Friday, June 29, 2012

Out Now: Will Eisner and Matt Baker's The Phantom Lady Omnibus [Fantastic Femmes of the Comics]

[from the Introduction to the Phantom Lady Omnibus]

Phantom Lady was the first and longest-lived costumed heroine (in a different form she is still around today) to grace comic books in the wake of the success of Superman's debut in Action Comics. Phantom Lady made her entrance three years later in 1941 via the pages of Police Comics No. 1., and was soon elevated to a comic book of her own. She was the brainchild of the Eisner and Iger Studio, run by the legendary Will Eisner (of The Spirit fame) and his then partner Jerry Iger, who together created and packaged comic books for a number of publishers.

Although she didn't have super powers, Phantom Lady, like Batman, had honed her physical and mental reactions far beyond those of most mortals, and in battle was more than a match for the average gang of miscreants. Also like Batman, she used science to give her an edge when fighting villains, ordinary or super – a futuristic gun that shot a wide beam of blackness, instead of light, completely blinding her enemies. In real life, Phantom Lady was Sandra Knight, the daughter of a U.S. senator who had grown bored with her privileged life and decided to use information that came to her as a Washington insider to help fight espionage and crime.

At first, Sandra Knight's costume was yellow with a green cape, but when publisher, Quality Comics, dropped the character in 1936, Phantom Lady Comics was sold to Fox Feature Syndicate. There Sandra Knight underwent a dramatic change at the hands of Matt Baker, fabled today as one of the kings of "good girl art" and the comic book industry's first successful African-American artist. Baker changed Phantom Lady's lackluster yellow and green outfit to a skimpier, and far more revealing, blue and red that packed every frame with sexual dynamite.
In fact, Baker's artwork, which did not shy at bondage and emphasized cleavage might have gone a tad too far. His cover for Phantom Lady No. 17, featuring Sandra Knight attempting to free herself from ropes (reproduced on the cover of this omnibus), helped stimulate a congressional hearing on comic books, and was denounced during a 1950s congressional hearing by psychiatrist Frederic Wertham. Dr. Wertham claimed Baker's cover aroused unhealthy "sexual stimulation by combining 'headlights' with the sadist's dream of tying up a woman." The good doctor had risen to fame with his book Seduction of the Innocent, which targeted comic books as the cause of teen gangs and teen vice and an all-around morally corrupting influence on children and teenagers. In his sixties, a wiser Wertham, with a wider view of life, recanted his indictment of comic books and claims they were a harmful influence on the young. (You will find a gallery of Phantom Lady covers at the end of this omnibus and can make up your own mind about Baker's Phantom Lady art.)

The original Phantom Lady's final adventure was in 1955, when the majority of the comic book publishers went out of business in the wake of Congress' Wertham-inspired hearing. Sandra Knights costume and presentation were considerably tamed by then, but even so, the notion of a woman who could beat-up men was not wanted in Cold War America. She appeared again only sporadically in reprints. Then in 1973, D.C. Comics, publisher of Superman and Batman, among others – which had acquired rights to the character through the earlier purchase of a defunct comic book company – reintroduced Sandra Knight to a new generation, albeit in a somewhat subdued and more patriotic costume. In the years since, Phantom Lady has gone through several changes of costume and identity, including training her own successor, Delilah "Dee" Tyler.

For this omnibus, we have selected a large helping of Matt Baker art along with what we believe is a selection of stories that showcase Sandra Knight, Phantom Lady, at her sexy, crime fighting best – pitted against some of the most fiendish villains of her career. First, under Matt Baker's able pen, Phantom Lady literally leaps into action, down into a carload of commies, in "Television Spies," a minor masterpiece of nonstop action. Then, "The Beauty and the Brain," a tale of a cruel revenge and one Phantom Lady too many, provides Baker with a showcase for his not inconsiderable talent at portraying the half-draped female form. Next, in a Cold War thriller from one of the final issues of Phantom Lady we have "Satan's Seal," with Sandra trying to outwit the sadistic Red agent known as The Whip! Serial killings lead Phantom Lady down a peril-filled trail and through gaggles of costumed women a la Baker, to a fiery climax in "A Shroud for the Bride." For a change of pace, we see Sandra Knight, still in her yellow and green costume, in an early adventure from the pages of Police Comics. The two tales that follow, "The West Point Incident" and "School for Spies," constitute an exceptional treat for comic book connoisseurs, because they feature very early work by celebrated illustrator Joe Kubert, who would grow into an industry giant, but then young enough to still be under the influence of mentor Jack Cole (creator of the surreal and underappreciated Plasticman). Writer/artist Frank Borth serves up an untitled, ringading yarn from a series he created for Feature Comics co-starring Phantom Lady and two other costumed heroines (the Raven and the Spider Widow). Matt Baker gets the artist credits on the final two Phantom Lady adventures in this omnibus, both from All-Top Comics: a hypnosis thriller set in a ballpark, "The Man who Lost His Stuff," and "The Substitute Cinderella," which opens on a splash panel of two svelte, green-sheathed redheads shooting it out, while Phantom Lady puts a male criminal out of commission.

Like all works of art from earlier eras, these stories from Phantom Lady comic books are redolent of the values, concerns, fantasies, stereotypes, and events of their time and could cause offense to some. But, we believe that their value as cultural documents, artistic creations, and unparalleled storytelling make them deserving of reprint. Most of all, we hope you will enjoy Phantom Lady as an early, and still compelling, portrayal of a strong, independent female figure in popular media, and one who in her more recent incarnations, is still inspiring people today.
Jean Marie Stine

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