The World's First Superhero?
Long before Superman fell to Earth from the planet Krypton, before Batman skulked in the shadows, before Spiderman shot his first web and before 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.
With his hair always perfectly coifed with Brylcreem, his rakish moustache perfectly shaped, his topcoat and tails never smudged, his cape draped artfully and 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 learned his skills in a mystic retreat in the Himalayas, and he fought 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 agree that he is indeed the world’s first superhero.
Ladies, gentlemen and children, please put your hands together for the astonishing world of Mandrake the Magician.
Who Created the Mandrake Comics?
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 on 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 like adventure/detective thrillers focusing on unsolved crimes.
How the Strip Broke Ground in Comics
Mandrake is, in many ways, a pioneering comic strip. It was the first to depict an African-American character as part of a crime-fighting double act. Mandrake’s constant companion Lothar, a dethroned African King, was the 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 was thwarted.
Biography of Lee Falk
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 in over 500 newspapers across the world and was read by over 100 million readers every day—the kind of commercial success few authors can dream of today.
Falk’s Rise to Fame
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, after achieving fame, Lee became a well-traveled author in his later days. During the Second World War, Falk had 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.
His Death and Legacy
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 on 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.
Strips and Books
After initially debuting in 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 in comic book and strip form in Britain, Australia, Brazil, India, France, Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Turkey and Sweden. My first introduction to Mandrake and Phantom was through the highly successful Indrajal comics line in India. Here, the strips were published in color and in English, Hindi and other Indian languages.
From Magic to Skill
Originally, Mandrake used ‘pure’ magic to confound his enemies. The Christian right objected to the 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 Baddies
The story universe of Mandrake is populated with many memorable characters. The good guys and baddies that feature most prominently are listed below:
- The Cobra
- Aleena the Enchantress
A famous Magician who can 'gesture hypnotically' in seconds, Mandrake can conjure up any illusion to the unsuspecting eye. Mandrake learned his craft in the Collegiam Magikos in the 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 latter S.S.D. (Silly Stuff Department)—strange cases that bear no logical explanation. Mandrake is also able to connect to the interdimensional world through his learning and has otherwordly adventures, too. One can see the inspiration for Marvel's Dr Strange in 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.