Phantom Lady (Quality Comics, 1941-43)
Artists: Arthur F. Peddy, Joe Kubert, Frank Borth
The Golden Age of Comics is a strange kingdom, conjured into existence by phantoms, financed by gangsters, hurtling towards nobody remotely knew what. Comic publishers hired out to squidgy collections of teenagers to deliver graphic stories, without too particular a notion as to content. When you’re using a business to launder a money, just about any product will do. But those young men (and a few young women) took that empty space and employed it to birth a secret universe.
Phantom Lady was a series with a history as convoluted as only the Golden Age could produce, written by nobody knows who, flipping from super hero rag to yuk book to a fourth-wall-breaking spree of a proto-Deadpool sort all in the space of 23 six-page stories. First appearing in Police Comics #1 (which also featured the debut of Plastic Man), Phantom Lady was a society debutante and senator’s daughter turned crimefighter of the Miss Fury stripe. She can pilot basically anything, knows a fair amount of jiu-jitsu, and wields something called a Black Lantern, which is essentially a flashlight that baths its target in utter darkness.
One of the delights of this strip in the days before Matt Baker and Fox Publishing turned it into one of the definitive sex pot comics of all time, is how manifestly it does not care about things like consistency or characterization or novelty. Phantom Lady’s costume is a simple yellow leotard with a red cape and no head covering whatsoever and yet, time after time, she’ll be standing two feet away from her father and fiancé, and neither manages to recognize her. Each episode, until the series goes into wacky town with Joe Kubert’s arrival, follows the same basic pattern: saboteurs are out to wreck America’s war machine, Phantom Lady finds their hideout, gets captured, escapes improbably, and then uses her black light to save the day while rescuing whichever of her daft companions were drawn into the caper with her.
It’s a simple formula in broad strokes with a dusting of wartime racism sprinkled over the whole and, by and large, it works fine. What we can still enjoy today is how Phantom Lady is the only remotely capable person in a world of affably useless men, a woman who can do just about anything but has no super powers, and who isn’t afraid to head-butt a crook if it’ll get the job done. She’s tough and competent and totally independent, like so many Forties superheroines who got ground to dust by the Eisenhower era and had to wait for a whole new century to witness at last worthy successors.
Halfway through its run at Quality Comics, the original artist, Arthur F. Peddy, left along with, presumably, the original writer, because for the next few issues, Phantom Lady is pretty wacky. Joe Kubert, who was hardly sixteen years old, was given the reins, and the result is a jokey slapstick farce with crime-fighting elements and a fainting Aunt chaperone-type character who had absolutely not been in the strip before and would not be again. It’s rough in just about every aspect, and after three issues Frank Borth mercifully took over, whose 23 years of age made him a comics elder statesman by the standards of the time.
He quickly had Phantom Lady cross over with the adventures of Spider Widow and the Raven in in his Feature Comics strip where the protagonists frequently reference the fact that they are guest-starring in each other’s strips, the meta-rivalry eventually filtering into the dramatic tension between Spider Widow and Phantom Lady during the actual narrative action. It’s a very Looney Tunes set of moments for a comic that started about homicide, espionage, and international diplomacy.
Five years after the end of Quality’s Phantom Lady run, her character was revived, given bigger breasts, a skimpier outfit, frequent light bondage, and a predilection for undressing in panel by the almost delightful charlatans at Fox Feature Syndicate, Inc., and that is largely the Phantom Lady we remember, Matt Baker’s iconic covers obliterating Peddy, Kubert, and Borth in several swift titillating strokes. And that’s too bad, because behind the repetitive plots, the cardboard cutout supporting cast, and the improbable or just lazy narrative devices, there’s a classic character to really root for, part Dick Tracy, part Batman, and all class.
Quick, The Nazis Are After The Power Meter!
Fierce: 9: Phantom Lady is a force. Witness the following:
Smart: 5: Sandra Knight isn’t shown doing anything overly intellectual. She has some basic detective skills, but she’s primarily a character of punches and iron will. As for the overall smarts of the comic and its construction, it’s more or less exactly what you’d expect from the time.
Wartime Racism: 6: Of the 23 initial episodes, 21 of them happened in the first years of the war, but only one of them features material that goes out of its way to visually or narratively caricature an entire race, which is thankfully one too many for the modern era, but far better than the average comic strip for 1941.
Artwork: 7: Frank Borth manages some stunning intro pages, and Arthur Peddy’s work treats Phantom Lady with a quiet respect that would not be her lot in her next series, all balanced by Kubert’s rough work that, as the product of a sixteen year old who would go on to produce some of the age’s most beautiful comic pages, we can probably forgive.
