Friday, February 28, 2014

Master Magicians and Phantoms: An Interview with Lee Falk, Part IV

Today we conclude our weeklong interview with Lee Falk (1911-1999), the creator of The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician!

What do you think of the recent incarnations of The Phantom, like the cartoon series Phantom 2040, or Defenders of the Earth?

First off, the animator of Defenders of the Earth concentrated on Mandrake, The Phantom, and Flash Gordon. They figured the kids would like something in a future time, with interesting technology and what not. So they grouped them with Flash in the future. I rather reluctantly agreed, thinking that maybe that was the way of the future, so let’s do it. We made The Phantom the 25th generation of the character, and the great-grandson of Mandrake. But when the animators depicted them, they just used the three, Mandrake, The Phantom, and Flash Gordon. I asked why they had excluded Lothar from it all. Here’s a hero who happens to be black, and millions of black and brown fans think of him as a role model. I argued that he had to be in the posters as well.

The show came out fairly well, in the end, I guess.

Now with Phantom 2040, they again wanted something that has futuristic technology. So I told them to set it ahead, with the 23rd Phantom. We had to set it in the future, because if there was any change in the current character, the Swedish and Scandinavian fans would be furious! They want the “classic Phantom.” So we worked around that by making this his grandson. We put some armor on his arms, and gave him futuristic weapons, but at least they didn’t change him too much. At first, they wanted to put wings on him! But it’s pretty well done.

What can you tell us about the new Phantom film?

The movie is to me, and I’m a bit prejudiced, just great. Billy Zane is the perfect Phantom, he looks wonderful. I saw the dailies everyday while I was on the set for two weeks.

Is the plot an adaptation of one of your stories?

Yes, several of them. It deals with pirates and it has all of the elements that Phantom fans expect. Jeffrey Boam did a terrific screenplay, and came up with an original gimmick for the story. I told him that in all the years where I’ve written over 1000 stories for the character, the twist he came up with was one I had never tried. It’s a good story.

Is it set in contemporary times?

It’s the 1930s, and the cities have a 30s feel. But the jungle scenes seem as if they could be any time, so it feels contemporary, too. But it is the “classic” Phantom, just as his fans like him best. Billy Zane is marvelous. They first showed me a picture he had done called Dead Calm. Do you know the film?

Yes, it’s a tight little shocker.

They did it about eight years ago, when he was 23, or 24. Billy played a psychopathic killer -- but that’s not what I saw. What I saw was a nice looking young man, slim; a very strong actor. He also had charm and strength, and this is what I wanted for The Phantom. I didn’t want just a muscle man, I wanted that charm and elegance. He had all of that, but he was slim, didn’t really look like The Phantom, but rather like a young man. I figured, though, if he were good enough an actor, they would pad him up.

When I met Billy in January, he came over to say hello. He said he wanted me to see him before he went out on the set. And there was Billy, looking like The Phantom, without padding! It turns out that when he was hired by Paramount, in 1994, he went into training with a professional trainer, and did four hours a day for two years. So he wound up with a beautiful, powerful body, along with the same charm and elegance. He’s a good strong actor. The whole cast is good. Treat Williams plays the bad guy, and he’s a fine actor. Kristy Swanson plays Diana, the girlfriend. She was in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. She a beautiful girl. She's also in Flowers in the Attic.

Based on the V. C. Andrews novel.

I must say you’re a knowledgeable young man! I had never heard of the novel. The other woman, the bad gal with the heart of gold, is Sallah. She’s based on a character in a story of mine called “The Sky Bandit,” from the 30s. It was about a female gang of sky pirates, and that’s well before feminism. Sallah is the number two gal, and I remember her very well because I designed her to look like Louise Brooks. Do you remember her? In the film, she has long black hair, which is a change, but Cathrine Zeta Jones, a beautiful English-Welsh actress, plays her. She wears a skin tight costume, and she’s magnificent. If I were 60 years younger, I’d marry her! They’re all fine.

You know, Sergio Leone wanted to do a Phantom picture. I had met him in Mexico, and he was an enormous man. He just loved The Phantom, and he wanted to do a jungle picture with pygmies, all of that. We met again at his house in Rome, but he died and nothing came of it.

What are your future plans?

Well, after more than 60 years, I’m still writing Mandrake and The Phantom. When I write a script, it’s like film script, broken into panels. I include descriptions of characters, place, and detail, as well as dialogue and narration. So my plans are just to go on living and working.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Master Magicians and Phantoms: An Interview with Lee Falk, Part III

We go back again to 1996, when your correspondent interviewed creator Lee Falk (1911-1999), the man behind The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician.

Would you say that there is some kind of inherent difference between comic strips and comic books?

Yes. For one thing, there was self-censorship, which we picked up years ago. The violence we eliminated pretty much ourselves. These days the adventure strip is pretty much gone, there's not much left. Flash Gordon, unfortunately, has a very slim readership, even though it's beautifully drawn by John Cullen Murphy. Of course, Alex Raymond was one of the very best in the field. Prince Valiant has a limited circulation, but still fabulously drawn. There are very few of them in newspapers still, but they never had that kind of violence in them. It was a rich field with great stuff like Smilin' Jack, and Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon.

