Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Lee Falk, Storyteller
“I guess that’s what I am -- a storyteller. Some kids sing to impress their parents. I would come down and tell stories to my parents friends -- weird stories that only a kid would tell. I guess I never stopped.” -- Newspaper interview, 11 Jun 1966.
Lee Falk was usually close-mouthed when asked where he came up with the idea for Mandrake the Magician. The closest he came was to mutter that it was “some magician.” Mandrake artist Phil Davis was also tight-lipped. He told reporter Mel Heimer that none of the characters were patterned after real life ones “although he has no comment on Mandrake himself.”
That magician was performer/escape artist Leon Mandrake, who began his stage career in 1928 and once drove an automobile through busy Anchorage, Alaska streets with two blindfolds covering his eyes. In 1955 Leon Mandrake said that the comic strip Mandrake the Magician was originated in the 1930’s and patterned after his act, while Narda was modelled after Leon’s stage assistant and wife of the time. Lothar was based on his “powerful colored assistant on the stage.” Mandrake sold his rights to the comic strip and did not participate in any of the income, although the publicity had “been profitable at times.” One Lee Falk obituarist mixed the two gentlemen up and reported the death of Leon “Lee” Falk on the occasion of his death in 1999.
In 1962 Falk made the strange claim that “in fact I’m the inventor of the adventure strip.” Falk was not alone in claiming credit for the invention, Ham Fisher, of Joe Palooka fame made the same claim for himself in interviews. Adventure continuities were widely used in the twenties in strips like Salesman Sam, Hairbreadth Harry, Desperate Desmond, The Gumps, and Barney Google but the invention of the adventure strip is generally credited to George Storm, the author of Phil Hardy and Bobby Thatcher. That attribution has been contested however.
Hal Foster’s Tarzan kicked off the golden age of realistic adventure strips on 7 Jan 1929 but some comic historians don’t even consider Tarzan or Flash Gordon ‘comic strips’ because they had narrative text instead of word balloons. Mandrake began with word balloons but during the forties dropped the balloons for awhile replacing them with narrative text running within the images.
Falk was born on the banks of the Mississippi in St. Louis, Missouri, 28 April, 1911, and was a graduate of the University of Illinois. A Theatre Arts Magazine author of 1955 continues the story although if you listen hard enough you may detect the voice of the storyteller Lee Falk in the article:
“The comic strip author-playwright-producer started his career as an executive of a newly formed advertising agency, owned by two friends, the assets of which consisted of a box of paper clips. Falk was producing three radio shows a day but sponsors were in short supply. He got the idea for Mandrake, and had St. Louis artist friend Phil Davis draw up some sample strips. Not sure what to do with his property he left his office in St. Louis for nearby Ferguson, Missouri where cartoonist Frank Tuthill, creator of The Bungle Family, lived.
Falk’s eyes took in the palatial house, the manicured grounds, the foreign cars glittering in the drive under the elms. He said to Tuthill: “I want to sell a comic strip. How do I go about it?” Tuthill told him to take it to a syndicate, and recommended King Features, since it was the largest. Falk looked around at the plush layout again, nodded, and caught an early train to New York. King features took the strip on sight.”
Mandrake the Magician by Lee Falk and Phil Davis began 11 June 1934. A year later Falk came up with The Phantom and King grabbed it immediately. The Phantom was illustrated by Ray Moore and Wilson McCoy in the early years. Falk kept four stories going at the same time, because the Sunday and daily continuities of the two strips were different. He kept two months ahead of publication and worked on his stories every day.
“The Phantom never killed anybody and Mandrake never uses a gun. If a guy came in with a gun he’d just turn it into a banana.”
Mandrake the Magician spent his early years at the College of Magic, a 4000 year old mountain wonderland of gardens and fountains and a training ground for philosophers and magicians. He learned how to control the greatest power in the universe, the human mind, and pledged to rid the world of evil. His friend and helpmate was Lothar, a big muscular black man. Think about that for a minute: a black hero in the comics, in 1934. Even if Lothar did address Mandrake as “Master” they were often shown with hands affectionately draped on each others shoulders.
Phil Davis’ style was borrowed from Alex Raymond’s feathery ink work on Flash Gordon and Secret Agent X-9. The early years were very effective particularly on the dailies where there was much more use of blacks which gave the stories a sinister aura of magic and mystery. There were catfights between beautiful women and lions and tigers, an oriental villain named Doctor Cobra, Lothar bending iron bars with his bare hands, and Mandrake’s jaw-dropping illusions.
