In this column I will dive into times, throughout superhero history, that comics got political. There seems to be a constant debate if political discussion has a place in the medium. I hope to show that politics and superhero comics go together. This time we look at the introduction to Cloak and Dagger in the pages of The Spectacular Spider-Man.
A story of the disadvantaged
This comic, Spectacular Spider-Man #64, was written by Bill Mantlo. We have spoken about his work before as one of the earlier post-Stan Lee writers. His work was always politically charged and traditionally had a focus on the disadvantaged. Which makes sense considering Bill left comics to become a public defender. These themes are most apparent in one of his most important creations, Cloak and Dagger. They gained their super powers while being experimented on by the mob, in order to find the next big street drug. The pushers in this book make no secret of the fact that their main goal is to take advantage of those without privilege. When they kill a bunch of kids with their drug experiments, they simply walk away noting that they were just runaways and rejects and therefore will not be missed. While the elements of this story are fantastic the reality is hits close to home. Mantlo is purposely tying this into what he sees going on around him. We have covered comics that dead with drugs before (HERE and HERE) and the common element seems to be that the users are taken advantage by those in power. This narrative is important and powerful as it gives the reader empathy for those suffering from addiction and explaining why someone would go down that path. The villains are the ones who enable and prey on the disadvantaged and the heroes are those that fight to protect those in need. Spider-Man is the perfect comic to introduce these ideas. As he is the perpetual “down on his luck” superhero that has to worry about paying his rent as much as taking on the Green Goblin. Cloak and Dagger are a further extension of this ideal, two heroes that were literally taken advantage of and left for dead, with now commit themselves to making sure it happens to no one else.
Spider-Man vs Cloak and Dagger
Spider-Man and Cloak and Dagger may share general themes but their actions are vastly different. Spider-Man quips and jokes his way through life. Even when he is against impossible odds he rarely breaks with his positive attitude. Furthermore, he would never kill and relies on the criminal justice system to carry out the sentencing after capturing the villains he fights. Cloak and Dagger are much closer to The Punisher, in the way they carry out their actions. They don’t trust the system to take care of the criminals and have no qualms with murdering the pushers and mob bosses on the street. This makes sense as Peter Parker learned about justice and responsibility from his Uncle Ben, who was murdered. He refuses to allow needless death to occur, regardless of the victim. Cloak and Dagger were taken advantage of on the streets and have seen how the power structure is pervasive and damaging. Their distrust in authority comes from facing abuse first hand. Mantlo actually plays both up as heroes here and does not frame anyone as wholly incorrect, unlike The Punisher who at this time was seen to be too heavy handed in his justice (around this time he was actually killing people for littering). As a reader I did not feel bad for the death of the evil pharmacist that created a drug that instantly ODed street kids, and I don’t think we were supposed to. This comic is far more nuanced in actually critiquing the cycle of victimization than the simple bad guy vs. good guy story.
A story of immigration
Probably the most interesting aspect of this comic is the backdrop surrounding everything, Ellis Island. Famously the location of The Statue of Liberty and one of the original portals into becoming an immigrant in America, is where all the horrors in this book take place. Mantlo scripts some narration that tells a different story of those arriving on the shores of the “free-world.” Some did not see it as a beacon of hope and instead called it the “island of tears.” Some where turned away and sent back into abject poverty of their homeland.
Using the dichotomy of the Ellis Island as a symbol for hope and despair, highlights the theme in this comic. The teens were taken advantage of on the secret drug labs on this island, the same way many immigrants were turned away and back to their deaths. The same way society turned their backs on the children they had every available opportunity to help, so to did they to they immigrants entering. Mantlo knows that the USA is a great place of opportunity and prosperity, but those are only afforded to a select few. He even directly links the street kids running toward New York City with the plight of the immigrants.
Cloak and Dagger have gone on to be fairly constant in the Marvel Universe. They even have their own TV show currently. Their politically charged message and origins have not been lost, as they continue to fight against power in order to help the disadvantaged. While their story is linked to “The War on Drugs” at no point have they blamed the victims and have focused on those in power and privilege to take advantage of the needy. Their romance has also been one of, sadly, very few love stories between a white and black character. They are a powerful symbol and I would love to see them break out more.
Bill Mantlo is currently in assisted living and can barely pay his bills. This is a creator that has brought so much to Marvel and his creation Rocket Raccoon is about to be featured in a movie set to make over 1 billion dollars. If you can please donate HERE.If you cannot donate sharing the link on social media will only help.