I’ve wanted to review a Golden Age comic for some time. The problem comes in the fact that during the Golden Age, much of the language of comics, and the techniques that we take for granted were being formed. This was also before the rise of the Comics Code Authority, so creators were trying things out to see what would sell.
This is probably where the salacious aspect of Phantom Lady comes into play. Her costume reveals a lot of skin, especially for the 1940s. No doubt this was part of her appeal. Artist Matt Baker was very skilled at designing a cover that emphasized the visual appeal of the character. However, somewhere along the way, her effectiveness as a character came through. She’s one of those public domain heroes that always gets noticed, and always has someone bring her back to use, despite DC Comics making use of the character and enforcing their version of the character. Erik Larsen might have been the most recent creator to incorporate her into his comics, but he did so only briefly.
I’m only going to cover the Phantom Lady stories in this review. There’s a couple Blue Beetle stories and one other brief tale, but going over all of them will be just too confusing for a single review.
Fox Features Syndicate
Writers: Ruth Roche (as Gregory Page), Paul Gary, “Otis” and an unknown writer
Artists: Matt Baker, Paul Parker, and an unknown artist/artists
Senator Knight’s daughter Sandra is being put on a train by Professor Guddel. He’s gunned down by two criminals on the train. Something is odd with Sandra Knight, as she can’t talk and sits emotionless. The crooks kill the conductor and stop the train, moving Sandra to a waiting car. Sandra drives recklessly to a hideout.
There their boss, and old lady named Tersa Thorn reveals that she’s a robot made by Professor Guddel. Very lifelike, Tersa controls her with an “induction box.” She’s waited twenty years to get revenge on Senator Knight for sending her son to the electric chair.
The next morning, the Sandra Knight robot robs a jewelry store, killing the salesman. The police arrest her, thinking that she’s the real Sandra Knight. Meanwhile the real Sandra awakes to knocking on her door. Unfortunately, she’s knocked out by the criminals working for Tersa Thorn. One of them picks up her black light ray. They stop the police wagon in a traffic jam. The robot switches clothes with the real Sandra. She then leaves her in the police wagon under arrest.
Tersa Thorn calls Senator Knight and brags how her robot has framed the Senator’s daughter for murder. In revenge for Senator Knight sending her son to the electric chair, he’ll see his daughter receive the same fate. The Senator tries telling the police, unaware that the robot has been replaced by his daughter. Sandra’s boyfriend Don Borden arrives in a bearded disguise to get in and help Sandra Knight.
Tersa Thorn puts the robot into a disguise so she won’t be confused for Sandra Knight again. She sends her on automatic to steal radium from Federated Vaults. A guard tries to stop the robot, but is shot for his effort. Something begins to go wrong with robot.
Seeing Borden outside the room, Sandra causes a diversion by telling the police he’s one of the real crooks. She takes the opportunity to change into Phantom Lady and escape. Sandra hears a radio report of the robbery at Federated Vaults on her way out. She speeds there to find the malfunctioning robot. She puts on the robot’s disguise and pretends to be the robot, getting picked up by the crooks.
Tersa Thorn, thinking that Phantom Lady is the robot, gives her a new assignment to kill Senator Knight. Phantom Lady slips away. Tersa gets a letter that Professor Guddel tried to send with the robot when he was killed. Radium caused the robot to breakdown. Tersa and the crooks realize that Phantom Lady has replaced their robot. They set a trap for her when she returns.
They snag her foot in a snare from the ceiling. She manages to grab her ray gun from one of the crooks. With the black ray, Phantom Lady takes out two of the crooks. Tersa tries to escape, but Phantom Lady bounces her black ray off a mirror, blinding the ringleader. The police arrive and arrest the gang as Phantom Lady slips out the window to preserve her secret identity.
Sandra is visiting a radio studio as a drama is being broadcast. Elsewhere, two shady men activate a device that cuts out all radio broadcasts across the country, including communication with aircraft. Sandra leaves the studio, pondering what the radio problems will mean for the war effort. (This means this story was done before Quality Comics stopped publishing her stories.) Professor Harper rushes in, panicked that his invention was stolen and what it will do to planes “flying by radio-beams.” Going home, she intercepts a note to meet the men responsible for the radios going out.
She goes to the meeting, staying in the shadows. When the guy, named Schatz, doesn’t see the Senator, he leaves. Phantom Lady tails him, Schatz’s lookout slugs Phantom Lady from behind. They flee, but Phantom Lady follows them in her car. They’re waiting for her, but she blinds them with her black light ray. She slips away to find a phone and call the police. The men recover and charge in. Phantom Lady has dropped her ray gun so she has to use ju-jitsu to disarm the men, holding them at gunpoint until the police arrive.
The police arrive soon with Professor Harper to take the ex-gestapo men to jail. Professor Harper turns off his device, restoring control of the radio airwaves. Phantom Lady sneaks away, as always never sticking around even to be thanked by the police for all her help.
The stories play very fast and loose with science. In the 1940s, robots were heard of only in science fiction. Actually, the science of robots could only make automatons, and making one realistic would have been nigh-impossible. In the second story, the science of radio waves is completely wrong. However, it creates the crisis for Phantom Lady to solve, therefore it has to be taken as it is given. That doesn’t forgive bad science at a time completely understood. I’ll forgive bad science if it was something that wasn’t known, but I don’t for stuff like planes powered by radio waves.
Outside of that, the stories flow pretty straight-forward. The second falls so flat because of the bad science. The first story has a villain with a very clear vengeance motive. It’s always odd that nobody recognizes Phantom Lady as Sandra Knight when she doesn’t wear a mask. Other writers have explained this being due to her skimpy costume distracting people from looking at her face. These two stories both feature Phantom Lady running off before she has to deal with the police or anyone that would quickly recognize her.
Matt Baker is one of the originators of “good girl art.” In this issue, we see numerous examples of this propensity for the female form. He does beautifully at it, but when not structuring a panel around this, it’s not as impressive. However there are times when the attention to detail really shows up. His second title page is a fantastic drawing, He also really explores shading for lighting. There is a distraction in the stretching of some panels. I believe this mainly comes from artwork being intended for Quality Comics originally in a different format. It gets a little distracting, but there are times where a really good effort was made.
If you’re looking to own this issue, get out your wallet. If you just want to read it, it is in the public domain, so there are web sites that have it to read for free. AC Comics reprinted the stories in Golden Age Greats #1 and #2. There may be other collections out there. I hope to update this list if I learn of any.
Final Rating: 5.5 (out of 10)