The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
Phantom Lady is a
woman with a past

March 25, 1999
By Franklin Harris

Thank goodness for reprints.

Such things usually go unappreciated in the comics world, where owning original copies of Golden and Silver Age comic books is half the fun, if not more.

The cover of ''Phantom Lady'' No. 17 was singled out for attack when Dr. Fredrick Wertham published ''The Seduction of the Innocent.''

Courtesy Photo
The cover of "Phantom Lady" No. 17 was singled out for attack when Dr. Fredrick Wertham published "The Seduction of the Innocent."

But some of us just like to read the things. So, again, thank goodness for reprints.

I missed it the first time around, but Verotik Publishing last week re-released its 1994 "Phantom Lady" graphic novel, reprinting classic stories from "Phantom Lady" and "All-Top Comics."

The comic is a step up for Verotik, whose comics are usually filled with bare-naked demonesses slapping the hellfire out of each other.

"Phantom Lady" is good, wholesome, old-fashioned cheesecake.

With new cover art by fan-favorite artist Adam Hughes, the "Phantom Lady" graphic novel reprints seven stories, all featuring the marvelous artwork of Matt Baker.

As good as Baker's work is, though, I wouldn't want to pay for the original comics. In readable condition, original "Phantom Lady" comics, published in the mid and late 1940s, go for several thousand dollars apiece. In last year's "Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide," "Phantom Lady" No. 17 listed for $4,000 in near-mint condition.

Why so much for the adventures of a nearly forgotten, third-tier costumed heroine?

Phantom Lady is a lady with a past.

She was created by Jerry Iger's comics studio, the same outfit that created Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, the '40s' other classic "good girl" superheroine. And Quality Comics published her first appearances.

Phantom Lady was really Sandra Knight, debutante daughter of a U.S. Senator by day and barely dressed crime fighter by night. While at Quality Comics, her costume consisted of a skimpy yellow swimsuit and green cape. And her weapon of choice was her "black ray," which projected a beam that could leave her foes (ahem!) in the dark.

Eventually, Quality stopped publishing Phantom Lady's adventures, and Iger moved his heroine to Fox Features Syndicate, which featured her in her own series and in "All-Top Comics."

Phantom Lady was essentially unchanged except for her costume, which, at Fox, became an even skimpier, blue, two-piece affair complemented by a red cape.

The ensemble wasn't exactly practical when it came to trouncing thugs and foiling mad scientists, but at least it was easy to conceal.

Phantom Lady didn't need a mask. Her boyfriend was a regular Lois Lane when it came to distinguishing between his carefree girlfriend and the heroine who always conveniently showed up to save the day. And Sandra Knight didn't even wear glasses.

Phantom Lady

Courtesy Photo

At Fox, Phantom Lady also got a new artist, the aforementioned Mr. Baker.

Baker, who is also known for his work on the "Flamingo" newspaper strip, is probably the best of the 1940s' good-girl artists. He is also notable for being one of the first major black cartoonists.

There is no doubt that Phantom Lady was sexy, much to the delight of adolescent boys grown tired of the Sears catalog's lingerie section.

Never mind the black ray. Phantom Lady's opponents were more likely to be distracted if they could see her clearly.

But she was too sexy for some.

When he wrote his book, "Seduction of the Innocent," scapegoating comics for every strain of juvenile delinquency imaginable, Dr. Fredrick Wertham singled out "Phantom Lady."

"Phantom Lady" No. 17 in particular drew his ire. Whether or not it did so with young boys, the issue's depiction of a tied-up Phantom Lady on its cover certainly excited the good doctor's bondage fantasies.

Obviously, then, "Phantom Lady" was inspiring an entire generation of would-be rapists.

Of course, it's a truism that the bad guys sometimes capture and tie up superheroes. That is because comic books require drama. And while a smart villain might kill the hero when he had a chance, dead heroes don't sell many comics.

So, unless you want a lot of dead heroes, bondage it is.

Besides, only a superhero or heroine in bondage is going to sit patiently by while the bad guy explains his diabolical plan.

In Dr. Wertham's mad world, nothing was innocent. If Batman and Robin lived together, they must be homosexuals. If the bad guy tying up Phantom Lady or Wonder Woman turned out to be a bad girl instead, obviously the cartoonist was promoting lesbianism.

When the Comics Code Authority came along to scrub the industry all squeaky-clean and boring, Phantom Lady was an early casualty. Fox published two issues under the code, and "Phantom Lady" gave up the ghost with vol. 2 no. 4.

Eventually, DC Comics bought the rights to the Quality Comics incarnation of Phantom Lady. She appeared frequently in "Freedom Fighters" and "All-Star Squadron," and now occasionally shows up in "Starman."

But that yellow-and-green costume just doesn't have the charm of the blue-and-red version of the Fox incarnation. Matt Baker's classic Phantom Lady is a thing of the past.

Thank goodness for reprints.

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