It took a full week of strips for the eponymous hero of Lee Falk’s Mandrake the Magician strip to make his grand entrance. June 11, 1934 was the first strip, which evokes some of the feel of a classic mystery wind-up. But on June 15, in what has to stand as one of the most unambiguously racist intros in pop culture history, Mandrake’s “servant” Lothar heralds the coming of his “master.” One doesn’t even know where to start here. Falk’s full bore colonialism is more fully and relentlessly explored in his later The Phantom series whose origin we covered here and whose fetishes we covered here.
For all of its weaknesses, Mandrake remains important both to comic strip and comic book history in that his is the first strip to move towards a super-powered hero. Mandrake’s “magic” is only nominally super-natural, in that it is based on the power of suggestion and influence over others’ minds. But it precedes the appearance of Superman by 5 years and aldo nods towards costumed heroism, which would be more fully introduced in Falk’s The Phantom.
Putting a full grown man in a skin-hugging bodysuit, hood and mask is bound to raise a few hints of offbeat sexuality. I have no idea if Phantom creator Lee Falk knew precisely what he was doing when he introduced the form-fitting costume to pop adventure in 1936. Some of us will never forgive him. But it is clear that the sheer eroticism of The Phantom strip was clear from the start. And “sheer” is the operative word. As I pointed out in an earlier post, the mysterious avenger was not the only one to trot about the globe in skivvies. Artist Roy Moore missed few opportunities to drape in gauze (barely) Phantom gal pal Diana and a steady line of sadistic dominatrix villainesses.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but for all of his pre-super-hero human talents, The Phantom got bound and whipped by women at a shocking rate. Sado-masochism and titillating cheesecake were hardly new to mass media in the 1930s, of course. The Phantom probably drew more from pulp magazine adventure tropes than any other strip of the time. Its eccentric masculinity and leggy, dominant women, not to mention a risible colonialism, were conventions of the print pulps. But no other daily comic strip I have seen kept an erotic sub-text so close to the surface.
The Phantom is a special case. Sex is baked into the premise and origin story. This is an extravagant revenge fantasy, reaching back 400 years, in which a nobleman swears to avenge the murder of his father at sea by the hands of “Singh pirates.” He dedicates the son of every future generation of his family to fighting piracy of every kind. And so the “the ghost that walks” takes on the mythos of immortality. Of course, the subtext of the origin story is that each generation of Phantom needs a willing wife.
The animating appeal in pulp adventure really is the male ego itself Just about all aspects of the narrative aim at buttressing an heroic male fantasy that apparently needs all the stroking it can get. But as with all pulp heroism, it starts with a two-fisted, iron-willed, he-man dripping a masculine prowess that is not only turned up to 11 but immediately apparent to any woman in the general vicinity.
The number of pulp magazine column inches spent gushing over the raw and daunting power of our hero’s fists, determination, sex appeal, endurance, brains, speed, stare, will, etc. is astonishing. Well-tuned to male adolescents (and the arrested adolescent in the rest of us) the testosterone opera of pulp adventure always seems to belie the fragility of the male ego. No amount of flattery ever seems enough.
Of course the sultry villainess falling for the sexually irresistible hero was a common trope of mid-century male adventure, and it certainly was familiar to comic strip readers. The theme was central to many of Milt Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, and Will Eisner’s The Spirit, whose heroes had tortured relationships with a range of recurring femmes fatale. But in Caniff’s much more masterful hands, these plot twists often became opportunities for some remarkable psychologizing. Eisner used the convention as sites for clever banter, inuendo and the Spirit’s comic cummupance at the hands of famously jealous girlfriend Ellen Dolan.
In Lee Falk’s hammier hands, however, the fawning villainess and cheesecake tropes descend into high camp. Which is great for me, because if it isn’t clear by now, I am not a fan either of Lee Falk or the costumed hero. Falk’s storylines in both Mandrake and The Phantom lack inventiveness and genuine suspense. Ray Moore’s artwork in the Phantom dailies can be involving, albeit a good imitation of the Alex Raymond style that the syndicate was imposing on all of its adventures in the 1930s. I find The Phantom best sipped by the panel rather than eaten by the storyline, mainly because it heightens the campy excess that is the strip’s best feature.
