Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Swap Meet #1 -Cloak and Dagger: Predator and Prey

(This is the first of a series of reviews centering around graphic novels and TPB collections I come upon via my trading at Sequential Swap: a site for comic book readers to trade TPBs and GNs with other readers from all over the U.S., as well as other countries.)

By Bill Mantlo, Larry Stroman and Al Williamson
Published By Marvel Comics


Ever watch Family Ties? Remember when they’d call Tom Hanks in to play the alcoholic Uncle Ned? He showed up twice if I remember correctly, and once gave Michael J. Fox a nice crack upside the head (something most male watchers of the show envied Hanks for, I’m sure). At the time, I was just a little Hulkling, and to me those shows were the height of serious drama. That and, of course, that Different Strokes show when the old guy touched Gary Coleman and his goofy buddy in inappropriate ways.

These days it’s a little humiliating to look back and realize what managed to pierce my emotional defenses back then. Now the only thing poignant about those episodes is the idea that anyone could be so hopelessly swayed by as hopeless a medium as the American TV sitcom that they could think anything worthwhile could live within it. Some of the old feelings linger; like my girlfriend’s enduring fears of E.T. and Skeletor, and my own silent promise that I will never read Watership Down after being so thoroughly mindfucked by the cartoon adaptation (there were bunnies, and I was six: I had to watch it, it was a law); but most of those monsters become small, fragile, and barely worthy of note.

Similarly, the boogeymen Bill Mantlo produced during his run on The Incredible Hulk have long since faded. The last two years or so of his tenure on the title were comparatively very dark. My age hadn’t yet reached double digits by the time John Byrne and Mantlo switched places (Mantlo moved to Alpha Flight while Byrne left the Cahnucks for a brief run on Hulk), and when Mantlo did leave, my young soul breathed a deep sigh of relief. Mantlo had given the world the first long-term version of a Hulk controlled by Bruce Banner’s mind, and Banner’s subsequent fall from grace via the psychic powers of the villain Nightmare was as dark and disturbing as anything I’d read in a funnybook. His year-long “Crossroads Saga,” a comparatively epic arc in which the Hulk is banished to a dimensional crossroads by Doctor Strange, was an absolutely spirit-crushing tale of isolation, betrayal, corruption, death, and hopelessness. The climax of the arc comes with a visit from the Beyonder–the omnipotent Jheri-Curl man who’d been floating around the Marvel Universe via Secret Wars II–that inspires a psychic flashback outlining the systematic abuse Banner suffered at the hands of a paranoid father, and his mother’s death (something that later helped to inspire Peter David’s take on the Hulk, as well as Ang Lee’s film: on a sidenote, apparently there is some speculation that the issue in question–The Incredible Hulk #312–was actually written by Barry Windsor-Smith, David makes mention of it in his foreword to Hulk Visionaries: Peter David, Vol. 1). When Byrne showed up with his desert battles with Doc Samson and The Avengers, it felt like walking out of a three-day wake into a viewing of Back To The Future. I couldn’t have been happier.

Back then, the darkness of Mantlo’s storytelling was oppressive. Looking back at it is a lot like visiting your old grade school and realizing how small it is. Case in point–Cloak and Dagger: Predator and Prey.

It may seem odd to take up the lion’s share of a review for these two obscure Marvel heroes talking about the Hulk but, well, there just isn’t a whole lot to say. It makes you wonder why Marvel bothered with the GN format for the story, unless they hoped featuring these enduring peripherals in bigger panels would translate to bigger sales.

The story centers around a secret revealed regarding the source of Cloak’s power: a demon simmering in the folds of the hero’s cloak who feeds on the same light Cloak devours. After an altercation with a priest who manages to harm Cloak with holy water, the hero convinces himself he is a demon, and wanders through the city’s streets, refusing to help those in need of aid while in the throes of self-torture. Dagger likewise begins to believe that Cloak may be as evil as he himself fears, while the demon hiding inside the Cloak releases the spirit of Jack The Ripper to further complicate things.

In part this story was ruined by Alan Moore, whose masterpiece From Hell makes Mantlo’s brief re-working of the Ripper’s history seem cute at best, lazy at worst.

But Moore has been blamed quite enough for the relative lack of talent in the rest of comicdom, and you can’t pin anything on him here. Ultimately, Mantlo’s melodramatic style is to blame. What could potentially be an intriguing story is ruined countless times by his unneeded and loud, droning exposition.

It’s a shame this duo has found so few worthwhile paths to travel. The blatant parallel between their powers and both drug addiction and sex is one that could be exploited to maximum effect, but hasn’t been in anything I’ve read so far. One of the few striking moments of the GN, in fact, is one in which Dagger overloads Cloak with the light he needs to feed on, and the consecutive panels accompanying the scene (a scene with, thankfully, very little dialogue), show Cloak devolving into an ecstatic state of ultimate pain and absolute orgasm. The moment fades fast, and we’re left with Mantlo’s usual superhero over-dramatics.

It’s regrettable to write such a negative review for the first of my “Swap Meet” installments (especially considering that I’ll be putting this GN back in circulation, and so hope no potential traders read this review), but what the hell. Hopefully, some of you think I’m a moron.

Mick Martin

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