Cloak and Dagger by Bill Mantlo and Rick Leonardi (Review)

Consecration in the Holy Ghost church (From a story not collected in the below volume)
Cloak and Dagger by Bill Mantlo and Rick Leonardi
Cloak and Dagger by Bill Mantlo and Rick Leonardi

And now for something completely different.

It is, of all things, a review of a comic book – which I first wrote for Amazon.

Moreover, it was written for comic book readers and is likely to make little sense to this site’s regular readers.

(Though perhaps it might speak to some souls who stumble across it, while surfing the lonely waves of cyberspace – people googling certain geeky comic terms or maybe even ‘Bill Mantlo’ …).

But if any regular reader wants a better sense of why I present this at this site, they can look here, in terms of what I write about:

Enabling the Catholic Mystery to be visible – just simply visible! – in a world where that Mystery is ever more obscured by ascending materialism and New Age-ism.

It might also be added that Bill Mantlo touches my very soul …

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Anyway, herewith my Amazon review of a comic book I adore: Bill Mantlo’s Cloak and Dagger.

Over forty years now, since I first began to read comic books.

None of them has ever HIT me like Cloak and Dagger.

Fifteen years of my youth actively reading all the greats: Eisner, Barks, Miller. EC. Lee and Kirby, O’ Neil and Adams etc, etc.

Now Cloak and Dagger from the lesser-known Bill Mantlo means more to me than all of the above put together.

Cloak and Dagger: a Marvel comic about teenage superheroes in a grim, dark world of drugs and crime.

And yet this world of real horror is shot through with tenderness, morality and hope.

Strange … these Cloak and Daggers are less technically accomplished than some of the comics mentioned above. There are plot holes, some stilted expository dialogue here and there, the usual comic book clichés of a 1980’s Marvel book.

Big deal. Doesn’t matter. Something in these comics SHINES like no other.

What shines most of all here is Bill Mantlo’s writing. Writing with a heartfelt, moral core …

How to capture this writing in a few words? There is genuine social conscience, an understanding of moral growth, a very touching, personal emotional awareness from a writer whose heart is obviously ALIVE.

Here is a heart, which clearly feels both the joy and horror of what it is to be human in this world.

Strangely, the comic also possesses a very Catholic and some might say medieval sensibility. The supernatural pervades the series and the superheroes live in a Catholic church.

And Catholic themes and iconography repeatedly recur. Along with this is a vivid sense of good and evil. The evil is frequently disgusting, the good is beautiful and enobling.

Then there is the art of Rick Leonardi. Now Leonardi is an underrated great talent and his atmospheric art adds tremendously. But as much as I love Leonardi’s visuals, these alone would not lift it to the status of my personal favourite comic of all time.

I ADORE this comic and the reason for that is Bill Mantlo.

Again: despite the rough edges. Probably Mantlo was writing under comic book deadline pressure and couldn’t avoid the usual formulas and clichés.

Whatever: here is a true diamond – even if it is a diamond in the rough. Don’t let the rough distract you from what is precious and rare in the world of the comics.

Certainly, Mantlo never managed to do all with Cloak and Dagger that he might have done – given the opportunity.

He was apparently unceremoniously removed from the comic and then suffered the most tragic of accidents, meaning that in all likelihood he will never be able to write this (or any) comic again.

And the world of the American comic book is forever poorer as a result.

Now I confess, my comments here pertain to the entire run of Bill Mantlo’s Cloak and Dagger – an ongoing story spread out over some thirty issues in the 1980s.

Only four stories are collected here in this volume, but they are a great place to start, featuring as they do the series’ finest artist (again the underrated, but wonderful Rick Leonardi).

If like me, you get hooked on Bill Mantlo, you will either have to search out old back issues or petition Marvel to reprint the rest. I pray the latter will happen. This series deserves to be remembered and cherished.

A final note regarding these later stories not collected in this volume. Unfortunately, not all the later artwork in the series is anywhere near Leonardi’s high standards. And perhaps the lesser artwork in some of those later stories helps to explains why Cloak and Dagger never achieved the reputation it deserves.

But I wonder if Leonardi HAD drawn the whole series … I wonder if people just might begin to speak Mantlo and Leonardi, the way they speak of O’ Neil and Adams, Wein and Wrightson, Lee and Kirby.

And I wonder … what would happen if Marvel were to republish the entire run and the great Leonardi were to re-illustrate some later stories, replacing their substandard art?

I wonder … if some people might join me in my opinion: simply the best comic book Marvel ever produced.’

End of my original Amazon review.

I wonder if any of this site’s usual readers will have followed me through to the end?

If you have dear Reader, I will simply reiterate this – I truly have been very deeply moved by the thirty stories in all. Though in order to truly understand that, I suspect you might need to read the entire run of those thirty issues – beyond the four collected in the above volume.

Yes Mr Mantlo, you have forever touched my heart and soul and I include you in every Rosary I pray …

Moreover, there really is testimony to the Catholic Mystery here. In one story (not in the volume above) Cloak discovers that he has been prey to a demon lurking beneath the threshold of consciousness. And how does he discover this? He only becomes conscious when a Priest throws Holy Water over him …

I suspect Bill Mantlo thought he was only writing fantastic fiction. If so, he was closer to the truth than he imagined. For demons do exist and the power of the Priesthood has been given to help us deal with that unsettling reality …

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5 responses to “Cloak and Dagger by Bill Mantlo and Rick Leonardi (Review)”

  1. […] rest is here: Book Review: Cloak and Dagger by Bill Mantlo and Rick Leonardi This entry was posted in Books and tagged all-things, amazon-moreover, completely-different, […]

  2. Billy Bishop Avatar
    Billy Bishop

    This really takes me back. I read a little bit of Cloak and Dagger “back in the day.” A few things struck me then…and a few different things strike me now. 