I think that, if I can interject for a moment, that the real difference between the comic strip and comic books is that strips are more a more literary medium than comic books. Particularly in work like yours, there was a greater depth and development of characters. Strips were actually more adult than comic books are now.

I write for adults. I always have. I figured that the kids would read it, too, which they have. I was over in Scandinavia for The Phantom Fan Club. They told me that the club was the biggest youth movement in the country, bigger than the Boy Scouts! They had a 140,000 member in The Phantom Fan Club. But these are mostly children to young men and women, some kids, too. I understand that the King of Sweden was a member when he was boy.

I don't want to knock other people's work, though. There are a lot of great people working in comics now. I've always admired Stan Lee's work, and I don't think he ever got too violent.

Could you tell us about The Phantom novels you wrote a few years ago?

Yes. We did about 15 of them in the 1970s. They wanted me to do a novelization of my strip every two months! At that time, I was not only doing both of my strips, but I was very active in the theater. I had five of my own theaters, some of them with stock companies, and I was writing and directing plays. I've had a whole life in the theater independent of comic strips, and I told them I could only do the first one. I took one of my stories, and wrote about The Phantom's trip to Missouri as a boy to become educated, I think he was the 21st generation, and how he had to return to the jungle to take over as The Phantom.

That was number one. Then they got some other writers, and I gave them proofs of my original stories with outlines, and they wrote some of them up. Every six months I would do one, myself. So in the course of a few years, I did five of them. I'm rather proud of them, worked hard on them, and think they're rather good.

The others, I was very disappointed in them. I gave them the stories, but I think they did a hack job, and knocked them out. I told them to take my name off them, and just put based on my strip. Put their name on it. If it's good, I want the credit. But if it's lousy and I didn't do it, I don't want it.

Killer's Town was one of them, and I thought that was pretty good.

What can you tell us about your Mandrake the Magician and Phantom musicals?

That was good! A couple of young guys in Stockholm, Sweden, wrote me and asked permission to do a Phantom musical. I told them it had to stay over there, because there was always talk of doing something with the property over here. I went to see it, and the guy who wrote the music also played the Phantom. It was their equivalent of Off-Broadway. Pretty good, though it was in Swedish, of course. It had one number called The Bronx Blues, also in Swedish! It wasn't bad!

The Mandrake musical, I wrote the book for that. George Quincy did the music, and his wife did the lyrics. That was produced up in Massachusetts. The theater was quite nice, and the fellow who played Mandrake was very good. A producer took a Broadway option on it; he was a big industrialist who wanted to do a Broadway show. He left, trying to raise money. But it turns out the King Features, without my knowing, sold the option to someone who wanted the movie rights. The industrialist couldn't raise the Broadway money without movie rights in the package, and the film fell through too.

The score still exists, and it may be done some day.

What about working with Wilson McCoy and Ray Moore on The Phantom? How was that?

Well, Moore, as I told you, was inking Mandrake. When The Phantom took off, I knew one man just couldn't do all this work. It's illustration. It's not like Chick Young who could do all his stuff on a Monday morning, before going off for golf, which is what he did on Blondie. You can cartoon very quickly, but you can't do that on adventure strips, they're illustration and take time.

Ray Moore came onto The Phantom, and when World War II came, went into the Air Corps. Wilson McCoy, who was an artist who did work for advertising companies, and a pal of Ray Moore's, took over when Ray was gone. When Ray came back, he was slightly debilitated. He said he was hit by a propeller, but I think he actually got into a fight and was hit in the head with a monkey wrench. It left him with a nervous disorder, and one side of his face was paralyzed. Anyhow, his hands were shaking, but I still kept him on the payroll for a long time, and continued until he died.

I was grateful to McCoy because I had joined the Army, and had done all of scripts ahead of time, so I didn't have to worry about that. I never liked McCoy's work too much, because he started out copying Moore exactly, which was good, but then he got into his own style which was more simplistic. I know in Europe they enjoy his work more, but I didn't care for it at all, actually.

How would you explain the overwhelming popularity of Mandrake and The Phantom abroad?

They're very popular in Mexico, South America, Argentina, and Brazil. I've been to these places and spoke to the people, talked at press conferences, and all that. In Barcelona, they started publishing a complete works of The Phantom, and he got out about six big volumes of comic books before he went bankrupt, publishing them in Spain and Portugal.

For a number of years, they published in Stockholm a Phantom magazine. They kept redoing my stories. In a one magazine, they could run a story that would take three or four months in the newspapers. They'd just chop it down and cut out the necessary repetitions that are in a daily strip.  So they asked if they could occasionally publish some of their own, which we granted. So they have a very good group of artists, from all over the world, doing their own stories of The Phantom, along with reprinting my original work. It has just grown into an industry, it's huge!

The Phantom is popular almost everywhere. In Scandinavia, it's amazing. There's a complete saturation in all the newspapers. Last time I was there, they had Batman, Superman, all the rest. But they told me that The Phantom outsells all the others, combined. Isn't that something?

Another story, somewhat painful, was during War, as people of my generation call World War II.  Norway was under Nazi occupation, a very cruel occupation. They controlled the newspapers, and put out misinformation like Washington bombed, New York bombed, America was crumbling, that sort of thing. It turns out that during this time The Phantom was appearing everyday, including Sunday, in Norwegian papers. And the Nazis did not change the text. The Phantom had not run in Germany, and they did not know him, but the Norwegians did.