When The Phantom launched a weekly Sunday storyline in 1939, Falk revisited the Sky Band of female pirates he introduced in the dailies earlier. Led by Scala and assisted by Margo, the Band has all of the sexual elements we need: The Phantom repeatedly captured, bound, beaten and saved from certain death by besotted women pirates; villainesses falling and then competing for our hero; female deception, seduction, conniving, etc.
In the world of male pulp adventure, a hero needs to be as steel-willed as they are, if only to combat the wild incongruities of the female stereotype. The pulp villainess is at once slave to her emotion and archly plotting and manipulative.
But let the images speak for themselves. Or try to. I am not sure if Moore was using assistants for the Sunday work, but the style here is wildly uneven, usually wooden and with none of the Raymondesque brushwork and framing we see in the dailies. What we do get is a cornucopia of pubescent fantasy. The legs are long and plentiful, and somehow they manage to walk on sandy shores in stilettos. And the fetishes just keep coming: hair-dragging, cat-fighting, even spanking.
Rightfully, Falk’s Phantom is seen as an historically important transitional figure. His costumed figure and allusions to supernatural abilities bridges the male prowess of Doc Savage, The Shadow and The Spider in pulp adventure to the genuine superhero genre that Superman was soon to engrave on popular culture. But he also brought into the daily newspaper from the adult pulps a surprisingly consistent sexual subtext, if not outright fetishism. For all of the Falk and Moore’s many weaknesses, we can thank them for sexing up the comics page.
Courtesy of my Comics Kingdom access to vintage strips, they are running a 1949 sequence with an engaging origin story for Mandrake the Magician. Orphaned when their father dies in an accident Mandrake and twin brother Derek are taken in to an island based magician school where they learn secret powers. The backstory seems but a setup for a contemporary reappearance of Derek who appears to have been an evil twin all along.
Hot on the heels of his first comic strip success, Mandrake the Magician, author, Lee Falk crafted a second and arguably more important bridge between dime novel and pulp heroism and the “super” heroes soon to dominate the American pop culture scene. Falk recalled later he had originally conceived of The Phantom having an alter ego as a millionaire playboy, echoing pulp heroes The Shadow and The Spider. Within the first months of the strip’s premiere in 1936, however, he changed course. “I became intrigued with the whole mythical notion about 400 years and 20 generations of Phantoms in the jungle. The more I got into that, I keep adding to the background.
Here The Phantom relays in thumbnail form to his perennial love interest Diana Palmer, the origin of The Phantom legend. It is a 400 year-old revenge fantasy, in which generations of Phantoms avenge the treachery of Singh pirates. The first-born son of each generation of Phantom must dedicate himself to fighting “all forms of piracy.”
Among jungle natives, of course, The Phantom is known as “The Ghost Who Walks.” Like much of pulp adventure fiction of the day, The Phantom was colonialist fantasy writ large, complete with ignorant or naive native cultures championed by this white (in purple wrapping) savior.
While The Phantom had no super powers, he was the first hero to don the skintight costume that would soon become standard for comic book super heroes with the arrival of Superman several year’s later. The strip was drawn by Ray Moore, following an Alex Raymond style that King Features encouraged across its adventure line of strips.
Like the spicy pulps of the era, The Phantom always had an erotic and sadomasochistic undercurrent that provided more titillation for young and old male readers than usual. Falk and Moore seemed devoted to depicting women in various states of undress and with gossamer thin gowns that were as skintight and revealing as The Phantom’s own outfit.
In fact the series begins with Diana Palmer in short shorts, low-slung tank top and boxing gloves pummeling her male opponent. This set the subtext for the series. For a 400-year-old Ghost, The Phantom finds himself bound and tortured more than you would think possible. And the female love interests and villains alternate between being damsels in need of saving or dominatrixes asking for a slap-down. The second major adventure cycle in the series is about a band of female pirates, the Sky Band, which quickly becomes a figurative S&M orgy of women alternately endangering The Phantom and falling in love with him.
The series has been enduring, however, thriving in comic strip form for these many decades and in comic books as well. Falk continued to author the strip until his death in 1999.