Roy Thomas Presents Classic Phantom Lady Volume One
Reprinting Phantom Lady stories from August 1941 to December 1947
Writers and artists: Various
PS ArtBooks, $48, color, 301 pages
I found this book fascinating. Not for the superheroics, but for the unusual perspective it gives us on the comics of the times. And I can't say I can really say what that is!
Firstly, Phantom Lady is not a very imposing crimefighter, having only a black-light projector (which seems to actually make people blind somehow) and rudimentary jui-jitsu skills. She really ought to be dead by page 2.
And she doesn't wear a mask. She routinely runs into people she knows -- including her fiance -- at events where usually Sandra Knight is in attendance. Phantom Lady even drives Sandra Knight's car. And yet nobody twigs to her secret identity!
And here are the weird parts: In her first run at Quality, she rarely ran more than five pages, and battled nothing more interesting than common crooks. It wasn't "good girl" art: Neither Sandra nor PL were drawn in a particularly provocative or erotic way. And finally, there was nary a hint of chauvinism: Everyone, from the cops to her D.A. boyfriend to her senator father, have the slightest doubt that Phantom Lady is anything but a super-competent crime-fighter above any suspicion whatsoever. They actually defer to her!
So what was the point of this strip? Just to have a little variety in Police Comics? It didn't seem to have an audience in mind, and didn't seem to be very well thought out. It doesn't seem to have any reason to exist. It sure wasn't very good reading.
Things pick up markedly in PL's second incarnation, though, and the strip makes a lot more sense. That's where Victor Fox made a deal with the Iger studio (who owned PL, as opposed to Quality Comics) four years after her last Quality appearance to appear in an eponymous title. Phantom Lady begnis with issue #13 in 1947, changes her costume from green-and-gold to blue-and-red -- and gains a reason to exist. That reason? To appeal to 12-year-old boys with panel after panel of a scantily-clad girl in athletic poses, sometimes tied up, and always about to pop out of her halter top!
And for that we can thank Matt Baker, one of the earliest African-American artists in comics, and also one of the best-known "good girl" artists of the '40s and '50s. He is finally getting some of the credit he deserves, and I don't say that because of the "good girl" part.
Because, honestly, this isn't particularly racy stuff. Yes, Phantom Lady is pretty, ah, healthy, and her outfit is fairly revealing. But not any more so than a typical swimsuit of the time, or even the ads in Harvey books for lingerie or evening wear. Nor does it sink to the level of the sort of soft-core porn we see in some books today (See: Jim Balent).
Now, maybe it was really hot stuff for the times. Probably was, at least for 12-year-olds. But it isn't the sort of thing that would turn off female readers (especially since Sandra is genuinely in charge of all situations). It isn't "good girl" art, I think, so much as it is simply good art in a book that has a female lead. Sure, she looks good -- but everything looks good. Baker puts as much time into the grill of a '47 Buick as he does on Sandra's decolletage. (And, to tell you the truth, it seems like legs were Baker's focus, moreso than breasts.)
So, despite the reputation, I cheerfully recommend Phantom Lady. It's just great art in a really surprising place. And it has a long and fact-filled Foreword by Roy Thomas.
Plus, somehow, a modern woman in the 1940s. How did that happen?
I'm not familiar with Baker's Phantom Lady stories, so I don't know where they fall, but: his earlier stuff already shows his propensity for cheesecake, but it's stuff you make allowances for. His later stuff is really well-drawn, and a pleasure to look at. I particularly like the cover of Amazing Ghost Stories #14 (St. John, 1954; the contents of the issue were reprints).
I read the "Mystery of the Black Cat" story from Police Comics #17 as a kid, because DC reprinted it. I liked Golden Age comics stories, and I was puzzled by how awful it seemed. Rereading it now I'd say it's more uninteresting than awful. Frank Borth's art has some style, but the story reads thinly because too much of it takes place off-panel.