Friday, 31 August 2012

Phantom Lady #1 review

Years ago, in Metropolis' Suicide Slum, crusading reporter Harry Knight and his wife were executed by a mob boss. Today their daughter Jennifer fights crime as the superheroine Phantom Lady, armed with a black light ray which can cause dense fog, manifest hard light objects and extend to form a 'shadow slide'.

Flash back six months earlier and Jennifer works as a gossip hack while trying to take down the now late crimelord Robert Bender's sons, Eli and Cyrus. In particular, she aims to prove Cyrus murdered his own father. Her method is to go undercover. Literally - she's sleeping with him under an assumed name.

As the first part of the assumed name is Jennifer, perhaps she shouldn't be entirely surprised when he rumbles her. Cyrus knows she's sniffing around his operations, and he tries to scare her into sticking to the gossip circuit by beating up her pal Ginger as she watches, without protest.

Jennifer's also sleeping with shrink tech scientist Dane Maxwell, who's a dab hand at retrieving information hidden in data systems such as Cyrus' phone, which Jennifer has stolen from him. Possession of the cell brings trouble for Jennifer and Dane, causing the scientist to transform for the first time into Doll Man.

So, all hail the new heroine on the block. She's shagging a crime boss for info, shagging a boffin for tech support, and stands by while a pal is brutally assaulted.

Writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray are taking a risk here, gambling that we'll find enough to like in this debut issue to come back and see Jennifer evolve. So far, her methods are dodgy and her morals a mess; she hasn't even noticed Dane is in love with her, so focused is she on her mission of vengeance. Given that Gray and Palmiotti don't tend to write nitwits, I'm sure that as we learn more about Jennifer she'll appear more sympathetic, less the user. Or perhaps she'll have an epiphany, and change.

I don't know. I'll give them that chance because they've entertained me over the years with such great series as Jonah Hex, Power Girl and Monolith. And they have form in revamping this Golden Age property, in Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters. That Phantom Lady, 'Stormy' Knight, initially seemed like a one-note party girl, but we soon saw that she had depth. They're likely going to pull a variation on that trick here.

Freedom Fighters also had a version of Phantom Lady's Quality Comics stablemate, Doll Man, and while I'm sad to see him (and Stormy) gone after just a  few years of publication, I'll give the new guy an opportunity to impress me. His puppyish devotion to Jennifer implies that there's more to her than dodgy detective, and now he has powers we'll see if he's got what it takes to be a hero; given that he gets shrinking abilities after running away from a fight, leaving Jennifer alone and unprotected, it seems he has some way to go too.

I'm not sure that setting this story in Metropolis is a good idea. It's hard to believe that the crime desk of the Daily Planet has failed, over several decades, to pin down the unfortunately named Benders even while the police department and Mayor's office colluded with the crooks. And now Superman is on the scene, the question is begged: why hasn't he brought the Benders to justice? The location is possibly to motivate a guest shot around issue #3, but I hope not - Jennifer and Dane should be the stars here.

I do like that the Bender family originates from Kansas, a la Clark Kent - it may be entirely random, but I suspect not.

The new Phantom Lady's powers are reminiscent of DC's Nightshade character, which seems a shame - I want Nightshade to show up in this New 52 continuity and it doesn't help if someone else is stealing her gig. I'm curious to see if Gray and Palmiotti actually tie Jennifer to Nightshade in some way. The shadow slide I could do without, the way they extend her arms is too oddball for superhero noir (click on image to enlarge).
The artwork by penciller Cat Staggs and inker Tom Derenick serves the story more than decently. Jennifer and Dane are well designed, and while the Bender brothers are pretty boy bland, there's no real reason they shouldn't be. The attractiveness of evil is a cliche, but it makes having sex with crooks a little more palatable. The panel-to-panel storytelling is fine, and editor Harvey Richards unleashes a secret weapon in colourist Jason Wright. Last seen - by me, anyway - as regular colour artist on the much-missed Secret Six series, Wright manages to tone scenes realistically without them seeming as dull as real life can get.
We only get a decent look at Phantom Lady's costume on the cover and one page inside. The purple and yellow colour combo is striking, the hood a nice touch ... but I miss the classic, in whatever version. Yes, it's overtly sexy, and possibly sexist (though Doll Man showed a lot of flesh too!), but it's also a big part, no gag intended, of the reason Phantom Lady keeps getting revived. She's always been comics' sexiest gal, visually, and it's a shame to lose her USP.

