Lee Bynum: Marvel’s “Cloak and Dagger” premieres June 7 on Disney’s Freeform network. Two years ago, a program about an interracial, teenaged superhero couple that fights against drug lords and crooked cops might have struck audiences as quizzical, but in our current environment of racist tweets, unprovoked police shootings and opioid pandemics, the show conjures the exactitude of a documentary.
L.A. Williams: Here’s some comic backstory (which won’t always jibe with the show.)
Bynum: The eponymous characters debuted in 1982’s “Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man” before spinning off into their own miniseries. Created by Ed Hannigan and Bill Mantlo, Tyrone Johnson is a 17-year-old African-American from a working-class South Boston neighborhood and 16-year-old socialite Tandy Bowen is from a tony Midwestern community.
Williams: They run away from home and meet each other in Times Square.
Bynum: On the mean streets of pre-Giuliani Manhattan, the duo encounters every sort of undesirable, including crime boss-cum-chemist, whose tests of a synthetic heroin variant on Tyrone and Tandy cause them to develop superpowers. Tyrone morphs into Cloak, an intangible teleport, and Tandy becomes Dagger, who can harm or heal with her projectile shards of solid light.
Williams: And most people enveloped by Ty’s cloak are driven mad unless accompanied by Dagger.
Bynum: Cloak is concerned with cleaning up and protecting his new community, motivated more by personal demons than noblesse oblige. Now violent vigilantes, they wage a two-person war on drugs. Perhaps not coincidentally, they debuted the same year as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.
Cloak and Dagger eventually develop close ties to several groups of Marvel adolescent heroes, including the Runaways, whose well-received television adaptation aired last year on Hulu. Like “Runaways,” “Cloak and Dagger” features characters unburdened by audience familiarity, a cast of promising newcomers, an aesthetically pleasing New Orleans re-setting that allows for a fresh perspective on the Marvel Universe and easy access for the uninitiated. Still, references in the trailer to the Roxxon Oil Corporation—which was featured prominently in the “Iron Man” films and “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”—suggest there will be plenty of “Easter eggs” for die-hard comics fans.
Williams: Cloak and Dagger are constructed from a variety of stereotypes. Poor Black basketball player from the ‘hood. Rich white ballerina from the ‘burbs. The Black dude’s got dark powers. The white girl’s got light powers. The Black dude broods. The white girl shines. In the wrong writer’s hands (which happened often), those stereotypes are grating at best and detrimental at worst, with too many stories focused on someone needing to rescue the angelic Tandy from Cloak’s demonic, parasitic clutches.
The saving grace, as UNC associate professor of linguistics, J. Michael Terry, explains, is that the consistent central theme in most of co-creator Bill Mantlo’s writing is balance. In Mantlo’s hands, Dagger needs Cloak’s powers to keep her from self-combustion as much as Cloak needs Dagger’s light to feed him.
Bynum: Though “Cloak and Dagger” always has been dogged by an overreliance on facile dark-and-light imagery, it deserves credit for subverting some of the expected comic book gender norms. It is Tandy who possesses the adventurous spirit and physically threatening superpowers, while Tyrone is preoccupied with their relationship and finds himself in need of rescuing more than once. Dissimilar to other Black Marvel heroes we have seen—including Valkyrie, Okoye and War Machine —who rely on physical might to defeat enemies, Cloak’s abilities are more passive. He usually claims victory by absorbing his enemies into his shroud and depositing them in a demonic other dimension...
Williams: ...or off a rooftop.
Bynum: Those who are not fans of the comic—or any comics, for that matter—likely will appreciate the more serious tone of Marvel’s “Cloak and Dagger,” with less wisecracking than the Avengers franchise, as well as a more direct engagement with social issues.
Williams: When done well, “Cloak and Dagger” is about how two people from different worlds need each other more, and have far more in common, than meets the eye. Here’s hoping the TV show will message as Mantlo intended.
Lee Bynum is a historian bringing light to the world by writing about race and culture. L.A. Williams is a former comic book editor and a tall, dark, brooding dude from the ‘hood.