cloak and Dagger. Among all these other Mantlo’s creations, they maybe simply didn’t found their Peter David, their Claremont, someone who saw the concept and said “hey, I can use that!” and developed it further.
      Maybe they were really too much, too many hot potatoes together. Or maybe they were really not worth developing. Or maybe it was simply the luck of the draw, i don’t know….

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Gordon Landis

    I want to point at “I never got over it” and say “yes, that – thank you, that’s important.” Not specifically for Cloak and Dagger (which is most certainly NOT among the very small number of comics I’ve read), but SF/Fantasy stuff in general. I think Ron developed many of the implications in his “developing awesome” post, but I want to add a personal “wow, Jeffro, you nailed something significant there.”

    Like

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