Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Marvel, Magic and Strange Tales: Part 1

SUPERHEROES WERE MY MAIN FOCUS, during the Silver Age of the 1960s. Very occasionally I'd pick up a "horror" or science fiction title. The concept of Magic in comics fiction was barely touched upon. The Justice League had battled magicians a couple of times during the 1963 - 1964 period that I was reading their adventures, and the 1940s hero Dr Fate was one of their "Crisis" allies. But no one was really doing magicians as heroes in those formative Silver Age years.

Mandrake the Magician launched as a daily newspaper strip on 11 Jun 1934. A little less than four years later, Zatara made his debut in Action Comics 1 (Jun 1938). Then, 29 years after Mandrake's first appearance, Marvel published their own, very different magician Doctor Strange in Strange Tales 110 (Jul 1963).
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.

Harry Blackstone Sr was perhaps the most famous stage magician of the Vaudeville era, though his gentleman-in-evening-clothes style was probably modelled on Howard Thurston, who was active in the ten years before Blackstone began working. Leon Mandrake was the real-life counterpart of the comic strip Mandrake, who began performing under that name ten years before Lee Falk's strip began.
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.

This Mandrake Sunday page features the gorgeous draftsmanship of Phil Davis, who drew the strip for thirty years. Two years after the first Mandrake Newspaper strip, King Comics began reprinting Sunday pages. In 1939, Columbia Pictures produced a serial version of the character, starring Warren Hull in the lead role ... without the trademark moustache.
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
A couple of years after Mandrake's first appearance, the four-colour comic books took off. Hungry for content, comic book publishers would occasionally come up with startlingly original ideas for characters, but more often would just steal ideas from other creators. When Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics 1 (Jun 1938) one of the back-up features was Zatara, a tuxedoed magician who bore an uncanny resemblance to Mandrake. Where Mandrake "gestured hypnotically" to manifest his power over others, Zatara would use the gimmick of talking backwards ... "Ouy era won ni ym rewop!" However, both employed Eastern strongmen as their assistants - Mandrake had Lothar and Zatara had Tong.

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.
Zatara ran in Action Comics until issue 141 (Feb 1950) and in World's Finest from 1 (Spr 1941) to 51 (Apr-May 1951). The character then dropped out of sight and didn't appear again until the Silver Age, when we got to meet Zatara's daughter, Zatanna, in Hawkman 4 (Nov 1964).

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 was created by Bob Kingett. Born Amentep in ancient Egypt, Ibis arrives in the 20th century via suspended animation, waking up in a museum in the United States. Ibis appeared in every issue of Whiz Comics until the last 155 (Jun 1953).
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.
DC/National Comics gave us a second magician character when Dr Fate debuted in More Fun Comics 55 (May 1940). Fate was more the superhero type, with his blue leotard and golden full-face helmet, underlined by the fact that he was also a charter member of the Justice Society of America. 

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.
His strip ran until More Fun 98 (Jul-Aug 1944), then character wasn't seen again for almost twenty years, when Fate was a guest-star - along with the rest of the Justice Society - in Justice League of America 21 (Aug 1963) and 22 (Sep 1963), in the classic "Crisis on Earth One/Two" storyline, which I covered in the previous entry of this blog.

The Steranko cover for the collection of Norgil pulp stories, written by Walter Gibson, better known as the "raconteur" of The Shadow.
Meanwhile, Street and Smith - publishers of The Shadow and Doc Savage pulps - had also entered the comics market and gave us a comic strip version of their own tuxedoed magician Norgil, in Shadow Comics 3 (May 1940) and 9 (Mar 1941), as well as in Doc Savage Comics 4 and 5 (May and Aug 1941). Like other comic book magicians, Norgil had a pretty assistant, Miriam. The comic strip version couldn't have been that popular, as he only made four comics appearances, but his pulp adventures had been well-received and ran in the Street and Smith pulp Crime Busters (and later Mystery Magazine) from November 1937 to November 1940.

