Lee Falk, Creator of Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom

May 26, 2006

Lee Falk

    His comic strips were bursting with magic, romance, fantasy and adventure, but the true magician was busy behind the scenes, creating the glamour, excitement and mystery fans love. Lee Falk made comics his life's work, spending an astounding 65 years weaving distant lands, exotic characters and humour into the fantastic scripts for Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom.

    Mandrake the Magician was conjured up by Lee Falk at the tender age of 19. He was a born writer, beginning with writing articles and poems for the school newspaper and working as an ad agency copywriter after graduation. While he was a student at the University of Illinois, Lee had drawn two weeks of comic strips, then for some reason, shelved the project for a few years. He pulled the work out again in 1934 and took it to New York City and into King Features Syndicate. The handsome, debonair young man impressed the receptionist and managed to swing a personal chat with the cartoon editor. He also had the editor believing that he was well-travelled around the world, adding to the flavour of his comic strip. "In reality, I'd just been in Missouri and Illinois." *(1)
It was his first comic strip submission.

   Presto! King Features Syndicate loved Mandrake the Magician.

   Lee didn't particularly care for his own art skills and so he collaborated with Phil Davis, a cartoonist from Missouri, to draw the suave magician/crime-fighter using Lee's scripts. Davis's drawings gave life to Mandrake, dressing him in a tuxedo, a luxurious black cape with red lining, slick hair and an attractive, mustached face. Mandrake the Magician debuted on June 11, 1934 and because of its immediate popularity, earned a prominent place in the Sunday sections on February 3, 1935. It grew to appear in over 200 newspapers world-wide.

   The characters and plot lines of Mandrake the Magician captivated readers, the first comic strip to bring in a black character, Lothar, who was treated with respect and dignity. Mandrake at first had true magical powers, but those gradually changed to be those of hypnotism, disguises, sleight of hand and, of course, superior brains. The art under Davis's hand was beautiful, elegant and glossy, the perfect creation of magic. On the death of Davis in 1964, Fred Fredericks took the artistic lead, continuing in the sleek, appealing art style.

    The next piece of wonder created by the ingenious Lee Falk was also the first superhero to wear a costume. Before Superman, before Batman or Spiderman, there was The Phantom. Debuting under the King Features umbrella two years after Mandrake the Magician, The Phantom hit the newspaper pages on February 17, 1936.

Falk Mandrake

    Also called "The Ghost Who Walks", the masked Phantom is a well-travelled superhero, saving men and women from evil around the world with the motto "to devote his life to the destruction of all forms of piracy, greed and cruelty." Again collaborating with an artist, the comic strip was first drawn by Ray Moore, a talented fellow who first worked as an assistant with Phil Davis on the Mandrake comics. When Moore was called into military service, Wilson McCoy took over the drawing pen. It was passed to Bill Lignante, then on to Seymour Barry. The Phantom was even more popular than Mandrake the Magician, appearing in 600 newspapers in 15 languages and in 40 countries. It has a huge fan-base in Scandinavia and Australia.

   On Deepwoods.com, Lee described his philosophy about comics writing, stating "My only politics is up with democracy and down with dictatorships. Down with human rights violations. Down with torture." About each strip in particular, he added, The Phantom "has a good sense of humour and Mandrake has a sort of a sense of humour but he's a little more formal." A family man, Lee inserted his children's names into his comics work - you can find them in The Phantom.

   Having to keep up with his initial bluffed claims as a globetrotter, Lee began to travel the world extensively. The scripts for Mandrake and The Phantom "were as often as not set to paper in hotel rooms in one of the world's greatest capitals," in Europe, the Orient, South America, India and the Bahamas. Obviously a modern, confident man, he simply took his work with him. *(2)

   Lee took up other projects in the 1970s, writing several "The Phantom" novels for Avon Publishing. (Other authors wrote many of the other Phantom novels.) Both of his comic strips were made into comic book series and are now treasured collector's items.

    He participated in theatre as a playwright, creating dozens plays, was producer of over 300 productions and directed more than 100 of them. For a time, Lee owned several theatres. "Writing plays," Lee said on Deepwoods.com,, "is a very definite craft - it's like building a cabinet - you just don't write it, you've got to know how to build it."

   The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician garnered several awards for their creator:

  • The "Alley" Award, Alter Ego magazine, 1966
  • Roman Lifetime Achievement Award", Minister of Culture, Italy, 1971
  • The "Yellow Kid" Award, Comics Conference in Lucca, Italy, 1971
  • The "Adamson Award", Swedish Academy of Comic Art, 1977
  • The "Silver T-Square" Award in 1986 from the National Cartoonists Society
  • "Inkpot", San Diego Comic-Con International in 1989
  • Lee Falk Day" in his hometown of St. Louis, MO in May 1994
Falk Phantom

   A well-rounded man, Lee was interested in politics, astronomy, and in the arts, from ballet to opera and theatre. A dedicated cartoonist, Lee scripted both of his comic strips until almost the end. He died of congestive heart failure on March 13, 1999, at the age of 87 in Manhattan, New York. (He was born on April 28, 1911.) He left behind his children, Valerie, Diane and Conley, grandchildren, his third wife Elizabeth Moxley and several step-children. Lee Falk had an amazing life-long career as an ingenious creator, opening the way for extraordinary adventures and continuous storylines in the funny pages.

   Today, cartoonist Fred Fredericks creates the magic and mystery of Mandrake the Magician. The Phantom's superheroic creators are now Paul Ryan as daily artist, Sunday artist Graham Nolan and Tony DePaul, script writer.

Sources:

Read more about Lee Falk:
*(1) http://www.deepwoods.org (Link broken.)

Prepare to be mesmerized with Mandrake the Magician on King Features Syndicate:
*(2) http://www.kingfeatures.com/features/comics/mandrake/about.htm

Thrill to the exciting tales of The Phantom:
http://www.kingfeatures.com/features/comics/phantom/about.htm

Detailed information about The Phantom comic books:
http://members.aol.com/TGoldberg/phantom.txt

(Photos from Deepwoods.com, BigLittleBooks.com and Amazon.com)

© Susanna McLeod 2006
TheCartoonists.ca