Saturday, April 04, 2015

Let's Look At Secret Wars II Crossovers!

Cloak & Dagger #4

Let's talk turkey: no one likes Cloak & Dagger.

I hear you sputtering and frothing, your monocle plopping off and tumbling into your bowl of French onion soup as you stare in disbelief at the words on your computer screen. No one likes Cloak & Dagger, you say? Why I never!

Before you get offended, think about it for a minute. Cloak & Dagger first appeared in 1982 in the pages of Spectacular Spider-Man, created by Bill Mantlo and Ed Hannigan. They spun-off into their own mini-series in 1983, followed by the launch of an ongoing series in 1985. This series ran for 11 bimonthly issues before being folded into a relaunched Strange Tales anthology, with Dr. Strange as the co-feature. After 19 issues of that, Cloak & Dagger and Doc were once again split into separate series. The new Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme book ran for 90 monthly issues, whereas The Mutant Misadventures of Cloak & Dagger lasted for 19 bimonthly issues - and in that time crossed over with Inferno, Acts of Vengeance AND The Infinity Gauntlet.

The important thing to remember is that this was a period of historic success for the comics industry. In the late 80s and early 90s, getting canceled required a significant effort. And it's also worth noting that Dagger's "costume" is that she is a skinny blonde girl with perky breasts in a translucent body suit that manages to involve both cleavage and and an exposed belly-button. They tried everything: Spider-Man was practically a co-star, they were pals with the New Mutants, they had two Marvel Graphic Novels, one of which was even a team up with Power Pack. (OK, maybe that last one wasn't exactly a recipe for commercial success, but still.) Marvel really tried with these guys. They saw a Cloak & Dagger sized hole in the market and tried their best to fill it for seven long years. Unfortunately, it really wasn't as big of a hole as they thought.

That doesn't really say anything about the books, or the characters themselves. I admit that even though I've never been a big fan, I've always thought the duo had some potential, even if that potential has usually been hidden under a pile of regrettable crud. They've got a memorable, if kind of racist visual, after all - literally the whitest white girl you can imagine juxtaposed against the darkness of Cloak's, er, cloak. The problem is that in addition to this memorable / problematic visual, everything else about the premise has also dated terribly. (And hey, if you think that 1982 was probably one of the last moments when an interracial couple like C&D might still carry a bit of heat in mainstream culture, you'd be correct. This is especially true if you also filled the book with racists who spent half their time telling Tandy that Ty was a literal demon. Why, you might even say some racial panic was baked right into the premise. But in 2015 that part of the characters can be very easily ignored since in most parts of the country interracial relationships have become, you know, relationships.)

Do you remember the 1980s? Do you remember what everyone was worried about in the 1980s? I mean, besides nuclear war, the homeless, decaying manufacturing capacity, and growing wealth inequality inspired by Republicans having adopted trickle-down economic policies inspired by the nonsensical Laffer Curve? Yeah, I'm talking about drugs, as in, The War on Drugs. Conservative and conservative-leaning politicians across the country - and much of the rest of the world - ginned up a moral panic over surging rates of drug use. Whereas in a better world the viral spread of crack cocaine and resurgence of other hard drugs would have inspired government to mend the holes in the social safety net that enabled illicit drugs to pour into ruined inner-city neighborhoods (and even white suburbs) across the country while also establishing a drug abatement philosophy that treated addiction as a medical condition instead of incarcerating addicts, the good old U-S-of-A decided it was better simply to criminalize and demonize. If you're "of a certain age," you undoubtedly remember this PSA, or some variant thereof:

The War on Drugs, and the Rockefeller-inspired drug laws passed in its wake, backfired immensely. To begin with, look at the basics of drug education during the period. Remember D.A.R.E.? It stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education. This was a program that sent armed cops into classrooms all across the country to lecture kids about the dangers of drugs. All drugs. Marijuana remains a Class-1 narcotic in the United States, in case you forgot, meaning that on paper it's as dangerous as heroin or cocaine. The first and worst lesson kids took away from D.A.R.E. was that all drugs were equally bad, which meant that every single anti-drug lesson the student learned in primary school was completely erased the moment the high schooler took his or her first hit off a joint. My parents were and are recreational pot smokers and I could see with my own two eyes that half of what they told us in D.A.R.E. in the mid-80s was bullshit - stuff like, smoking marijuana once can under certain circumstances put you into a permanent coma (for instance, that's an example from memory). The other half was simple common sense stuff about peer pressure and the like, but because it was so intimately intermingled with bullshit the whole message was irreducibly tainted.

