Gabbing Geek Jenny recently challenged the readers to come forth if they could name a female character that:
- Does not have a male version
- Has not cameoed in a movie or TV show
- Has an origin story older than the mid 90s
- And that Jenny herself has read
Her answer to this riddle, when trying to figure an iconic hero that hadn’t gotten his or her own movie yet, was Madame Xanadu. While Xanadu is a fine character, often associated with DC’s various mystical books and teams, she may not be the best character to dub as “iconic”.
See, a better answer may have been a more obscure character, Phantom Lady, also owned by DC, who actually is considered the epitome of Golden Age “good girl art”. There’s no Phantom Man to go with her, she was created in the 40s, and her only appearance on TV or in a movie was a single episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold alongside the rest of the Freedom Fighters. Of course, if Jenny had read of Phantom Lady, maybe that would have made the cut. Or perhaps not, as we shall see…
To start, it would probably help to explain what “good girl art” was. Despite the name, the idea was not so much the art depicting wholesome women; the idea was rather than the art would depict voluptuous women in skimpy attire in provocative poses. These ladies were often tied up too. Wonder Woman started that way, and gosh golly gee whiz, these characters were popular for some reason.
As for Phantom Lady herself, she was actually one of the first female superheroes. Seriously. She first appeared in August of 1941. Wonder Woman would not debut until December of the same year, so she beat Diana out by four months or so. Even one of her co-creators is fairly noteworthy, namely Will Eisner, comic book pioneer often sited for the invention of the stand alone graphic novel. Eisner’s biggest claim to hero fame was the Spirit, a masked crime fighter who fought the forces of evil in an eight-page newspaper supplement comic book for years, where Eisner often made bold advances in the way stories were told and drawn.
Oh, and don’t forget the Eisners are one of the biggest annual awards in comics.
But everyone has to start somewhere, so back to Phantom Lady, a woman who fought crime in what looks like a swimsuit. No mask at first, because as she pointed out in one early adventure, dressed like that, men weren’t looking at her face.
Phantom Lady was originally Sandra Knight, daughter of a U.S. Senator. She didn’t have any superpowers, just a special “black light projector” that could blind foes and do some nifty stuff involving shadows and such. Also, not a good idea to shine one inside a cheap motel room. She was published by Quality Comics, alongside other characters I’ll be naming in a bit. Quality sold the rights to their characters to a number of different publishers, and DC Comics eventually got a hold of them.
See, when DC got the rights to other company’s characters, the thing they did then was spin the characters off onto their own Earth. Phantom Lady and the other Quality heroes became the Freedom Fighters of Earth-X, later dubbed Earth-10. That was a world where the Nazis won World War II, and only the Freedom Fighters (the Ray, Human Bomb, Black Condor, Doll Man, Phantom Lady), led by embodiment of America Uncle Sam, stood in their way as an underground resistance. A group of Justice League and Justice Society heroes managed to get to Earth-X for the annual JLA/JSA team-up, and after the Crisis, the Freedom Fighters’ backstory was changed to make them another World War II-era super team like the Justice Society and the All-Star Squadron.
Phantom Lady also got some relatives in the mainstream DCU. She turned out to be a cousin to Ted Knight, the original Starman, and a Phantom Lady successor was a minor supporting character in James Robinson’s excellent Starman series, featuring the exploits of Ted’s son Jack as the new Starman. Her backstory further revealed a villain took a fetus she was carrying by longtime boyfriend Iron Monro and genetically modified it into the hero Damage, and her granddaughter was the female Manhunter Kate Spencer.
She also, as is the habit of DC, or used to be the habit of DC, had a few other characters fill in her legacy and allowed Sandra Knight to age. Of course, by then, “good girl art” had gone the way of the dodo. Instead, her outfit got really skimpy.
That’s actually Phantom Lady #2, real name Dee Tyler. She didn’t end well.
Despite appearances, DC brought Phantom Lady back two more times in different aliases. The most recent was a New 52 relaunch in a series titled Phantom Lady and Doll Man. This Phantom Lady, Jennifer Knight, realized that maybe covering up more than some of her predecessors might be a good idea.
OK, still no mask. But really, an outfit like that isn’t going to have many people looking at her face, and she figured that out a long time ago.