While I can’t remember exactly what happens in this comic book, the cover to Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #95 has long been burned into my memory. It’s cover dated October 1984 and I must have bought it new at the local comics shop. If I recall correctly, that’s about when I started making regular trips to the comics shop, after a friend’s brother told me there was a place that sold nothing but comics, which blew my mind. My parents, to their credit, never seemed phased by my interest in comics. My father read them growing up but so did everyone at that time. During my childhood, comics had already settled into being more of a niche market that fostered an intense level of fandom. There were fewer comics readers, but they seemed more invested in them than previous generations. To every generation before mine, comics were seen as disposable, but we stored them carefully instead of chucking them after reading. So my father might not have understood my interest, but he never questioned it. Comics were my gateway to art and drawing in the first place. He knew that, and to his credit he supported the habit, most likely because he knew it was encouraging my artistic abilities. My parents took me to the comics shop once a month and I would blow my meager allowance on superhero and horror comics. My mother brought me sometimes but usually that task fell to my father and he’d wait patiently while I took my sweet time browsing. The man’s patience level was impressive; I really milked those trips for all they were worth, constantly calculating and recalculating which books and how many I could afford. I was also in awe of the pure graphic intensity of the comics shop—an explosion of colorful art everywhere the eye could see. It was overwhelming and I would get lost in the overabundance of superheroes and vampires and aliens that covered nearly every inch of the store. Now when I remember my dad I remember his superpower too, which was patience, and rarely was it on display more than when he took me to the comics shop.
So this particular cover was one of many that grabbed my attention, and why wouldn’t it? Besides featuring Spider-Man (who I loved) Black Cat (Spidey’s beautiful friend and foe—what’s not to love?), and some cyborg-like old dude with a rotting face (I have no clue who he is but I’m sure I thought he was radical at the time), it’s also one of the first times I saw the relatively new characters of Cloak and Dagger, and I was hooked instantly. Cloak, with that immense garment that he’d use to engulf morally bankrupt criminals and teleport them to the dark dimension, and Dagger, with her white, skin-tight costume and trademark dagger chest insignia cutout revealing an absolutely gratuitous level of cleavage, were visually hard to ignore. Their starkly contrasting color scheme—Cloak in all dark, Dagger in all light—created a dynamic look for the pair when positioned together, as they typically were. It was obvious even to an elementary school child like myself that Dagger was, shall we say, quite comely. I wasn’t that interested in girls my own age yet, but I was definitely interested in women that I had no chance in the world of knowing, let alone being with. I assume that’s normal? To clarify, I’m talking mostly about actresses and fictional characters. Bailey from the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati was an early crush. Jean Grey and Wonder Woman from comic books were as well. Dagger quickly moved up to a high spot on the crush list.
When you’re that age, you know you find someone appealing, but you can’t always express why yet. In Dagger’s case, her costume was clearly working its magic on young readers. Here was yet another highly objectified woman in comics, drawn with a stunning body, beautiful face, long lustrous hair, and a revealing costume. From a purely visual standpoint, the simplicity in her costume’s design is what makes it stand out. The absence of color makes the stark white of her costume really pop on the page, especially when placed in contrast to Cloak, in his black and blue attire. Combine that with her platinum-blonde hair and revealing dagger-decolletage, and you have a simple but highly effective design. This is from an era when designers across different visual mediums showed great restraint, often doing more with less. Simplicity didn’t have a negative connotation; instead it was just another tool in a designer’s arsenal. Thematically, Cloak and Dagger also served as symbols for their respective races and genders, and because it’s comics, in an overly obvious manner. Cloak, a black man, was covered from head to toe in a gigantic cloak that obscured most of his body and revealed only a portion of his face, which was set in a permanent scowl. He swallowed evil-doers into his cloak, dispatching them to a dark dimension from which they might never return. Dagger, a blonde, white woman, was dressed all in white and as most of their adventures took place at night and she was often framed alongside of Cloak, it was impossible not to focus on her first. For added racial stereotyping, Cloak was consumed with a hunger that could only be satiated by consuming light from the victims he enveloped within his cloak or from Dagger herself. Over and over, Dagger would project ever-increasing amounts of light for Cloak to feed off of, often draining herself in the process. Quite literally, a white woman filled with the power of light was sustaining a black man mired in the depths of darkness; the white savior narrative in full effect.