Mighty Marvel never met a trend it couldn't bite - be it disco, punk, or Iran-Contra, Marvel has found a way to capitalize on every passing fad or current event since Stan sent the Fantastic Four on their fateful rocket mission to beat the Soviets to the moon in 1961. 1982 predated the crack epidemic by a couple years (crack came into use in the early 80s as a response to the collapse of the cocaine market due to oversupply), but coincided precisely with the rise in heroin abuse that accompanied Russia's invasion of Afghanistan. (The Mujahideen flooded the west with cheap poppy in order to fund their insurgency by buying weapons . . . often from the same United States that was coincidentally also experiencing a surge in heroin use. This was the same Mujahideen who later formed the core leadership of al Qaeda and who were considered staunch allied of the United States until, well, they weren't.) So what were the kids into in 1982? Heroin! Oh, I kid. Sort of.

Cloak & Dagger were created to be every 1980s parent's worst nightmare: two latchkey kids - one from a posh upbringing, one from, er, Boston - who banded together as runaways, only to be kidnapped and given experimental drugs. These "experimental drugs" - essentially a kind of synthetic super-heroin that had killed all previous test subjects - left Tandy Bowen and Tyrone Johnson alive but in the possession of amazing powers. Dagger generated and could throw knives of pure light, whereas Cloak became, er, a giant cloak that could swallow people into a universe of absolute darkness. He could also teleport himself and others, which is a useful and surprisingly rare power that meant Cloak always got an invite to massive events where teleportation powers gave the writer an easy logistical cheat (such as the aforementioned Infinity Gauntlet, Maximum Carnage, House of M, and Civil War). But these powers did not come without a price: Cloak was left with a permanent hunger for Dagger's "light," and if he didn't receive regular infusions of said "light," he experienced symptoms similar to those of drug withdrawal. This led, in turn, to him being a bit of a whiny bitch, and creepily possessive of Dagger, to the point where his sole function in many Cloak & Dagger stories is telling her that he doesn't want to go off and play with the other super heroes.

For a while Cloak & Dagger were mutants whose powers had been awakened by the super-heroin. (Just typing that makes me feel dumber.) Then it turned out they were the pawns of Marvel's 17th greatest demonic mastermind, D'Spayre. Then after a while they joined Norman Osborn's short-lived "Dark" X-Men, and subsequently joined the real X-Men, only to be told that they were never actually mutants to begin with, at which point they left the X-Men, only to have their powers magically reversed during Spider-Island, of all things. Their new look is kind of cool, but so far as I know no one has used the characters since.

(And while we're on the subject, just why do you need synthetic "super-heroin," anyway? Isn't heroin already plenty addictive? Giving someone a more potent dose of heroin usually just kills them. And the whole reason behind the heroin epidemic at the time is that it was cheap, so a synthetic version would probably have been unnecessarily expensive. Comic book criminals are fucking stupid.)

With that said, there were rumors a while back that Marvel was looking at developing Cloak & Dagger as a TV show for ABC Family, which would be perfect, since supernatural adventure stories with star-crossed lovers aimed at teenagers are kind of a "thing" right now. Just, you know, drop the super-heroin angle, because the last thing they need to do is inspire a new generation of junkies to try heroin in hopes of gaining awesome superpowers.

So yeah, no one likes these guys. Before you burst into the comments with an angry jeremiad about how Cloak & Dagger are the most underrated duo in comics - think about the fact that your opinion is a statistical anomaly, and that if enough people cared about them to support a book at any point in the last 25 years, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Cloak & Dagger aren't terrible: for the most part they're just . . . there. (When they aren't also being just a teeny-tiny bit racist.)

