Cloak & Dagger: How do I loathe thee, let me count the ways
In light of Cloak and Dagger getting a television show, I thought I might share my perspective on the characters. Here is a summary of their origin from Wikipedia, which is essentially correct.
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. In April 2016, Marvel Television announced that the duo would appear in their own television show.
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).
Pretty standard heroic origins…
I discovered these two characters a year after I joined the military. I admit to, at one time, 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 can never decide which way they want to go with things.
No explanation of those abilities have ever really been ventured forth. We have learned that Cloak’s powers may be linked to an other dimensional energy called the Darkforce™.
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 technologically such as Smuggler. Like other negative energies, Darkforce is easy to learn but hard to control. Darkforce can have a bewildering variety of effects, and its users can control differing aspects of it, so some time passed before it became apparent that all these phenomena had a single source.
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.
Dagger’s powers were given even less explanation: They could stun normal humans for a few hours, metahumans for a few minutes, and if you were drug addicted, it would clear you of any physiological addiction you may have had to any particular drug. (The psychological aspects of drug addiction, however, were never addressed).
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.
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 ready for exploitation.
And for a while Cloak & Dagger could do no wrong.
What’s the problem, yo?
I looked forward to their every appearance for a while. 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.
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.
Black heroes seem to have this psychological issue when they are first created, their powers are problematic, reactive or defensive (meaning they cannot attack with them unless attacked first). See: Bishop (X-men)
When they weren’t defensive, they were kinda terrifying (and maybe just a bit rapey, even). 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, completely dependent upon a White girl for his psychological and physiological needs to be met (because whenever the two of them split up, he would be forced to feed on the light of normal Humans and this was never good) left me unhappy with 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.
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.
The Answer-Man’s Archives are a collection of my articles discussing superheroes and their powers in relationship to their respective universes. We deconstruct characters, memes, profiles and how superheroes relate to real world culture. You can find other Archives on Quora and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange or at The World According to Superheroes.
Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. You can follow him on Twitter or support his writings on Patreon.