Now the following is true, I had a Norwegian publisher who I met after the War come up to me, embrace me, and tell me the story. During the first two years of the War, I was in the Office of War Information, and still writing the strip. It turns out that this whole time The Phantom was being smuggled into Norway, and published in Norwegian, and that it raised the morale factor enormously. The Norwegians figured that if I was still at home, managing to put out The Phantom, that things could not be that bad in America! It was a big joke on the Nazis. But more than that, “The Phantom” became the password for the Swedish-Norwegian underground. I always liked that. Just about a year ago, oddly enough, I was at a dinner table with some other people, among them a woman who had just come from Norway that summer. She said that her brother, who was part of the Norwegian underground, took her out to the barn to show her a radio hidden under the straw, where during the war he would broadcast to the states as The Phantom. When she told me, I was so amazed -- that not only that it mattered then, but that people still had memories of what he meant to them then.

But both of these characters loom very large in the history of comics.

Well, especially The Phantom.  In some places The Phantom's Oath, The Oath of the Skull, where he says he devotes his life to destroying piracy, which stands for all kinds of criminality, cruelty, and injustice, is no laughing matter. Now in those places of the world where there is cruelty, where there is no justice, he has had quite an impact. Some places, like Haiti, for one, there was a rebel movement, a revolution under Papa Doc. After the big parade after the Lenten mass, young officers were coming out in Phantom costumes! The thing fell apart, and they were caught as it happened, but I was told about it by someone who managed to get out of Haiti. So in many places, they take The Phantom Oath very seriously, and it gives the strip another dimension that other strips simply don’t have.

That must be very satisfying to you as well.

It certainly is! You asked me why it’s so popular -- I don’t know, but fortunately it remains that way, or I’d have to go to work!

More Lee Falk tomorrow!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Master Magicians and Phantoms: An Interview with Lee Falk, Part II

We continue our interview with Lee Falk (1911-1999), creator of the Phantom and Mandrake the Magician, first conducted in 1996.

What did you think of the Mandrake radio show?

It was pretty good. I had nothing to do with it, because I was in the Army. They had permission, of course. But it was rather good. I met the man who played Mandrake in the Army.

Raymond Edward Johnson?

Raymond Edward Johnson! He was a very distinguished stage actor, he played Jefferson on Broadway.  I met Ray when I was a corporal in the Army, down in Virginia. He was kinda a blue guy when he got in the Army. He had already done Mandrake. I pulled him in, and helped him get through his first few days of military life.

Johnson was one of these very successful radio actors who would do maybe half dozen shows a day, going from one studio to the next.  He was one of the few who did that. He was also the host of Inner Sanctum. He was a very successful stage actor, too. He then got Muscular Dystrophy. And over the years, I just lost track of him.

Last time I saw him was at the Friends of Old Time Radio Convention, out in Newark, New Jersey. They have them every October. Now you see, I was also a theater director, and this convention invited me over to direct a recreation of the old Mandrake radio show. And Raymond Edward Johnson, it turns out, is a favorite of these people! He's wheeled out on a bed, and he can't move at all, except for his head a little. So they prop this script up in front of his bed, and we did Mandrake that way. He was amazing; his voice was so strong and so good! He sounded exactly the same. His mind was still sound, after all these years. He is just an amazing man.

Now what about the Mandrake movie serial?

I didn't like it. That was also made when I was in the Army, by Columbia. In those days, I was told later, that Republic made much better serials. At the time, I thought Columbia was the bigger name. But Columbia bought both Mandrake and the Phantom. I had nothing to do with it. King Features acted as my agent through all of that, and they paid a little royalties, very little. I remember I came back on a three day pass to see some of them, and thought Mandrake was just terrible. There were some good actors in it, oddly enough, Warren Hull played Mandrake, a good actor at that time, and Lothar was reduced in size to about five foot seven! He wore a turban to make him Egyptian, instead of a tall black man. There may have been some race thing going on there, I don't know.

But it was badly and unimaginatively done. Here you have a magician, an illusionist. And with trick photography you could've done things, made chairs move across the floor, all kinds of things even without the present technology, to sell the idea of magic and illusion. But they didn't. It became a cops and robbers thing, with lots of automobiles chasing round, and all that. Mandrake didn't even wear a mustache, and that disappointed me. I thought they just did a bad job, though Hull was a good actor.

Mandrake is one of the most impressive looking characters in comic strips. Look at him, and you think of Warren William, or young John Barrymore.

You're so right! Those are the men I wanted to play him in the movies. Warren William was a matinee idol of that period, and he would've been perfect. Same for Douglas Fairbanks Jr., there were quite a few of them who could've done it. It would've been wonderful at that time. I know Doug Fairbanks, by the way. He's now close to 90, and still upright. He's terrific.

I just ran into him at a festival honoring Buster Keaton, and he looks just remarkable.

Isn't he, though?  He still has his charm, as always. Charming and bright, a very gracious man. My wife directed him something, and was friendly with him, and she always thought he was an enchanting man.

Didn't Fellini plan to make a Mandrake film at one point?

Yes, he did. He loved Mandrake. I first met Fellini, when he was 17. When I first came to Italy, I was in my early 20s. Mandrake was already established in Italy. I went to visit the publisher in Florence, just to say hello. They didn't put him out in newspapers, but in big albums, in Italian.

