Cloak and Dagger: A new property from Marvel being created by ABC Signature Studios and distributed by Freeform. I call this product Marvel’s C-list because the Avengers are the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s A-team. Netflix Defenders and ABC’s Agents of SHIELD are the B-list heroes. Then there are the forgotten heroes. Characters almost no one knows, but could be good in the right hands. This is the C-list. The C-list doesn’t have to be a bad thing either. 20th Century Fox Television produces the excellent series Legion, based on the little-known, psychotic, psychic who was sometimes a member of the X-men. I will leave you with the video to absorb while I regale you with why I don’t think this is a good idea… Don’t worry, this first video is only 1:47 seconds, meet me after the video.
Starring Aubrey Joseph as Cloak and Olivia Holt as Dagger, this clip shows the standardized expectations of race relationships in their 1970s origin story. Tyrone Johnson is a Black youth with a supportive (and likely single parent) home having trouble with a local criminal element. Tandy Bowen is a painfully stereotypical ballet-dancing, White teenager from an affluent background with an emotionally-challenging home.
Cloak and Dagger has been thought of as a Romeo and Juliet-type story with superpowers and have endured for 30+ years on the fringes of the Marvel Universe. Most of their stories were street-level adventures including drug dealers, gang-bangers, teen runaways and other such stories. The occasional supervillain shows from time to time as the mysterious boss and is rarely confronted by our heroes. Their adventures revolved around their acts of vigilantism and the challenge of dealing with their powers. I don’t intend to review the video. There are plenty of people out there dissecting every second. Instead I will share the comic background of these two characters and why I had a problem with these characters in the past.
Cloak and Dagger: How do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways.
In light of Cloak and Dagger becoming a television show, I thought I might share my perspective on the two characters. Here is a summary of their origin from Wikipedia.
“Cloak (Tyrone “Ty” Johnson) and Dagger (Tandy Bowen) are a fictional comic book superhero duo appearing in American comic books published by Marvel Comics. They were created by writer Bill Mantlo and artist Ed Hannigan. Tyrone “Ty” Johnson and Tandy Bowen met in New York City as runaways. Tyrone was a 17-year-old boy from Boston, Massachusetts with a debilitating stutter and ran away to New York City when his speech impediment prevented him from stopping his friend from being shot by police, who mistakenly believed he had just robbed a store.
Tandy was a 16-year-old girl from a privileged upbringing (born in Shaker Heights, Ohio) who ran away because her multi-millionaire supermodel mother was too busy with her career and social life to spend time with her daughter. When they met, Tyrone considered stealing Tandy’s purse, but before he could, a thief stole the purse and Tyrone retrieved it for her. Afterwards, they had dinner and became fast friends. When naïve Tandy accepted an offer of shelter from some strange men, wary Tyrone went along to protect her.
The two teens were soon forcibly delivered to criminal chemist Simon Marshall developing a new synthetic heroin for Silvermane and the Maggia, testing it on runaway teens with fatal results. Johnson and Bowen somehow survived injections of the drug, and they fled. During their escape, the drug turned them into super-powered beings (this is later retconned that they were both actually mutants and that the drug had simply awakened their latent abilities).”
This was a pretty standard superhero origin story. Two unlikely people share an experience and are transformed by it; like being in love or having to handle an IRS audit. I discovered these two characters a year after I joined the military in the early 80s. I was a big Spider-Man fan and their first appearance was in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #64 (March 1982).
I admit, at one time of being a fan of Cloak and Dagger. They were two tragic kids who were given experimental drugs which instead of killing them gave them superhuman abilities, or they were mutants whose powers were delayed and activated by the drugs or they were mutates who developed superhuman abilities from the drugs. Marvel had difficulties deciding which way they wanted to go as to the origin of their powers.
However they acquired their powers, little explanation has ever been given as to the nature of those powers. How they work, their relationship to other kinds of abilities in the Marvel Universe, or the source of said powers. After thirty years we learn (or some bold writer and editor decided) Cloak’s powers may be linked to an other dimensional energy called the Darkforce™. The Darkforce is the name given to a negative energy drawn from a dimension near our own nicknamed the “Darkforce dimension”. Some mutants can tap into this energy naturally, while normal humans may learn to call it up magically or even using technology like the supervillain, Smuggler.
In the same way as other negative energy abilities, the Darkforce is easy to learn but hard to control. Similarly it has a number of strange applications and often most users only utilize a tiny aspect of its range. People who can interact with that realm gain the ability to manipulate those forces for a variety of superhuman capabilities depending on the strength of their connection. Powers exhibited have included: flight, teleportation, various mental powers (fear, domination) and “solid darkness” constructs. A few well known Darkforce users include: Spot (Johnathon Ohnn), The Shroud (Maximillian Coleridge), Blackheart and Darkstar (Laynia Petrovna).
Cloak’s manifestation of the Darkforce seemed to make him immune to extremes in temperature, capable of increasing darkness in an area and extending tendrils of his black cloak either as a protective barrier or to grab and draw objects into his cloak. Said objects were thought lost in the Darkforce dimension.
If a human were drawn into the dimension, they would find themselves freezing cold and would lose “life energy” while they were there. They experience their greatest fears while there. It is possible to die inside of Cloak’s dimensional aperture. While people are in his Darkforce-created clutches, they also feed their lifeforce to him, increasing his strength and powers. Cloak can also use his powers to teleport an undisclosed distance.