Based on this preamble, you can probably tell their run-in with the Beyonder is going to be fun.

The mid-to-late eighties was also the era in which the Punisher first rose to prominence, so it's not as if there wasn't a legitimate demand for street-level urban vigilantes (mostly) fighting on the front lines of the War on Drugs. But alas, Cloak & Dagger were no Frank Castle. Until the day I die I will regret the fact that the Punisher's solo series did not begin until after Secret Wars II was nothing but a memory, and so there exists as yet no official meeting between the Punisher and the One From Beyond. (I did, however, write my own, even if the image link is long dead.) But there does exist an editorially-mandated crossover between the Beyonder and Cloak & Dagger, which is as wonderful as you hope.

Out story begins, as most do, with the Beyonder wandering the mean streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side, which looked significantly different thirty years ago than it does now.

Now, of course, the Beyonder doesn't understand poverty, which is understandable, because to an omnipotent being from another universe seeing Earth for the first time, poverty is a pretty weird thing.

Now who do you suppose just happens to be hanging out on a rooftop right near where the One From Beyond decided to take his nocturnal stroll down the mean streets of not-yet-gentrified urban hell New York City?

There are a few things that usually come up in any discussion of Secret Wars II: there's the bit where the Beyonder turns a building into gold, the part where the stupid kid sets himself on fire because John Byrne wants to prove an even stupider point, but most importantly, the issue where Peter Parker teaches him to go to the bathroom. This one comes in for a lot of criticism because of the fact that, well, it is goofy. But the incident makes more sense in the context of the issue in which it occurs - Secret Wars II #2 - which is itself a relatively light-hearted and humorous installment of the series, focused on a child-like Beyonder learning how to do things like eat, defecate, and use money. In context, it makes sense. Therefore, I'm always surprised that more people don't know about Cloak & Dagger #4, because I believe this represents the event's true goofy zenith. There is no context in which the events of this comic book can be said to make sense.

The Beyonder, thinking that these strangers are sincere in their desire to satisfy his desire, happily accompanies them into the tenement. This does not sit well with our heroes, who also use the incident as an opportunity to expostulate on their ethical prerogatives.

At this point . . . well, here's where shit get real.

So, to wit: the Beyonder has entered a shooting-gallery and is about to be rolled over by a few dealers. They apparently plan on giving him an overdose of heroin, instead of just - you know - hitting him on the head and taking his wallet, which would undoubtedly save them the trouble of using up valuable inventory. But then, of course, we would be spared the unseen spectacle (thanks, Comics Code!) of the Beyonder actually shooting heroin.

Being the killjoys they are, Cloak & Dagger show up just in time to interfere with the whole operation. The Beyonder, as you can imagine, isn't too happy with this turn of events.

Cloak & Dagger was never exactly a subtle book when it came to its religious allusions. You may have found yourself wondering, when you began reading this article, whether or not the scene depicted on the cover - that of the Beyonder crucifying Cloak & Dagger - actually transpired in the story itself. And now you know the answer is yes. The Beyonder crucifies Cloak & Dagger because they beat up his drug dealers.

And that was the end of Cloak & Dagger, as the dysfunctional duo were cured of their self-destructive powers and set free to start a new life, which included marrying and settling down, opening a bakery in Williamsburg that just happened to take off a few years later when the neighborhood began to change, and subsequently ending up as recurring guests on Martha Stewart Living because of their famous shortbread.

Oh, wait, the story isn't over. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuccccccckkkkkkkkk.

And so, I give you the greatest moment of Secret Wars II, and maybe, just maybe, by extension, the greatest moment in Marvel history, and as such, the greatest moment in the history of all comics: the Beyonder getting high on smack.

Are you ready?

Are you sure?

OK, here we go:

You aren't imagining it: this scene is so hot that the letters are burning right through the page, rendering them completely illegible. Eighties printing at its finest.

