Saturday, April 16, 2011

Profile: Phantom Lady

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 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) corrupter 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 character's 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.

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