Lee Falk was born on April 28, 1911 in St.Louis, Missouri, USA and died on March 13, 1999 in New York, NY, USA. The year of his birth was something which Lee consistently preferred to keep to himself. Many different birthyears have been reported in various books and magazine articles; anywhere from 1905 to 1917. It was not until he was laid to rest at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home in New York City on March 18, 1999, that the facts were set straight — Lee Falk was born on April 28, 1911.
While at high school in St.Louis, Falk edited the school’s paper. After graduation, he attended the University of Illinois, where he majored in literature and continued his interest in writing by contributing stories, articles and poems for the college newspaper. As a 19 year old sophomore (2nd year), Falk developed his first ideas for a comic strip centred around a stage magician. Considering it more a less a prank, he drew up the first two weeks of what was eventually to become Mandrake the Magician. He had always sketched and drawn a bit, had even taken art classes with an interested in comics, but thought of himself primarily as a writer. Lee did not think much of his first efforts at comic strip creation, but was advised to stick with it by fellow St.Louis resident named Harry Tuthill, who was the creator of The Bungle Family, a very popular comic strip at the time. Tuthill encouraged his young friend to try to find a buyer for his strip.
The first two weeks of the Mandrake strip were stockpiled along with other projects, until Falk found time during a vacation break to visit New York with his father. At this point in time, the young Lee Falk had visited only the eastern third of the United States and he had never been out of the country. He made the rounds of syndicates, publishers and stage producers, having decided to devote his talents to the whichever of his projects sold first. He brought with him several short stories, a couple of stage plays and the two weeks of the adventure strip which he had created. History tells us that the successful project was Mandrake the Magician.
Falk’s first visit with King Features Syndicate officials was a memorable one. He was forced to wait an entire day in the office of the general manager, Joe Connolly, who had forgotten all about their meeting. Upon remembering the youngster, Connolly made amends by treating him to dinner at the Waldorf, followed by a Broadway play, and closing with the evening at the famous Stork Club where they chatted with celebrities. Falk was suitably impressed by the treatment King Features gave their people!
Now that he had sold Mandrake the Magician to King Features, Lee was committed to producing a regular daily strip. However, he was still at college and it would appear that a deal was struck whereby the strip would not commence until he had finished his studies. After working up ideas for the continuation of the strip, he decided that he could not keep up with drawing it himself so he approached an older artist by the name of Phil Davis (b. March 4, 1906), who was also from St.Louis. Falk recalls “he was a commercial illustrator who was a little tired of freelancing, and he agreed to illustrate the scripts which I would write while still in school. I guess I figured that when I got out of college I’d also do the drawing but things didn’t work out that way.” Davis continued to draw the strip until his death on December 16, 1964.
The Mandrake daily strip premiered on June 11, 1934, a matter of months after Falk celebrated his 23rd birthday. The central character was inspired by the great stage magicians of the era, such as Thurston, and by popular fictional detectives like Arsene Lupin and Sherlock Holmes. As a child, Falk avidly read the stories of Marco Polo, Richard Halliburton and other adventurers, as well as fairy tales, epics and legends from Europe and other parts of the world.
The name “Mandrake” was inspired by a poem written by the famous 17th-century poet, John Donne: “Goe, and catche a falling starre … Get with child a mandrake root.” Falk learned that mandrake was a herb (Mandragora officianarum), commonly used in ancient (and modern) naturapathy. He thought it was an interesting yet simple word which admitted of just one pronuncitation, the perfect name for his comic strip magician. The new strip proved very popular and in February 1935, a Sunday page was added. With this increased work-load, Davis hired an assistant named Ray Moore to help with some of the inking.
Despite the successes of the Mandrake strip, Falk did not “put all his eggs in the one basket.” He spent three or four years writing copy for a St.Louis advertising agency of which he later became vice president. It was in this job that Falk received inspiration for the name of a new character in the Mandrake strip. While mulling over a pile of trade papers on his desk, he came across one from the National Association of Retail Druggists (NARD), and simply added an ‘a’ to the end which made Narda. Falk also directed radio shows and proudly recalls that experience: “Radio was a brand new business at the time, and I had the enormous studios of KMOX to work with. I did two or three shows a day over there, some using big orchestras, and it was like working with a stock company.”
