Mandrake the Magician Was Comics’ First Superhero
June 11 marks the anniversary of the first appearance of comics' first superhero. Nah, not that lantern-jawed fellow in the red cape. The guy in the black cape and top hat who debuted a full four years earlier. Yeah, that guy. Mandrake the Magician.
Mandrake the Magician first appeared in 1934 and was the creation of Lee Falk, who would also go on to create The Phantom in 1936. Falk had written and drawn the first two weeks' worth of strips himself as a teenager, but after the strip was picked up by King Features Syndicate ten years later, Phil Davis became the strip's illustrator. Following Davis's death in 1964, Fred Fredericks took over as illustrator and, after Falk's death in 1999, as writer as well. The strip ended in 2013, upon Fredericks's retirement.
Mandrake is a crimefighter who uses the abilities he learned from his father at the College of Magic in the Himalayas to battle gangsters, aliens, mad scientists and other threats to the Earth. His powers as a master magician grant him telekinesis, invisibility, teleportation, and shapeshifting, among other abilities. Perhaps his most notable and recurrent power is hypnosis, which he is able to carry out quickly by “gesturing hypnotically,” which causes his targets to hallucinate.
Mandrake's main companion is Lothar, the first black character to be treated seriously in comics. Lothar is an African prince by birth, but he prefers to travel the world as Mandrake's friend and bodyguard. Although he is written with an accented dialect in the early days of the strip, by the '60s he speaks with unaccented English; nevertheless, Lothar is always presented as an intelligent and valuable ally to Mandrake.
Narda, the princess of Cockaigne, is Mandrake's other main companion. Like Lothar, she abandons her royal birthright to travel with the man she loves. After a lifetime-long engagement, Narda and Mandrake were married in the strip in 1998.
Mandrake was a great success thanks to Falk's tightly-plotted and exciting adventures, as delineated in Davis's clean, Art Deco style. The success of Mandrake would spawn a host of (usually) tuxedo-clad magician adventurers in the early days of comics, such as Ibis the Invincible, Sargon the Sorcerer, Mr. Mystic, and most notably Zatara, father of Justice Leaguer Zatanna, who himself would debut four years after Mandrake in Action Comics #1 with Superman.
Another character directly inspired by Mandrake was Mad's Manduck, who uses his ability to “gesture hypnotically” to convince visitors to his crummy hut that he actually lived in a kingly estate.
The Mandrake comic strip would inspire a radio show, a movie serial, a 1979 TV movie, an unproduced Fellini film, and a spot on the 1980s animated series Defenders of the Earth, which would see Mandrake teamed up with fellow King Features stars the Phantom and Flash Gordon. Mandrake has also appeared sporadically in comic books, at Dell, Marvel, Moonstone, and most recently, in Dynamite's King: Mandrake the Magician mini-series by Roger Langridge and Jeremy Treece.
Though the daily Mandrake strip ended in 2013, the character lives on. Hopefully this anniversary of his creation is a... magical day for you.