Phantom Lady's most notorious cover. Artist: Matt Baker.

PHANTOM LADY

Medium: Comic books
Published by: Quality Comics
First Appeared: 1941
Creator: Arthur Peddy
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Today, comics readers are familiar to the point of stultification with the sight of a female superhero fighting crime while wearing a swimsuit (or less). Phantom Lady is tied with The Black Cat for the dubious distinction of having been the first. Both debuted in the …

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… August, 1941 issues of their original venues — the latter in Harvey's Pocket Comics, and the former in Quality's Police Comics #1.

It was, however, Phantom Lady who lasted longer and achieved greater notoriety. In fact, while The Black Cat never did anything more socially unacceptable than a few mild cheesecake shots, Phantom Lady made the big time — one of her covers was printed in Dr. Fredric Wertham's 1954 anti-comic book tome, Seduction of the Innocent, as an illustration of an intolerable (by 1950s standards) corruptor of American youth.

At first, she wasn't at all that way. Like Doll Man, Blackhawk and quite a few other early Quality Comics characters, she originally came out of the Eisner-Iger Studio, which earned its daily bread by supplying comic book publishers with ready-to-print features. Cartoonist Arthur Peddy (Red Panther, Captain Savage)), working for Eisner-Iger, crafted her early adventures, in which she wore a reasonably modest yellow bathing suit and green cape, and didn't do anything the least bit salacious.

In fact, other than being female, she was fairly typical of the characters that occupied the back pages of early-1940s comic book anthologies. In everyday life, she was Sandra Knight, daughter of Senator Henry Knight, a pampered Washington, DC socialite who contributed little or nothing to the world. One day, on the Capitol steps, she saved her father from an assassination attempt, and that gave her a taste for adventuring. As she fashioned her evil-bashing outfit, she took the trouble to appropriate an amazing invention that happened to be lying around the house — a "Blackout Ray", capable of casting dark just as a flashlight casts light, which had been given to her father by an inventor friend, a Professor Davis. This basic scenario — Washington setting, senator's socialite daughter, wielding what might be called a "flashdark" — was used in most of Phantom Lady's later incarnations.

Her neckline took something of a downturn a couple of years later, when Frank Borth (later known for There Oughta Be a Law!, a knock-off of They'll Do It Every Time) took over the art. But the character's main point of interest still lay in her crime-fighting prowess, and she still displayed more brains than skin. Apparently, that wasn't enough, because her last appearance was in Police Comics #23 (October, 1943). With the 24th issue, she was ousted in favor of the bigfoot-style feature Flatfoot Burns, by Harvey Kurtzman (Goodman Beaver). Other than a crossover with The Spider Widow in the back pages of three 1943 issues of Feature Comics, the Police Comics series was Quality's only use of the character.

Later in the decade, the Iger Studio (run by Jerry Iger, the remaining partner — Will Eisner was by that time devoting his attention to his weekly feature, The Spirit) was supplying comics to Fox Feature Syndicate, run by Victor Fox, perhaps the sleaziest comic book publisher in American history. When Fox asked for a sexy female costumed hero, Iger, figuring his studio had at least as legitimate a claim to ownership of the character as Quality Comics, dusted off Phantom Lady for him. She started by taking over Wotalife Comics, which had formerly starred Cosmo Cat, renamed Phantom Lady with #13 (August, 1947). Later, she appeared in the back pages of All Top Comics.

The artist on this series was Matt Baker, the studio's most talented portrayer of beautiful women. His earlier credits included Tiger Girl (no relation) and Sky Girl, which the Iger studio had packaged for Fiction House Magazines. Baker re-designed Phantom Lady's costume from the ground up — or should we say, from the neck down? In the Fox/Baker version, her swimsuit was exchanged for blue short-shorts with slits up the sides and a matching halter top,which had to be attached to her belt in front to allow room for a drastically plunging neckline; and her cape became scarlet. It was Baker's cover to #17 (April, 1948) that was reproduced in the Wertham book.

Fox's publishing empire imploded not long after, and Fox himself disappeared amid a flurry of unpaid bills. His Phantom Lady title ended with its April, 1949 issue, one month after the demise of All Top. After that, Phantom Lady's history gets blurry.

Fox's properties wound up in the hands of several small publishers. Star Comics and Farrell Publications both used Phantom Lady in the early and middle 1950s, the former only in the back pages of a few comics and the latter in her own book. Farrell's Phantom Lady lasted four issues — two published before the institution of the Comics Code Authority and two after — and needless to say, the post-Code stories were very different in appearance.

Many of the smaller publishers of the '50s were eventually absorbed by Charlton Comics, but the only Fox superhero Charlton ever used was The Blue Beetle. IW Enterprises produced an unauthorized Matt Baker reprint in 1959, but otherwise, the character wasn't seen again until 1973, when DC Comics used her and several other Quality Comics characters (which they'd acquired in 1956) in a crossover with The Justice League of America. Those Quality characters, including the early version of Phantom Lady, were spun off into their own series, Freedom Fighters, which lasted from 1976-78. At DC, her costume's colors came from the Quality Comics version, but the design was more like Baker's. Also, DC retconned her into a cousin of Ted Knight, aka Starman. DC later used her as the partial inspiration for Silk Spectre, a character in Watchmen.

Meanwhile, AC Comics bought the Fox characters from Charlton in the late 1970s, and brought out their own version of Phantom Lady — and not only was her costume even skimpier than the Baker version; she was also saddled with spike heels, which are just ever so practical when doing superhero work. Possibly to make up for that, instead of her traditional blackout ray, she packed a gun. DC, claiming ownership through the Quality Comics connection, threatened to sue, so AC, not in a financial position to defend itself, changed the character's name, first to The Blue Bulleteer. Now known as Nightveil, she is still being published by that company as a member of Femforce.

From 1988-89, DC ran a Phantom Lady series in Action Comics, where Superman himself got his start. There, she wore the skimpiest costume yet seen — by this time, she was practically naked. The artist on that series was Chuck Austen, whose better-known comic book work includes Strips, which he unabashedly produced in the late 1980s and early '90s as hard-core pornography. That character was killed off in 2005.

Phantom Lady was most recently seen in a 1994 64-page oneshot. It consisted almost entirely of Matt Baker reprints, with a few pages of new art by Adam Hughes (best known for Ghost and other sexy female characters). This reprint was packaged as a trade paperback by Verotik Publications, which claimed a 1994 copyright on it. Exactly when and how Verotik acquired ownership is unclear — very, very unclear.

— DDM

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Text ©2001-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © — it's probably safe to say DC Comics, but who knows for sure?