But in all seriousness, it wasn't until a few years ago that I was actually able to make out what this page was saying. When I got the Secret Wars II Omnibus (because of course I got the Secret Wars II Omnibus, are you kidding me? It has its own special pedestal and we record all births, marriages, and deaths inside the flyleaf) the first thing I did was turn to page 550 and see if the improved printing allowed for the page to be read. It did, just barely. It reads:
The being from beyond "allows" himself to experience not only its "rush" - that overpowering, initial sensation of pleasure - but also the agony known to every abuser of papaver somiferum from time immemorial. He could end his descent into this poisonous purgatory at any instant and yet he allows the horror of it to sweep over him, so that he can expand his awareness of both the drug and a world where its availabllity is commonplace. An underworld where what is sold in the name of happiness begets hunger - where hunger begets desire - where desire begets need - where need begets crime . . . where crime begets retribution and so on in an endless cycle of addiction - world without end!
Now, the last thing I want to do is pick on poor Bill Mantlo. He's been dealt a rotten hand by life and deserves every ounce of support and well-wishing we can muster. But. This is a thing that happened. The Beyonder shot heroin on his watch. Not only did he shoot heroin but he also magically experienced the rush and the comedown from a massive dose of the drug in what appears to be the blink of an eye - which, you know, I'm no expert in intravenous drugs, but I'm pretty sure that's not quite how heroin works.

The Beyonder, being a child with the powers of God, overreacts just as you would expect, by wiping out the drug dealers and then returning their powers to Cloak & Dagger in order to carry on the War on Drugs in his name. They're not thrilled by this fact. He seems surprised, despite their having explicitly told him just a page ago how happy they were to be free of their powers. Not that bright, this one.

So the One From Beyond obliterates the drug trade in New York City by destroying every drug dealer. He can do that, you know. In case you forgot. Here's American domestic drug policy in the 1980s in a nutshell: because drugs are seen as an absolute moral wrong, the Powers That Be decided to crack down in as vicious and permanent a way as possible on those who use and sell narcotics, while the bleeding-heart left sat on the sidelines and wondered whether or not drug offenders might not need to be reformed (while actually doing very little to stand in the way of draconian sentencing laws because they proved to be very popular with the same electorate who elected Reagan twice).

Well, seeing as how New York drug use rates didn't drastically plummet in 1986, you can guess what happens next. Because Cloak & Dagger apparently didn't get the memo about this being Reagan's America, they obviously sympathize with the subhuman scum the Beyonder saw fit to scour from a city where decent people are afraid to walk alone at night.

As goofy, strange, terrible, ludicrous, and amazing as this story is, you could also point to it as being perhaps the archetypal Cloak & Dagger story. This, after all, is the one where God comes down and explicitly explains the series' core metaphors: "Cloak represents the darkness - the despair a man may expect as his punishment should he commit a crime - while you are the light of his salvation. Who also just happens to be a bangin' blonde chick while the face of criminal punishment in America is, coincidentally, a young black male."

Superheroes are strange people. You'd think, after encountering a man with the powers of God - not "a" god but capital-"G" God - able to kill thousands in the blink of an eye and then magically resurrect them moments later - they might be slightly . . . affected by the experience. You might even say this could be a life-changing experience for any sane person. But not our heroes! Just another day in the office for ol' Cloak & Dagger.

And so now we have seen the War on Drugs through the eyes of Marvel Comics ca. 1986. As awful as parts of this story may be, it's also premised on a degree of sympathy and compassion for drug users that was not necessarily to be expected in the period. This was the era of Arnold and Sly, after all, who enthusiastically took on crime with both guns blazing. Marvel had it's own answer to these type of inherently right-wing law & order fantasies waiting in the wings, in the form of the aforementioned Punisher. The Punisher was a success where Cloak & Dagger had failed, perhaps on account of the fact that the liberal pieties with which Mantlo approached the drug war were simply out of touch with the times. People wanted to see drug dealers being blown up with rocket launchers, so by God that's what Marvel gave them.