Soon after Mandrake began to appear in the newspapers, Falk thought of an idea for another strip… The Phantom. He planned out the basic structure for the first few months of the story, and drew up the first two weeks himself. King Features Syndicate liked the concept and were quick to buy it. The Phantom daily strip commenced in American newspapers on February 17, 1936, a little before Falk’s 25th birthday. While the costumed hero was by no means original in 1936, it was certainly new for one to be featured in the comic pages of newspapers. Masked adventurers such as The Phantom Detective had appeared in pulp magazines since 1933 and the idea of a masked avenger predates even Zorro.
The artistic duties for Falk’s second strip were shared with Ray Moore, who was moved over from Mandrake. Falk continued to work on the layouts whenever possible, but his heavy workload with scripting daily and Sunday Mandrake strips, plus the new Phantom daily strip, combined with his commitments to radio shows proved too much. The artwork on the Phantom was soon left entirely to Ray Moore. A man named Eddie Walcher did the lettering on both Mandrake and The Phantom strips for many years.
The Phantom underwent some major changes during his first adventure. Falk explains “For the first few months, the Phantom was intended to be Jimmy Wells, a wealthy playboy who fought crime by night in a mask and costume. This was, of course, several years before Batman and Superman appeared on the comics scene. I never came out and actually revealed that the playboy was really the Phantom and in the midst of the first story I suddenly got the other idea. I moved the Phantom into the jungle and decided to keep him there. Gradually the whole concept of The Phantom developed; the generations behind him, the Skull Cave, his wolf Devil and horse Hero and the Bandar pygmies.” Falk was a great fan of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, and paid it homage by calling the Phantom’s pygmy friends “the Bandar”, which comes from the monkey tribe who were friends with Mowgli.
It took some time before Falk warmed up to the title he had selected for his new strip. “I tried to think up a more original title. There was already the Phantom of the Opera, the phantom of this and the phantom of that. For a while I considered calling him The Gray Ghost but I let it ride because I really couldn’t come up with a title I liked better than the Phantom.”
“The Phantom comes out of my great interest as a kid in hero stories, the great myths and legends – Greek, Roman, Scandinavian, the Songs of Roland, El Cid in Spain, King Arthur and others. There’s a heroic thing about him, he’s sort of a legendary character. He started out fairly simple and gradually I’ve added more and more legendary things about him till he has a whole folklore around him. The Jungle Book of Kipling’s and Tarzan of the Apes influenced me, as you can imagine. Apparently this legendary quality seems to be the most popular feature of the Phantom with readers.”Lee Falk
Despite the successes of both Mandrake and The Phantom, Falk was never confident that they would provide him with a long-term source of income. “I thought they might last a year or two because I was going for the theatre and for 20 years I ran 5 theatres and produced 300 plays, directed a hundred, and these were all professional Equity companies around the Boston area and also in Nassau in the Bahamas. That’s why I didn’t want to draw. I wanted to have time to write plays. I wrote about 12 plays, 10 of which were produced but not too successfully.”
Falk was only in his middle 20’s when he started a summer theatre and commenced writing plays. He has also written two musicals, Happy Dollar and Mandrake the Magician. The Mandrake musical was produced during the late 1970s at the Lenox Arts Festival in Massachusetts and was optioned by a New York producer. Unfortunately, King Features sold the film rights at that time which interfered with acquiring financial backing for a Broadway run. Lee Falk has produced over 300 plays featuring talents as Ethel Waters, Chico Marx, Marlon Brando, Ezio Pinza, and Charlton Heston. It is not surprising that he was so well-respected in the theatrical community.
The War Years
A little over three years after The Phantom began in the dailies, a Sunday page was added on May 28, 1939. Falk was now committed to writing FOUR sets of continuity for his newspaper adventure strips. Several of the stories which followed in both daily and Sunday strips centred on tales of espionage and sabotage, reflecting the emotions of Americans who were not yet involved in the war which was raging through Europe.
The bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese on Dec 7, 1941, changed things completely — America was at war. Falk entered the Office of War Information and became chief of his radio foreign language division. Falk’s sentiments towards the Japanese invaders were placed on open display with his uncharacterisically belligerent depiction of The Phantom in the daily strip story “The Phantom Goes To War.”
In 1944, Falk joined the Army Signal Corps which promptly shipped him from one end of the country to another, north, south, east and west. Twelve times he was on the verge of going overseas; twelve times the orders were cancelled and he was sent to some other post. All the while he somehow managed to continue writing daily and Sunday stories for both Mandrake and the Phantom.
