The Ghost Stops Walking – A Tribute to Lee Falk

By Nakul Shenoy

The creator of the two most popular comic strips in the world – Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom is no more. Leon ‘Lee’ Falk quietly passed away at the age of 87 on 13 March 1999 at New York, after a brief spell of illness. 

A pioneer in the world of comic heroes, Falk conceived the idea of Mandrake the Magician when he was a college student. Falk was a lover of the art of magic and used to frequent the theaters to watch the great magicians of his time perform. These magicians were undoubtedly the greatest of all time, and here the first seeds of a comic hero Mandrake were laid.

This master magician with the distinct pointed mustache first appeared in 1934, when Falk succeeded in selling this idea to King Features Syndicate. Since then, the magician who gestures hypnotically, and an expert in telepathy, has been syndicated in more than 125 newspapers all over the world.

The comic strip of Mandrake the Magician, which was conceived under the influence of some of the greatest magicians of all time like Dante and Thurston, is unendingly repaying its dues to the art of legerdemain. This is because there are many magicians today, who proudly claim that they were attracted to magic by this strip, me included. What is very unique is that Falk’s Mandrake always says that magic is an art, and uses his art of misdirection to help fight black magic besides criminals.

Falk not only scripted these strips, but also pencilled the first few strips himself! It was only a bit later that he convinced King Features to rope in master artist Phil Davis, for the job of drawing the master illusionist. Mandrake the Magician which first appeared on June 11, 1934 is being drawn since 1965 by artist Fred Fredericks.

As Mandrake cast a spell over millions all over the world, there was a greater demand for another superhero. And thus emerged the Phantom, the first masked and costumed hero when Falk conceived it in 1936. First appearing on February 17 1936, the Phantom preceded a new genre of costumed heroes like Superman and Batman.

The Phantom comic strip which runs in more than 500 newspapers today, was also first drawn by the creator himself, until Ray Moore, who was assisting Phil Davis jumped at the chance of becoming a full-time strip cartoonist.

Leon Falk was born in St Louis, Missouri, on 12 April 1911 and from his early days in High School, had a compulsion to write. Even as a top cartoon strip writer, he managed to write produce and direct plays. One of his stage plays, Eris, was staged in Paris in 1966 and revived in 1973 by a French repertory company. Falk was presented with a special award for his contribution to comics at the 1971 Comics Conference held at Lucca, Italy.

Mandrake the Magician became a movie serial in 1939 and came close to becoming a motion picture production in the 1960s when famous Italian director Federico Fellini actually cast Marcello Mastroianni in the lead role. The Phantom however hit the screen as back as 1940, when Tom Tyler was pitted as the masked crusader. In 1996, Bruce Sherlock and Peter Sjoquist in association with Paramount brought The Phantom to the silver screen starring Billy Zane in the lead role.

Jim Shepherd in his obituary in Frew’s The Phantom #1226 says: “Falk’s passing removes the last link to the golden age of comics. His career, spanning 1934-1999, was the longest of any comics writer in the modern era and it is impossible to believe anybody will ever achieve a similar record of almost 65 years creating two of the most widely syndicated strips in the world.”

Falk, we shall never forget you for what you have given us – your fans in general and magicians in particular. Thank you.

NOTE: This tribute was first published in the a.m. plus – a weekly supplement of Udayavani Morning News in March 1999.