Leon "Lee" Falk, is the creator of two of the most successful and longest-running action-adventure strips in the history of comic art: "Mandrake the Magician" and "The Phantom." He began his career that resulted in the creation of these two classic fantasy comics as a 19-year-old college student. "Mandrake the Magician" was the first action-adventure strip in which magic was the main theme.
Lee Falk was born April 12, 1911, in St. Louis, Mo. On his first trip out of his native Midwest, a dapper Falk arrived unannounced at the offices of William Randolph Hearst's King Features Syndicate in New York City in 1934. He had with him a comic-strip dramatization of a hypnotist who used his powers to right wrongs by combating criminals and enemies of his country. It was the Golden Era of Comics, and the myriad young men who appeared at King Features with their work were told to leave their comics for review. But Falk used his movie-star good looks and deep, theatrical voice to persuade the receptionist to allow him to see the top comics editor.
It was a year of explosive growth for the comics business as the familiar gag-a-day funnies gave way to popular new action strips for an eager audience. "Mandrake the Magician" arrived in the same exciting era that witnessed the births of "Flash Gordon," "Jungle Jim," "Secret Agent X-9" and "Terry and The Pirates." Today, the tuxedoed, mustached magician remains one of the most famous characters in the comic-strip medium, his adventures appearing in more than 125 newspapers worldwide.
Falk still had two years of college to complete when "Mandrake" went into syndication. To allow time for studies, he collaborated with Phil Davis, a commercial artist who lived in St. Louis. Davis drew the strip until he died in 1965. Falk found working with an artist agreeable and decided to continue under that situation. Fred Fredericks has drawn "Mandrake" since 1965.
Falk's mysterious magician was immediately a worldwide sensation. Mandrake, who always uses his legendary powers of hypnotism and illusion to combat crime, has worked his debonair magic to find a place in the hearts of comic strip buffs everywhere. "Mandrake" is also the first comic strip with a racially integrated cast of crime-fighters. Mandrake's partner in adventure is the gigantic Lothar, one of the few African-American heroes to appear regularly in the comics. Mandrake is also aided by his girlfriend, the lovely and exotic Princess Narda.
Just two years later, Falk developed still another blockbuster. "The Phantom" made its debut in newspaper comics pages on Feb. 17, 1936. Falk combined his love of epic poetry, fairy tales and stories of chivalry to create the riveting, myth-freighted legend of the first costumed super hero, 'The Phantom," also known as "The Ghost Who Walks," "The Man Who Cannot Die" and "The Guardian of the Eastern Dark."
"The Phantom" became a lodestar for what has become practically an industry built around supernatural men and women. King Features distributes "The Phantom" today to more than 500 newspapers. It is translated into 15 languages. Ray Moore was the original artist for "The Phantom." From 1947 to 1961, Wilson McCoy drew the strip. Sy Barry took over in 1962 and continued drawing "The Phantom" until he retired in 1994. Since then, George Olesen has been the artist for "The Phantom."
"The Phantom" was an instant international hit, inspiring comic-book collections around the world from Italy to Australia even before the first comic-book version appeared in the United States in 1938. Falk often recounted with deep satisfaction the fact that his Phantom character provided inspiration to the resistance fighters in Norway during World War II. Particularly in Scandinavia as well as in Australia, the Phantom continues to inspire countless devoted fans today, having achieved widespread popularity through fan clubs, strong publishing and licensed merchandise sales and Web sites.
Falk likened creating a comic strip to writing a play: "I think the art of writing a comic strip is closer to the theater and to film technique than any other writing I know. When I create stories for 'Mandrake' and 'Phantom,' I write a complete scenario for the artist in which I detail the description of the scene, the action and the costumes. If new characters are being introduced, I write their descriptions along with the dialogue for each panel. With such a scenario in front of him, a cameraman could take this and shoot it or a comic artist can take the scenario and draw it."
Hollywood came calling for the first time in 1942 when Columbia Pictures Corp. filmed Falk's "Mandrake the Magician." By 1944, "The Phantom" was one of the world's top action heroes, and Columbia Pictures Corp. released a cliffhanger serial. In 1986, "The Phantom" emerged as a King Features Entertainment television property in an animated series titled "Defenders of the Earth." The series starred three more of King Features' famous comic-strip characters: Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant and Mandrake the Magician. In 1994, Hearst Entertainment produced "Phantom 2040," an animate series set in a grim world nearly 50 years in the future. In 1996, Paramount Pictures released a new theatrical version of "The Phantom," starring Billy Zane it the title role.
Lee Falk was a graduate of the University of Illinois. He spent four years writing copy and directing radio shows for an advertising agency in St. Louis. Once he was comfortably situated as the producer of two of the most sensationally successful features in daily newspapers, Falk took to globetrotting. For many years the adventures of both "The Phantom" and "Mandrake" were as often as not set to paper in hotel rooms in one of the world's great capitals.
The inexhaustible stories continued to come one after another even as World War II intervened. Immediately after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the patriotic Falk took on duties in secret intelligence operations with the Office of War Information and became chief of its radio foreign language division. In 1944, Falk enlisted in the United States Army.
And the stories continued still as, after the war, Falk increasingly turned to playwrighting and theatrical production. For many years, he was the owner of summer theaters in Massachusetts and a winter theater in Nassau, the Bahamas. The Paul Robeson-Uta Hagen production of "Othello" was first presented in this country at Falk's Cambridge Summer Theater. Falk produced more than 300 plays, presenting such talents as Ethel Waters, Sylvia Sydney, Chico Marx, Marlon Brando and Ezio Pinza. Of these productions, he directed about 100, featuring stars such as Dame May Whitty in "Night Must Fall," Ann Corio and Karl Malden in "Sailor Beware," and Charlton Heston in "Bell, Book and Candle."
Falk also wrote nearly a dozen plays and two musicals, "Happy Dollar" and "Mandrake the Magician and the Enchantress."
Up until the time of his death, the expert storyteller still roamed every corner of the globe and continued to mastermind the daily and Sunday newspaper adventures of both "The Phantom" and "Mandrake the Magician."
"Lee lived a life as spectacular as those of the characters he created," Jay Kennedy, King Features editor in chief, said. "He was a central figure behind the emergence of adventure comic strips in the 1930s. The popularity of that genre extended to comic books as well. Fans of his strip, in particular, and comic book fans everywhere owe Lee Falk a debt of gratitude."