The Spectacular Spider-Man was the first self contained ongoing “B-Title” featuring everyone’s favorite wall crawling super hero. And while it has always played second fiddle to the original monthly Amazing Spider-Man book, the first volume of Spectacular had plenty of remarkable stories throughout its 22 year run. “Spanning Spectacular” is my attempt to shine a spotlight on those memorable arcs, the creators who crafted them and the history of the book itself.
Spider-Man is certainly no stranger to the drug culture and how it has been portrayed in the comic book medium through the years. The story of Stan Lee forgoing the Comic Code Authority’s seal of approval in order to tell a tale about the evils of drugs in Amazing Spider-Man #96 is now the stuff of legends. Lee’s rebellion not only ushered in an era in which comic creators could tell the stories they wanted no matter how controversial they might have been, it also added to the lore of both Lee himself and Spider-Man as a character. Spider-Man’s run-ins with real life problems wouldn’t stop with Lee’s 1971 story. 11 years after Lee first went rogue, Bill Mantlo introduced two characters that were bred out of the drug and gang filled streets of 1980’s New York. These two characters would be the two most enduring contributions Mantlo ever submitted to the Marvel canon.
When fans in the early ’80s learned that Bill Mantlo was coming back to replace the departed Roger Stern on Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man, there may have been some trepidation. Though Mantlo’s stories got progressively stronger as his tenure on Spectacular went along, many still remembered his less than stellar arcs featuring such forgettable characters as the Hypno-Hustler and the Lightmaster. However, Mantlo’s vanilla early work on the book may have been partly due to the fact that editor Archie Goodwin was still scripting many of the stories during Mantlo’s first year as writer. When Mantlo was finally given the chance to spread his wings, he provided us with the memorable Carrion arc (though editorial interference may have prevented that story from reaching its full potential as well). Once he took back over as writer on Spectacular in 1982, Mantlo had become a much more polished storyteller.
Just three issues into his second run, Mantlo hit his stride. Spectacular Spider-Man #64 opens with a scene of Spider-Man swinging over the seedy, dirty streets of New York. Ed Hannigan’s art is immediately recognized as being perfect for a story such as this one. His backgrounds, which were more detailed than what many artists were putting forth in the Copper Age, help bring the city to life. Hannigan (and later Al Milgrom) actually gave Mantlo something that Stern never had during his time on the book; a steady artist to collaborate with.
Issue #64 is set up by introducing us to a pharmacist who’s hooked up with the mob. Not long after making acquaintances with Spider-Man, we meet the man’s eventual killers. Spider-Man, not knowing the full story, tries to fight off the mysterious Cloak and Dagger, who seem to suddenly materialize out of thin air. Spidey is far from ready for the cold darkness of Cloak or the paralyzing light of Dagger though and after doing their deed, they disappear just as quickly and quietly as they came.
Seeking answers to what his new enemies are all about, Peter does a little research at the Daily Bugle and finds out that the mob in which the now deceased pharmacist worked for was responsible for the drug induced deaths of a number of teenagers at Ellis Island. Believing that Ellis Island is a good place to find more answers, Spidey heads to the small island in New York Bay only to find himself mulling over the millions of immigrants and refugees who had passed through the “golden door.”
When writing this piece, it was hard not to see the significance in the section of the comic in which Spider-Man is envisioning a line of immigrants trying to make their way into America. Hannigan’s ghost like images of the countless people is just the right amount of haunting. In a story about the twisted drug culture of the time, Mantlo slipped in a passage that connects the displaced youth of the story to the refugees of the early 20th Century. I won’t get into controversial modern politics within this particular column, but Mantlo’s words written down within a comic book published over 30 years ago may have more resonance now than they’ve ever had.
Once Spider-Man snaps out of his reverie, we find that Cloak and Dagger have the mob bosses cornered and are about to execute them for their crimes. We learn that the crimes the young duo speak of are the forced use of experimental drugs on a group of wayward teenagers. All of the teens died from the drug except Cloak and Dagger who were somehow given strange powers as a side-effect. Realizing just how bad these mob guys are, Spidey temporarily teams up with Cloak and Dagger only to watch each and every mobster brought to their death by the hand of Cloak. Spider-Man’s ally/enemy relationship with these two perplexing teens would start here with their first appearance and carry on to this day.
Just a few issues later, in Spectacular #69, Cloak and Dagger would return to take on the head of the Maggia (the whole robot Silvermane thing starts here). The popularity of this power couple would only increase through the years and in 1983 Mantlo would get together with Rick Leondari for a well received four issue mini-series featuring the duo. In 1985, Marvel gave Mantlo the go ahead to write an on-going Cloak and Dagger series that would run 11 issues. They were major players in the infamous Maximum Carnage cross-over event of the early ’90s and have continually popped up as both an ally and a foe of Spider-Man through the years. They’ve even been solicited to appear in an upcoming issue of Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 4) in the coming months.
It’s easy to see that apart from probably Rocket Raccoon (who had been mired in obscurity until a recent movie), Mantlo’s most remembered character contribution to Marvel has been Cloak and Dagger. They’re characters whose relationship with each other defines them and, for me anyway, that’s their appeal. There can be no darkness without light and no light without darkness. Though they may be frightening and mysterious, it’s their dependency on each other that makes them interesting and, in a sense, relatable. Future writers have downplayed the whole, “murder anyone who peddles drugs” outlook of the couple (much like much of the nation has cooled off on the “war on drugs” mentality), but the the portrayal of Cloak and Dagger as orphaned loaners who have no one but each other is a trait that still remains.