This publishing house originally was created by the man who did Pinocchio. Collodi, was his name, I think. Based on the success of Pinocchio, they created a little publishing house. Then they put out Mandrake, and later, the Phantom. So when I went there, I met this little group of 15 people, or so. One of them was a 17 year old Fellini. Years later, I didn't remember him, but he always remembered me, the young American cartoonist, he would not forget that. Years later I returned to Italy, and I, of course, later, I knew who he was by reputation. And we met again, this is the early 1960s, and we became good friends. I saw him whenever I was in Rome, and he'd visit whenever he was in New York. And for years, he wanted to make a Mandrake film. Every time I saw him, he brought it up.

But there were always conflicts. Mandrake, at the time, was optioned by somebody else. Or he was otherwise busy. And this went on for thirty or forty years, and somehow, it just never got made. He wanted Marcello Mastroianni for Mandrake, he wanted Claudia Cardanale for Narda, which I thought was marvelous. When he died two years ago, I hadn't seen him in several years. But a lady named Chandlers wrote of very good biography of him, called I, Fellini. For 12 years she taped his talk, and the whole book is just his talk. A fascinating book. She told me that just a few months before he died, he was still talking of doing a Mandrake film. It never happened, and I'm so sorry about it. I remember that people, at the time, told me, that if he did it, he'd change it. And I'd say, any changes he made would've been for the better!

He said Mandrake influenced him very much. He loved the whole world of illusion. His second film is called, The White Sheik, a very funny film. It's based on an Italian tradition of comic strips, where there are illustrated stories, illustrated with photographs that have dialogue balloons. It's a terrific film.

What was the origin of The Phantom?

The Phantom is combination of Tarzan, I grew up on Edgar Rice Burroughs, and also Kipling's Jungle Book. In fact, I sort of paid homage to that by calling The Phantom's pygmy friends The Bandar, which comes from the monkey tribe who were friends with Mowgli.

Was he an evolution for you, or did you create him complete and whole from the start? The whole myth of The Ghost Who Walks and The Man Who Cannot Die...

That all evolved. In the very first six months of it, I had a playboy named Jimmy Wallace, who at nights was The Phantom. He had a girlfriend named Diana, who The Phantom later married, some many years later. The original stories were about pirates, somehow this young heiress Diana got involved, and The Phantom was a Mystery Man who came at night and helped her. Then she'd dream about him during the day, never dreaming it was her old pal Jimmy Wallace who was just a friend. She was nice to Wallace, but that's all.

It started that way. And as it went on, I got the idea of a Jungle Man. I changed it without telling the reader! Jimmy Wallace just disappeared. And here was The Phantom, running through the jungle. Later on, I gave him a horse, and I just thought of him as a modern Tarzan. Gradually, the idea of the generations of The Phantom, where each successive son become The Phantom, creating the myth of a deathless avenger, and the stuff about the Skull Cave, all evolved in the first year.

I was just in Australia for two weeks during the filming of The Phantom movie, on The Gold Coast. This is The Phantom of 50 years ago.

He's a character with a very mythic quality.

Exactly. This is not accidental. Part of my reading was The Tales of Gods and Heroes, which is all about the mythic heroes of Western Europe, and also India and Asia. You see, The Phantom has always been the Number One adventure strip around the world, in terms of distribution and readership. And people continually ask me why. I hope that it's maybe because it's good. But I also think that people of various countries, and he's published in 25 languages, all have their own myths and heroes. And they all identify with The Phantom, because he's some of the old myths and legends modernized.

In one Phantom story, for example, I put him through the 12 tasks of Hercules. I had The Phantom do this in modern times, and that's the kind of things I do to keep him fresh. I update the tales of myths and heroes, and legends.

Another thing that kept him fresh was the idea of the generations of The Phantom. This is now the 21st Phantom. But I could always go back and tell stories of the first Phantom, or the tenth, and so forth. This gives me a lot of range. In fact, The Phantom almost stopped after the second Phantom. This was when the first son was sent out of the jungle, and back to the country of his mother, in this case, England. There, he was to be educated by monks. But the young man ran away and joined the Globe Theater in England to become an actor! So he ends up in the opening night of Romeo and Juliet, where he played Juliet! You see, they didn't allow women on stage in Shakespeare's time, and young men played women's parts.

His father, meanwhile, was a macho, big, powerful guy, comes roaring over there for the opening night, with Shakespeare shivering in the wings on opening night. The Phantom has the courtesy not to break up the show, but after the performance he goes backstage, pulls the wig off his son, and says: "You're coming back to the jungle with me!"

The son refuses, and the father goes back without him. He stays for awhile and becomes an actor, and then the father is fatally wounded, and the boy is sent for. He returns to the jungle, and goes through the ceremony and becomes the second Phantom. Blood is thicker than water.

What a terrific story.

I've done stories about all 21 Phantoms, I guess.

Now The Phantom is the first costumed hero in comic strips, right?

Yes, he is. He was number one. This was in 1936. There were a whole slew of them afterwards. I think Batman came about three years later.  A lot of young guys around read The Phantom, and it inspired them, I think. Batman is almost a take-off on The Phantom, what with the Batcave and the Skull Cave, and so forth.