    They lived in a church.  How odd.  At the time, it seemed, how wrong, absurd even.  Should a church provide shelter to individuals in this way, as opposed to a homeless shelter, a friend’s apartment? It couldn’t be right. Foolishness.

    On reflection, how very right and right on so many levels.

    Superheroes are just that because of their mighty powers. If they couldn’t fly, shoot laser beams out of their eyes, &c. &c. &c., what good would they be? Let’s think of St Therese. What’s her superpower? The Little Flower doesn’t have one that you could make a comic book out of.  Yet, the miracles that surround her are associated with rose petals, blooms from out of nowhere, seemingly. In the story, the Church, through a parish priest, does a strange thing.  They let 2 people live in their space.  By doing so, a force of good and justice is nourished.  

    So, they live not just in a church, but in The Church.  It’s what Tomberg said, the Church provides the atmosphere, the oxygen necessary for life. 

    The Church does something by doing nothing, or by doing something foolish, something good that isn’t necessarily by the rules (surely it would be illegal in New York). And yet, in this gentle way, in this profoundly humble and even powerless act, good flows in most unexpected and even mighty ways. 

    As the Church acts out of poverty, Cloak and Dagger act from the wealth of their super abilities. This wealth and power are the result of sin – the man who tested drugs on them that gave them their powers. They use their powers for good, but as they think best (correct me if I’m wrong) and not with any attempt at uniting their wills with God (a lot to ask from a comic) , let alone something like Tomberg’s divine respiration.

    While they are empowered, they are also deeply wounded. Cloak in particular is in need of light to sustain himself. Does much more comment than that needed on a Catholic blog?

    There is a sexual element to this (as an aside, it hadn’t occurs to me that Dagger’s rather provocative costume incorporates a cross) but interestingly it is the man who needs the woman’s light inside of him.  That would seem to lead to the conclusion that Dagger is Cloak’s anima in Jungian terms, that and the fact the series is written by a man for mostly male fans. Her light feeds – and sustains – his darkness and yet she is not consumed by it.  Men can become infatuated with their animas rather than progressing and healing and integrating. In relationships, when one depends too much on the other as a way to fulfill one’s own needs, that flawed person is only being set up for failure by our unrealistic expectations. Finally, while Cloak has found a way, in his wealth, to be temporarily well, he must set that aside so that he can find the True Light, even if that means self diminishment as a result.  “He who loses his life shall find it.”

    This hunger of Cloak’s  is not unlike (though perhaps a mirror opposite) of the vampire obsessed woman treated by Jung. She was a victim of incest which shattered her mind. On the one hand, she was shamed, completely abased. On the other hand, because incest is the prerogative of the gods, her soul was sent out of the earthly sphere to the lunar one, where she was haunted by a terrible vampire. After working with Jung for some time, she was able to heal, finally confronting the vampire, discovering he (her animus) as an angel of light.  What might happen to Cloak (and Dagger) if such healing came to him/her/them? It’s available. They LIVE in it, but they seem not to realize.

  3. roger Avatar

    Billy – what an utterly unexpected delight to receive such a comment!

    You have really added to this page with all these insights into this remarkable comic book. Indeed you have said more than I have.

    Before adding more now, I want to stress that my comments relate solely to Bill Mantlo’s Cloak and Dagger, which amounts to nothing more than thirty comics out of what must now be hundreds featuring these characters.

    But as for the thirty Mantlo stories, so much is there beneath the surface – such as the archetypal dynamics between Cloak and Dagger that you illumine for us here. Interestingly, Mantlo explicitly invokes Jung at one point, where Father Delgado gives a sermon intertwining Jung, St Augustine and dreams. This issue is unfortunately not reprinted – yet anyway.

    Anyone following these comments will readily see that the Catholicism in Cloak and Dagger is less than traditional.

    As ludicrous as it will sound to people, I cannot help but think of Bill Mantlo as the Graham Greene of Marvel Comics. (At least, in his Cloak and Daggers, the series of which Mantlo was most proud).

    As far Marvel superhero comics go – these are existential indeed. And so the relationship with Faith is often a tortured one. As with Greene.

    All of this – and some of the things you mention – might trouble certain traditional Catholics. And I appreciate why.

    For my part, just as I am grateful that Greene brought the Church so powerfully into the field of great 20th Century English literature (where the Church is otherwise almost invisible) so I am grateful that Bill Mantlo rendered the Church – and her Mysterious Power – visible in Marvel Comics.

  4. Billy Bishop Avatar
    Billy Bishop

    Thanks for the tip on Mantlo. I confess to not paying too much attention to who actually did the writing. I was of course floored by Alan Moore back in the 80s. Can’t say I am as impressed in retrospect but at the time, he made it look like nobody else was even trying. There was a piece I watched about Chuck Jones and the direction he took
    The Roadrunner cartoon (didn’t think such a thing was possible!).

    It’s amazing what one can discover if one will only pay attention.

    1. roger Avatar

      Billy, I pretty much stopped reading the comics before Moore came along, so I hardly know what you mean. And I am afraid to say that your Chuck Jones reference is obscure to me, as well.

      However what I take from what you say is that with Moore, comics achieved a certain sophistication that had been lacking – like none else was even trying, as you say. I see that. Mantlo’s Cloak and Dagger is not so sophisticated – in a certain sense. As I say above, it has stilted, formulaic qualities, for sure.

      And yet underneath those comic book cliches, something is stirring, moving, powerfully expressing – despite everything – a moral complexity and a moral beauty that completely captures my heart, unlike anything I ever found in the comics. (And again I read very little after the mid-80’s, so there’s a great deal I have missed.)