The white savior narrative wasn’t the only narrative in Cloak and Dagger’s story, though. For example, it wasn’t always Dagger saving Cloak; he repaid the favor for her often. They had a mutual bond—even love—for each other, forged in their shared bond as runaways who gained their powers after being abducted and experimented on by drug dealers. Together, they sustained each other. Their story was a emotionally fraught and sweepingly romantic epic set against the backdrop of superhero comics. Although ostensibly Cloak represented the dark side and Dagger the light, they each struggled with darkness overtaking them at various times, and each carried a sadness with them that was hard to shake. Their co-creator Bill Mantlo explained how a visit to Ellis Island provided the inspiration for the characters:
“They came in the night, when all was silent and my mind was blank. They came completely conceived as to their powers and attributes, their origin and motivation. They embodied between them all that fear and misery, hunger and longing that had haunted me on Ellis Island.”
So while at first glance they seem to embody purely racial stereotypes, there is much more to the characters and their relationship beneath the surface. For all of their differences, they were also similar in many ways. As is often the case with comics, characters like Cloak and Dagger take on more complex attributes as they grow over time and under the authorship of various creators. It’s easy to dismiss the pair as simply a racial stereotype, but that’s missing the richer elements in their portrayals.
Let’s not forget that Dagger’s costume was designed with the male gaze in mind. It can still be a marvel of design while also serving as a prime example of how women were often portrayed in comics as objects of desire above all else. As kids back then, we certainly had no idea what sort of gendered perceptions were at play when it came to costumes like Dagger’s, but in hindsight now, it’s easy to understand why she was so appealing to kids of that generation, from a purely visual standpoint. Soon after I brought the issue at the top of this piece home, my mother walked into the living room while I was flipping through my new purchases. She saw this book atop my stack of new comics and, stunned by the overtly sexual nature of Dagger’s costume and positioning on the cover, said she was going to need to pay better attention to what comics I was buying from then on. Thankfully no censoring of my comics purchases ever took place, but I recall sitting there with a sheepish look on my face, wholly unsure of what to say in response. Understandably, what parent—what mother—wants her child exposed to objectifying images of women? Thankfully, many of us can see beyond the surface when it comes to images like this. If I’d had the words back then, I would have said that these characters were more than just their costumes to me. I grew to care about Cloak and Dagger as characters, not just as visually attractive lines on a page. While Dagger’s costume might have hooked me and other readers, she and Cloak’s story of struggle made us fans.
I’ve been wondering what made a child like me elevate these two obscure Marvel characters into my pantheon of favorites. Clearly their eye-catching visual appeal was important. I was and still am a visual person, an artist who has strong emotional reactions to well-executed art and design, but there’s more to it than that. I mentioned earlier how the characters’ narrative of hunger and longing kept me coming back for more. As children we often desire more from life than we’re ready to handle, wanting to rush through childhood so we can get to the adult stuff. Adding to that in my case, I was introverted and often a bit socially awkward in groups because of my extreme shyness. I was most comfortable on my own drawing in my room or spending time with my kind and supportive parents (that one changed as a teenager, of course).My young life was good overall, but my unease in social situations could make it difficult for me at times. I used to long to be older, to be past all of this adolescent awkwardness. Cloak and Dagger must have represented more adult themes to me, at a time when I was experiencing my first yearnings for freedom and a curiosity for the adult world. Kids related to Cloak and Dagger because they were like us, in a way; they were also kids who had been powerless and voiceless before acquiring their powers. They showed us that we could care for someone from a very different place than we came from. In essence, they were avatars for us as we transitioned into our preteen and teenage years and all of the tumult that comes with that. We saw ourselves in these two teenagers who struggled but also occasionally found salvation both in each other and in the delicate balance between light and dark. That’s why those early Cloak and Dagger stories will always resonate with me, alongside comics like the Uncanny X-Men with their cast of oddball mutants acting as metaphors for racial, social, and gender struggles, as well as other works that came into my young life at seminal moments, like The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Dog Day Afternoon or Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. These books, films, and albums helped me during those stressful and awkward years transitioning from one stage of childhood to the next. If Cloak and Dagger could grow up in the face of so much more pain and struggle than I ever had to face during those years, then I could do it too.