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!

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