The dailies were, if anything, more bizarre than the Sundays, in art and story. In a November 1936 continuity ‘In the Arms of Morpheus,’ Mandrake hypnotizes a compulsive gambler, Narda’s brother, into dreaming he is playing in a casino run by horned devils. He bets his right arm on the number 17 and loses to the devils who bet number 29. Another long sequence involved a dotty old man peering into a mirror with no glass back of which is one of Mandrake’s assistants made up to look like the viewer. The assistant aped the balmy old man for well over a week of surreal dailies. In the Sundays during this period Mandrake was a prisoner of King Bull Ganton in the City of Murderers, strapped to a dynamite chair blindfolded waiting to be blown to Kingdom Come.
Falk’s imagination never faltered. He had a bottomless reserve of story ideas. In the fifties and sixties stories began to rival those of Otto Binder on Superman. Science fiction was the driving force and stories took place in the Magnetic Isle, Dimension X, and on the planet Jupiter. In one story delegates from four planets, including Earth, met at the bottom of the ocean for a peace conference, all suspicious of each other. The Red Planet was made up of weed men who wore helmets, unable to breathe oxygen. The Jupiterians were little square people, naked except for loincloths, the Venusians were octopi with goggles, spaceships and ray guns. There were H Bomb labs, undersea cities, and the mysterious College of Magic inhabited by all sorts of weird bearded philosophers and practitioners of magic.
Six foot four moustachioed Phil Davis was born in St. Louis 4 March 1906 and became interested in drawing at the age of six. “I had a mania for parades. I drew every parade I could see. My family neither discouraged nor encouraged me; they just accepted my dark fate.” His first commercial job was with the St. Louis Dispatch. He recalled once achieving fame of a sort by designing a stream-lined coffin for a St. Louis casket company. He did magazine covers and illustrations until he met Lee Falk and they began turning out Mandrake in 1934. When asked what was the most important requisite in a comic artist he replied “Endurance.”
Davis was married to a fashion artist. His hobbies were woodworking, swimming, and fooling around with dogs. He particularly liked the comic art of Chic Young on Blondie. His advice to beginning comic artists was “Never stop drawing.” Davis drew Mandrake for thirty years from his home in St. Louis and died of a heart attack 16 Dec 1964. Mandrake was carried on by Fred Fredericks. Fredericks art was professional but bland compared to the exceptional art of Phil Davis. The strip began little by little to lose subscribers.
Critics were of two minds about Falk’s ethnic character Lothar. In 1972 with black cartoonist Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals, and integrated comics like Dateline Danger and Friday Foster, Lothar (still drawn by Fred Fredericks) was praised for having upgraded from a savage in a leopard skin loincloth to a civilized, educated, black prince living as an equal with the hero Mandrake.
In 1986 Falk, now 81, commented that “Miami Vice made black and white crime-fighting teams common-place. But Mandrake and Lothar were the first.”
Critics were more sensitive and unforgiving in 1998. Blacks in Falk’s Phantom strip, (at the time of Falk’s death a year later still syndicated in over 500 newspapers, while Mandrake was down to 125 subscribers), were members of the Jungle Patrol, previously an all-white organization, but letter-writers still blasted the comic strip as racist and demanded it be dropped from circulation.
The Phantom, aka Kit Walker, aka the “Ghost Who Walks,” is the 21st in a family of men who passed the purple costume on from father to son since 1535, when the first Phantom took the job. “Superman, Batman, they all came afterwards,” Falk said, “There were a bunch of guys around New York who wanted to be cartoonists, and this strip captivated them.”
“The Phantom was the first masked hero of the comic strip. He was followed by all the others - like Superman and Batman - by a couple of years. I drew the first two weeks of the Phantom myself.”
On that subject Falk had one major regret: “Superman, I wished I’d thought of him.”
Both the Phantom and Mandrake had wide circulations “every place except behind the iron curtain, including China and Africa.” An article on Mar 25 1969, when Mandrake and The Phantom were published in 1000 newspapers in 40 languages turned to a discussion of Cuba. The Phantom was running a sequence about an island prince called Charls the Cheap buying planes hijacked from the United States.
“But what will Fidel Castro say when he reads your story? Wouldn’t he think you were making indirect insinuations against him?”
“I don’t care if Castro likes it or not.” Falk’s first trip to Cuba was when Castro was in the mountains fighting the merciless dictator Fulgencio Batista. “When I went back to Cuba Castro was in power. I have not been back there since but I still think Cuba is the most beautiful of the islands. That Veradero beach strip cannot be equalled any place on earth for its beauty. I have never met Castro but I am told he is a fan of The Phantom and Mandrake.”
“How come The Phantom never gets a day older since you created him 25 years ago? How come The Phantom never married Diana although he has been ‘shacking up’ with her for such a long time? Is this good for the morals of the millions of children who read The Phantom that their hero is living in sin with Diana?”
“Falk replied that although The Phantom has been engaged to Diana for 25 years and never married her, he does not live an immoral life with her because they don’t live together.”
