Obituary: Lee Falk

"LOTHAR! WE'RE here! Another dimension!" cried Mandrake the Magician without moving his lips. "A world entirely different from our own!" Lothar grinned, holding hard to his fez. "Well, anyhow, it didn't hurt!"

Mandrake the Magician, considered by some to be the first superhero in the comics, wore an odd costume in comparison with the four-years-younger Superman: a shiny top hat large enough to hold a spare rabbit, a low-cut waistcoat to expose his celluloid dickey, a flowing purple cloak, an evening suit with tails, and shiny patent leather pointy shoes. His partner Lothar, a muscle-bound grown-up Robin, wearing blue shorts and a semi-strapless leopardskin blouse, was the he-man half of the act: he wore no shoes at all. Lothar was the dethroned king of an African tribe.

When Mandrake made his comic-book debut in the cleverly titled Magic Comics no 1 in August 1939, the editor, G. Whiz the Wizard ("Uncle George to you!"), greeted his young readers from his Wizard's Tower in Washington Square, Philadelphia. "As towers go, it overtowers every other tower you ever saw. It's the north-eastern turret of Mandrake's castle on the south- western corner of our Magic Square. Of course, Mandrake has a castle, though he's not often in it, being so busy adventuring, but he likes to have a resident wizard around in case anything comes up."

Mandrake, of no fixed Christian name, first appeared in a daily newspaper strip on 11 June 1934, Brylcreemed hair never to be disturbed, Ronald Colman moustache neatly pointed, lighting a fresh cigarette that would never ash, and strutting a walking-stick that doubled as a magic wand when required. Modelled on the theatrical conjurors that the young Lee Falk, his creator, worshipped in his boyhood, Mandrake soon used his magical abilities to fight crime, in harness with his partner.

The strip may now be seen as a true pioneer of race equality. Perhaps because Lothar had been a king, Mandrake treated him as an equal at all times, and his speech balloons were never disgraced with the kind of parody dialogue which today's readers find so offensive in certain of yesterday's comics and movies.

Leon Falk, known as Lee to his chums, was born in St Louis, Missouri. There seems to be some confusion over the actual year. An encyclopaedia of comics gives it as 1905, but other sources say he was 87 when he died. Falk was a natural, born writer. As soon as he entered high school he began contributing to the college newspaper: poems, articles, stories, all flowed from his pen. After graduating from the University of Missouri he got a job as a copywriter for a St Louis advertising agency. Here he befriended one of the staff artists, Philip Davis, and in time the two were to form a partnership in the production of Mandrake the Magician.

Falk spent a while in local radio as both a producer and a scriptwriter, then took time off to visit New York with the rough artwork for Mandrake. No mean artist himself, Falk had sketched the first few strips as samples. King Features, the top newspaper strip syndicate, showed interest, but wanted better drawings. Rushing home, Falk grabbed Davis and in a few days the polished-up strips were sent to King. They accepted.

Originally Mandrake was the perfect, and perfectly impossible, magician. He could do absolutely anything Falk could dream up: shrink in size, expand to giant proportions, conjure up an instant lunch, vanish from view and reappear on the other side of the world. His first opposition came from the Cobra, a sinister, hooded black- magician whose aim was to rule the world. He reckoned without Mandrake's magic. Wonderful stuff to delight young readers, of course, but certain Christian bodies objected. They did not like miracles being performed by magic. Falk quickly reduced his hero's powers to hypnosis alone. From then on a gesture of Mandrake's elegant hands would cloud a man's mind so that the victim would totally believe that what he thought he saw was true. There is an answer to every problem, especially if you draw comics.

On the distaff side, Mandrake met Princess Nardia of Cockaigne and duly fell in love despite the fact that she wanted to kill him. It seems Mandrake was warring with her bad brother Segrid at the time, but once that matter was magically sorted, the way was clear for romance, despite the many beauties that our conjuror would encounter in his extremely long and still continuing career.

Phil Davis, working with his wife Martha, drew the series until he died in 1964. She continued womanfully on her own for a while, then the pen was passed to Harold Fredericks, who signed himself simply Fred. Mandrake's operations were now headquartered in the Fortress of Xanadu, but otherwise the magic proceeded as before.

Mandrake entered the movies as the star of his own 12-episode serial produced by Columbia Pictures in 1939. Warren Hull played the magician in what was billed as "A Mad Whirl of Murder and Mystery", supported by Al Kikume as Lothar. The chapter titles sound exciting: "Trap of the Wasp", "Terror Rides the Rails" and "Unseen Monster" are typical.

But one successful strip was not enough for Falk. On 17 February 1936, King Features launched his new strip, the Phantom. Clad in a one piece skin-tight suit with a hood, plus a tight black eye-mask which revealed a startling lack of pupils, the Phantom was not just a man, he was a living legend, 400 years old. Men called him "The Ghost Who Walks", and he had been walking around the jungles of India since the 16th century. His secret: he was really Christopher Standish, latest in a long line of stalwart sons, who inherited their title and powers from the original Phantom all those hundreds of years ago.

Falk's artist for the Phantom was another friend from his home town. Ray Moore drew the simplistic but visually appealing strip until he entered the US Air Force in 1942. The Phantom was then taken over full-time by his former assistant, Wilson McCoy. Once again Hollywood called, and with the banner line "The Most Fantastic, Most Exciting Serial Ever Made", Columbia Pictures leapt into action with Tom Tyler, who once played the Mummy, billed as "America's favourite cartoon hero now on the screen!" Second-billed was Ace the Wonder Dog as Devil, the Phantom's four-legged friend. This was 1943, and some years later, in 1996, a full-length feature film was made of the same title.

Falk served in the Department of Secret Intelligence, a branch of the Office of War Information, during the Second World War, and later began to write and produce for the theatre. Many of his productions were staged at Nassau in the Bahamas, and he is said to have produced some 300 plays. These included Dame May Whitty in Emlyn Williams's masterpiece, Night Must Fall, and Charlton Heston in Bell Book and Candle. Falk also wrote two musical plays, Happy Dollar and one featuring his top comic-strip hero, Mandrake the Magician and the Enchantress.

In his spare time from mapping out 14 strips every week and writing and producing plays, Falk launched into a series of novels featuring his other hero, the Phantom. Small wonder then that he finally received an international award for his comic strip work at the 1971 Comics Convention in Lucca, Italy.

Leon Falk, writer and producer: born St Louis, Missouri 1905; twice married (one son, two daughters); died New York 13 March 1999.