I'm a huge Amanda Conner fan, but while her cover illo is attractive, it's wrong for the book. The kittenish expression and cutesy Doll Man, combined with the bright colours of Paul Mounts, say that this is going to be a light-hearted romp, akin to the aforementioned Power Girl series Conner worked on with Gray and husband Palmiotti. In fact, this is a dark drama set on the seamier sider of the DC Universe. It'd be interesting to see what Staggs, Staggs and Derenick, or Derenick alone - as well as an inker, he's a formidable penciller - might do. Or the book might even go for a full-on Ms Tree treatment, proper femme fatale stuff.

With the recent excellent Ray mini-series, and now this, it seems Gray and Palmiotti are once again building a version of the Freedom Fighters for DC. While I'd be happy had the last lot simply transferred over when Flashpoint changed continuity, credit to Gray and Palmiotti for trying new things. Let's hope it works with Phantom Lady and Doll Man.

12 comments:

  1. The freedom fighters have always had a special place for me. Sadly, it appears that Gray and Palmiotti have been trying their best to destroy that property in the past few years.

    I don't see this new miniseries as an improvement over their previous endeavors.

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    1. Not so far, certainly. Sorry, I'm repeating myself - but I did like the last bunch.

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  2. Now I'm disappointed I asked the shop to reserve this for me. Like you said, the cover (and the solicit text) promised a lighter-hearted book, but this sounds like an oversexed grim mire. What does the New 52 initiative have against a book actually being, y'know, FUN?

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  3. Good question, Mela. We've had the odd fun book, such as Gray, Palmiotti and Igle's Ray, and the recent Kid Flash DC Universe Presents, but the default setting certainly seems to be 'super-serious'.

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    1. Super-serious, but with near-constant quips it seems to me. Pulp Fiction seemed to impact more than screen writing...

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    2. I never did see that film, QT doesn't do it for me, too smartarse.

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  4. A mate used to joke that you could tell if an issue of Palmiotti and Grey's Jonah Hex was going to feature rape by whether or not it had a woman in it: "Tallulah Black is in this one, you say? Think I'll give that a miss..." and sure enough a nameless blonde finds herself battered off a car bonnet while the villain tells the utterly passive and useless heroine to make herself ready for him because she's sleeping her way close to the men who killed her family while she watched because this is thoroughly modern Grrrl Power in effect or something.

    Me, I don't pretend to understand all this fancy future storytelling nuance, I just can't see past the reactive female character from back here in the past like the square I am and would rather read something that makes a bit of an effort. Phantom Lady and Doll Man reads like adequate but unadventurous trash to me - it even has Darkman's origin in it. AND NOT IRONICALLY.

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    1. Ohhh, I never caught the Darkman similarities, though I've not watched it since it came out. Interesting observations about G&P and women, I'd not noticed that.

      Did you ever catch the Dee Tyler Phantom Lady? Or as I call her, Dogkiller?

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  5. This sounds like a potentially very intriguing new series, thanks for reviewing it.

    BTW Mart, I thought I'd let you know that that in Wonder Woman #12 Diana finally breaks out and kicks a little Olympian butt. Also, did you stop reviewing Batgirl?

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    1. Thanks for the Wondy info. And Batgirl is stil on the radar, she'll be back here soon! Likely at zero issue time ...

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  6. I thought this was going to be a light-hearted, bubblegum comic...the cover certainly suggested it. Instead we got a grim, rather grubby book with two unlikeable lead characters. I really dont know what to make of this book...

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    1. I'm not surprised. I'll take a look at #2, see how it goes.

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