The Phantom and Diana were married on December 11, 1977, in the Deep Woods at the mouth of the Skull Cave. Guests included presidents, heads of state, tribal chieftains, Diana’s mother, Hzzs (a caveman-monster), and Mandrake the Magician.
Falk’s favourite Phantom story was told to him shortly after World War II and had its origins in Norway. “The Germans had told the Norwegians that the United States was being destroyed. But the Norwegians knew differently because newspaper mats for the strip were being smuggled in.
“They would look at The Phantom in the strip and know that the Germans were lying, America wasn’t being destroyed. The Germans didn’t realize this, The Phantom was a great morale builder and ‘Phantom’ became a password for the Norwegians.”
“For a time The Phantom was the only assurance the Norwegians had that America wasn’t being bombed out.”
An Italian youth told him “Mandrake saved my life.” Falk explained “The youth said as a little boy during the war he was left starving in his home town. The only thing he had to sell was his Mandrake album. With this he was able to raise transportation funds to another part of Italy and survived.”
An Estonian youth told him he learned to read his native language from The Phantom.
Another incident in Falk’s wide travels concerned a visit in the jungles of Yucatan. “ A kid ten or twelve years old, clad in a loincloth and with a machete hopped out of the jungle. He didn’t speak Spanish and he didn’t speak English, but when he was told who I was, he looked at me and said “Mandrake.” That was the only word he knew.”
Falk spoke at various times of the creation of The Phantom; “I also wanted my hero to be like Robin Hood or the medieval executioner (they all wore tights) sort of a mystery man.”
“As a kid I grew up loving the tales of gods and heroes and mythology. The Phantom follows in that mode. For the jungle part: I was very much influenced by Tarzan and The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling.”
Falk didn’t worry about accuracy in his stories. His famous Deep Woods is populated by characters showing not only African influence (pigmies) but Arab and Asian origins as well. “I usually try to keep this a mythical area. I never thought of it as exactly as Africa, but more Africa-Asia.”
“I have tigers as well as lions. I have had someone tell me that tigers aren’t found in Africa. I told them it was not Africa, but Phantom country,” he sniffed.
Falk said that the historical Phantom stories were his personal favourites. These stories dealt with feats by the 21st Phantom’s ancestors. They could be anything from the retelling of the Phantom legend… to the discovery of lost civilizations amidst deep woods mountains. The Phantom also had historical and material treasures in his skull cave. Amidst the splendours were such items as king Arthur’s sword, the asp that killed Cleopatra, Homer’s lyre and the diamond cup of Alexander.
“There is a Phantom story behind all of these. I may tell a few of them in the future. Actually The Phantom is keeping these treasures as a storehouse for mankind. Some are in his safekeeping while others are gifts. In one story the present Phantom went into the treasure house as a boy and dropped the diamond cup. He received his first scolding; but luckily he did not break the cup.”
In 1965 the comics began being taken seriously both at home and abroad. The Italian Ministry of Education sponsored an International Comic Strip convention at which one of the featured speakers was Lee Falk. A non-profit Museum of the Comic Strip opened in Paris chronicling the story of comics from Egyptian art to the present and the magazine French Letters analysed comic strips, one critic went so far as to compare Superman to Jesus Christ. “Like Christ, Superman’s kingdom is not of this world: though raised by earthly parents, he is gifted with super powers that permit him to perform miracles.”
“It is hard to realize the world-wide impact of the comic strip,” Falk said, “It is the folk-literature of the world, and for many their only contact with literature is this type of fiction. I receive letters from all over the world, and they mainly ask the same questions. The most popular one is “How far ahead do you keep?””
In 1966 the Smithsonian Institution put on an exhibit on 75 Years of the Comics, showing the growth and development of the form in the newspaper strip. One year later an international exposition on comic strips and their creators was held at the Louvre hosted by Claude Moliterni director of the French Society of Research in Illustrated Literature. The exhibition traced the evolution of figurative drawings from carved Trojan columns to space-age comic strips using slide projections and panel blow -ups of comics from America, Europe, Argentina and Mexico. Burne Hogarth, Mell Lazarus and Lee Falk attended the opening ceremonies. Milton Caniff visited a month later.
Lee enjoyed seeing The Phantom adapted for movies and television, although he was disappointed with the 1943 serial. “What I really wanted to see happen was that Frederico Fellini had planned on doing a Mandrake the Magician movie, starring Marcello Mastroianni, back during the 1960s early ‘70s, when they were both in their creative prime. Comics and movies should go hand-in-hand.”
Lee Falk, storyteller, passed away on 13 March 1999. Mandrake continues to this day, still drawn by Fred Fredericks. The Phantom is carried on by Tony DePaul and artist Paul Ryan.
© King Features