Dagger’s powers were given even less explanation: The light energy somehow formed inside of her body and increased her energy, stamina and agility. When she concentrated, she could create a construct she called a light-knife. Thrown and striking a normal human, that person might be stunned for a few hours. More powerful metahumans for only a few minutes. A curious side-effect of her power is it cleansed you of any drug addictions and any of the psychological craving for those drugs. It didn’t mean you couldn’t become addicted again, only that for a moment, you had been purified of any drugs in your system.
Her powers operated at range or close up, but she was almost always shown throwing multiple light daggers at the same time. The most awkward aspect of her power was the ability to prevent Cloak from needing to absorb life energy from other Humans by providing such energy herself. There are no other such users of a power similar to Dagger’s Light powers. For these two characters, their appearance in the eighties was part of an explosion of new characters. Marvel seemed poised to try and find new ways of promoting superheroes and themes around drugs, teen homelessness, and the issues of teen interactions seemed ripe for investigation.
For a while Cloak & Dagger could do no wrong.
I looked forward to their every appearance for a while. They even got their own series for a while and were the hot kids on Marvel’s block. They were visually interesting, not so powerful they overwhelmed their opponents, not so weak they were taken in the first wave. Their team-ups with Spider-Man and others across the Marvel Universe were kept infrequent so they remained fresh. But secretly, in my heart of hearts, I found them disturbing.
Over time, I began to notice Cloak’s powers were unreliable. They were intermittent or dependent upon his state of mind. This was one of the things which caused me to have difficulty with many Black superheroes no matter what universe they appeared in. They tended to depend on unfortunate stereotypes such as Tyrone’s stutter and connection to a criminal past.
Black heroes seem to have problems like these when they are first created; their powers are problematic, reactive or defensive (meaning they cannot attack with them unless attacked first). See: Bishop, Synch or Darwin of X-men fame. To be honest, I found Cloak’s powers terrifying and maybe just a bit rapey. Enveloped in his cloak, subjects were drained of “light” or “Life force” and would emerge in the real world more than a little worse for the wear. The metaphor for rape stands…
Cloak was basically a vampire. Dagger, on the other hand, was a vessel of light energy. Pure, white light of which she had an endless supply. Capable of feeding Cloak’s need for the light of Human beings. You see where I am going with this? Darkness = bad, Light = good. Sigh. Then they wanted to include the young love aspect to the equation. Another sigh. Why would we have to endure another Black man in a relationship with a White woman? This was back in 1982, so for those of you who thought this was a modern thing…not so much.
Since I am being honest, the idea that a Black man whose powers were vampiric in nature, a man who was psychologically, perpetually depressed, and completely dependent upon a White girl for his psychological and physiological needs to be met to be disturbing.
Whenever the two of them split up, he would be forced to feed on the light of normal Humans and this was never good. The co-dependent nature of their ongoing and apparently unhealthy relationship. Cloak was unable to strike out on his own, a prisoner, a junkie, hooked upon Snow White. While Dagger didn’t experience any corresponding disability when separated from Cloak. This super-dependence on the part of Cloak has always sat wrong with me. Why is he dependent and she still has choices?
Is there a fix for this dilemma?
Absolutely. Let’s spread out this inequality a bit. Since Cloak suffers from a debilitating loss of energy as well as a vampiric hunger that cannot be ignored, why not have Dagger suffer from a correspondingly powerful reaction when she becomes too suffused with her unknown life energy? If she isn’t with Cloak, she starts building up life energy because she is generating more lifeforce than she realizes. Cloak is constantly absorbing it. Even if she tries to “burn” it off, there is a corresponding feedback from the energy she uses. If there is no “target” her need to create light grows even faster. It is the connection to another soul which reduces her personal energy for a time.
Perhaps after a certain amount of time, she even generates physical effects which could become problematic; she starts glowing all the time or spontaneously erupting in bursts of light explosions damaging the world around her. Or having her alter the psychology of people who are around her too long, driving them into their secret manic obsessions or neurotic compulsions. Give her light a psychological component for her as well, perhaps she becomes more overconfident, taking greater risks believing she is capable of doing more without Cloak.
Having him disabled and her unaffected puts all of the relationship power on her… Another problematic sexual dynamic issue. Read into that whatever you like. Yes, writers have tried to experiment with these two and evolve their relationship, but have failed to extend their powers, failed to release them from their co-dependence and instead of evolving them into a significantly more evolved relationship where their powers truly complement and support each other, they have pretty much remained in stasis, barely changing at all since their creation in 1982 in the pages of Spider-Man.
Ultimately, It is likely I am the only person who feels this way about these two burgeoning super-stars who have existed in the Marvel Universe for over 30 years, reasonably successfully, and I look forward to their future appearances. I plan to give them another chance to see if they have progressed passed the painful stereotypes of their less-than-ideal origins. I know one thing they won’t be able to replicate: Her costume. This is likely to remain a comic only creation.
Cloak and Dagger isn’t scheduled to show up on Freeform until 2018, so we will get many opportunities for new trailers. Already the video reveals that Tyrone has no stutter before he acquires his powers and I was grateful for that. Maybe the writers of this series have actually read their comic appearances and have noted some of these problematic cultural and social dynamics.
We can hope.
Thaddeus Howze is an award-winning writer, editor, podcaster and activist creating speculative fiction, scientific, political and cultural commentary from his office in Hayward, California.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He has published two books, ‘Hayward’s Reach’ (2011), a collection of short stories and ‘Broken Glass’ (2013) an urban fantasy novella starring his favorite paranormal investigator, Clifford Engram.