The earliest template for comics magicians was King Features Syndicate's Mandrake, who starred in a hugely popular and successful newspaper strip beginning in the early 1930s and running right through to 2013. But we can trace the look and style of Mandrake's evening dress and top hat back even further to the famous stage magicians of Vaudeville like Howard Thurston, Harry Blackstone and, of course, Harry Houdini.
The variety theatre of Vaudeville was the staple entertainment for urban Americans from around 1860 to about 1910, when silent cinema began eating into its audiences. But the stars of Vaudeville rapidly became household names and were featured in all kinds of merchandising, including fictionalised adventures. And where there's success, there's imitators.
Although there was already a stage performer working the Vaudeville circuit under the name of Mandrake the Magician, it has always been reported that Lee Falk's comic strip conjuror had the same name by coincidence. It's far more likely that Falk was using the far more famous Harry Blackstone as his template. When Falk realised there was a real-life Mandrake, he entered into an agreement with Leon Mandrake to cross-promote the strip and Leon's performances and the arrangement continued for years.
|Zatara appeared in the first issue of Action Comics and continued for more than 140 issues. His series also ran in World's Finest and finished in 1951. Such was his popularity that he also merited two cover appearance in the early Action Comics.|
|Zatara's daughter Zatanna became something of a fan-favourite when she made her debut in Hawkman 4, in a story written by Gardner Fox and drawn my Murphy Anderson.|
Once comic books became the big money-maker of the late 1930s publishing industry, publishers were scrambling around to find material to fill their pages. Unsurprisingly, other companies began running their versions of the Vaudeville stage-magician-turned-crimefighter.
Ibis the Invincible appeared in the first issue of Whiz Comics (issue 2, Feb 1940) and graduated to his own title in early 1943. Ibis also wore a tuxedo, but set it off with a jaunty turban, rather than a top hat. Ibis was actually a prince of ancient Egypt, who battles an evil magician, The Black Pharaoh, and comes off second best. Placing his love Taia and himself in a state of suspended animation, both wake up in the 20th Century and naturally elect to fight crime. With his magic Ibistick, Ibis wields the limitless occult power of dynastic Egypt - the bad guys don't have a chance. Ibis fought the forces of evil until 1953, when Fawcett Comics ceased publishing. The rights were acquired by DC Comics and the character was revived for one more adventure in 2007.
|Doctor Fate first appeared in More Fun 55, written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Howard Sherman. His first cover appearance was in the following issue, More Fun 56 (Jun 1940). Readers had to wait a year until More Fun 67 (May 1941) for an origin story.|
Doctor Fate is in reality Kent Nelson. While on an archeological gig in the Valley of Ur with his father Sven, the Nelsons unwittingly revive the ancient sorcerer Nabu the Wise, but Sven is accidentally killed in the encounter. Nabu adopts Kent and teaches him the secrets of sorcery over the next twenty years. Returning to America, the grown-up Kent sets up his headquarters in a windowless doorless tower in Salem, Massachusetts and, with his love interest Inza, begins his war on crime. By the nature of his power, Doctor Fate is - along with The Spectre - one of the most powerful characters in the DC canon.
|Doctor Fate's Salem tower made an appearance on the front cover of More Fun 61 (Nov 1940), then took over the cover slot from The Spectre from More Fun 68 (Jun 1941) to 76 (Feb 1942), after which he lost out to Green Arrow.|
|The Steranko cover for the collection of Norgil pulp stories, written by Walter Gibson, better known as the "raconteur" of The Shadow.|
|Norgil's first comics appearance was in Shadow Comics 3, in an untitled story by an unknown writer and an unnamed artist ... pretty mysterious, eh?|
|Merlin the Magician ran in the first 45 issues of Quality's National Comics, initially written and drawn by Dan Zolnerowich under the pen-name "Lance Blackwood", but later by Fred Guardineer.|
|Sargon the Sorcerer - the back-up feature that wouldn't die. Despite being a bit hokey and a bit bland, Sargon lasted the longest of the Golden Age magician heroes, almost eight years across three different DC titles.|
|After the first issue, Super-Magic Comics changed its title to Super-Magician Comics and enjoyed a healthy six-year run, with the real-life Blackstone as the lead feature for the first five years.|
|Mark Merlin was created by Mort Meskin, a former member of the Simon and Kirby studio, and ran for six years from House of Secrets 23 to 73, initially scripted by Jack Miller, then by Arnold Drake and finally by Bob Haney.|
And that was it for a while. The stage magician in a tuxedo archetype pretty much went away after this, but for the revival of Zatara and his daughter Zatanna in Hawkman 4 (Nov 1964) - however I get the distinct impression that this was done a little tongue-in-cheek. It's difficult to take Zatanna's costume seriously, as much as I might like it.
We did, however, see the Justice League battle a different style of ancient sorcerer Felix Faust in JLA 10 (Mar 1962), and in The Flash 128 (May 1962), the Scarlet Speedster had his hands full with future magician Abra-Kadabra, who used super-advanced science that resembled magic and wore a weird stylised future-tux. But we wouldn't see "real" magic in comics until the following year, when Steve Ditko came to our rescue.
Marvel's Strange Tales had been running the solo adventures of The Fantastic Four's Human Torch from issue 101 (Oct 1962). I had the impression that Stan's heart wasn't really in it, as these early Torch tales had some strange differences compared to the Human Torch depicted in the FF comics. This Torch had a secret identity and lived in a small town in upstate New York. The FF Torch lived in the Baxter Building in Manhattan with the rest of the FF. I could be mistaken, but it seems as though starring the Human Torch in Strange Tales was an edict from Publisher Martin Goodman rather than an inspiration from Editor Stan Lee.
The Torch made his directionless way through Strange Tales for nine months before Stan Lee decided to try out another feature in the book. Steve Ditko had brought Stan a new character called Mister Strange, probably a bit corny for a character who was to appear in Strange Tales. Stan didn't seem awful keen, and was dismissive of the idea in a letter to Jerry Bails.
"We have a new character in the works for Strange Tales," Stan wrote on 9th Jan 1963. "Steve Ditko is gonna draw him. Sort of a black magic theme. The first story is nothing great, but perhaps we can make something of him—'twas Steve's idea, and I figgered we'd give it a chance, although again, we had to rush the first one too much. Little sidelight: Originally decided to call him MR. STRANGE, but thought the MR. a bit too similar to MR. FANTASTIC—- now, however, I just remember we had a villain called DR. STRANGE just recently in one of our mags—- hope it won't be too confusing! Oh well..."
Dr Strange first appeared in Strange Tales 110 (Jul 1963) with little fanfare. There was no origin, no explanation of who this character was and how he fitted into the Marvel continuity. The character made another appearance in Strange Tales 111, then promptly disappeared, a pretty good trick, even for a comic book magician.
But Stan Lee was about to have an epiphany ... and that story - and the story of Dr Strange - will be told in the next edition of Marvel in the Silver Age.
Next: More Marvel, Magic and Strange Tales