WARNING: LUKE CAGE Season 2 spoilers directly after this paragraph. I mean immediately, first sentence. That may seem odd in a piece all about The Shroud, but I promise there is a reason.  That said, this is your only warning because there will literally be no time to offer you another. Please plan accordingly.

As LUKE CAGE draws to a close, it becomes clear. There will be no last-minute swerve, no shocking twist. Luke Cage, dressed in a tailored suit, has indeed become the boss of Harlem. He is running the Harlem Paradise; he is meeting with the likes of the Mafia; he has claimed that infamous second floor office. He claims he only wants to keep the peace. However, you’ll be forgiven if you guess otherwise. One looks so much like the other, the difference is paper thin.

While shocking, Cage is not the first hero to become a crime boss. Under creators Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev, Daredevil tossed Wilson Fisk through Josie’s Bar’s window and announced himself as the Kingpin of Hell’s Kitchen. Later, during SHADOWLAND, Daredevil assumed control of the Hand. Both times he did it with the belief that he would stay the hero. The first time, one could argue if he managed that. The second, he quite clearly did not. Nonetheless, he was able to claw his way back to hero.

On the other hand, you have characters like Sinestro. One of the best Green Lanterns in history, Sinestro became opposed to order. Abandoning the GL code, he became a petty tyrant of sorts and then, in time, leader of the Sinestro Corps. Unlike DD, Sinestro never considered himself a villain and, as a result, never had an interest in coming back from the edge.

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A Third Path

There are, now and again, heroes who manage to stay heroic and act the part of a crime boss. They usually do not delude themselves into thinking they can turn a criminal organization good and remain pure themselves. Nor do they believe themselves so righteous that they do not even see themselves or their gang as criminals.

No, this third group of heroes turned bosses knows exactly who they are and what they are doing. They are undercover, using their position to destroy a criminal enterprise from the inside. They’ll never be Sinestro because they started the job knowing that the people below them were criminals — that the mission was to destroy, not to bring together. Similarly, they are less likely to be corrupted because they feel somewhat compromised from the beginning.

My favorite of this rare breed is Maximillian Quincy Coleridge. You may know him as Michael Wyatt. Or perhaps the Master of Darkness. But to me? He’ll always just be the Shroud.

The Shroud: His name...
But don’t tell anyone! (Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment)

An Inauspicious Beginning

Coleridge began his super hero career, in many ways, in an alley at 10 years old. That’s when he saw his parents gunned down right in front of him. From then on he dedicated himself to fighting crime.

If this sounds familiar, wait.

After college, he traveled the world learning skills to make him better suited for the life of a crimefighter. Eventually, he fell in with a mysterious organization — the Cult of Kali — who specialized in the teaching of a variety of martial arts.

Yes, yes, I know. But wait for the twist.

Upon achieving mastery, the Cult included the twenty something Maximillian in a spiritual ritual that culminated in him being marked with a kind of brand. The ritual cost him his sight, but gave him a sort of extrasensory substitute.

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The Shroud Takes a Big Cut But Can’t Make the A-List

Despite the fairly derivative nature of his origins, the Shroud burst onto the superhero scene with ambition. He had no interest in focusing on his city or his neighborhood. Zero commitment to developing his own group of enemies or choosing one kind of crime to end. No, no, no. The Shroud was not here to do the expected.

Instead, he decided that he would be the one to bring Dr. Doom to justice. How? By straight up killing the Latverian dictator, of course. Silly, right? Except he nearly does it! However, when Red Skull shows up, everything is turned on its head. Recognizing that Skull represents a worse evil than Doom, the Shroud reshuffles his priorities.

Captain America and Namor join with the odd couple of the bad Doctor and the Shroud. They triumph over Red Skull, but not before the Nazi literally launches the Shroud, aka the Master of Darkness, into space. He gets retrieved, alive, by Captain Amercia, but suffers from significant acute stress disorder. The level of the disorder is so intense that Coleridge has to disappear for a time to seek treatment. It would take months for him to return to a state of ego cohesion and being oriented fully to reality.

Clearly, he did not quite have his confidence back yet though. His next few appearances were rather inconsequential affairs. Until the kidnapping.

The Shroud: Standing semi-tall
The Shroud’s cloak conceals the fact that he really should work on his posture. (Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment)

Turning Defeat into Inspiration

The Shroud ended up getting snagged by a villain called the Locksmith and imprisoned against his will. Alongside him in the prison were Hangman, Gypsy Moth, Dansen Macabre, Needle, Tatterdemalion and Werewolf by Night, amongst others. After Locksmith was defeated and everyone regained their freedom, Coleridge had a brainstorm. It felt time for another big move.

Seeing that the direct approach nearly cost him his life and his sanity, the Shroud took things in a different direction. Maybe the criminal element would be easier to cut down if they never considered him a threat. Perhaps he could do more damage if he simply pretended to be a criminal, not a hero, and destroy Los Angeles crime from the inside.

However, to get where he wanted to be, he needed to seem like more than just another costumed thug. He needed to be a boss. Recalling his fellow prisoners and noticing several of them had a horror theme, he recruited them for the Night Shift. And like that, the Shroud seemingly transitioned from little-known hero to leader of one of the West Coast’s scariest criminal gangs.

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Keep One Foot in The Light

During his travels around the globe, Coleridge evidently spent a lot of time on planes watching movies about undercover cops. How else to explain how he learned to have people on the outside who know what you are up to? And that just one is not enough because inevitably he or she will die, leaving you stranded. Additionally, you need someone in the organization who you can trust to know you are the baddie you seem.

