Thursday, March 20, 2014

"Wow! What feet! And what lungs!" Phantom Lady review

In a time not-so-long ago, comic book collectors pursued certain notorious "good girl" artists of the past, artists whose work included a level of sexuality not found in contemporary works. Perhaps the most highly-sought was Matt Baker and his most insidious work was Phantom Lady. However, much has changed since the 1940s; while the amount of attention Baker placed on women's curves stood out in his own time, such material is lost in the din today; women with bare, curvaceous legs and ample cleavage can be found in most super hero comics and there's plenty of truly sexually explicit material for those who want it. Your typical Dynamite Entertainment variant cover probably has more "sex" than any given Baker comic book.

Regardless, 1994 saw the publication of Phantom Lady by Verotik (sometimes dubbed "Phantom Lady: Crime Never Pays!" because of the phrase printed on the tiny badge seen on the cover), a collection of Baker's stories featuring a new cover by Adam Hughes (based on one of Baker's best known covers). Verotik, as the name suggests, published pornographic comics; Baker was definitely mild by their standards! Even this Hughes cover is a little more daring than the Baker original, considering the nipple poking through the Phantom Lady's top.

The reprint values in this tome are not terrific; they're about as good as what you'd expect from a 1990s scanner. We're truly spoiled by today's reconstructed/proofed/recoloured comic book reprints. Rather than focus on the complete contents of this book, I'd like to examine only the first story: "A Shroud for the Bride!" (Phantom Lady#14) because it shows some interesting storytelling defects worth pointing out.

We open on one Porky Mead, an aging, tubby man who somehow has been romancing three women at once (he's loaded). However, upon spying one Rosie Muldoon flipping flapjacks in a diner he's instantly smitten with her and invites her to the evening's masquerade ball. In a quick scene change, we learn Sandra Knight and her boyfriend Don Borden are planning to attend as well. Mead brings Rosie to a costumer to take her measurements, then Rosie returns to the diner. The costumer stirs up trouble by phoning each of Porky's three girlfriends to let them know about the new woman in their sugar daddy's life. That night, Rosie receives a Cleopatra costume and wears it out to the ball; a second costume arrives in the mail, but Rosie ignores it.

At the party, Sandra is in attendance as the Phantom Lady, even though in this costume she wears no mask, causing one to wonder how a senator's daughter could possibly escape notice (perhaps that's why she wears a flimsy costume? to keep eyes off her face?). In what turns out to be a significant line, we hear Rosie had been expected to appear in a Little Bo-Peep outfit - therefore, it was the second costume which arrived in the mail.

Suddenly, Rosie falls over dead. Perhaps Baker intended the line which passes through the background (above) to represent a bullet line and it might have been clearer in the original art. Anyway, Rosie has been shot. I'm stating this up front because the story doesn't explain what Rosie died of until the second-last page. The Phantom Lady steals one of Rosie's shoes and it's at this point I grew confused on the first read-through. The Phantom Lady is convinced this shoe will identify the killer - why, had the shoe been poisoned? It took me some time to realize the Cleopatra outfit belonged to one of Porky's other three girlfriends so the killer is the one who fits the shoe. The Phantom Lady will spend the rest of the story talking about how the shoe will fit her killer but never does she remind us of the single line of dialogue she overheard about Rosie's other costume!

Even now that I understand Phantom Lady's conclusions, it's specious reasoning, no? Why must the killer be the one who had been fit for the Cleopatra outfit? What if Porky had a fifth mistress who was put-out? What if Porky's butler did it? And even if this were the solution, surely the next logical step would be to contact the costumer and ask her which of the girlfriends had been fit for the Cleopatra attire? Instead, it's sleuthing time - the Phantom Lady way!

Seeing her boyfriend at the party, the Phantom Lady slinks off and returns as Sandra Knight, highlighting just how terrible her costumed identity is at disguising her. The next day Sandra arranges to have tea with the three girlfriends, but instead of Sandra they're met by the Phantom Lady! Even these women don't seem able to put the pieces together, despite presumably knowing what Sandra looks like. The Phantom Lady demands they each try to put on the shoe so she can identify the killer; when they refuse, a catfight breaks out. Meow! Hiss. However, the maid (Sandra's own maid?) calls the police and the Phantom Lady is arrested. She soon escapes from the police by turning her blackout gun on them (they didn't frisk her) and leaping out a window.

Now she must take the law into her own hands by breaking into the three women's rooms at night and testing the shoe on their feet. Clearly, this is a plot which plays to Baker's strengths, meaning copious visuals of women in their evening wear. After finding the first two women don't match, the Phantom Lady heads to the third girlfriend's home, sure to find the murderer there.

The Phantom Lady climbs in through the woman's window but doesn't find her quarry in bed: "I didn't plan on this!" she exclaims; instead, the woman ambushes the costumed hero and socks her in the jaw, knocking her unconscious. She uses spilled perfume and a match to start a fire. Great idea! When her own home is destroyed and Sandra Knight's remains are identified, no one will ever link this woman to the murder of Rosie Muldoon!

However, a frightened cat knocks over a goldfish bowl and the water revives the Phantom Lady; in fact, the killer hasn't even had time to escape the room because the Phantom Lady locked it from the outside before coming in which... wow, that raises questions. Like, why climb in through a window on what (we'll soon see) is the 4th floor when you've already been in the hallway in front of the killer's unlocked door? And where did she acquire the keys to lock the door? How do you lock someone's apartment door so they can't open from the inside? And why, with all this careful planning, was she unprepared to find the killer lying in wait when she entered through the window?

Anyway, they fight in a manner which best permits Baker to depict thrusting curves until at last the Phantom Lady forces the killer to give up her handgun, then they leap from the burning building into a fireman's net. The Phantom Lady explains to the police how the shoe and gun will identify the killer and the police accept all of this without explanation. Even though her own boyfriend is among the police, the Phantom Lady escapes being recognized as Sandra Knight. Also, Porky Mead delivers some flowers to her. Some time later, Sandra lounges in a bubble bath while she cajoles Don over the phone, demanding he talk more about her and less about the Phantom Lady.

It's never easy to cover exposition and the pioneer comic book makers of the 40s were still learning that problem; here, though, the exposition is never given. The reason the shoe will identify the killer... what the killer died of... not elaborated on. However, they did think to explain why the killer hadn't run away by the time Phantom Lady woke up, but, as covered above, the explanation only complicates the story. It's a simple enough tale, but Baker's mind was *ahem* elsewhere.

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