Of my two strips, Mandrake was always harder to do. He is fantasy, and originally, he was the bigger of the two strips worldwide. Then gradually, The Phantom took over and became much bigger than Mandrake. Fantasy, as you may know, has a limited appeal to the realistic, and The Phantom, while he seems like a fantastic fellow, is a very realistic person. And the stories are more realistic, about real people. He's a remarkable hero. In all the 60 years I've done him, he's never shot anybody, never wounded anybody.

I was always against too much violence in comic strips. Some of the more recent ones, through the years, comic books particularly, which I've read from World War II on, got very rough.

I think they are too rough, and the whole industry's a mess.

They've brought out all of these things! They're drawn very well, but the writing is disturbing in most of them. There're exceptions, of course, but the gore is inexcusable.

It's inexcusable, and it seems to take all the fun out of it.

I think so. I think they're just awful, and they get wilder and wilder trying to get story ideas. A friend of mine was doing the inking on one of them; you had four or five guys lying down that the Punisher has knocked down. He then shoots them all in the head to make sure they're dead! They're just unbelievably bad.

More Lee Falk tomorrow!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Master Magicians and Phantoms: An Interview with Lee Falk, Part I

We dig once again into the archives for an interview I did with comic book legend Lee Falk (1911-1999), originally conducted in 1996.

Back in those days, your correspondent worked for several magazines as an interviewer and critic.  I had the great pleasure to interview some of the most significant figures of Pop Culture, but few were as enjoyable as my talk with Lee Falk.

The following interview appeared around the time the film adaptation of his comic strip The Phantom appeared, and was later, in 2011, translated into Swedish (!) for a book celebrating Falk’s centennial.  I hope you enjoy it.

Some men are touched in profound ways by the magic stuff of their boyhood.

A case in point is comic strip legend Lee Falk. He read the stuff of boys, and it stayed. He was touched by Burroughs' Tarzan and Kipling's Mowgli, and with a little world myth thrown in, created The Phantom, The Ghost Who Walks, The Man Who Cannot Die. And now, at 83, he still does it, turning out the adventures of the Phantom three generations of boys later. In fact, 1996 is the 60th Anniversary of The Phantom, and Falk still writes his daily adventures.

That is not all. In 1934, Falk, then a college student with dreams of being a writer, created the elegant Mandrake the Magician, an avenger in evening clothes and suave mustache, one of the ultimate icons of 1930s heroism. Mandrake's adventures are still widely read, and still scripted by the energetic Falk.

Lee Falk is a working legend. He has holds the world's record for writing the continuing adventures of any comic strip character, and with The Phantom, created the costumed superhero. The Phantom's 60th Anniversary will be marked with a new Phantom film from Paramount, starring Billy Zane as the masked avenger, and Treat Williams as the villain. Based on several stories penned by Falk, and set in the 1930s, this promises to be a treat comic strip lovers will not want to miss.

I caught up with the busy Mr. Falk at his home in Manhattan's Upper West Side in June 1995.

Could you give us some background on yourself?

Well, I was born in Missouri, many years ago. I started Mandrake in 1934, when I was still in University of Illinois, and started The Phantom two years later. I'm very proud that this is the 60th Anniversary of The Phantom, and Mandrake is still going strong at 62. I still write them both, always did, daily strips and Sunday papers. I haven't drawn them in many years, many, many years. It takes more than two or three men to do that much work!

When I first started, I first drew Mandrake for fun for myself. I drew up two weeks of daily strips, and took my time with it, very slow, and made changes. I had some help from an older artist. Then I sent these two weeks of daily strips for Mandrake to King Features, and, to my amazement, they optioned them! And they wanted a Sunday page, too.

So I suddenly realized that these are not cartoons, these are illustrations. Whereas old friends of mine like Al Parker and Bud Briggs, well known magazine illustrators at the time, could do one or two illustrations in one week, here I had two comic strips with about 18 panels a week, with another eight panels or so for Sunday. Each panel is an illustration. A lot of work. Eventually I got Phil Davis to take over Mandrake when I started The Phantom.

What comic strips at this time were big influences on you, or inspiration?

That's a good question. What really influenced me more were not comic strips, but novels like Tarzan, or the Jungle Book of Kipling.  As a boy, my reading was the great adventurers and detectives like Arscene Lupin. Mandrake comes out of all that. He was a crime fighter. Remember that Mandrake, started as a stage magician, but I turned him into a hypnotist, an illusionist. He creates illusion, things don't really happen, you just think they do. Incidentally, in the very first story I had introduced this African Prince, bodyguard, Lothar. The idea was teaming a big, powerful physical man and the mental giant Mandrake. And then gradually Lothar, who used to wear a leopard skin and so forth, was modernized, to sports shirts and boots, and his Pidgin English was turned to proper speech, and he became Mandrake's friend, rather than bodyguard. And these two actually were the first black and white crime fighters, as far as I know, anywhere. This was long before Cosby and Culp's I Spy; there weren't any black and white crime fighters. It wasn't my intention to do something in that area, it just happened. And then, as years passed, it became very commonplace to have a black and white team. As you know, it is a common theme in movies to this day.

What was the genesis or inspiration for Princess Narda?

Princess Narda just a beautiful, ideal young woman. There was no special influence for her.

Could you tell us a bit about your relations with Phil Davis, and does he remain your favorite Mandrake artist?

