The Unlikely Legacy of the Phantom Lady!

“The society columns record the activities of Sandra Knight,” begins the narrative caption bubble page fifty-two of Police Comics #1, “debutante daughter of Senator Henry Knight. No one suspects that frivolous Sandra is also the Phantom Lady, whose battles against spies and public enemies constantly make the headlines.” Thus begins the career of Phantom Lady, splashing onto the scene in 1941, a few scant months before Wonder Woman would make her own debut in All-Star Comics #8. 

Phantom Lady’s first appearance in Police Comics #1

The unlikely legacy of Phantom Lady is one that doesn’t get talked about too much, which is unfortunate because she’s a fantastic character with a really interesting history behind her. When most people think of Phantom Lady, they probably don’t think of the original, yellow-and-green clad Quality Comics Phantom Lady (whose rights DC Comics would acquire in 1956, along with other Quality Comics characters), but the red-and-blue clad Fox Features Syndicate one, made famous by Matt Baker’s absolutely phenomenal artwork. She’s a fantastic, fun-to-read deviation from the Quality/DC Sandra Knight, but the DC Comics fanboy in me has always leaned to the Quality/DC one, not only for the legacy she began, but because the DC Universe has always kind of been my favourite superheroic fantasy playground. 

Matt Baker’s Phantom Lady

Phantom Lady’s legacy is a lot farther reaching than simply a series of women who shared her codename, though. Beyond the Fox Features Syndicate version (which was later owned by Star Publications and Ajax-Farrell Publications when Fox went under) there was also a version created by Paragon Publications (later AC Comics), who sought to revive the character in the 1970s. When DC Comics threatened legal action – since by then they owned the rights to the character – Paragon changed her name to Nightveil (though she was also known as the Blue Bulleteer and Nightfall.) Unlike Phantom Lady, Nightveil had supernatural powers, though she looked remarkably like Matt Baker’s take on Phantom Lady, in that familiar blue and red costume. There’s also Shadow Lady from Big Bang Comics, and Cobweb from Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics. Closer to home, there was the Silk Spectre from the Watchmen book, though she was something of an amalgamation between Phantom Lady, Nightshade, and Black Canary. For a character who isn’t considered A-List or talked about much today (unlike Superman, who has inspired many characters himself) it’s fascinating to note that Phantom Lady had inspired a lot of characters based on her…three of whom exist within DC Comics’ own continuity, beyond the original. 

Nightveil, Shadow Lady, and Cobweb

So, who WAS Phantom Lady, exactly? Well, the original, who debuted in Police Comics #1, cover dated August 1941, was Sandra Knight, daughter of wealthy senator Henry Knight. Dressed in a yellow bathing suit, paired with green boots, a green cape, and a red belt, Sandra Knight employed a black light lantern (shaped like a flashlight) that cast a cone of thick black light onto her adversaries, blinding them so she could take them down. Later incarnations of the character would upgrade her equipment to a black light ray mounted on wrist bands and black light goggles that enabled her to see within the black light (which she could also turn on herself to become invisible, aka a phantom.) She possessed no superpowers of her own, but was armed with a remarkable wit, a brilliant mind (various origin stories have her involved in the development of her black light technology) and knowledge of hand-to-hand combat. Her long-time love interest in those early days was Donald “Don” Borden, an agent of the US State Department’s Counter-Espionage Division, who somehow couldn’t tell that Phantom Lady and Sandra Knight were one and the same, despite the fact that she didn’t wear a mask or a wig during those early days. He must have been too distracted by her bathing suit to pay attention to her face. 

When Sandra Knight was brought into the DC Universe, there were a couple of changes made to her backstory that tied her to DC Comics lore. For one thing, she was now the member of two different teams – the All-Star Squadron and the Freedom Fighters, the latter of which she’d have the longest association with, partially due to the fact that the team was entirely made up of other Quality Comics characters that DC had acquired along with Phantom Lady. One of the biggest changes made to Sandra’s history was that she now had a cousin – Ted Knight, Starman, a member of the Justice Society of America. (A noteworthy feat here is the retcon that Sandra was the one who inspired Ted to become Starman, a rare instance of a female hero inspiring a male hero!) This gave her connections to a universe in which she previously had none, and started a legacy that would trickle down a couple of generations in some very interesting, important ways. She would also later gain a love interest in Arnold “Iron” Munro, a character with some interesting Golden Age connections himself1, and one who was far better suited to being her love interest than Don Borden ever was. 

