Know Thy History: Mandrake The Magician
If you ask anyone who the first comic superhero was, most people would reply “Superman.” That is not a wrong answer. Superman heralds the beginning of the comic book Golden Age, where his very success spawned a whole host of imitators, some (like Captain Marvel) phenomenally successful, some (like the Red Bee) not so much.
But some comic historians are not so content with the answer. Some ask themselves, “Hey, aren’t magicians basically superheroes?” No. Of course not. But let’s humor this train of thought and say for a second, “OK, magicians are superheroes.”
This leads some to speculate that the first comic superhero may have been The Phantom Magician, a recurring character in Mel Graff’s The Adventures of Patsy. The Phantom Magician is more or less lost to the ages, though. However, today’s Know Thy History subject is still appearing in newspapers, albeit with incredibly shaky artwork and storylines that will make your brain explode. I’m talking about Lee Falk’s Mandrake the Magician, the first superhero according to the always reliable Ask Yahoo.
Lee Falk was born Leon Harris Gross. He grow up in St. Louis, Missouri, where he was raised Jewish. He took on the name “Falk” after his father died, and his mother married a man named Albert Falk Esptein. In tribute, Falk took on the middle name as a tribute. Falk then became an experienced world traveler who studied with Eastern mystics.
Actually, that last part was a lie… a like that was printed up in Falk’s official biography in King Features Syndicate to bolster the legitimacy of his two famous comic works, Mandrake and The Phantom. Before becoming a comic superstar, New York City was the furthest that Falk had traveled from home. He did end up traveling quite a bit after, though, partly so he wouldn’t have to make up lies to actual travelers.
As a boy, Falk was fascinated by stage magicians. (Hey, isn’t every boy at that age?) When he was 19, he crated Mandrake the Magician. The character was designed to resemble Falk himself… right down to the righteous ‘stache. Instead of performing magic tricks for the masses, though, Mandrake uses his powers for justice. He fights crime using his legendary powers of hypnotism and illusion! Fairly humble powers in this era of Harry Potter and Dr. Strange, but hey, that was plenty fantastic back in 1934. Mandrake’s other powers include a genius-level intellect and a superhuman fashion sense.
Mandrake gained his powers through years of schooling in Tibet (just like fake biography Lee Falk!) One of his teachers, named Luciphor, would eventually use his powers for evil. (Man, surprising that a guy named “Luciphor” would go bad.) He would become “The Cobra”, a recurring villain in the Mandrake strips. He was sometimes depicted wearing a silver mask, and his ultimate goal was to pick up a set of two powerful Crystal Cubes that would boost mental energy. (He should’ve just gotten a Monster Energy Drink). He laso leads a mysterious crime organization named “8”, which, like an octopus, has eight arms (headquarters) spread all over the world. What cobras have to do exactly with octopi, I do not know. Perhaps Cobra is a friend to all animals.
Other villains that Mandrake would face included his evil twin Derek, Mandrake’s other evil twin Ekardnam (who exists on the other side of a mirror), a master of disguise called the Clay Camel, and the Camel’s daughter, The Brass Monkey (the funky monkey).
Mandrake is often seen side-by-side with a large, dark skinned fellow named Lothar. Lothar was once the “Prince of the Seven Nations”, a federation of jungle tribes. He gave it up, though, to join Mandrake on his travels around the world as sort of his personal valet and bodyguard. (Lothar is supposed to be “the strongest man in the world.”) The guy is also way into leopard prints.
I know what you’re thinking. I was thinking the same thing. A big African guy gives up the life of a king just to be the servant of a white dude. That sounds… fairly politically incorrect, wouldn’t you say? However, Don Markenstein of Toonopedia stands up for Lothar’s comparatively positive depiction in the comic: “As years went by and America’s consciousness was raised, Lothar lost most of his accent and became more a friend and companion than a valet — but right from the start, he was treated as an intelligent man and a valuable ally.”
You’d imagine that having a genuine African prince as your bestie would be just the thing to propel Mandrake to the heights of high society. Mandrake, though, is the sort of man who won’t talk to you unless you own three or four countries, minimum. Do you know who Mandrake employs as chef? Some dude named Hojo, who just also happens to be the secret Chief of Intel-Intel, an international crimefighting organization. Sure, many superhero types report to a Police Chief, but where any of them head of the S.S.D. (“The Silly Stuff Dept.), sort of an X-Files before the X-Files were around? Heck, one of dudes on Mandrake’s personal rolodex is a guy named Magnon, the emperor of one million planets.
Even Mandrake’s wife is royalty. Narda is the princess of the suggestively named European country of Cockaigne. She shows up in the second Mandrake story, but they don’t officially tie the knot until 1997 — two years before Lee Falk’s death, incidentally.
While Mandrake may not have had quite the immortal rep of The Phantom, he’s still managed to star in quite a few media adaptations. He was the star of a movie serial in 1939. In 1942, he had his own radio program (where the great Jessica Tandy sometimes played Narda). Surprisingly, the allure of the Magician in the Top Hat continues today. The most recent attempt is by Warner Brothers, who are trying to get a movie off the ground with Hayden “Darth Vader” Christiansen in the title role at one point.
Frankly, I don’t see it. I mean, I, like everyone on the planet, a aching to see what Annakin Skywalker looks like in a pencil thin mustache. But look at this guy’s smug face:
Doesn’t that just scream Robert Downey, Jr.?