At the height of their popularity, Lee Falk’s iconic comic strips secured him over a hundred million readers every single day. Not one to limit his talents to one medium, Falk also worked as a playwright and theatrical producer, directing such A-listers as Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. But how did Lee Falk become such a superstar creator?
Born Leon Harrison Gross on April 28, 1911, he spent much of his boyhood and his youth in St. Louis, Missouri. Following the death of his father, his mother remarried Albert Falk Epstein, who became a strong father figure for the writer. He officially changed his surname after leaving college, becoming Lee Falk. Around the time he began his career as a comic strip creator, Falk produced his first piece of fiction. On his biography, Falk wrote that he was “an experienced world traveler who had studied with Eastern mystics.” In actuality, Falk fabricated this persona in order to appear as the right person to write about globetrotting heroes. Later on in life, Falk did become an experienced world traveler, partly, “to avoid the embarrassment of having his bluff inadvertently called by genuine travelers wanting to swap anecdotes.”
One of his earliest attempts at “world traveling,” was journeying to New York City to pitch his series, Mandrake the Magician, for King Features Syndicate. This series centers around stage magician Mandrake who lives in a high-tech mansion in New York State known as Xanadu. Although his life is primarily focused on his unusually fast hypnotic technique, he also spends much of his time fighting crime and battling supernatural entities. As such, many comics historian consider Mandrake the Magician, to be comics’ first superhero. Mandrake the Magician ran from June 11, 1934 to July 6, 2013. It was also adapted into a radio serial for Mutual Broadcasting System, a 12-part Mandrake the Magician serial starring Warren Hull in 1939 and a 1979 TV movie starring Anthony Herrera.
Following the creation of Mandrake, Falk turned his fascination for myths and legends into the construction of The Phantom. The adventure comic follows the titular character who operates as a costumed crimefighter in the fictional country of Bangalla. The Phantom began as a daily strip on February 17, 1936 with “The Singh Brotherhood,” inspired by the Thugs of India. The daily newspaper strip was followed by a color Sunday strip on May 28, 1939, both of which are still running today. By 1966, The Phantom was being published in 583 newspapers worldwide, being read by over 100 million people daily. Since its inception, The Phantom has been adapted in comics series for DC, Marvel, Dynamite Entertainment, as well as graphic novels for Moonstone Books.
Television series and feature films based on the comic were also produced, including the French-American animated series Phantom 2040 and the 1985 American animated series Defenders of the Earth. This latter series teamed The Phantom with Mandrake the Magician and Flash Gordon to prevent Ming the Merciless from taking over the planet. More recently, Dynamite produced several miniseries, written by Jeff Parker and drawn by Marc Laming, once again pairing The Phantom, Flash Gordon, and Mandrake the Magician. Billy Zane also starred as The Phantom in the 1996 feature film, and credits the role with his being cast in James Cameron’s Titanic the following year.
Outside of cartooning, Falk also possessed a great passion for theater and stage plays. Throughout his lifetime, Falk ran five theaters, produced about 300 plays, and directed about 100 of them. He personally wrote 12 plays, including the musicals Happy Dollar and Mandrake the Magician, both based on his comic strip character. Many of his productions drew such well-known actors as Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Celeste Holm, Constance Moore, Basil Rathbone, Chico Marx, Ethel Waters, Paul Newman, Ezio Pinza, James Mason, Jack Warner, Shelley Winters, among others.
Across his career, Falk has earned the Yellow Kid Award, Roman Lifetime Achievement Award, Adamson Award, Golden Adamson, the National Cartoonists Society's Silver T-Square Award and was entered into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame. While Falk originally thought his comic strips would last a few weeks, he went on to write them for more than six decades, right up until his death on March 13, 1999. Today, his creations continue to thrive in the comic and film mediums, with future plans for both Mandrake and The Phantom forthcoming.