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Lee Falk; Created ‘The Phantom,’ ‘Mandrake the Magician’ Comics

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lee Falk, the comic strip author who created “Mandrake the Magician” and “The Phantom,” the first masked comic book hero, died Saturday in New York of congestive heart failure. He was 87.

Falk was a pivotal figure in the history of comics. The two strips, unveiled 64 and 62 years ago, respectively, were the oldest comic strips written continuously by the original author.

Mandrake, Falk’s first commercially successful creation, was a magician and escape artist who was recruited by the government to undertake dangerous missions. Inspired by the great magicians Houdini and Cardini, the strip was sold to King Features, which turned it into an instant hit. It is syndicated in 125 newspapers.

“The Phantom,” appearing in more than 500 newspapers and 40 languages, had 60 million readers daily. It spawned comic books, serials, Saturday morning cartoons and movies, the last of which was released in 1996 starring Billy Zane.

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It features a purple-clad crime fighter on a white horse who takes an oath to fight injustice wherever he finds it. Falk said “The Phantom” had its roots in heroes of antiquity, such as Hercules and Thor, as well as more modern mythic warriors, such as Tarzan. “The Phantom,” Falk once said, was Tarzan with a college degree.

The strip became an international phenomenon soon after its debut in 1936.

During the German occupation of Norway in World War II, the strip was smuggled into the country to reassure anxious Norwegians that America, contrary to German propaganda, was still unvanquished. It was banned by Mussolini in Italy and by Franco in Spain. More recently, it surfaced as a symbol of anti-government movements in Argentina and Haiti.

In Sweden, an entire theme park is devoted to the justice fighter.

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The Phantom inspired other superhero sensations, notably Superman and Batman. But Falk’s comic strip hero was more mortal--the Phantom could bleed.

“I kept him very interesting,” said Falk, who also was a playwright, novelist, director and producer.

Falk was born in St. Louis and graduated from the University of Illinois. He created “Mandrake the Magician” in 1934 while a student there.

During World War II, Falk worked in intelligence for the Office of War Information. Later he enlisted in the Army.

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After the war he turned to playwriting and theatrical production. He produced more than 300 plays and directed 100 others, including “Bell, Book and Candle” with Charlton Heston and “Night Must Fall” with Dame May Whitty.

He wrote several plays and two musicals, “Happy Dollar” and “Mandrake the Magician and the Enchantress.” He also was the impresario behind groundbreaking productions of the 1940s and ‘50s, including Paul Robeson’s “Othello” and “Arms and the Man,” starring Marlon Brando.

When he conceived stories for his comic strips, Falk would write scenarios similar to a film treatment in which he detailed the scenes, action and costumes.

“I think the art of writing a comic strip is closer to the theater and to film technique than any other writing I know,” he said.

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Falk was careful to call himself the author of his strips. Although he drew the original Mandrake panels, he later turned those duties over to other artists.

The success of his comic strips enabled him to live in a lavish apartment overlooking Central Park surrounded by mementos of his world travels, such as walking sticks from Nairobi, Peru and South Africa.

He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Moxley Falk, a stage director; three children from a previous marriage, Valerie, of Northampton, Mass., Conley, of Los Angeles, and Diane, of Washington, and a brother.


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