Know Thy History: Phantom Lady
There’s been quite a bit of talk lately about the role of female characters in modern superhero comics. Marvel got criticized lately for citing low sales as the reason for culling all their comics featuring superheroines. Over at the Distinguished Competition, DC got several fans riled up for their overly-slutty renditions of Starfire and Catwoman. Some of the criticisms I agree with (I am definitely not a fan of the sexy new Amanda Waller in Suicide Squad), some I’m OK with (on the other hand, skimpily dressed Harley Quinn is OK with me).
It’s a tender, tender subject that, at the end of the day, devolves into hard feelings, cruel name calling, and buckloads of tears.
Scantily clad dames, though, have always been an issue in comics. And, believe it or not, it’s not Wonder Woman’s fault, despite the character being created by bondage-lover William Marston. Between the 1940’s and 1950’s, there was a trend to put a sexy gal on the cover to drive up sales. It was known as “good girl art.” Here’s how Richard Lupoff (by way of Wikipedia) defines it:
A cover illustration depicting an attractive young woman, usually in skimpy or form-fitting clothing, and designed for erotic stimulation. The term does not apply to the morality of the “good girl”, who is often a gun moll, tough cookie or wicked temptress.
Comics and magazines were adorned with the images of sensuous ladies, who may or may not have anything to do with the stories contained within. Quite a bit of the imagery contained bondage or damsel-in-distress situations. Many predated Wonder Woman. Bill Ward created Torchy for Army newspapers; she’d soon transition to comic books and newspaper strips. Over at Harvey Comics, the original Black Cat was vamping up the comic pages in a skimpy black swimsuit.
The one that reached the greatest notoriety, though, was a sparsely attired gal known as Phantom Lady.
By day, Sandra Knight was a wealthy Washington DC socialite. She would contribute nothing to society, enjoying her lavish lifestyle, until an assassination attempt was made on her father, a US Senator, via navy dive bomber.
Let me tell you folks, assassins back then had way more flair.
Now, having felt the adrenalin rush of high adventure, she decided to don a banana yellow bathing suit and a clashing green cape to fight evil. And sometimes she wore a mask, which I personally find to be quite fetching and appropriate considering her call sign.
She also had a snappy invention: something originally called a “Black Lantern” (no relation to the latter day zombifiers in DC’s Blackest Day) which would cast darkness the same way a flashlight cast brightness.
As a weapon, this was clearly more effective than putting bees in your belt. She could also get pretty physical in a fight, though, let’s face it, she was no Sheena. From what I can tell by the way, that impossible spinal twist in the above panel? Yeah, that’s more of a problem with the artist than an actual superpower. It’s positively … Jim-Lee-esque.
Her first appearance was in Police Comics #1, because a scantily dressed superheroine totally qualities as a police comic. (Incidentally, the other break-out superhero to debut in Police Comics was Plastic Man. Apparently they were being very loose with what could and could not be included in this title). Phantom Lady was created by the legendary Eisner-Iger Studio (under Quality Comics). In her earliest adventures, penned by Arthur Peddy, the crimefighting adventures were front and center over the cheesecake (though, make no mistake, the cheesecake does exist). Which makes sense: after all, the same issue of Police Comics typically featured an adventure from Eisner-Iger’s most famous creation, The Spirit.
In fact, browsing through some early issues, I dare say she looked downright frumpy. However, as Police Comics went on, Ms. Knight starting wearing less and less.
Eventually, Eisner-Iger Studios started supplying comics to Fox Features Syndicate, which comic historian Don Markenstein calls “perhaps the sleaziest comic book publisher in American history.” Publisher Victor Fox wanted a sexy female superhero. His studio discovered that they had some ownership to Phantom Lady.
The outfits got skimpier and skimpier.
Phantom Lady’s most famous artist was Matt Baker. Baker is a legend: he was comic’s first known African-American artist. Plus, he was a good fit. He’d worked on previous female-centric comic characters Tiger Girl (who was riding the whole jungle girl trend) and Sky Girl (riding the short-lived aviation adventure comics trend, something that I want to write about at some point). Man, did that guy know how to draw a dame.
Baker was the artist responsible for drawing the cover of April 1948’s Phantom Lady #17, which infamously made it into Wertham’s book about the corruptive influence of comic books on young people: Seduction of the Innocent. In Mr. Wertham’s words, it was “sexual stimulation by combining ‘headlights’ with the sadist’s dream of tying up a woman.”
I have no idea what Mr. Wertham is saying. Several times, the comic clearly states that the Black Lantern casts the opposite of light, and what she has in her hands is clearly not a headlight. Unless he means…
I will say this, though, Matt Baker seemed to have an awful lot of fun with the cheesecake, even putting the outfit on a dude at one point.
A year later, Fox Publications (more due to financial mismanagement than anything to do with Wertham) went bankrupt, and Phantom Lady ceased production. The character was transferred from one publication to the next. Star Comics, and then Farrell Publications, would both try to capitalize on Phantom Lady’s previous success. And they seemed to be covering her up, too, perhaps as a result of Wertham’s influence. Farrell Comics: putting pants on the ladies long before Jim Lee’s short-lived attempt with Wonder Woman.
Eventually, most publishers would be absorbed in Charlton Comics, which would then be absorbed in DC Comics, current owner of the Phantom Lady brand.
In a weird twist, independent AC Comics bought the rights to the characters from Fox Publications and created their own Phantom Lady comic. Of course, DC was not too happy about that. A lawsuit later, their Phantom Lady was renamed Nightveil (and later, The Blue Bulleteer as her original 1960’s incarnation), and she still does the crime-fighting gig as a member of Femforce. Interestingly, this version of Phantom Lady lives on in webcomics.
As for DC’s version: well, she does show up from time to time. A version of her, Dee Tyler, got a short run in Action Comics. This character was killed off in 2005, though she was resurrected in Blackest Night. Also, she was drawn very horribly, looking like she had too much botox and wearing grannie panties. She’s definitely doing nothing to stimulate my sadist’s dreams. Somehow, by trying to dress her in something even skimpier, they made her look really, really unsexy.
There’s also a third Phantom Lady: Stormy Knight, who was introduced in 2006. The character did not appear regularly, so there’s no idea what her connection is to the original Sandra Knight or DC’s other resident Knight family from the Starman comics.
Since DC’s New 52 rebooted everything, though, the whole Phantom Lady legacy is a little up in the air. There were some rumors that she might turn in in the new Justice League, but those turned out to be false. Ultimately, though, no one’s really cared that much about Phantom Lady since she stopped corrupting kids with her feminine wiles.
I mean, c’mon: that outfit might have been scandalous in the 40’s, but compared to superheroines these days, she’d dressed like a nun.