A-Force (Marvel Comics, 2015)
Writers: G. Willow-Wilson and Marguerite Bennett
Artist: Jorge Molina
Let’s start there, at the title. When I first heard that there was going to be an all-female Avengers team book, I was cautiously ecstatic. When I heard that the roster included Dazzler, Medusa, She-Hulk, and Nico Minoru, I was prepared to forego caution and march straight into the gates of unreasonable anticipation. Then the title was announced: A-Force.
Let’s not linger over the fact that the referent that springs most readily to mind for the A-[single syllable] construction is A-hole, meaning that A-Force reads for many, at least unconsciously, as Assforce. Instead, let’s look at what it’s consciously striving at. It’s clearly referencing X-Force which, Remender’s memorable run aside, tends to conjure visions of inane 90’s pouchy testosterone. If that’s meant as a tribute, it’s odd, and if ironically, it’s flogging a well-dead horse. In all events, the tone intended is unclear, and that confusion of register continues throughout the comic.
A-Force has basically two dialogue patterns: mournfully epic (95% of the time) and quippy (the remaining 5%). No matter which character is delivering a line, if they’re giving a mournfully epic line, they sound the same as everybody else delivering a mournfully epic line. Here’s an example from the first issue of three lines spoken by three different characters in succession:
“Is there anyone among us who doesn’t know how thin a tightrope you must walk between what’s best for our people and the will of Doom?”
“Nico Minoru… is young, and is grieving. She can’t have meant what she said. She and America have been Loki’s wards since…”
“No. Arcadia is only strong as long as we are united, and A-Force is her defender. It’s our honor and duty to protect our island and her people.”
Now, watch what happens when we drop the punctuation marks:
“Is there anyone among us who doesn’t know how thin a tightrope you must walk between what’s best for our people and the will of Doom? Nico Minoru… is young, and is grieving. She can’t have meant what she said. She and America have been Loki’s wards since… No. Arcadia is only strong as long as we are united, and A-Force is her defender. It’s our honor and duty to protect our island and her people.”
It’s not a good lookout for your voicing when you can connect three character’s lines together and form thereby an entirely seamless monologue. In dramatic quasi-imperial mode, She-Hulk sounds like Medusa sounds like Storm sounds like Nico. Then, during the fight scenes, they let loose with their banter, all of which is equally indistinguishable except for occasional particular character references. Dazzler says “Disco Tuesday.” Captain Marvel says, “Boom, son.” The overall result is a uniform river of dialogue monotony and self-seriousness punctuated by incongruous quippery that represents a monumentally wasted opportunity to show what a primarily female team could be in terms of voice diversity.
At first, I was tempted to forgive that. “Well, there hasn’t been the same deep characterization of voice for females in the Marvel Universe as there has been for the male characters.” But there has. Byrne’s She Hulk. DeConnick’s Captain Marvel. Kot’s Spider Woman. Vaughan’s Nico. They all have identifiable ticks and quirks and perspectives that Bennett and Willow-Wilson have totally flattened somehow.
Perhaps fault can be laid at the feet of the Secret Wars event and its ponderous demands. To be asked to form a new experimental team in the midst of one of the most controlled events in Marvel history must be a challenge, and the demand to make everything Big and Epic at every moment positively wafts from each page. This is a title that needed time to breath and naturally evolve, and the worst time to do that is in the middle of a crossover universe-rebooting event. Everything in Secret Wars is a bit melodramatic and reluctant.
But there is great stuff in other Secret Wars titles. Si Spurrier has improbably turned Marvel Zombies into the beautiful story of Elsa Bloodstone’s harsh youth. Star Lord and Kitty Pryde is fun and romantic in spite of the towering backstory. Even 1872 and Mrs. Deadpool are managing to pull something enjoyable and unique from the universal gloom. A-Force might have done the same, but decided to give into the Sadness rather than fight it and, like Artax before it, sunk just as tragically into the mire of its own self-doubt.
Let Us Not Forget that a Power Meter Stalks the Land.
Fierce: 8: Are the battle moments incongruous in tone with the rest of the comic? Yes. Is the epic-ness of the set speeches undercut by their self-sameness? Yes. Is the comic trying a bit too hard to produce Moments of Fierce for each character? Sure. Is it still good to see? Yeah, it is, actually.
Dialogue and Characterization: 1: A team book needs to distinguish voices and motivations early. Three issues in, A-Force still has not done this.
Smart: 3: In spite of having a universe of female characters to choose from, we still have no moments where a female character is shown using her intelligence to problem solve. It’s hitting and inspirational speeches all the way through, and this in spite of the fact that you have a number of characters in the roster who are supposed to be noted for their insight and brains.
Art: 7: With the exception of Medusa, who looks often like she’s 16, the character models are all classic and fun. It’s good to see the old Dazzler costume in all its ridiculousness, and the female Thors that come in at issue 3 are pretty great. The panels are big and fun and dynamic, which they need to be when weighted down by such a thudding script.