Sometimes, I just act on impulse. There’s a decreasing number of titles or characters in which I’m interested in learning, and hundreds of DVD-Roms of obscure titles from the Golden Age or after, rotating endlessly on eBay but not suggesting I’d get out of the the same amount of fun I’ve been enjoying so far.
I particularly enjoyed the Lady Luck and Black Cat series, at least the solo title version of the latter, and would love to find something equally entertaining and independent minded. So let’s try again with the Phantom Lady.
I’m going into a slightly dubious area of this particular heroine’s history. The Phantom Lady was originally created in the Eisner/Iger Studio for Police Comics 1 (August 1941), published by Quality Comics, making her an exact contemporary of Plastic Man and The Human Bomb. Drawn initially by Arthur Peddy, and then by various artists including Joe Kubert, the Lady was Senator’s daughter Sandra Knight, who fought crime with a wrist-mounted black light projector that effectively made her invisible, and a skimpy yellow bathing suit that made her very noticeable indeed!
Sandra fought the superhero fight until Police Comics 23, whereupon she was taken back by the now Iger-only Studio, believing it held the copyright. In 1947, they licensed Phantom Lady to Fox Feature Syndicate (of no relation to the Murdoch family, this was the company created by Victor Fox that published Wonder Man, the first direct rip-off of Superman). The character later appeared from Ajax, and Charlton (in reprints of Fox stories) before being bought, it was believed, by DC when they acquired Quality’s assets. This was my introduction to the Phantom Lady, in Justice League of America 107, yes, the very issue that reintroduced me to comics after initially growing out of them. I’ve only ever known PL as a DC character in one setting or another, and an ex-Quality asset. And DC have controlled the character ever since, though reprints of Fox material have been published without legal challenge.
The DVD I bought was supposedly of the character’s tenure at Fox. Instead, it consisted of three Archives, covering the Quality and Ajax years, as well as a volume of Extras. So, more comprehensive than I anticipated. That can only be for the good.
First up was a long file that reprinted the first twelve Phantom lady stories by Peddy, interspersed with three chapters of a prose story, obviously of much later vintage, outlining Sandra Knight’s background with a loving mother who was also a proficient American Intelligence Agent who committed her daughter to a Parisian Finishing School for the daughters of spies who expected their girls to take after them. Mrs Knight then spent several years out of touch before being confirmed as dying in the Service Of Her Country.
All of this was meant to retrospectively justify Sandra’s capabilities as a super-heroine.
And did they need it. I’ve long been familiar with Sandra’s origin, her striking from the shadows, unseen, to prevent German assassins murdering her father, Senator Knight, but I’m only now learning that this origin was wholly a DC concoction. In Police Comics 1, like so many heroes of the early Forties, The Phantom Lady arrives fully-formed, without explanation.
After some fairly sketchy art on her debut, Peddy quickly firmed up his linework. To modern eyes, PL offends no taste: Sandra Knight is a tall, poised and slim figure, with swept-back raven hair. Her swimsuit is just a swimsuit, and she supplements it with a long green cloak. Bare legs and arms, and shoulders, are the only things to challenge modesty, and when it comes to the form-fitting stuff, it’s not like Sandra, at this stage, is over-endowed in front: very much the Flapper build.
Peddy’s art is clean and stream-lined, but it’s also stiff and immobile. Phantom Lady tends to stand around a lot, looking stately and even in action sequences, Peddy brings little sense of movement. There is no comparison to the wit and style of Lady Luck and certainly not the agility of Black Cat.
Come to that, PL is not the most effective of crime-fighters. Physically, she’s no match for any male crook, unless she can get into a position where she can hit them over the head with her black light flashlight. And in the first dozen issues, she’s knocked out by punches more often than Lady Luck and Black Cat put together over twice the space.
In keeping with the formula, Sandra Knight has a boyfriend, or rather a fiancé in Don Borden, of the Secret Service, though the fact of their engagement is only mentioned every now and then. On the other hand, Don isn’t going around panting after Phantom Lady all the time, the way that radio reporter was Black Cat, or the Captain was with Liberty Belle.
It’s all pleasant stuff, but it’s also undistinguished. There is no formula to the stories but in the other hand there’s little variation either. Be it crooks or saboteurs or assassins, PL gets involved and down they go, with no great effort or tension. However, despite its limitations, Peddy’s art gets better and crisper as he goes on and it’s a real disappointment when he departs after issue 13.