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?
The character had no supernatural powers and was a stage magician who solved crime, often involving a well-known stage illusion as a plot device. His pulp adventures were crafted by legendary Shadow writer Walter Gibson, himself a talented magician who also ghosted books for Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston.

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.
Over at Quality Comics, another conjuror in a tuxedo, Merlin the Magician, was featured in the first issue of National Comics (Jul 1940). This mystic mage acquired his powers when his eccentric uncle bestowed upon him the actual cloak of the legendary Merlin. This instantly gave Jock Kellogg all the powers of the Arthurian magician, which included teleportation, summoning of mythological creatures to do his bidding, astral projection, telekinesis, reality manipulation and the ability to bring anyone back to life. Often he would invoke his magic by pronouncing his spells backwards, probably because writer-artist Fred Guardineer was also responsible for DC's Zatara character. All of this he used to fight nazis. The biggest mystery was how the war managed to last another five years. Merlin ran in National Comics till issue 45 (Dec 1944).

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.
A little late to the party - but enjoying a longer run than others - was yet another tuxedoed and turbanned mystic, DC's Sargon the Sorcerer. Sargon appeared in All-American 26 - 50 (May 1941 - Jun 1943), then in Comic Cavalcade 3 - 14 (Sum 1943- Apr-May 1946), having a short run in Sensation Comics 34 - 36 (Oct - Dec 1944), then permanently moving to Sensation with issue 52 (Apr 1946) and ending in 83 (Nov 1948). Using magic power derived from the mysterious "Ruby of Life" Sargon, aided by his comedy relief manager Max O'Leary, fought crooks, spies and his azure-skinned archenemy the Blue Lama, the Queen of Black Magic. Sargon would return in the Silver Age as a villain, but quickly reformed and was made an honorary member of the Justice League.

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.
After being impersonated by so many comic book magicians, Harry Blackstone himself became a comic character, starring in Street and Smith's Super-Magician Comics 1 - 46 (May 1941 to Feb 1946). The comic-book Blackstone had no supernatural powers, but instead used his knowledge of stage magic to uncover the schemes and machinations of the underworld.

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.
The archetypal magician fell out of favour during the post-war years and it would take the Silver Age superhero revival to reboot the genre. The 1959 debut of Mark Merlin in DC's House of Secrets 23 (Aug 1959) was a little misleading, as the earliest adventures had the occult detective mostly fighting aliens and robots. Any supernatural menaces were usually dismissed as hoaxes by the end of the adventure. But in 1963, editor Jack Schiff was replaced by Murray Boltinoff. And Boltinoff replaced scripter Jack Miller with Arnold Drake and within a few issues, Mark Merlin was battling genuine occult menaces. Then in 1965, Mark Merlin was killed off, then reincarnated in House of Secrets 74 (Sep-Oct 1965) as Prince Ra-Man.

Bring on the bad guys - The only new magicians we'd see from DC during the early 1960s were villainous adversaries for our heroes to best. Felix Faust would take on the entire Justice League before being defeated. Future magician Abra-Kadabra would transform The Flash into a puppet before being returned to the 64th century to face a death sentence.
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.

The first Human Torch stories in Strange Tales were plotted by Stan, scripted by Larry Lieber and drawn by Jack Kirby. By Strange Tales 106, Kirby was off the book and inker Dick Ayers took over pencilling as well. With Strange Tales 108, Lee replaced Lieber with Robert Bernstein and brought Kirby back for two issues. With Strange Tales 110, Bernstein was out and Ernie Hart was in. Issues 112 and 113 had Jerry Siegel on scripting.
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..."

Who is Dr Strange? Where did he come from? What sinister purpose does he have appearing unannounced in Strange Tales 110? Why does Stan hate him at first, then very quickly love him? Perhaps these questions will be answered in the next entry in this blog.
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



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