Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise is the first of a number of DC detectives who specialized in disguises, but used them far less than his successors would. I find it odd that in over one third of his tales, Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise does not bother using them. In reality, his character seems to be largely drawn from Sherlock Holmes (also known for disguises), and he even smokes a pipe of the style that we associate with Holmes.
Cosmo is given no other name, indeed it is unclear whether Cosmo is a first or last name. In many cases he is contacted by the police for assistance, sometimes by Inspector Grey, the closest Cosmo would come to having a supporting character. But he is also called up by the narcotics bureau, the coast guard, the fire department, captains of ships, pilots of airplanes, Scotland Yard, and even the US government. In many cases, he is contacted directly by someone who feels their life is in danger.
All of his stories are self-contained mysteries, frequently dealing with murders, though not exclusively. He is based in New York City, but is widely travelled, and stories are set as far afield as Texas, England, South Africa, Venezuela and India. He is shown to have a chauffer, Dawson, in one early story, but we never see him again. In two stories we encounter Cosmo’s old friend, Professor Deane, an archaeologist and museum curator.
Cosmo himself barely appears in his debut tale, which pits him against a villainous disguise artist, Taro, but from then on is unquestionably the star of the series. Cosmo often uses disguises to allow him to infiltrate criminal organizations, or gain access to locations that allow him to solve the crime, but also impersonates people in danger, and sometimes even people who are already dead, to get the killer to reveal themself.
When not using disguises, Cosmo is shown to be an extremely observant, intelligent and resourceful detective, and well capable of handling himself in a fight.
My favourite stories include issue 22, which involves a jewel thief and fake police in league with the thief who kidnap a jeweller. Cosmo is in disguise as a farmer near their hide-out, and for a rarity we do not see him get into this disguise ahead of time, so the revelation of his identity comes as a surprise to the reader as well as to the bad guys.
In issue 25 he uses a bear skin rug to frighten gangsters who have kidnapped a child, first using the paws of the bear to leave tracks in the snow around their cabin, and then actually wearing the rug as a “disguise” to attack them.
Issue 27 I must talk about not because the story is good, but really because it’s so embarrassing. Cosmo goes undercover as a chinese man in his investigation of a human smuggling operation, and learns to speak chinese to do so. The supposedly chinese letters that he speaks look nothing like actual chinese characters, just weird scribbles, and when talking to other chinese he says things like “you know chinatown velly well, fliend? Me want find good place live.” I’m surprised they just did’t shoot him right away.
In issue 29 he is pitted against the Avenger, a mad scientist who has developed a weapon that causes a bell tower to collapse, a ship to sink, a dam to burst, and airplanes to fall from the sky. Cosmo tracks down the scientist, and claims to be an “electric meter inspector” when he approaches him, but does not disguise himself for that, which turns out to be a bad move, as Cosmo is famous enough that the crazed Professor Salvini recognizes him immediately, and almost kills him. In fact, if it were not for a stray bullet causing Salvini’s weapon to explode and kill him, Cosmo would have certainly fallen victim to the Avenger.
Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise continues into the Early Golden Age
Cosmo: Detective Comics 1 – 20 (Mar 37 – Sep 38), 22 – 34 (Nov 38 – Dec 39)