His replacement, believe it or not, is Joe Kubert for the first three issues. I say believe it or not because nothing in the art looks like Kubert. If anything, it appears to be heavily influenced by Jack Cole (who was drawing the Spirit rip-off character, Midnight, as well as Plastic Man). It’s cartoony stuff, as are the stories, though its one plus point is that, after a year of Sandra Knight running around bare-faced in front of her father and her fiance, with her hair brushed back from her forehead, not even Liberty Belle’s Veronica Lake peekaoo cut, he puts her in a full-face yellow mask-cum-veil for the second and third stories.
Frank Borth, more of a veteran, took over art. This was a decidedly mixed blessing, with Borth drawing excellent splash pages, each with its large scale drawing of Sandra or PL, only to offer some distinctly rough art for the remaining five pages of the story.
These are still not particularly individual and when they are it’s not in a good way, as in the one where a crook put away by Senator Knight ten years earlier tries to get revenge by dressing up as the Easter Bunny and leaving time bomb eggs as part of an egg hunt.
More interesting, though still not in the best of ways, was the five part crossover between Police Comics and Feature Comics, or rather between the Phantom Lady and the Spider Widow. It all starts with the Widow’s sidekick, The Raven, turning up in PL’s feature, to help her with the recent spate of attacks on the Senator or Sandra, leading to a criss-crossing between series marked mainly by the two heroines showing catty jealousy of each other over their interest in the Raven. To call it silly is to glorify it.
As for the Spider Widow, whose real identity is society gal and athlete Dianne Grayton, she was unusual for being a heroine with a lovestruck male assistant, the superpower of being able to control black widow spiders, and being a hot, fit woman who dressed up as a hag complete with green full face mask.
This was the only time any Quality Comics characters ever crossed over.
As for PL, she did, for a time, sport a black domino mask that was so small that it looked more like inexpertly applied mascara.
With one last story drawn by Peddy, and one by Rudy Palais, Quality Comics’ Phantom Lady series ended.
The character was not seen for four years, when the Iger Studio licensed her to Fox. This is the truly controversial run of her Golden Age career. For this run, the art was by Matt Baker and was notorious for being very much of the ‘good girl’ type, i.e., scantily clad and busty females in suggestive and erotic poses, the sort of stuff that accelerated the creation of the Comics Code Authority. Well, sobeit. Let’s see what was so ‘good’ about Sandra Knight in the hands of Mr Baker, and just how risque this stuff is in the Twenty-First Century.
There’s more fascinating information in the Archive’s introduction, this time about Fox Features chief, ex-stockbroker Victor Fox. Though the story that Fox was an accountant at Detective Comics Inc. who saw sales figures on Superman and went out to hire offices in his lunch hour is apochryphal, Fox started up his company shortly after Superman debuted, and his first character was the infamous Wonder Man, who was every bit the Superman knock-off the legend has him being, though apparently not quite as against the wish of Will Eisner as the latter made out in later life.
Anyway, Fox had a habit of stiffing his creators that left him facing bankruptcy, only for him to somehow regain solvency and reopen Fox Features in 1945. Two years later, Jerry Iger decided that he owned Phantom Girl after his break with Eisner, and licensed her to Fox.
The Lady, still as Senator’s daughter Sandra Knight with her black light weapon, but now choosing to dress in dark blue instead of yellow – not to mention having discovered some means of at least doubling her bust line whilst in limbo – re-emerged in Phantom Lady 13, the title picking up the numbering of Wotalife Comics. She appeared in two stories in that first issue, credited to Gregory Page, though the second of these was pencilled by Matt Baker.
The immediate impression was of a jauntier, more buoyant art style, a fast paced syory and some egregious lapses in logic in the story-telling, as if vital panels that explained what was going on had somehow been squeezed out of the layout. PL developed an unfortunate habit of getting smashed over the back of her pretty head by the crooks, and given how brightly lit even the night scenes were, it was stranger than ever that nobody recognised her as Sandra Knight, given they both had the same hairstyle.
Three more stories in the next issues, only one of them drawn by Baker who, experts have determined, contributed less to the series than reputation claims. Oddly, his story is the mildest of the three, but already there’s a pattern: freewheeling stories with reduced regard for logic, PL getting knocked out and tied up regularly, the Police alternately arresting her for crimes and misdemeanours then standing back and letting her fade unquestioned when she produces the real villain – and lotsa lotsa leg on display from Sandra and any other female who happens to get into the story.
