Meet Mandrake the Magician, the 1930s Sorta-Superhero Sacha Baron Cohen Will Be Playing

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Photo: Darwyn Cooke/Dynamite Entertainment

It’s been a bizarre few weeks for fans of eight-decade-old action heroes. First we got confirmation that Dwayne Johnson will be playing pulp hero Doc Savage in a Shane Black–helmed movie. Now, news has surfaced that Sacha Baron Cohen has been tapped to play Mandrake the Magician in a Warner Bros. movie directed by Etan Cohen. But if you are, somehow, not a historian of pre-war comic strips, it’s highly unlikely that you have any clue who Mandrake is. Allow us to give you a primer.

What’s Mandrake’s basic deal?
He’s a tophat-and-tuxedo-wearing, mustachioed magician who fights crime, primarily via hypnotism.

Is Mandrake a superhero?
That is a matter of debate! Mandrake is a hero, he wears ridiculous clothing in broad daylight, and he has powers beyond those of everyday humans. But when he debuted in a newspaper comic strip in 1934, the concept of the “superhero” hadn’t been introduced into popular culture — that only happened after the advent of Superman in 1938. Nevertheless, there are those — perhaps most notably comics historian Don Markstein — who regard him as the first superhero. Let’s agree that he is, at the very least, a proto-superhero, much like Doc Savage.

But will this be designed as a superhero movie?
Early indications point to “no,” or at least “not earnestly.” Etan tweeted a link to news about the movie and commented, “It’s magically comedic!” So it’d appear that we have a wacky adventure on our hands. If it’s played as a superhero flick, it’ll likely be a satirical one in the Deadpool mode. So, if you were looking forward to Baron Cohen’s transition into the world of grim-and-brooding leading men: 1. Why? 2. You’ll be sorely disappointed.

How did Mandrake first show up and how big a deal was he?
He was cooked up by cartoonist Lee Falk, allegedly ten years before the character actually saw publication. When he did, in a 1934 strip written and drawn by Falk and distributed to newspapers by King Features Syndicate (which was also responsible for fellow proto-superheroes the Phantom and Flash Gordon), he became a hit.

His household-name status was cemented by appearances in comic books, a film serial, and a radio serial. Audiences were thrilled by tales of the besuited do-gooder and his African assistant, Lothar. (Being that the latter is a bit of a racist caricature, it will be interesting to see how, or if, he appears in the movie). Though Mandrake was somewhat overshadowed by the fevered post-Superman superhero craze and his popularity waxed and waned, he remained a presence in popular culture well into the 1980s. His name was even appropriated by a real-life Turkish magician.

Is this Mandrake’s screen debut?
Definitely not! He had the aforementioned film serial, a 1954 TV pilot, and an unauthorized 1967 Turkish motion picture. Children of the 1980s will best remember him as one of the protagonists of Defenders of the Earth, a 1986–7 TV cartoon starring various King Features Syndicate characters, including ol’ Manny. (Lothar’s depiction was slightly less racist in that one.) There have been scattered, failed attempts at an American feature film over the years, but this latest one is the first to make it this far.

Is Sacha Baron Cohen a good choice to play him?
If Etan’s going for a comedic take on a self-important magician with a silly mustache who can hypnotize people and has a lumbering assistant, then definitely.

If I wanted to get into Mandrake, what should I read?
You can go back to the original source material by picking up this collection of early strips by Falk and eventual artist Phil Davis. If you want a more modern take, peep this 2015 comic-book miniseries written by Roger Langridge and drawn by Jeremy Treece.

Is there a borderline unintelligible but seriously rad comics story from a few years ago in which Superman fights an interdimensional vampire who might be based on Mandrake?
That’s a weird question, but the answer is yes! In the Grant Morrison–penned 2008–9 DC Comics mega-crossover Final Crisis, Supes goes on a mind-bending journey to a realm where he confronts the very nature of superhero fiction itself, as well as a physical manifestation of his own fundamental archetype. During his adventure, he encounters a dude named Mandrakk, who seeks to leech off the superhero genre and who may or may not act as Morrison’s meta-commentary on … uh … something. If you like weird and confusing things, you’ll love Mandrakk!