MANDRAKE THE MAGICIANMedium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: King Features Syndicate
First Appeared: 1934
Creator: Lee Falk
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The first super-powered, costumed crime fighter in comics was not Superman. It was Mandrake the Magician. Wearing a stage magician's
black silk, Mandrake used his powers against evil four years before the Man of Steel. And although his early magical powers were toned down later, being able to make people believe anything, simply by gesturing hypnotically, is still a marvelous and very useful ability. By the time comic books got rolling, he was successful enough to spawn many tuxedo-clad magical superheroes, such as Kardak and Zatara, some of which made marks of their own in comics.
Lee Falk created Mandrake at the age of 19, in 1924, and drew two weeks' worth of strips. Ten years later, he sold it to King Features Syndicate. Not trusting his own artistic ability, he brought in commercial artist Phil Davis to draw it. Falk's tightly-plotted stories kept the strip lively for decades, but much of its early success is due to Davis's smooth, clean rendering, reminiscent of the contemporary art deco movement. Mandrake's tuxedo virtually shone of its own light, and the same could be said of his fashionably slicked-down hair. Davis died in 1964. His replacement, Harold "Fred" Fredericks Jr., initially adopted Davis's style, and few readers noticed the changeover. Fredericks continues to draw the strip today, but has gradually, over the years, let his own style emerge.
Mandrake's powers were acquired through years of schooling in Tibet, where he began his studies during childhood. One of his teachers, Luciphor, later decided to use his powers for evil, adopted the name "Cobra", and appeared in the strip as a recurring villain. Like many of comics' origin stories, Mandrake's has been subject to some embellishment over the years. It came to include an evil brother, Derek; a troublesome younger sister, Leonore; and a benign elderly master named Theron.
Mandrake is joined in his adventures by Lothar, American comics' first seriously-treated black character. Although he is by birth an African prince, Lothar prefers his position as Mandrake's valet and bodyguard. 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.
Mandrake's other companion is Narda, also of royal blood. She, like Lothar, prefers Mandrake's company to her birthright as princess of Cockaigne, a mythical European pocket kingdom. Her engagement to Mandrake lasted longer than most marriages, but they finally tied the knot in 1998.
Mandrake has had only limited success outside of newspaper strips. For a time, he was the star of Magic Comics, with Barney Baxter, Secret Agent X-9 and other King Features characters in the back pages, but after a year or so, lost the cover spot to Blondie. He also appeared in Big Little Books in the 1930s and '40s, a mostly-forgotten 1939 movie serial, oneshot comic books from Dell and Harvey in the '50s, and a brief comic book series in the late '60s, when King Features went into the publishing business and marketed Mandrake alongside Popeye and Beetle Bailey. Mandrake also appeared regularly in a late 1980s animated television series, called Defenders of the Earth. There, incredibly enough, he was teamed with two other King Features adventure heroes — Flash Gordon and Falk's better known creation, The Phantom.
But on his own turf, Mandrake has proven he has what it takes to survive, even in an era when story strips have long been out of fashion.