Mandrake The Magician - Comics First Superhero?
World's First Superhero?
Long before Superman fell to Earth from the planet Krypton, long before Batman skulked in the shadows, before Spiderman shot his first web and the assorted costumed guardians inhabited the comic world – there was one man who fought crime with a mere gesture of his hand and the power of super-fast hypnosis.
His hair always perfectly coifed with Brylcreem, his rakish moustache perfectly shaped, his topcoat and tails never smudged, his cape draped artfully, his walking stick/magic wand ever poised, this man possessed the extraordinary ability to create illusions and fugue the mind of the ne’er do wells. He learnt his skills in a mystic retreat in the Himalayas and fights to protect the Earth not only from criminal masterminds but also from interdimensional beings.
Aided by his friend and companion Lothar and often by his lady love Narda, this man knows no fear. By virtue of his first appearance in comic books in 1934, many will agree that he is indeed the worlds first superhero.
Ladies, gentlemen and children, please put your hands together to the astonishing world of Mandrake the Magician.
Mandrake was the first comic to feature an African-American character, Lothar. Mandrake and his companion formed the first comic book interracial double act way back in 1934.
Mandrake the Magician
If you haven’t heard of Mandrake the Magician, you may soon. Warner Brothers have acquired the rights for this character that has been in various stages of development previously. A film version may well be arriving at our screens soon.
Mandrake the Magician is the creation of popular comic writer Lee Falk (Leon Harrison Gross). He first appeared in the King’s Features syndicated newspaper comic strip in June 11,1934. Initially Falk himself illustrated the strip but soon he handed over the art to illustrator Phil Davis. Davis continued to draw Mandrake until his death in 1964. Fred Fredericks ( Harold Fredericks Jr.) took over the artwork after that. When Falk himself died in 1999, Fredericks took over as both writer and artist.Initially focused on Magic and Hypnosis, and then a science fiction slant, Falk's storylines later became more adventure/Detective thrillers focusing on unsolved crimes.
Mandrake is in many ways a pioneering comic strip. It was the first to depict an African-American character as a crime fighting double act . Mandrakes constant companion Lothar, a dethroned African King was comics first positive depiction of an African-American. Mandrake always treated Lothar as his equal and Lothar was the stronger of the two physically often rescuing Mandrake from peril when his Magic is thwarted.
When asked about his resemblance to his creation Mandrake, Falk remarked, " When I first drew him, I was alone in a room with just a mirror!"
Lee Falk had a childhood fascination with stage Magicians and Escape artists such as Harry Houdini. Mandrake was born out of this fascination. Soon after Lee went on to create an even more popular character ‘ The Phantom’.
Between Mandrake and The Phantom, Falk had syndication over 500 Newspapers across the world and was read by over 100 million readers everyday – the kind of commercial success few authors can dream of today.
Born Leon Harrison Gross in St Louis, Missouri, Falk changed his surname after leaving college. As his friends always used to call him ‘Lee’, his nom de plume officially became ‘ Lee Falk’. Although original author profiles claimed that he was a globetrotter and adventurer – Lee had hardly travelled anywhere when he turned up at Kings Features Inc to pitch Mandrake . However, since his fame Lee became a well traveled author in later days.During the Second World War, Falk hd his own taste of adventure and intrigue when he served in the Department of Secret Intelligence, a branch of the Office of War Information.
Falk's other passion was stage plays. Over his lifetime, Lee produced over 300 plays off Broadway ( especially in Nassau) and attracted many well known actors and actresses including Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, James Mason, Paul Newman, Eve Marie Saint, Shelley Winters and many others.
Lee was a prolific writer who continued to produce Mandrake and Phantom stories from their inception in 1934 literally until days before his death from Heart Failure in 1999. He was still dictating stories in his deathbed. Falk became a name recognized by readers all over the world and his comic creations are still being enjoyed by millions of readers across the age spectrum.
Falk's Journey from his hometown St Louis to pitch Mandrake to Kings Features at NYC
Strips and Books
After initially debuting as newspaper strips Mandrake appeared in comic book format in Dell’s Magic Comics #1 in 1936. He also enjoyed popularity along with The Phantom in Dell’s ‘Big Little books’
Mandrake has been successfully published as comic books and strips in Britain, Australia, Brazil, India, France, Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Turkey and Sweden. My ifist introduction to Mandrake and Phantom were through the highly successful Indrajal comics line in India . Here the strips were published in color and in English, Hindi and other Indian languages.
Originally Mandrake used 'pure' magic to confound his enemies. The Christian right objected to use of witchcraft and wizardry that would corrupt young minds. Soon Falk had to revise the stories to make Mandrake use a purely hypnotic 'skill' rather than magic.
Good Guys and the Baddies
The Story universe of Mandrake is populated with many memorable characters. The Good guys and the baddies that feature more recurrently are listed below :
A famous Magician who could 'gesture hypnotically' in seconds, Mandrake can conjure up any illusion to the unsuspecting eye. Mandrake learnt his craft in the Collegiam Magikos in Himalayas under the tutelage of his father and the headmaster of said college, Theron. Mandrake helps police chief Bradley in solving seemingly unsolvable cases from the latters S.S.D ( Silly Stuff Department) - strange cases that bear no logical explanation. Mandrake is also able to connect to interdimensional world through his learning and has otherwordly adventures too. One can see the inspiration of Marvels Dr Strange is many ways. Mandrake lives in his high tech mountain top residence, Xanadu.
