Sunday 14 July 2013

Mandrake's vanishing act

During my growing up years in the late 70s, I clearly remember looking forward to every Monday morning (not sure if it was weekly or fortnightly), for my copy of Indrajal comics, which used to come along with the morning newspaper. The comic would feature either Mandrake, the magician or Phantom (the ghost who walks) or our home grown hero, Bahadur. Not finding a new edition in the morning newspaper on Mondays used to be a big disappointment and the hawker was duly pulled up the next morning.
Each of these superheroes had its own unique characteristic but when I look back now, I feel that none of them received the recognition they so rightly deserved. The superhero genre has been monopolised by the two giants in the field - Marvel (Spiderman, Ironman, Hulk, Avengers etc) and Detective Comics, popularly known as DC (Batman, Superman, Flash, Justice League etc). With the advancement in computer generated special effects, blockbuster films of the superheroes have ensured that they stay very much alive and relevant for the new generation as well (Superman reboot- ‘Man of Steel’ was released last month). Their comics do not make much money now but along with the big budget movies (which keep coming in at regular intervals) the overall profitability is ensured.
I am sure that in today’s generation very few people would be aware of Phantom or Mandrake, the magician. (There was a movie on Phantom starring Billy Zane in 1996 but the disappointing performance at the box office ensured that the franchisee was not carried forward).  More than Phantom I feel sorry for Mandrake. Looking dapper in a blue/black suit and a magician’s cap (can you recollect any other superhero with a cap?), a red cape and thin moustaches, his stories had all the elements which could have been easily adapted to the big screen and would make for a thrilling view on the big screen. There were also several sub-plots which made the story absorbing. Mandrake’s strength was his quick hypnosis technique  (how awesome would that be to watch in 3 D) and from what I can recollect, his hi-tech residence (called Xanadu) was located on top of a hill and the road leading to it had several barriers which could be activated from the top to keep out his enemies. Mandrake lived with his girlfriend (wife?) Narda and his right-hand man, Lothar (dressed in a leopard skin) who possessed super human strength and accompanied Mandrake on all his adventures and fights against a variety of criminals. Their cook, Hojo (a stout man with oriental looks and a funny looking scooter) was also the head of a secret security agency. Cobra was Mandrake’s main enemy (also his half-brother). A mysterious criminal organisation called ‘8’ was often at the centre of several of Mandrake’s adventures.
Mandrake also had a twin brother, Derek (who looked exactly like him minus the thin moustaches) and who started misusing his magical powers for personal wealth and power. I vividly remember the edition in which Mandrake fights with his brother and removes his magical power using his superior mental prowess.
Created by Lee Falk (who also created Phantom later on) as a syndicated comic strip in 1934, the series was illustrated by Phil Davis.  It is said that Falk was inspired by the great magician, Houdini and the strip was sold to King features which turned it into an instant hit. At one time, it was being syndicated in more than 125 newspapers worldwide.
Falk started his career with the army and later turned to writing and directing plays. This helped him to work out the characters and setting in details which added so much depth to the stories. Falk died in 1999 in New York at the age of 87. I feel his achievement was no less than Stan Lee, the famous creator of the Marvel super heroes like Spiderman and Iron man. (Here is some trivia—Stan Lee makes a brief appearance in all Marvel studio next time you are watching a Marvel studio movie , look out for an old guy with moustaches and glasses in a blink-and-you-miss-appearance).
It is sad to see that due recognition has not come Lee Falk’s way and there is no one to carry forward the legacy of Mandrake and Phantom. If you look around, you may still find Phantom comics but Mandrake comics always draw a blank. Will any big Hollywood studio oblige us and bring the magic of Mandrake, the magician alive on the big screen?

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