Monday, December 22, 2008

Observations From Down The Rabbit Hole

I just re-read the first issue of the original Cloak & Dagger series, from 1985. The comic opens up with Cloak & Dagger busting a child pornography ring.

The narrator begins:

"Fifty cents for sixty seconds of fantasy. His pleasures are both inexpensive...and hidden from his wife and family. Just half a buck...and a cheap dream becomes a nightmare!"

Cloak & Dagger confront a customer of child porn, and have a debate as to how "guilty" this man really is. Is he just a poor slob with perverted desires that just got caught up in something that he had no control over? Or was he just as responsible as the people making money off the porn? And what should be his punishment?

Cloak says:

"Do you see how the pornographers and their clients seek to silence those who reveal their crimes, Dagger?"

Dagger to the customer at the peep show:

"You knew every time you dropped your fifty cents that you were peeking at some other family's child! You may not have known exactly where they came from, but you knew they could hardly want to, of their own free will, be where a sleazeball like you could stand and stare at them!

Cloak & Dagger (and their friend Detective O'Reilly), spend the majority of this issue talking about the crime of child porn in a very straightforward, condemning way. They see themselves as in a "war" against both child porn and the people that produce it. Further, even though Cloak & Dagger might have debates about the proper way to deal with the perpetrators, they are on the same page about the severity of the crime itself.

And it is inferred that part of the reason Cloak & Dagger care so much about the exploitation of children was that they themselves were exploited.

Though I read the original Cloak & Dagger comics in preparation for my own mini-series, I had no plan to take the book in the same direction as did its writer Bill Mantlo. Indeed, when I first read Cloak & Dagger #1, I thought it could never fly in today's marketplace. Too "moralistic." Almost religious in spirit.

Here's a sample caption:

"Dagger's faith is in the light illuminating every living being, in the soft glow of human souls. That light may burn dim in sinners, bright in others like Dagger herself, but she believes in the inherent beauty of the light...whereas Cloak exists to destroy it!"

Souls, faith, sin, light, darkness. This was the vocabulary Mantlo used to flesh out Cloak & Dagger's universe. And these were elements that he applied not only to drug dealers and child abusers but even characters like obsessed priest Father Francis Delgado -- and in the oft-tormented souls of Tandy & Tyrone themselves.

Reading those first stories was initially for me mostly an exercise to familiarize and re-familiarize myself with the continuity & history of Cloak & Dagger. I sought very little in the way of direct inspiration by what me and many others categorized (albeit affectionately) as an "very Eighties" comic book series.

But it is only upon further re-readings and reflection that I realize the power and beauty and honesty of Bill Mantlo's work on this book -- how unique it was, how raw and heartfelt. And I realize how -- though I didn't think it would -- it ended touching me very much anyway.

"The darkness wails wildly around the group enfolded in Dagger's gentle glow. Its terrible cyclonic howl cries out for the light denied it."

Growing up in the 1980s, child kidnappings, child abuse, and child porn were a constant topic in the news and in our classrooms. Even at six, seven, eight years old we were put on notice about sexual predators, and given information on things that -- though I didn't quite understand them -- I knew were pretty much worse than death itself.

One of my best school friends was repeatedly molested by a family member. Then it was rumored that this child began molesting an even younger family member. I remember sitting next to a girl in third grade on the school bus who would tell me how much she enjoyed sex, going into detail about explicit sexual acts. And from the ages of 12-16, there was no deficit in the number of predators put in my path. One of them lived in our own home for a year. I feel it is only by the grace of God that I managed to avoid being raped or molested, and that the 27-year-old man I slept with at age 16 was unable to have much of a hold on me. That is more than I can say for the 32-year-old man I moved in with the same year.

My dislike for child porn, for the "barely legal" aesthetic, and for erotica with extreme combinations of sex & violence, is not based on some pie-in-the-sky notions of morality grounded in fundamentalist Christian beliefs. It is based on observation and experience. I knew somebody very well who drew images of extreme sex-and-violence for a side business. I cared about this person very much as a friend. I watched him draw art on-demand by customers depicting women being put in the most humiliating of positions, things I can't even describe here because it's so disturbing. I watched him try to separate out responsibility for this from his daily life.

He said:

"It's only drawings, and at least I'm getting paid. I'm getting paid to draw, finally."

I watched his soul get eaten up by this business and his own addiction to pornography. I mourned for him. You may think "soul getting eaten up" is meaningless phrase, steeped in assumptions of morality and dogma. I assure you, when it is somebody you care about very much, and you see it all played out so intimately -- it is not meaningless.

"Dagger aids Cloak, feeding him the light that illuminates her soul, appeasing the all-consuming darkness that hungers within him...and thus diverting its hunger from the quivering victims Cloak has delivered to the darkness."

And finally, I have had my own battles to fight. I have come from an extremely physically abusive relationship with my father. When such a powerful male role-model impacts your early development like that -- it screws up everything. Including sex. It took me four counselors, 25 years, a revival of my faith in God, and the love of a good man to get over the darkness I found myself in, the willingness I had to replay the same tragedies from my past. And I'm still scarred, and I'm not perfect, and I am still making mistakes. I am the poster child for nothing. But I will tell you one thing -- pornography only made things worse. Far, far, worse. It was not a stop-gap. It did not satisfy. The "everything goes" ethic? Didn't work for me. Made me a banquet for the haters of women and innocence. Almost killed me on more than one occasion. Again, your mileage may vary. Just an observation. But I know how far down the rabbit-hole goes -- believe me.

"Something ravenous, human-hungry...yet something which would forgo all other sustenance if it could but feast on Dagger's light."

Reading the the words of Bill Mantlo now, I feel such appreciation for a comic book that dared to address these issues head-on. Back then, I'm sure it must have been difficult to do because of the "adult" subject matter. Today, it would be considered moralistic and "hokey" in some circles -- perhaps even "puritanical." Far hipper to bemoan sexual exploitation and at the same time "wink" at your own exploitation of the characters through their overly-sexualized renderings (slot in your own examples, they're plentiful and apparently very profitable).

And I realize that me getting a shot to write Cloak & Dagger was very much a case of the writer meeting the material. And that even though I was only nine years old when the first issue of the original series came out, its words reach through time and touch me with a startling immediacy.

"Cloak and I have a mission, Father -- to see that what happened to us never happens to other kids!"

Above all, I thank Bill Mantlo from the bottom of my heart for creating these characters, and giving a damn about the exploited, the morally conflicted, and those caught between the darkness and the light.