As well as her own title, Phantom Lady also appeared in All-Top Comics, an anthology title offering Rulah, Jungle Goddess, Blue Beetle, the Dan Garrett version and Jo-Jo, Congo king. Of course, all we get is the Phantom Lady story.
To be honest, this is cheap stuff, formulaic and silly, but the art saves it. It’s quick and vigorous, and both Sandra and her alter ego are drawn attractively. This is decent ‘good girl art’, giving the character an athletic appearance without exaggeration of either the legs or that aforementioned bustline out of realistic proportion. Nor do Baker and the other artists go in for unrealistic contortions to emphasise certain body parts, and shapes, for crude effect.
No, legs are very much on display, both Sandra’s and Phantom Lady’s, the one’s costume involving shorts and the other happy to slip into them often, but there’s a joyful buoyancy to everything, natural poses, and a cheerful innocence to the whole thing.
Matt Baker’s art reaches its apotheosis with the cover of Phantom Lady 17. This is the infamous bondage cover that was seized upon for much condemnation by Frederic Wertham in Seduction of the Innocent. These are different times and we are none of us so innocent about sex and it’s less mainstream variations, but I don’t find it half so offensive as I’m supposed to, even from a feminist-oriented perspective – I mean, she’s hardly encumbered, the ropes are more decoration than anything and nothing’s stopping her whipping her… black light out.
But her bust, neither enhanced nor fettered as the cleavage demonstrates, is at its largest to date.
One black mark and one oddity about the series in this period. The black mark is the pre-Code predilection for casual death. It’s one thing when this happens to a villain, but there are several instances of women being killed, two by strangulation, one of them Sandra Knight’s widowed friend who she was supposed to be helping, who had an on-panel scarf twisted round her neck, and a third by a poison injection.
As for the oddity, this was the splash page of every first story in Phantom Lady itself, which would be printed in black-and-white, overlaid by a monocolour, but the rest of the story was in full colour. Explain that.
In addition to the reprints, the Archive includes three instalments of a fan-fic by the late Nigel Cantwell, plus notes as to where he saw his efforts leading. Cantwell was trying to create a binding mythos that drew all the disparate Phantom Ladies, including DC’s much later Dee Tyler into a single continuity that established the Quality Comics and Fox Features versions as two different women, and Dee Tyler as a member of the Knight family. It’s interesting stuff, but only for a moment. Like all such things it combines the need to create a considerable number of connections and situations with no founding in the comics and the overpowering urge to tie too many thing together in the grand ol’ tradition of a Roy Thomas retcon. I hate Roy Thomas retcons.
But the Phantom Lady’s second life was running short and there was a sign in issue 22, when Sandra Knight, in order to flush out the crooks, got Don Borden to impersonate PL. Yes, the Lady’s costume, complete with lustrous black wig but, quite obviously, no other… qualification. Add to that the conclusion of the story in which PL’s Black Light Ray is completely useless against a Robot Man, except that in some unshown, unexplained and obviously unthought-out way, it… does. Don’t ask me what it does because we’re already on the last page of the story so you’re just going to have to take everybody’s word for it.
It’s that same old thing: the series is heading for cancellation – this is 1949 by now – and the stupid stuff arrives on cue. Though, to be fair, the same issue’s story, in which PL substitutes for half the American squad at the 1948 Olympics, saw her winning everything (including the boxing!) by record margins, was commendably short of unimaginative images of dear old London Town in the Nineteenth Century.
There was a much more egregious bondage cover on issue 23, and I’m going to have to say this once and it goes here, but Phantom Lady has her big tits thrust out in virtual profile. Wertham would have been on much stronger grounds with this one, and it’s not even the much-maligned Matt Baker.
The last story in the last issue was oddly appropriate, in that it featured Phantom Lady apparently dying and returning from the dead. In reality, all that happened was that her car went off a bridge into the river, there was a surprisingly realistic turn when her cape caught in the car’s mechanism, only for the momentum to be lost when her entire costume got ripped off by a riverboat’s propellers. Fortunately, and in defiance of every panel in which she’d been drawn to date, Sandra happened to have on a frilly bra and panties underneath which, being naturally more adhesive to human skin, were not ripped off, or disturbed and showing the slightest sliver of additional skin at all. Boo, hiss.
But that wasn’t entirely the end, for one final story appeared in All-Top Comics 17, cover dated May 1949, and Sandra accompanies Senator Knight on a mission to South Korea and Phantom Lady overcomes the Monkey Cult.