After Mantlo left the book, Cloak & Dagger migrated away from street-level stories and towards more supernatural superheroics - part and parcel of sharing a book with Dr. Strange, one suspects. That direction, of course, proved no more popular. Cloak & Dagger remain oddballs - borne of equal parts opportunistic fear-mongering and liberal sentiment, a concept with never-fulfilled potential relegated to the margins of the Marvel Universe, and predicated on regrettable racial imagery. When it comes to Marvel, of course, you can never say never - the greatest proof of that is another Mantlo creation with a far more unlikely pedigree, whose toys can currently be found clogging the aisles of a Wal-Mart near you. Will we live to see Cloak & Dagger redeemed, plucked out of the unfortunate circumstances of their creation and modernized sufficiently in order to allow the characters to shine? Perhaps. Only the One From Beyond knows for sure.


Adam said...

Tim, as always, a pleasure. You may be right that nobody really likes these guys but you may also have just created some new fans with this article.

Spoilers Below said...

My most prominent memory of Cloak and Dagger is from their appearance in Alphona and Vaughn's Runaways, where Chase says something to the effect of "Wait? Your secret origin is drugs?" with an incredulous look on his face, and Cloak rears up angrily, shouting "We are not role models!"

It was Cloak and Dagger's first appearance in years, kicking off their resurgence as Bendis' resident "teleportation plot device characters" for his mid-2000s Avengers books.

~P~ said...

My monocle certainly DID pop forth, loosed from its perch before my unbelieving eye as I read your opening falsehood!

I, for one, DO like Cloak & Dagger.

I mean, I tried!
I still do.

I first discovered them either in a later (of the early appearance) Spider-Man issues or soon after in their own initial miniseries, when said issues were hot on the stands.

I then went and hunted down all their initial appearances, and continued to buy them in their subsequent mini series and first ongoing.
Until I didn't.

I liked the characters.
Hot dancer chick with full on cleavage, (with a costume hotter than spider-woman's "cross-your-heart" lift-and-separate and point down to the goods design-motif) and a dark, depressed, shadow-cloak dude.
I liked Bill Mantlo's melodrama (Mantlodrama) (I was an avid ROM SPACEKNIGHT reader, after all).
And I found Ed Hannigan's covers delightful and Rick Leonardi's elegant figure work was perfect to me. all wasn't.

Somewhere in the midst of all the perfect stuff, somehow the book just kept losing my interest.

I'd buy every subsequent attempt at rejuvenating the pair.
Every time.
(Except for the recent "ultimate"universe stuff, because...I just had no interest in that - especially after the horrific treatment of "ultimate" Doctor Strange)

Somewhere along the line, these two characters just fell into the category of "Damn, I want to like them, but they are never treated well for long by creative teams", and/or "used too infrequently to be able to properly follow their timeline with any cohesiveness."

And as indignant as I was when Doctor Strange had his "Master of the Mystic Arts" series fold up just so he could be placed as the BACK-UP feature in the new "Strange Tales", I was happy to see Cloak & Dagger join him in the title. (But as the LEAD feature?!? WTF?)

And it took Marvel only a few issues to cock up their new "Mutant Misadventures". BECAUSE of the whole "mutant misadventures"angle was stupid.

Runaways and Civil War brought them back into view (and recent appearances in Spider-Man's newest animated series), but it just seems too little, too late.

Their drugs-as-origin causes Marvel more grief than Captain America's, and even though Luke Cage managed to leave HIS similar origin in the dust, it dogs C&D as it defines them and their mission.

As for future mass-media resuscitation, a live action showing won't work unless their powers are downplayed into more "street-clothes" levels, or a full blown balls-to-the-wall animated (think the wildest Anime or cgi-mation) in order to properly showcase Cloak's abilities and Dagger's graceful battle-dancing.
Either as mentioned in-article "supernatural tweens"solo series or if Marvels MCU gets it's mystical side up and running into a "Midnight Sons"type of movie, aa part of that team.

Anyway, Tim, as awesome article.
As one born in the mid-late 1960's, the 80's were a great time for me (my late teens - early twenties), and you brought it all back (but forgot to mention the fear of AIDS in your list of dreads of that time -and the equally memorable anti-drug PSA with its infamous tagline "I learned it from YOU!").

Great stuff!
Your posts are always worth the wait.