Lee Falk, like the characters he created, has been a world traveller, who has visited Europe, China, Japan, India, and South America. He has used all these journeys to generate ideas for stories. Somehow he managed to keep up with writing his scripts for Mandrake and The Phantom — even if it meant taking his work with him. The photo on the right shows Falk at work at Nassau.
Lee told a funny story about the subject of his travelling: “As soon as I began writing Mandrake for King, their publicity department requested a biography from me. Up until that point, I hadn’t done much of anything except grow up, so I manufactured a great tale to satisfy them. I wrote that I was a world traveller, that I had met with the magicians of the east and had been initiated into all their mysteries, etc.
“In reality, I’d just been in Missouri and Illinois – and that’s about it. But when I came to New York, most of my friends turned out to be in the newspaper business, so I began to know foreign correspondents. They were a very glamorous bunch, the stars of the newspaper world. In those days, people didn’t travel very much, so the foreign correspondents were like movie stars. Naturally, these men had travelled a great deal, and they soon read about Lee Falk, world traveller, in King’s publicity releases.
“They began to tell me about that little restaurant in Venice, or that great bistro in Paris, expecting me, of course, to regale them with stories of some of my own favourite hangouts abroad. Naturally, I had to bluff my way through these sessions, so I began to travel in order to catch up with my own autobiography! I travelled and travelled and finally caught up with my bio, and even went ahead of it. Believe me, this is a true story! Finally, the King publicity department sent out releases telling the truth about my original bluff and how I resolved it.”
The Avon Novels
In the early 1970’s, Lee Falk was approached by Avon Publications with an interest in producing a series of Phantom novels. “They wanted me to write a novelization of the strip every two months! At that time, I was not only doing both strips, but I was very active in the theatre. I had five of my own theatres, some of them with stock companies, and I was writing and directing plays. I told them I could 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, and how he had to return to the jungle to take over as The Phantom. Then they got some other writers, and I gave them proofs of my original stories, 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. I’m rather proud of them, worked hard on them and I think they’re rather good. I was very disappointed in the others. I gave them the stories, but they did a hack job. I told them to take my name off them. If it’s good, I want credit – but if it’s lousy and I didn’t write it, I don’t want it.”
This requirement to provide author credit eventually caused the demise of the Avon novel series. The book which was to become the last in the series, The Curse of the Two-Headed Bull (#15), was written by Lee Falk. However, in early printings, the author credit was given to Carson Bingham. This incensed Falk and he instigated legal action against Avon. A second edition of the book was produced in which Falk was given appropriate credit as the author, but no more books were subsequently written for the series.
Lee Falk received a special “Yellow Kid” award (shown above) at the 1971 Comics Conference in Lucca, Italy, and has received many other tributes during his long career. “I was in Rome three years ago and was presented with their Lifetime Achievement Award by their Minister of Culture. They held a big press conference because the award had never been given to a cartoonist or anybody in the cartoon world. It had previously been given to people like Federico Fellini and the mayor of Paris. From there I went on to the big comics festival in Lucca where they made a very big deal out of the award because they felt it elevated the whole field of cartooning.”
In May 1994, he was honoured by his hometown St. Louis, with his very own Lee Falk Day. “I was in town for a comics conference,” he explains. “I have a slide show called The Golden Age of Comics, which includes pictures and the history of comics from the Yellow Kid in 1895 up to the strips of the 1950s such as Peanuts. At that slide show, they announced that I was being honoured and presented me with a beautiful certificate, which I have in my home.”
Writing for Comic Strips
“Writing plays is a very definite craft – it’s like building a cabinet – you just don’t write it, you’ve got to know how to build it. You have to know about entrances and exits, how a scene works, how lines sound, etc. And I think the art of writing a comic strip is closer to the theatre and to film technique than any other kind of writing I know. When I do my stories for Mandrake and Phantom, I write a complete scenario for the artist, in which I detail the description of the scene, the action and the costumes. If new characters are being introduced, I write their descriptions and the dialogue for each panel. With such a scenario in front of him, a cameraman could take this and shoot it or an artist can take it and draw it.