And then there was the Ajax run. This didn’t last long, coming in before the superhero properly caught hold again. The introduction pins it all on the initially fantastically successful ‘Superman’ TV show, which debuted in 1952 and spurred a number of companies, most notably Atlas (another from Martin Goodman’s stable of companies), to see if a revival would work.
Ajax came relatively late to the party, when the writing was on the wall. Apparently, the company published a total of 16 superhero comics, turning to Jerry Iger’s shop for material, and Iger turning to his old characters, including Phantom Lady, who he still claimed to own. Nobody challenged him, but then again both Quality and Fox were dead and gone.
Phantom Lady turned out to be Ajax’s biggest success, in terms of longevity at least, her third series running for four issues. It began with issue 5, taking over the numbering of a short-lived titla called Linda, before being followed up with issues 2-4. So, in three series at three different companies, there never once was a Phantom Lady no. 1. You expect sense? This is a blog about comics.
The guy behind Ajax was Robert Farrell (born Isadore Katz), who’d been around since the Forties and who had worked with Victor Fox, and he was the last publisher to use the Iger Shop for his comics.
The difference is obvious from the first splash page, the Phantom Lady swinging into action in her usual manner, Black Light Ray at the ready. It’s still the blue and red costume, but the top is subtly different: no cleavage. In fact, it’s up to the neck, down to the waist and all the way round the back. If you’re into bare arms, you can still get your rocks off, though.
And only a page or so in, the panel where Sandra Knight is stripping down to her PL costume is also missing: the Senator’s daughter will henceforth only change costume offscreen. This was Dr Wertham’s time. The Comics Code Authority was on its way and Ajax would not be caught napping.
Though Phantom Lady was still wearing something proudly underwired under that drab and all-covering top.
The Code actually kicked in for issue 3, which was indistinguishable from its predecessors in style and tone, but was distinguishable for it’s new form: both stories were re-runs of stories from the Fox era, the second being a near word-for-word repeat of the Korea story from All-Top 17 but completely re-drawn. If it were meant as a time and effort-saving exercise, as the use of repeated stories in this short run indicates, the complete re-draw could have saved absolutely nothing.
Before her final issue, Phantom Lady popped up in an issue of Ajax’s Wonder Boy that was distinguished only by her captor ordering her to be gagged and her turning up next panel completely gagless.
The final issue was made-up of two more re-treads and an inconsistency. In the first, the unrevealing top was accompanied by shorts extending practically all the way to the knee, though in the back-up, which was a re-do of the one in which Sandra’s friend Betty is strangled whilst Miss Knight is off changing into her costume, we get the usual delightful expanse of thigh. You can’t show women being strangled with scarves any more but don’t worry, Betty still dies, only this time it’s of a weak heart. Which somehow makes it all the more callous.
Yet another re-tread, in the next issue of Wonder Boy, was Phantom Lady’s last public appearance, but appropriately enough, her last story was a phantom, an unpublished black-and-white seven pager that did not appear until 1999. And it was yet another retread.
One final curiosity to mention: Phantom Lady’s back-up story in her Ajax debut issue 5 might have been a new story for Sandra Knight but it was actually an edited and re-written version of a wartime story starring plucky girl secret agent, Spitfire Sanders, originally appearing in Spitfire Comics 132, much of which art was re-used with Sandra replacing the other blue-black-haired female. As a bonus, the Archive finishes with the original story.
And that really was that. The brief Ajax run can’t hold a candle to either of its predecessors and is mostly a waste of time, but it completes the picture. After this, Sandra ‘Phantom Lady’ Knight would not be seen again, this time from DC Comics, who believed her, rightly or wrongly, to be among the assets they had acquired from Quality Comics. Phantom Lady, reverting to her original yellow and green costume, reappeared as I said in Justice League of America 107.
In comparison to the trilogy of lady-heroes I referred to at the start of this essay, Lady Luck, Black Cat and Liberty Belle, Phantom Lady is clearly inferior by quite a degree. But whilst the vigour and unashamed good-girl art of the Fox Features version is clearly not respectable, the sense of underlying fun in the stories is well-matched with the art, and though Phantom Lady may have been shocking in 1947-9, there’s nothing to disturb even a maiden aunt in 2020, and by our standards, Sandra is positively innocent.
So I’ll count this as a welcome impulse in the end. What shall we look to next?