For the Shroud, the West Coast Avengers, especially Spider Woman, ended up as his people on the outside. They agreed to steer clear of his operations, allowing him to build his reputation and never forcing him to give up his cover.

Inside, Coleridge could count on Jack Russell, the so-called Werewolf by Night. While Werewolf had tangled with the likes of Moon Knight from time to time, Russell had no particular desire to be a villain. In fact, his allegiance to the group was entirely due to the manipulation of Dansen Macabre. Therefore, the Shroud recognized Russell could be a useful ally that no one in Night Shift would think to look twice at.

The Shroud- Night Shift
The Night Shift give the West Coast Avengers a friendly California welcome. (Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment)

Things Fall Apart

Night Shift did prove successful in the Shroud’s goals at first. Couching raids on other gangs in terms of stealing their territory, Shift reduced crime and criminals. It turned out what seemed like something of a bizarre plan was actually a quite smart read on the LA organized crime situation.

However, the Shroud ended up called away to, possibly, visit his family elsewhere. With the Shroud away, Dansen Macabre will play, as the classic expression goes. Under her leadership, the team tangled with first Moon Knight and then the entire West Coast Avengers. With no choice, the Shroud had to step in just after he returned to shut down the fight.

Not sticking around to see if he could convince the Night Shift that it was not what it looked like, the Shroud and Werewolf by Night beat feet, effectively ending the undercover experiment.

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Life After Being A Boss

Truth be told, despite being successful, the Shroud’s undercover achievements did not launch him into the upper echelons of superhero-ing. He seemed to float in and out of my vision over the years. There was a SHROUD miniseries that saw him tangling with the Scorpion. A fine enough four-issue affair featuring Mike W. Barr writing, it suffered from being swallowed in a glut of similar books. During the same period in 1994, nearly everyone semi-connected to the Spider-Man got the same showcase. That may seem like an overstatement, but Solo, Black Cat, the Prowler, and Annex all had four-issue series. Nightwatch had a book launching at the same time, but his went over a year if memory serves. It was an odd time.

There were guest appearances and another limited series that followed. None were terrible, none were great. What unified them all was nothing felt particularly special about any of the stories. With very few exceptions for his power set, you could swap in nearly any dark character and have the story work nearly the same.

The Shroud: He could use an ibuprofen
The Shroud hits rock bottom. (Courtesy of Marvel Comics)

The Downfall of the Shroud

Then came DAREDEVIL Volume 4. This saw the Shroud seemingly undone by his history of mental illness. Depressed and overly aggressive, he could not find any cooperative individuals in law enforcement. Instead, he made a second bid at a version of the undercover crime plan. However, Daredevil showed up in San Francisco too and then quickly came out as Matt Murdock.

The Shroud, in his depressive state, could not help but be jealous for the reception that greeted Murdock after revealing himself. Making matters worse, Coleridge had grown increasingly obsessed with ex Julia Carpenter, aka Spider Woman, aka Madame Web. Thinking he could work out his jealousy, earn the criminal underworld’s trust, and “win” back Carpenter in one fell swoop, the Shroud ended up getting beat up multiple times by Daredevil and tranquilized by Carpenter.

Taken into custody following that final indignity, the Shroud has not been seen since. Presumably, he remains in either prison or, hopefully, a mental health facility.

The Shroud- Affectless
The stoic Shroud stands still, stewing in smoke. (Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment)

Getting Back His Mojo

As demonstrated above, the Shroud is at his best when he is undercover breaking up the underworld from within. However, the Shroud identity in and of itself is kind of burnt. While heroes and villains often flip sides in comic book universes, the Shroud having pretended to be a villain not once, but twice, is bound to make him seem untrustworthy to the criminal community.

However, he has a skillset. Plus, it is a unique angle that seems too good to pass up. It would be a shame to let that go to waste.

So let the Shroud become his official superhero identity. He only wears the costume and calls himself that when he is specifically in the act of fighting crime. Otherwise, the identity and costume stays on the shelf.

Instead, now, he should recruit himself a team. Not of criminals, but of similarly minded super powered types. Not necessarily fit for the marquee hero life, but with a desire to help and powers that make undercover work well-suited to them. Then they move from criminal hot spot to criminal hot spot — nationally or perhaps internationally. Once there, they slowly integrate the scene and announce themselves as the newest gang on the scene. Each city gets a new identity for Coleridge and each member of his team. They take apart the local underworld, quell any kind of vacuum that springs up in the wake, and then move on.

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Maintaining the Alter Ego

In between and in the midst of missions, each member makes sure to return to their base of operations and perform a splashy act of crime fighting in their usual identities. Thus, while, let’s say “Storm Cloud” is in Dallas robbing banks, the Shroud has been spotted in New York City taking down a collection of HYDRA agents. Not only do we not lose his great look and name, but he has a plausible alibi. “I can’t be the Shroud, look at the cover of the Daily Bugle!”

Moreover, it does not create a situation where the Shroud is fighting crime in Detroit this month, Miami in two months and, simultaneously, the underworld is joined by a brand new gang and falls apart in short order. If that happens too many times, people might start to get suspicious. However, with the Shroud still back in LA or San Fran or NYC, there are less reasons to notice these brand new gangs.

And like that, the Shroud is viable again and is able to do what makes him feel like a unique hero again. Bam! Pow! KRAKOOM! The Master of Darkness is back on top!

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