You may remember the four-issue miniseries from All-Star Western writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti that introduced The Ray into the New 52. Now, J&J have teamed up with artist Cat Staggs (and gotten a lovely cover from Palmiotti's wife Amanda Conner as a bonus) to relaunch another pair of former Quality Comics characters in Phantom Lady and Doll Man. J&J have experience with all these characters as well, if you recall their days writing the relaunched Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters series back in 2006 (which is notable for featuring a character named Gonzo The Mechanical Bastard, so it's obviously a must-read). Perhaps bringing these characters back in short spurts like this is a stealthy way to eventually roll out a new team book later on down the line. I know I'd read a New 52 Freedom Fighters series.
While The Ray was pretty light-hearted and fun, the tone of Phantom Lady and Doll Man seems a little uncertain of itself. When it opens with young Jennifer Knight's parents being burned alive in front of her by the Bloody Bender family, we get the sense that we're in for some ugly crime drama. Then we jump forward to the present day, where Jen is enjoying kicking ass as the Phantom Lady in a funky purple-and-gold hoodie ensemble, narrating her tech-based power-set to us and stealing cash from a group of thugs, and it feels like that first page was just setting up the obligatory childhood trauma most superheroes need to drive them to be superheroes to get it out of the way, and maybe it'll be more of a swashbuckling thing.
Then we flash back to six months earlier, ostensibly before Knight became the Phantom Lady, when she had dedicated her life so completely to continuing her journalist father's work in trying to bring down the Benders of Metropolis that she's even sleeping with Cyrus Bender (the son of Robert Bender, the man who murdered her family), who has pulled off the perfect crime by killing his father and assuming his power. Her initial plan was infiltration, it seems, and anonymously ratting out the Benders online, but they're onto her, and they threaten her with murder, breaking the face of her friend to prove they mean business, to get her to shut up. Of course, the creep Cyrus is about control, so he plans to continue dating and sleeping with her. This goes right back into that dark crime area.
Cut to Dane Maxwell's junkyard – a childhood friend of Jen's who is so in love with her that he's become her go-to tech nerd for all her needs (particularly hacking the cell phone she stole from Cyrus), and it's no secret to either one of them that she's pretty much using him. He's bent out of shape about it, but he's a sucker and eventually caves. It's a friendly bickering exchange that quickly gets serious when, after a good night's sleep, super-scientist Dane reveals he's also an idiot who tried to make a deal to protect her from the info he hacked from the phone, and all that does is bring the wrath of the Bloody Benders into his lab, and the resulting bastardry seems to kill Dane, much to Jen's regret. Of course, her Dane Maxwell has secretly become Doll Man.
It's a decent story, with enough interesting plot elements to keep us curious, but the tonal fluctuation makes it a bit harder to get engaged with it, although it is mostly set-up. The art is also wavers a bit in consistency – there are some really good moments from Staggs, particularly just how creepy Cyrus is with his initial threats to Jen and her friend. It feels very cinematic, and we can see a young Cillian Murphy in that role. Then again, it's about halfway into the book before I realized that Jen is perhaps intended to be Asian.
Phantom Lady and Doll Man has three more issues to fully find its legs, and with all the exposition out of its way, it's got a pretty good chance of doing that. Added bonus, the story of the Bloody Bender Crime Family of Metropolis stretches back a couple of centuries, including a serial killing spree in Kansas in 1872. How much you wanna bet they eventually show up to give Jonah Hex some hell in All-Star Western? I'm up for it.