Phantom Lady and her cousin Starman

As time marched on, Sandra was one of the few characters that DC allowed to age – despite her popularity in the Golden Age and at other publications, at DC she wasn’t the A-List character that Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman were, and while sliding timescales and various crises kept them youthful and at the forefront of superheroics, Sandra was moved off-panel and into the background. She wouldn’t be forgotten though, not entirely. Retired from crime fighting, Sandra moved to France and opened up a school, the Universite Notre Dame Des Ombres – or the University of our Lady of the Shadows. A school to train new combat agents, one of Sandra’s students here was Delilah “Dee” Tyler, who like Sandra was also the daughter of a prominent politician in Washington D.C. Dee would soon become the second Phantom Lady, following her mentor’s well-heeled footsteps. Much like Sandra, Dee also had a black light projection ray and goggles, but because this was the 1980s, she also had some new tricks in her arsenal, such as the ability to cast holograms over herself and around her as well. She was also specifically trained in savate, a French form of kickboxing. Originally featured in back-up stories in Action Comics Weekly, Dee proved to be a smart, spunky successor to Sandra, teaming up with the likes of the Flash and the Doom Patrol. Also like Sandra before her, Dee was also a member of a new incarnation of the Freedom Fighters. Unfortunately, while a fun, interesting character, Dee only had a sixteen year run in the comics, eventually dying at the hands of Deathstroke during DC’s Infinite Crisis event. 

Dee Tyler as Phantom Lady

A new Phantom Lady was introduced in 2006, a year after Dee Tyler’s brutal death. Named Stormy Knight, she had no apparent relation to either Sandra Knight or Ted Knight, despite the fact that she was also the daughter of a senator named Henry Knight. While Dee was cut from a more traditional cloth as a superhero, Stormy was created during a time where reality tv was a couple of years into ruling American pop culture, and her origins and characterization reflected that. In public, Stormy played up the role of a spoiled, air-headed, celebrity party girl, while privately she was a an intelligent inventor with a degree in quantum physics who game up with black light bands that not only allowed her to project black light rays, cast illusions, and turn herself invisible and intangible, but also allowed her to bend reality. One notable moment has Stormy transporting herself and others from the third dimension to the fourth dimension. Unfortunately, Stormy’s life lived up to her name – she discovered that her father had been killed and replaced by a robot called (yes) Gonzo the Mechanical Bastard. This marked the beginning of her downfall, as soon after, Stormy would struggle with alcoholism and an attempt at taking her own life, before ultimately leaving her costumed career behind. 

Stormy Knight as Phantom Lady

In 2011, DC Comics would reboot their entire continuity, starting almost entirely from scratch (unless your name was Batman or Green Lantern), and as such, it cut ties with many of its previously established legacies. Sandra, Dee, and Stormy were all excised from prime continuity, and the Freedom Fighters, All-Star Squadron, or JSA had never existed in this bold new world. (As happens in comics, some of these things would later be retconned back into history.) As part of their relaunch, DC intended to start up a new Freedom Fighters team, and they started by introducing each member with a mini-series that told their new origins. In this world, Phantom Lady was reimagined as Jennifer Knight, the daughter of Daily Planet journalist Harry Knight, who had been killed by a crime boss, along with her mother. This version of Phantom Lady bore more in common with characters like Batman and the original Helena Bertinelli incarnation of the Huntress2 than she did the women with whom she shared a codename. After a botched attempt at enacting vengeance against the crime boss by going after his sons, Jennifer was rescued by her friend Dane and given a special suit and gloves that gave Jennifer a variety of abilities – the classic black light ray, and the ability to turn invisible and intangible. While she didn’t have the power to bend reality the way that her predecessor Stormy Knight did, the suit did grant Jennifer the ability to control shadows, giving her access to the cold, emotionless Shadow Dimension and to create hard constructs out of black light. Jennifer would ultimately have the shortest appearances of any of the Phantom Ladies in prime continuity, only having five appearances total – four in her own book, and one in the Human Bomb mini-series. A new Freedom Fighters series based on these characters was never published. 

