For all of their international popularity, I confess I could never warm up to Lee Falk’s proto-superheroes, Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom. Of course, historically they were significant mainly for introducing the idea of the ridiculously costumed adventure hero to mass audiences, paving the way for the juvenilia that defined comic books through much of WWII and then again after the early 1950s comics scare. And Falk’s creations remain among the most recognizable comic strip characters of all time. Therre is not getting around their sheer iconic import. And yet, I myself never found Falk’s storylines especially compelling or tense, nor his villains daunting. His early defining artists, Phil Davis on Mandrake and Ray Moore on Phantom become merely competent if anodyne figure artists, and their use of panel progression and framing is, again, meh.
To Falk’s credit, however, he energized his strips with zany, imaginative, improbable scenarios even as the art and characterization remain one-dimensional. After all, Mandrake prances in public – always – in full tails and cape, while his muscle, Lothar, tags along barefoot, in short shorts and slung leopard skin. In an extended 1938 run, Mandrake and Lothar go to Hollywood, where they uncover a case of faked identity, unmask a “Catface” trouble-maker (below) and deal with the world’s most spoiled child star. Promising, maybe, but Falk seems to bring no sense of wit or irony to his outlandish set pieces.
The most interesting aspect of Mandrake is the magic itself. the conceit started as a genuine magical power but settled into some quasi-mind control motif. I can’t say exactly what sort of power Mandrake actually possessed. At times he seems to be clouding others’ minds into disarming illusions, but then he appears to be controlling objects and defying physics. In the section below we start with a simple mind control, appearing as a skeleton to the old woman. But just panels later he appears to be controlling a shovel. I am not sure I follow…but I can’t imagine it matters much to Mandrake devotees. There is an unwitting silliness to it all. The same lack of self-consciousness strikes me in Falk’s even more enduring hero, The Phantom. As we covered elsewhere, the sexual sub-texts of sado-masochism and perverse eroticism in Falk’s other strip offers its own unintended joys.
I keep dipping back into the Mandrake and Phantom runs from time to time in the hopes that I will get what others see. The strips sampled above are from a 1976 Nostalgia Press reprint of the magician’s 1938 adventures in Hollywood. And to be fair to Falk and Davis, comics historian Maurice Horn locates the pleasures he finds in both that I struggle to see. He finds the dialogue “brisk and witty,” reflecting Falk’s aspirations to be a playwright. He declares the scenarios “very imaginative, very elaborate: the plots twist and turn, like a good stage play, and they are as varied in tone as in setting.” Likewise he credits Davis as an inspiration to later adventure artists with his “nonchalant yet achieved line” and “an uncanny ability in creating subtle moods and tonalities with a few simple lines.” With a little squinting, I guess I can see it in some of the panels above – the use of light source and shadow in fine, and some of the points of view have drama. Davis’s skills advanced noticeably throughout the Mandrake run. His penchant for light sources was there from the beginning. The sequence below is from the first year of the run in 1934-35.
By the late 1940s, Davis seemed to be learning from rival adventurists like Foster and Raymond to focus on facial expression and surface evocative detail with photo-realist precision, situating him more firmly in the post-WWII style.
And yet, for all this evolution in Davis’s style, the figures continue to feel like mannequins, lacking the kinetic energy and sense of movement. And Falk’s skills art characterization were just as wooden. Even as I read into the 1950s adventures, I never get a sense for personality nuance or depth of feeling in either Mandrake or the many characters he encounters, even as Falk admirably brings us into a wide range of settings and adventure genres. But there is always enough imaginativeness to Falk’s storylines to keep the strip’s following engaged for many decades. I was drawn back into the strip by a 1950s storyline that offered an origin story for Mandrake and even gave him an evil twin (again, the doubling motif) brother. And again, to give Falk his due, the aspiring playwright had a sense of stagecraft. When the strip premiered on June 11, 1934, it took a full week before the “Master” himself appears in a panel that in retrospect simply drips in 1930s ethnocentrism.