Mandrake's best friend and companion in the former's fight against crime, Lothar is the 'Prince of seven nations' who left Africa to join Mandrake to travel the world, abdicating his right to become the future king. Lothar was always portrayed as Mandrake's friend and equal- something unique in 1934. He is called the 'strongest man in the world' due to his sheer physical prowess and his unique physique helps extract Mandrake from many a fix where Magic may not work. Lothar's girlfriend is African Princess and supermodel 'Karma'.
Princess Narda has been Mandrake's companion and girlfriend since the inception of the comics. She is from the European nation of Cockaigne ( ruled by her brother Segrid) - although in some stories she has appeared as Mandrake's (Magician's) assistant, she has been his lady love until they eventually wed two years before Falk's death in 1997. This triple wedding took place in Xanadu ( Mandrake's residence), In Narda's home country and in the Collegium Magikos in Himalayas under the blessings of Mandrake's father Theron.
No one knows how old Mandrake's father Theron is. He is kept alive atop the Himalayas at the Collegium Magikos by the power of the mind crystals. Mandrake can communicated with his father through telepathy at key moments. Theron is both the headmaster of the Collegium and the guardian of the Mind Crystals. He has other children that Mandrake comes to learn about in later stories. Mandrake has a twin called Derek who has similar powers to him but uses them for nefarious purposes and a younger half-sister called Lenore.
Mandrake's chef at his secret residence Xanadu, Hojo is skilled not only in the culinary arts but also is a deft hand (and feet) at Martial arts. Hojo is also the chief of an international crimefighting organisation called Inter-Intel that seeks Mandrake's help in solving global crimes.
Mandrake chief antagonist is the criminal mastermind Cobra. After being defeated initially, Cobra returns to Mandrake's life wearing a silver mask and all the more menacing than before. Later Mandrake learns that The Cobra is actually Luciphor, Therons older son and step-brother to Mandrake ( It seems Theron has been busy in his long existence spawning many children who come back to aid or haunt Mandrake!)
Aleena the Enchantress
A fellow student of Mandrake at the Collegium, Aleena tries repeatedly to seduce Mandrake with no avail. She thwarts many of his plans and goes over to using her powers to a life of crime. Falk used the names Aleena in many story lines - Falk's mother was called Eleanor Alina!
The other baddies in Mandrake storylines include the master of disguise 'The Clay Camel' named so because he leaves a souvenir in the form of the clay camel at the crime scenes), An extra terrestrial called 'the Deleter' who can delete anyone from our timeline for a fee, Mandrakes twin Derek who sometimes get tangled up in crime and Mandrake's reverse alterego 'Ekradnam' who lives in an alternate timeline ( like the Bizarro in Superman) one can see how many comic writers took their inspirations from these pioneering storylines.
NBC 1954 Pilot
DOE: Defenders of the Earth
Film, TV and Radio
Mandrake has enjoyed some success in other media. After the success of the comic strips Columbia pictures decided to capitalise on the fame and produced a 12 part Saturday matinee serial of ' Mandrake the Magician'. Starring Warren Hull as Mandrake and Al Kikume as Lothar. The series enjoyed some success and is now available on DVD. ( And on you tube!) but is not quite true to the marvelous world created by Lee Falk.
From 1940 - 42 there was a Radio Serial of Mandrake by Mutual Broadcasting System. With the voice cast of Raymond Edward Johnson as Mandrake and Juano Hernandez as Lothar.
A pilot was made by NBC in 1954 but it was never commissioned as a series. It starred reall ife magician Coe Norton as Mandrake, Woody Strode as Lothar and Lisa Howard as Princess Narda
An unaccredited Turkish film was also made called 'Mandrake Killing'e Karsi' in 1967 starring Güven Erte as Mandrake.
Mandrake and Lothar also featured as one of the characters in the animated series ' Defenders of Earth' ( DOE) made by Kings Features Syndicate. He featured along with The Phantom & Flash Gordon battling Ming the Merciless along with their fictitious offspring. It ran for over 60 episodes from 1986
Warner Brothers have acquired the rights for a film version that has been in and out of pre-production for some time under various banners. The latest news earlier in 2012 is that they are trying to make a franchise like 'Sherlock Holmes' out of Mandrake.
Mandrake the Magnificent
For a young mind thirsty for books and stories, Mandrake and Phantom presented distant worlds of magic and mystique, adventure and intrigue, crime and redemption, humor and hijinx. I treasured those tattered old copies of comics that let me escape into a world of my own when I grew up away from many unpleasantness and heartache.
It just goes to show how much those childhood influences still last. My love for comic books and graphic novels never waned. Lee Falk was a magnificent creator who gave me two of my most beloved characters from my childhood.
He was, in fact, the real magician.
© Mohan Kumar 2012
You can read many Mandrake strips online on this wonderful blog/tribute site - to get a flavour of these comics and storylines:
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