Marvel's 'Cloak and Dagger': A Comic Book Primer

The story of the characters behind Marvel's latest TV project.
Rick Leonardi/Marvel Entertainment

Cloak and Dagger is once again in the works as a TV series, with Marvel Studios and ABC Signature developing the project for Freeform. (The series had earlier been in development for Freeform's predecessor, ABC Family, back in 2011.) The teen runaways-turned-superheroes are definitely on the obscure side of Marvel's spectrum, having only made sporadic comic book appearances since the cancelation of their last series in 1991. So what, exactly, is so special about these particular characters?

The two characters first appeared in 1982's Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man No. 62, created by Bill Mantlo and Ed Hannigan. As with much of the Mantlo/Hannigan era of Spectacular Spider-Man, Cloak and Dagger's creation owes a lot to Frank Miller's time as Daredevil writer and artist, both in terms of aesthetic and overall tone; just as Miller's Daredevil was a response to urban decay and real-world problems, Cloak and Dagger were intended as the same — albeit with a somewhat defanged, more mainstream appeal.

Cloak and Dagger were originally two teen runaways, Ty Johnson and Randy Bowen, who ended up in New York City for distinctly different reasons: Johnson watched his best friend get killed by police who — wrongly — believed that he'd robbed a grocery store, while Bowen was trying to get the attention of her supermodel mother. After a meet-cute, the two became friends before ending up being used by local crime bosses as guinea pigs for a new heroin substitute that the criminals hoped to flood the market with.

There was only one catch: the new drug not only didn't get them high, it ended up giving them superpowers. Superpowers, it should be noted, that the two them used to launch their own two-person war on drugs. (It was the 1980s.)

In later appearances, this origin would be modified so that it was that the drugs has merely activated powers that the two teens already had, unknowingly. This was done for two reasons; not only did it address the plot hole of "why didn't the crime lords then inject themselves with the same drugs to get their own superpowers?" but it also did away with the notion that taking drugs could give you superpowers — an idiotic implication for a concept that was conceived specifically as containing an anti-drug message.

As luck (or plot contrivance) would have it, the two ended up with superpowers that complemented each other: Cloak (Johnson) possessed the "dark form," which allowed him to access to "the darkness dimension," which he could use to terrify criminals or teleport himself and his allies. Dagger, meanwhile, could make "light daggers," which could paralyze her victims, while also curing drug addiction for reasons that were never quite explained. Additionally, her ability could "feed" Cloak of the light his dark form desired, permanently binding the two together.

For some years, the characters were moderately successful; from 1983 through 1991, they anchored their own series through three volumes (and an additional stint as one of two stories in the Strange Tales anthology) as well as appearing in issues of Spectacular Spider-Man and X-Men spinoff title New Mutants. Since then, their comic book incarnations have only shown up sporadically in service of other storylines and characters, such as in 2008's Dark X-Men or 2011's Spider-Island, both of which saw them working for the bad guys for convoluted reasons.

The characters have shown up on television, during this period, however; animated versions were part of Disney XD's Ultimate Spider-Man in its third season, although even here they were on the wrong side of events twice, helping Taskmaster's Thunderbolts and being possessed by Dormammu in different storylines. (Phil LaMarr and Ashley Eckstein voiced the characters for each appearance on the show.)

It's unknown whether Freeform's live-action show will adopt the anti-drug stance of the original comic book appearances — an element that the comic books themselves had moved away from before the end of the 1980s, favoring more generic superhero adventures — or merely focus on the angst inherent in the co-dependent relationship between the two. But if the television version of Cloak and Dagger makes it to the screen and, further, finds a fan base, it'll have managed to do something that Marvel's comic book arm hasn't managed in more than two decades: finding a hook to make these characters viable with an audience again.

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