Sunday, July 31, 2016

Review: Roy Thomas Presents: Phantom Lady, Vol. 1

Roy Thomas Presents: Phantom Lady, Vol. 1Roy Thomas Presents: Phantom Lady, Vol. 1 by Ruth Roche
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Phantom Lady would be obscure and mostly forgotten if not for the fact that cult "good girl" artist Matt Baker did a few of her strips and some covers. Secretly Sandra Knight, she does Clark Kent one better by not wearing glasses or doing anything to cover her face when she's fighting crime as Phantom Lady. This leads to some pretty odd moments, such as when Sandra cuts out at the sight of danger and Phantom Lady appears, and no one ever puts two and two together.

That said, in her early appearances, showcased in this volume, some of the writers do worry about this. For two stories she wears a veil, covering her face during action scenes. It's not a great look. Other writers seem to indicate that those her know her, especially dullard boyfriend Don Borden, who would give an actual Ken doll a run for lifelessness, and her father, Senator Knight, never get a good look at her face. But eventually it was one of the conceits of the book that Sandra Knight and Phantom Lady were simply assumed to be two people, her identity only discovered by the occasional criminal a short time before their death.

And there is a lot of death. Phantom Lady has no issue with dishing out death to criminals. She seldom kills them directly, but if she blinds them and they fall off a roof, she loses no sleep.

No origin is given for Phantom Lady's powers, which seem to Olympic level strength and dexterity, as well as a penchant for being in the right place at the right time and allowing herself to follow some extremely fortunate "hunches." She also carries a "black light" which functions as a reverse flashlight, blinding opponents and darkening rooms.

After a stream of appearances in Fawcett Comics, Phantom Lady traded in her green and yellow attire for blue and red over at Fox Feature Comics. The stories, which had been starting to get meta under the scripting of Frank Borth, became more traditional under Ruth Roche. By meta I mean that the characters seemed at least semi-aware that they were characters in a comic book. This allowed readers an easier time when it came to dismissing the problems in the story, such as Sandra Knight's face being plainly visible as Phantom Lady, since the tone of the strips was less serious and more fun.

This all changed over at Fox, as the stories became prettier to look at, but less interesting to read. There are occasional high points, or maybe they are simply weird, such as when Sandra Knight is replaced by a robot or when a serial killer wears stilts to throw police off from the fact that he's a dwarf, but for the most part its a steady stream of criminals with elaborate, silly plots that Phantom lady has to face.

Over all the stories are enjoyable, and much of the racism that plagues many comics from this period is not as deep an issue. There is a healthy dose of proto-feminism here, as well as issues containing classist and ableist subtexts, which I won't excuse but will say is par for the course in comics like this.

Then there's the "good girl" aspect. Good girl artists drew girls good, that is, they drew hot girls. Phantom Lady became known as one of the characters who were perverting the minds of young children, because of all the large jutting breasts and hints of nipplage. This, along with the blood and guts of crime and horror comics, was one of the factors that lead to the Comics Code and the censoring of mainstream comics for decades.

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