Get to Know 'Mandrake,' The Man Behind the Magic

Who is the classic superhero Sacha Baron Cohen will be playing in an upcoming movie, anyway?
Courtesy of Darwyn Cooke/Dynamite Entertainment.

After years of stop-start development and rumors, it's official: Mandrake the Magician is going to return to the big screen, with Borat and Alice Through the Looking Glass' Sacha Baron Cohen playing the long-lived comic strip hero.

However, even though Mandrake has survived in more-or-less continuous publication for the last eight decades — he debuted in newspaper pages on June 11, 1934 — he's hardly the most widely recognized character. So who, exactly, is Mandrake, and what makes him ready for the big time? Here's a quick primer.

Described by comics historian Don Markstein as "comics' first superhero," Mandrake debuted four years before Superman, with Lee Falk — who would go on to create the jungle hero The Phantom — creating the character as the star of a syndicated newspaper strip that would last all the way through until three years ago. (Falk, impressively, wrote the strip all the way up to his death in 1999.)

Mandrake's gimmick isn't as straightforward as his name suggests; although he is a professional stage magician, his primary power is actually hypnosis, and the ability to convince foes and occasional bystanders that they're witnessing things that aren't really happening. That's not to say that hypnosis is the only trick up his sleeve, however; he's also shown the ability to change shape, fly and teleport in the decades since his creation, with the character occasionally powering up when the plot demands.

Although Mandrake's traditional home is in the funny pages, that's not the only place where he's fought villains as varied as master of disguise the Clay Camel, his mirror world duplicate Ekardnam or the criminal organization 8; in addition to his own radio serial, which ran from November 1940 through February 1942, the character has anchored both a 1939 movie serial and 1979 TV movie centering on his exploits.

(There also were rumors, never fully verified, that Federico Fellini wanted to make a Mandrake movie during the 1960s, fueled by his friendship with Falk — a particularly potent "what if.")

Fans of a certain generation are likely most familiar with the character not through his comic strip appearances but through the animated series Defenders of the Earth, which teamed the hero with the Phantom, Flash Gordon and traditional Mandrake supporting character Lothar as a superhero group fighting against Ming the Merciless' attempts to overrun Earth.

In recent years, the character has undergone a revival via comic book publisher Dynamite Entertainment, which resurrected him for the 2013 series Kings Watch — the title being a play on the name of the King Features Syndicate, the company which owns Mandrake and other characters in the series — and two subsequent miniseries, Mandrake the Magician and the current Kings Reach.

Those wondering what a contemporary Mandrake might be like ahead of his big-screen return need look no further — especially considering just how charming the comic book Mandrake has turned out to be. Sacha Baron Cohen has his work cut out for him.

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