Phil was an older artist that I knew. I was about 22; he was in his early 30. He had a lot of success with his illustrations in magazines like Liberty and Colliers. He did very well, but he got tired of it. He welcomed a chance to get out of the rat race of a freelance illustrator, where he had to submit stuff to agencies and get it backed changed, and so forth. With Mandrake, he could just sit down and draw. He worked with me very early on Mandrake, and then I turned over all the drawing to him. He did very tight pencil work on it. We got Ray Moore, another artist. These guys were all older than me: Ray Moore was kind of a Bohemian artist, very interesting man. He did the inking on the strip. I continued to do some of the layout. But when The Phantom came along, I had no time. I got Ray Moore to come off of Mandrake and onto The Phantom.

Two or three years later, I stopped drawing The Phantom layouts completely. I stopped drawing over a half century ago!  But I continued, without a break, until as we speak, to write the stories.

These are adventure strips, and I think of them as illustrated stories which appear in the newspapers.

More Lee Falk tomorrow!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Jean Paul Gaultier at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

Today, we get a dispatch from the trenches by Arts Advocate Clarissa Crabtree.  For nearly 30 years, Ms. Crabtree has been an indefatigable patron of the arts, working tirelessly on behalf of such disparate causes as affordable, classic theater to museum preservation.  She recently attended the much-ballyhooed Jean Paul Gaultier show at the Brooklyn Museum, and offers her thoughts below.

As a woman of a ‘certain age’ I may not be the most appropriate person to review the current Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit From the Catwalk to the Cakewalk at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  As someone who doesn’t get the fashion statements made by ripped jeans, micro-minis that leave nothing to the imagination and pants hanging so low that the wearer has trouble walking,  I am hard-pressed to find anything of value in this retrospective.  That the man is a good illustrator cannot be denied, his design sketches are quite lovely and although he is prolific, he is not very original.  One room is full of black leather and shiny plastic S & M gear for both men and women, there are riffs on plaids and kilts, non-kilt man-skirts  and the almost mandatory ethnic influences,  on corsets, bustiers and panniers (all originally undergarments now worn on the outside) and of course Madonna’s (in)famous cone bra ensemble for her 1990 Blond Ambition Tour as well as costumes for her 2006 Confessions Tour.  He has also designed for Australian singer Kyle Minogue, as well as for numerous films. To be fair, there are flashes of whimsy – my favorite dress was  a rather non-descript white ball gown -- but when the hem was lifted as if one were about to dance the can-can, the entire underskirt had high-kicking legs printed on the fabric.  Perhaps the most amusing aspect of the exhibit was that the mannequins appeared alive.  By projecting filmed faces on them some talked about the outfit they were wearing, some sang or provided  sound effects, and several flirted with the crowd.

Jean Paul Gaultier (born 1952) is a French haute couture and Pret-a-Porter fashion designer with no formal training who presented his first collection in the mid-70s and has long been considered the enfant terrible of French fashion – this show will not diminish that reputation. He has worked for Pierre Cardin and Jean Patou, he launched his haute couture line in 1997 and was the creative director of Hermès from 2003 to 2010;.  As with all things French, there are very strict rules about  what can and cannot call itself haute couture and it is protected by law and regulated by Chambre de commerce et d'industrie de Paris. The bedrock of Haute couture is fashion that is constructed by hand (without the use of sewing machines and sergers/overlockers) from start to finish, made from high quality, expensive, and often unusual fabric and sewn with extreme attention to detail and finished by the most experienced and capable seamstresses, often using time-consuming, hand-executed techniques.  It is generally this exquisite attention to craftsmanship and detail that makes an haute couture garment special and swoon-worthy. To think that these highly trained and skilled seamstresses wasted their time, energy and talent to produce garments that almost no one would ever wear appalls me.

This exhibit also raises a bigger issue that has generated debate in the art world for some time now.  As someone with a modicum of social conscience it galls me Gaultier can make a living producing what he does, but then to be additionally rewarded and have the work validated with a museum retrospective begs the question  is it art? Museums, in an effort to attract younger audiences and meet their bottom line, have for several years been playing on the edge of this issue – just because it is cool, hip or whatnot, does not mean it is worthy of being shown in a fine art museum.  The Art of the Motorcycle at the Guggenheim in 1998, the recent Chaos: Punk to Couture from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,  the Brooklyn’s previous exhibit on Star Wars and perhaps most famously the quilts from Gee’s Bend that not only were shown at the Whitney Museum in New York City but also at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among others are all examples that the fuel the debate.  I am not suggesting that any of these shows are not worthy to be seen in an appropriate venue but I question if museums, in their rush to bring in paying customers, are not sacrificing their missions and reputations as centers of vigorous scholarship and keepers of our collective heritage. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Encores! Presents Little Me

If there is a heaven for theater-lovers, it must be something like a perpetual run of Encores! productions.  Fortunately, there is a bit of heaven-on-earth, as anyone capable of heading to New York can regularly visit City Center to view the Encores! series of musical revivals.  Encores! is dedicated to restaging little-seen shows with top-notch casts and the finest orchestra performing on Broadway.  The creative minds behind the series are Artistic Director Jack Viertel and Music Director Rob Berman, who have done a superb job of mounting these shows since 1994. 

A few years ago City Center was renovated to something approaching its former glory – creating the perfect space to realize every dream you ever had of seeing a Broadway musical.

