DC Comics superheroes Phantom Lady and Doll Man are getting a new lease on life come August thanks to the upcoming four-issue miniseries “Phantom Lady,” drawn by artist Cat Staggs and written by “The Ray” and “All-Star Western” co-writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti.
Both superheroes have their roots in the Golden Age; Doll Man was created by artist Will Eisner and first appeared in the 1939 Quality Comics anthology “Feature Comics” as chemist Darrell Dane. After inventing a shrinking solution Dane decides to fight crime as Doll Man, later appearing as part of the Freedom Fighters after DC acquired Quality in the 1970s.
Phantom Lady first showed up in Quality’s “Police Comics” in 1941 as Sandra Knight, the wealthy daughter of a Senator’s by day, crime-fighting vigilante by night. Blinding her enemies with a “black light projector,” Fox Feature Syndicate famously picked up the character and had artist Matt Baker draw her in a more sexual manner, earning the ire of anti-comics activist Dr. Fredric Wertham who reproduced “Phantom Lady” covers as proof of comics’ corrupting influence in his 1954 book “Seduction Of The Innocent.” After Fox went under, Phantom Lady changed hands multiple times before arriving at DC, where various incarnations of the character joined the Freedom Fighters as well.
While the writing duo of Palmiotti and Gray have tackled a version of Doll Man and Phantom Lady before in their “Uncle Sam And The Freedom Fighters” runs, the two spoke with CBR News about their new take on the characters, Phantom Lady’s Good Girl Art history, and their overall goal for the miniseries.
CBR News: Your new miniseries is called “Phantom Lady” but it also involves Doll Man — is he a supporting character, or does the miniseries revolve equally around the two of them?
Justin Gray: It deals with both of them, which was difficult at first because we’re re-introducing two characters from the floor up in only four issues.
Jimmy Palmiotti: The crew at DC felt it would make for a better series this way and because of it, we focus on the two of them, their relationship, how they came into the powers and what it means for them both moving forward.
Along those lines, what’s the story in your miniseries? Are we seeing the origin of these two heroes?
Gray: Yes, the origin as well as revamping them in a way that is closer to their original incarnations. Phantom Lady is more of a street level heroine in this book. That’s a departure from the nearly cosmic scale of Stormy Knight and the sort of spoiled princess with emotional problems during our “Uncle Sam And The Freedom Fighters” runs.
Readers have seen multiple incarnations of Phantom Lady from the original Sandra Knight to Stormy Knight. Is this New 52 Phantom Lady a brand new character, or is she Stormy or one of the many characters related to the original?
Gray: There is no relation. This is a reboot.
Palmiotti: Taking the best parts of the classic characters and re-working the core concept into the New 52. This book as well as “The Ray” miniseries we have done are all part of a bigger picture.
With that in mind, how would you sum up your new Doll Man and Phantom Lady? How are they different than previous incarnations?
Gray: It really is more the case of trying to modernize the originals going back to the Fox Feature Syndicate Phantom Lady and Darrell Dane. There are some subtle things in the context of their relationship that we worked into the book.
Palmiotti: Less different and more focused than before. We plan on really bringing the reader into their world and getting to know these characters on and off the clock.
Just looking at Amanda Conner’s fantastic cover image we can see that the costumes for both characters have been redesigned. Did you two have an idea of what you wanted the new costumes to look like, or was that all miniseries artist Cat Staggs?
Gray: Cully [Hamner] designed the costumes as he has done for so many of the New 52. All we wanted was short hair and black-light gloves.
Palmiotti: Cully did an awesome job and Amanda did her version of the piece. Cat, as well, is putting her own twist on it and the evolution of the design is something very interesting for us since the character originally had a few other treatments before this.
A big part of Phantom Lady is the way she looks, and she’s kind of been the literal poster girl for Good Girl Art since her inception. Is that style something that you two and Cat Staggs are continuing in this miniseries? Or are you going for a completely different style?
Gray: At this point having worked on Phantom Lady in two incarnations our focus is on what’s in the costume and the minds of these characters more than the baggage that comes with her publication history.
Palmiotti: The history of the character is always taken into account, but we are introducing a new look and design and more importantly, we are introducing her to a new audience. Sexy comes across in many ways, and for us, the writers, her sexuality comes through in less obvious forms. I think she is still the poster girl in a way, but a more modern idea of what that means. The artists will have their way of representing the characters physically, and Cat is doing a beautiful job.
How would you describe the overall tone of the comic?
Gray: With “The Ray” we wanted a happier and bouncier kind of superhero to introduce. That was old school as well. With “Phantom Lady” the idea is to make it more personal and work with the male/female dynamic. The tone is vigilante street hero pulp crime vibe.
Palmiotti: More serious, but like all our work, there is a flirty fun nature that is always present. Like Justin says, it’s more pulp than most.
In the New 52 you guys have been doing a lot of miniseries and stories in DC anthologies such as “G.I. Combat.” Do you find that working on miniseries, which have a set ending and only a limited number of issues, appeals to you in a way that doing an ongoing monthly series does not?
Gray: I think when you do work for hire you learn to appreciate all the intricacies of different kinds of projects and genres regardless of how long or short a time you have with a character. It’s been easy for us to work with limited page counts simply because we spent nearly six years with “Jonah Hex” doing one-and-done stories. Even with something like “Creator-Owned Heroes” we’re working in twelve-page chapters and with “Ame-Comi Girls” we have ten-page chapters. I think it has forced us to get better at what we do because we have a smaller space to work in. You have to improvise and get right to the meat of something or you’ll lose the audience.
Palmiotti: It is a wonderful show of faith on the part of DC that they come to us to rework characters and bring them up to date. As Justin said, we have learned to get a lot into a smaller space and give the readers more bang for their buck in the process. Sure there is a certain appeal of putting a story out there with a beginning, middle and end — but the bigger plan has yet to be revealed and our hope is that eventually the characters we are developing will find themselves in ongoing books where we can explore the characters more over time.
What about Phantom Lady and Doll Man interests you as writers? What made you want to do a miniseries focused on these particular characters?
Gray: It is a mixture of things, you know? We were asked if we would tackle these characters with a new take on them. From there we talked about what would interest us and bring a different flavor to the book. That surfaced in the way Phantom Lady and Doll Man interact, what kind of personal history they had, what kind of nods we could give to the past and yet make them identifiable to a younger audience in their teens and twenties.
Palmiotti: For me, I always like the characters, but getting to work on them gives me an opportunity to turn them into characters that I will love — characters that feel like flesh and blood to me, and not just comic book icons. We had the same challenge when we received Power Girl and after the twelve issues I felt that this was a character I couldn’t live without. It’s about getting a project and making it work on a hundred different levels for yourself.
Finally, between your work on “The Ray,” “Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters,” and now “Phantom Lady,” you two have spent years writing and reconfiguring the Freedom Fighters characters. What appeals to you about the concept of the Freedom Fighters as a whole?
Gray: They are a unique team and misfits in the modern world. Because they have a limited following we’re able to do things in the book that differ from traditional team superhero titles. It also shows how you can continue to reinterpret them.
Palmiotti: They are all wonderful pieces of a grand puzzle and getting to spend this much time with each of them only brings them closer to us and hopefully makes the reader fall in love with them as well.
“Phantom Lady” #1 hits stores August 29.