The True Crime Roots of Fox Feature's Phantom Lady

Issue for issue, Fox Features Syndicate's 1947-1949 run of the title Phantom Lady is one of the most sought after titles in American vintage comics history.  It's 12 issues of gorgeously delineated covers and art from Matt Baker, Jack Kamen, and others.  Countless articles have been written about Baker and his talents — his sure-handed composition and inking skills, his ability as a storyteller, and of course his beautifully-drawn women. I'd recommend Matt Baker, the Art of Glamour if you are new to the subject, but really, just a look through the material itself will likely win you over.  There's a good+ condition copy of Phantom Lady #19 at tonight's 2020 December 27-28 Sunday & Monday Comics, Animation, Video Games & Art Weekly Online Auction at Heritage.

The True Crime Roots of Fox Feature's Phantom Lady
Phantom Lady #16, Fox Features Syndicate, 1948.

Despite the deserved attention that these issues have received over the nearly 75 years since they were published, there's still more to learn about the times and places in history that inspired these comics. Phantom Lady did not fight supervillains during this Fox Features run. She took on a wide variety of the criminal element of the era.  And the "true crime" stories narrated by Phantom Lady in some of those issues provide some clues as to the inspiration behind some of the material in the title in general.

Vintage crime comics of the classic crime comic era of the late 1940s and early 1950s often claimed to be based on true events, but how many of them actually were based on real crimes?  As it turns out, more than one might think.  For example, a story in Phantom Lady #19 tells the decades-long tale of Peter Treadway.  In the words of the Oakland Tribune from May 27, 1934:

Peter D. Treadway, 41, who dodged the Pennsylvania electric chair for the murder of Henry T. Pierce, manufacturers agent of Philadelphia in 1920, has been doomed to die in the Ohio "hot seat" for the slaying of Mrs Ruth Steese, 26, near Cleveland.

In both cases it was Treadway's weakness for pretty girls that ended in murder, and each crime was a mystery at first — the Pierce slaying for less than a week, and the Steese horror for more than a year. But where Treadway talked himself out of the chair in Philadelphia, he talked himself into it in Cleveland.

In the Pierce murder a vivacious girl of 18, Mrs Marie Williams-Phillips-Rogers-Ross, who, in her brief but busy career, had taken on and thrown off more "husbands" than she could recall, was Treadway's companion when Pierce was robbed and beaten to death in his apartment.

One can see why this dramatic and sordid tale caught the attention of the creators of Phantom Lady as much as it did newspaper writers.  And there's some irony in the notion that the newspaper illustrated the tale with comic-style art at that time as well.  Fifteen years later, the Mayor of Indianapolis blew his cool over another true-crime tale titled "Clara Peete, the Beautiful Beast" in comic art form from Phantom Lady #16.

The Mayor termed the book an apparent attempt to violate a voluntary agreement between the city and the distributor.

"This does not set well with me," he wrote, "and I ask that you contact the suppliers of this new publication with the request that they refrain from placing any of these magazines on stands where children may purchase them."

The "particularly sordid" comic concerned a woman who murdered two persons, disposing of their bodies by burning one and rolling another in a rug.

It's doubtful that this was the first public outrage expressed over an issue of Phantom Lady, and it certainly wasn't the last.  The title has carved out its place in comics history both for the nature of its contents and the quality with which it was created. There's good+ condition copy of Phantom Lady #19 at tonight's 2020 December 27-28 Sunday & Monday Comics, Animation, Video Games & Art Weekly Online Auction at Heritage.

The True Crime Roots of Fox Feature's Phantom Lady
Phantom Lady #16, Fox Features Syndicate, 1948.

About Mark Seifert

Co-founder and Creative director of Bleeding Cool parent company Avatar Press. Bleeding Cool Managing Editor, tech and data wrangler. Machine Learning hobbyist. Vintage paper addict.

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