The first show for the season is a winner – Little Me, with a book by Neil Simon (born 1927), music by Cy Coleman (1929-2004) and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh (1926-1983).  It is based on the novel Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of the Great Star of Stage, Screen and Television by Patrick Dennis (1921-1976).  Readers of this blog will well-remember Dennis as the author of the book and play Mame, a touchstone of personal development for many of our readers.

The original production of the show opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1962, and ran for 257 performances.  The musical was tailored to the talents of television comic Sid Caesar (born 1922), who starred in the television variety program Your Show of Shows, which was written, in part, by young Neil Simon. 

The Dennis novel is a camp classic – Belle Pointrine is a scheming chanteuse who uses and abuses men on her way to money, stardom and social standing.  When Simon set about adapting the material, he envisioned a vehicle for Caesar where he could play Belle’s multiple husbands and lovers.  In addition, he could send up America’s love for celebrities, and the entire genre of Horatio Alger success stories. 

Subsequent revivals of Little Me have changed Simon’s book, but Encores preserves the original in all its delirious glory.  Simon envisions the story as older Belle (played wonderfully by Judy Kaye) telling the story to Dennis himself (played by David Garrison).  The bulk of the play is an extended flashback with younger Belle (the luminous Rachel York) and the various men in her life, all played with gusto and brio by Christian Borle.

Drawing on his experience writing television variety shows, Simon scraps the ideal of a straightforward musical comedy and, instead, creates an extended revue.  This can only work if the material is in the hands of a gifted clown and shtick-meister, and, fortunately, this revival has that in spades with Christian Borle.  We here at The Jade Sphinx enjoyed him greatly as the embryonic Capt. Hook in Peter and the Starcatcher, but nothing prepared us for the unbridled comic invention and energetic tomfoolery on display here.  By turns reminiscent of such farceurs as disparate as Tim Curry, Buster Keaton and Dick Van Dyke, Borle is a powerhouse of comic invention.  His performance is a nonsensical tour-de-force.

Fortunately, he is matched by the beautiful and deeply funny Rachel York.  She gives lie to the common canard that women cease to be sexy when they are funny.  Her singing is terrific and her dancing and slapstick extremely accomplished.

Also worthy of note is the handsome Tony Yazbeck, who sings the show’s only memorable song, I’ve Got Your Number.  Yazbeck shows up only intermittently in the proceedings, but he leaves a strong impression.  More, please.  In addition, Harriet Harris delivers solid comic support, as do Lewis J. Stadlen and Lee Wilkof as brother impresarios.

The dancing is topnotch, with a group of talented and attractive dancers to move the story along and provide able support to the overall zaniness.

In the Encores extended history of wonderful productions, few have matched the sheer fun and manic invention of Little Me.  This is theatrical alchemy of a high order, and the gee-wizardry on display at City Center is a marvel to behold.  The crowd was delighted with this inventive bauble, and it was several hours before your correspondent could stop smiling.

Little Me plays today through Sunday – beg, borrow or steal a ticket.  It is not to be missed.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Good Soldier, by Ford Maddox Ford (1915)

My taste for literary Modernism has always been fluid, at best, so I have always had some reluctance in approaching the work of Ford Maddox Ford (1873-1939).  A man of formidable and varied talents – novelist, poet, critic, editor – Ford was also a literary Impressionist; employing out-of-sequence storytelling, unreliable narrators, and conflicting recollections.  Not my literary line of country at all, but when The Good Solider (1915) was given to me as a gift this Christmas, I knew it was time to take the plunge.

This was a fortuitous present indeed!  Ford considered The Good Soldier to be his masterpiece, and it is certainly one of the finest novels I’ve read in years.  It is available at Project Gutenberg and, as well as in a handsome Barnes & Noble edition.

In other hands, The Good Solider would descent into simple melodrama.  But Ford carefully structures his tale as a series of reminiscences told by John Dowell; a rambling narrative told to an imaginary audience beside an imaginary fireplace.  It concerns Dowell and his wife, Florence, and their friends, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham.  The tale ends with two suicides and one descent into madness – and yet, our narrator says it’s the saddest tale he’s ever heard, as if he, himself, were not a player in the events.

In short, Edward Ashburnham is a career solider during the waning days of Empire.  He is in a marriage of convenience with Leonora; while spending their winters abroad they meet American couple John and Florence Dowell.  Florence and Edward become lovers, while Leonora struggles to maintain some stability in their lives and John slowly falls in love with Nancy Rufford, the young ward of the Ashburnhams.

Because the novel is nonlinear, both the story and the true nature of its characters are gradually revealed.  This structure does not allow for surprises in the plot – but it is wonderful for surprises in character.  Ford is the master of the gradual reveal, and by the midpoint of The Good Solider, we have to rethink our opinions of all the major characters.

Take Edward, for instance.  Dowell repeatedly calls him a “sentimentalist,” but what he really means is that Ashburnham is a Romantic.  He is a heroic soldier, a charitable landlord, a stolid friend, life-saving sailor, capable horseman and a considerate squire.  He is a figure out of Sabatini or Dumas, and if he was a character in a film, he would be all Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.  But – and this is the overall point of the novel, and perhaps Ford’s overarching worldview, as well – the world is not a Romantic place. 