Jennifer Knight as Phantom Lady, with her partner Doll Man

This isn’t the last that we would see of Phantom Lady, of course. While Jennifer Knight vanished into obscurity, versions of Phantom Lady were still seen within DC’s multiverse, such as Sophia Becker, the Phantom Lady of Earth-10. Sophia had similar powers to Sandra Knight and Stormy Knight via black light bands that could manipulate darkness and allow her and her teammates to teleport. Within the universe of her stories, she was also Sandra Knight’s successor, who picked up the mantle because she was atoning for being the daughter of American collaborators who helped Nazis come into power. 

Sophia Becker as Phantom Lady

Meanwhile, on the prime Earth where all of DC Comics’ main continuity storylines take place – Phantom Lady received another unlikely homage in the form of Ghost Woman, a villain who fought the Justice League of China with her ghost gun, which fired off short-term solid-light constructs in the shape of ghosts, a clear reference to and clever twist on Phantom Lady’s classic black light ray. 

Ghost Woman

While Dee, Stormy, Jennifer, and Sophia all succeeded Sandra in one way or another, Sandra has one other important descendant – one who never took on the Phantom Lady name, but is her legacy by blood. In 2004, DC Comics debuted a new version of Manhunter, a federal prosecutor named Kate Spencer. Kate was far from perfect. A habitual smoker whose personal life was a mess, Kate was the divorced mother of a six-year-old boy (who later exhibited superpowers himself) who was tired of seeing guilty criminals go free, Kate became the Manhunter after stealing equipment from an evidence room so she could go after the the cannibalistic Copperhead, who not only avoided a death sentence but also escaped police custody. While Sandra used her black-light ray to simply apprehend criminals, Kate lived in a different world, and her reasons for putting on a costume were different than her grandmother’s, and so she killed Copperhead. In the beginning, though, Kate had no idea who her grandmother was, and when the truth was eventually discovered, she worked to establish a relationship with the retired crime fighter. Though she never quite lost her edge, Kate did give up murdering supervillains and was eventually invited to join the Birds of Prey, where she befriended two other characters with ties to the Golden Age – Lady Blackhawk and Black Canary. 

Manhunter

Though it’s been a couple of years since there have been any important sightings of any Phantom Lady in the comics, DC is – at the time of this writing – going another shift in continuity, coming up towards a new dawn of the DC Universe. While she may not have the A-list name recognition of a Superman, a Batman, or a Wonder Woman, Phantom Lady – her name and her legacy – have exhibited an interesting sort of staying power that hasn’t applied to many of the characters who debuted alongside her in the 1941s. Who knows what incarnation – new or old – this reboot may bring to Phantom Lady’s enduring legacy. 

Footnotes

  1. Iron Munro is the son of Hugo Danner, a character who originally appeared as the protagonist of Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel “Gladiator”. Danner is popularly said to be one of the characters that influenced Jerry Siegel in co-creating Superman, though no confirmation of this piece of pop cultural lore exists. Fittingly, Iron Munro was created after DC Comics’ Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event to fill in the role that the original Superman had played before continuity changed. His great-grandson Ramsey Robinson – Kate Spencer’s son – would exhibit similar powers.
  2.  There are multiple versions of the Huntress in DC Comics, both related to and unrelated to the Batman family. This piece here refers to both the first incarnation of Helena Wayne – the daughter of Batman and Catwoman – who debuted in All-Star Comics #69 in 1977 and the first incarnation of Helena Bertinelli, who debuted in April 1989 in Huntress #1. Much like in the footnote above, Bertinelli was created to fill in the role that Wayne had played, though their origins were wildly different. Helena Bertinelli became the Huntress to take vengeance for her parents, who were killed by the request of a mob boss.