“The first thing you have to do is to get a good story and the only way you know whether you have a good story is if you like it yourself. Strips like these are read by all kinds of people all over the world and you couldn’t possible know what would please or displease all of them. I have to follow my own taste because there’s nobody else around, and I don’t go to a lot of people for opinions because I’d get too confused. I’ve found that if I’m getting bored with a story, it’s time to cut it off pretty fast. Of course that’s not always true – sometimes the stories I like the best are not favourites with readers – but generally I try to please myself. I’ve raised three children and I used to try out stories on them – I could tell when their interest was flagging that the story was getting boring.
“Each artist, out of his own interests and imagination, creates his own world in his strip – this is true of Peanuts, Beetle Bailey, Popeye, all good strips. And you accomplish this not by imitating others – you come up with your own idea. To me, The Phantom and Mandrake are very real – much more than the people walking around whom I don’t see very much. You have to believe in your own characters.
“We don’t discuss sex — religion and politics is very minimal. My only politics is up with democracy and down with dictatorships. Down with human rights violations. Down with torture. This kind of thing which I do in both strips. So there’s no complaint about it. I don’t go into anything like Doonesbury, although I think he’s very clever, but that’s not my stuff at all. My feeling is that they belong on the editorial page and a comic strip to me is pure entertainment.
“I can’t write a story for Mandrake that The Phantom could do. Mandrake is stiffer, elegant. The Phantom is a very easy, laid back guy. He may look like an unusual person with the Skull Cave and the mask, but he’s a very normal man who happens to be a super-athlete. When you shoot him he hurts and when you hit him he falls down, and so forth. He has a good sense of humour and Mandrake has sort of a sense of humour but he’s a little more formal. These are very strong men and I feel that I’m the chronicler who’s writing down their adventures and they go ahead and do what they have to do, which is kind of an odd idea, but I sometimes feel that they’re going their own way and I’m just writing it down. Just as the Phantom keeps his own chronicles in the Skull Cave, I keep the chronicles of both of them.”
The Last of His Kind
Lee Falk died of congestive heart failure on the morning of 13 March 1999 at 4:30am, six weeks before reaching his 88th birthday. He spent the last years of his life in Upper Manhattan, New York, and had a summer house on Cape Cod, called Xanadu after the poem “Kubla Kahn” by Coleridge (one of his favourite poets). He was a long-time tennis player, and enjoyed the theatre, opera, and ballet. Other hobbies included astronomy and politics. He is survived by his third wife, Elizabeth (nee Moxley), his three children, Valerie, Diane and Conley, and several grandchildren. Phantom fans will recognise some of those names from characters in Phantom stories!
Lee continued to script both the Phantom and Mandrake the Magician right up until his last days. He was literally the last, active comic strip creator whose work survived from the 1930s into the 1990s. It can truly be said that Lee’s accomplishments equal those of the classic characters he created. He will be sorely missed … but fondly remembered for the wonderful legacy of adventure stories he has left us.
Lee Falk Star
The plaque reads: Writer and cartoonist Lee Falk, originally named Leon Harrison Gross, was born and raised in St. Louis. Falk created and wrote the comic strip Mandrake the Magician, which debuted in 1934 and featured a stage magician who used hypnosis and magic to fight evildoers. In 1936 Falk premiered The Phantom, the first masked, costumed superhero of the comics, pre-dating both Superman and Batman. Syndicated worldwide, at their height the strips boasted over 100 million readers per day. Falk also wrote novels and plays, and he directed or produced over 300 stage productions. One of the greats of the Golden Age of Comics, Lee Falk thrilled readers with daily doses of mystery and adventure until his death in 1999.
Leon Harrison Epstein
Lee Falk was know as Leon Harrison Epstein when he attended the University of Illinois from which he graduated in 1932 with a Degree of Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts and Science with Honors in English .
On campus he had an active student life, including membership in Zeta Beta Tau, Pi Delta Phi, Kappa Phi Sigma, and as a writer for The Daily Illini, and editor of the Hillel Post.
The Hillel Post was a bi-weekly newsletter at the University of Illinois containing news articles on foundation activities, calendars, columns on social, dramatic and sports activities, editorials, notices of religious services and celebrations, and advertisements.
Leon Epstein was the editor-in-chief for the Hillel Post for a year and a half, before stepped down from its editorship in February, 1931.
The Daily Illini is a student-run newspaper that has been published for the community of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 1871.
Leon Epstein was one of the Night Assistants for The Daily Illini from the 6th of October, 1928 and later became a Junior News Editor from September until October of 1930.
Lee Falk Guest of Honor at the Kansas City Comic Con Banquet in USA, 1994.