Ashburnham is quite a bad husband, and in a world of bland and mundane reality, that is enough to ruin him.  In the construct of a realist novel (and in the real world), a figure like Ashburnham could not, must not, function successfully, and therefore ceases to exist.  This tension is the fulcrum upon which the novel rests – Ford is writing about the antagonism between romance and stark reality, or, perhaps more pointedly, the encroaching modern world.

The Good Solider is a prototypical Modern novel in that it is about the triumph of Anti-Romantic sentiment.  By offering Edmund (and, later, Nancy) as a sacrifice on the alter of middle-class respectability, it distinctly draws the line between two conflicting worldviews.

The Good Solider is also a profoundly “Catholic” novel: it deals with guilt, expiation and penance.  Ford was a convert to Catholicism, but it seems as if inwardly he remained doubtful and unconvinced.

Ford also has a very interesting view of women – one that is perhaps more true, though less politically correct, to posit today.  To Ford, form and function are more important than passion and love; and all the women in this novel are ultimately calculating.  Here is Ford writing on Leonora after the death of Edward and her subsequent remarriage:  They were like judges debating over the sentence upon a criminal; they were like ghouls with an immobile corpse in a tomb beside them. I don't think that Leonora was any more to blame than the girl—though Leonora was the more active of the two. Leonora, as I have said, was the perfectly normal woman. I mean to say that in normal circumstances her desires were those of the woman who is needed by society. She desired children, decorum, an establishment; she desired to avoid waste, she desired to keep up appearances. She was utterly and entirely normal even in her utterly undeniable beauty. But I don't mean to say that she acted perfectly normally in this perfectly abnormal situation. All the world was mad around her and she herself, agonized, took on the complexion of a mad woman; of a woman very wicked; of the villain of the piece. What would you have? Steel is a normal, hard, polished substance. But, if you put it in a hot fire it will become red, soft, and not to be handled. If you put it in a fire still more hot it will drip away. It was like that with Leonora. She was made for normal circumstances—for Mr Rodney Bayham, who will keep a separate establishment, secretly, in Portsmouth, and make occasional trips to Paris and to Budapest.

It was difficult for your correspondent not to sympathize with Edward – and I found myself often uncomfortably nodding in self-recognition.  (Sadly, though, not at the parts of his effortless heroism.)  Edward is a displaced person in time.  His tragedy is that dull reality was allowed to kill his sense of romance, and this this sense of romance gave him no alternative other than suicide.

The Good Solider is gripping, chilling and profoundly moving.  Ford’s genius is that the final line of the novel puts the entire story in perspective, and provides the final insight into the characters that we need.  It is a tour de force and highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio With Nokuthula Ngwenyama at People’s Symphony

Nokuthula Ngwenyama

Once again the good folks at People’s Symphony Concerts (PSC) amaze and astound us with musicians both old and new to the program.  Last Saturday, perennial PSC favorites the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio returned for a concert of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Dvorak, amply assisted by a stunning Nokuthula Ngwenyama on the viola.  The result was magical.

The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio debuted at the White House nearly 35 years ago, and they continue to bring technical mastery, expressive depth, and magnetism to the concert stage. Their 30th Anniversary was celebrated at Carnegie Hall, where Richard Danielpour devoted a piano quartet in honor of the anniversary – the piece has since become a part of their extensive repertoire. The Trio is one of today’s most beloved ensembles and these three artists share their passion for music with audiences worldwide.

The Trio – Joseph Kalichstein, piano, Jaime Laredo, violin, Sharon Robinson, cello -- has traveled the globe, including japan, New Zealand and Australia, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Brussels, Copenhagen, Lisbon and Paris, as well as Helsinki, South Bank and Tivoli.  Their most recent CD is of Schubert Piano Trios, released on the Bridge label.

Nokuthula Ngwenyama came to international attention when she won the Primrose International Viola Competition and the Young Concert Artists International Auditions at age 17.  In 1998, she received the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant.  She has performed throughout the US and across four continents – and she has recently been featured as a Face to Watch by the Los Angeles Times.

With a wealth of talent such as this, it is no surprise that last Saturday’s concert was one to remember.  The concert opened with Trio in B-flat major, Op. 11 (1798) by Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827).  This piece was interesting, and the playing worthy, but it is not Beethoven at his best.  The adagio is not perfectly conceived, to my ear, and the Tema con variazioni: Pria ch’ io l ‘impegno not wholly satisfying.

The Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 66 (1845), by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), on the other hand, is more coherently conceived.  Mendelssohn is not in the same league of genius as Beethoven, and though less ambitious he was more consistent.  Op. 66 is wonderfully melodic and the third movement, the Scherzo, Molto allegro quasi presto, is delivered with great gusto.  The Trio did a wonderful job of bringing it to life.

However, the undisputed highlight of the concert was the Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 87 (1889) by Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904).  We here at The Jade Sphinx had never heard this piece before, and it was as if a thunderclap erupted in the house.  This is a remarkable piece – melodic and dramatic, with a clear musical line and distinct tone and point of view.  Ms. Ngwenyama joined the trio for this piece, and her bowing was clear and strong, tightly controlled and passionately delivered.  One could almost hear the entire ensemble beating to one heart, and the flourish with which they finished brought applause long, loud and lusty.  It was one of those electric moments that PSC can deliver with such astounding regularity.