Lee Falk's (The Phantom) first comic series, Mandrake the Magician is his other contender for "first costumed superhero in the comics". It all depends on if you want to count a tuxedo, with top hat and cape no less, as a costume.
King Features Syndicate started publishing Mandrake in 1934. The first story The Cobra introduced Mandrake's bash brother, Lothar, an African prince who preferred fighting evil to his princely duties. Oh, yeah, Lothar is black. And perhaps the earliest black character portrayed seriously in comics. The second story The Hawk introduced Narda, who would become Mandrake's romantic interest. After sixty years they finally married in 1998.
Educated in the mysterious Collegium Magikos in the Himalayas, Mandrake's main ability is the power to create any illusion he can think of in a target's mind, just by "gesturing hypnotically." He also has some telepathic abilities. Naturally, his illusion-casting powers make him the world's greatest stage magician, and that is how he earns his living when he's not busy fighting the forces of evil.
Art on the series was done by Phil Davis, and later by Fred Fredericks. Following Lee Falk's death, Fredericks took over writing the series as well, until his retirement on July 6, 2013. The Comics Kingdom site is currently running reprints, starting from 1995.
Mandrake and Lothar have also appeared in comic books, most recently the Shared Universe established by Dynamite Comics after the Kings Watch miniseries. Mandrake is busy dealing with the aftereffects of Ming's attack on Earth, while Lothar has taken up the role of The Phantom and is on a quest for the true heir to the name.
Mandrake's adventures provide examples of:
- Animated Adaptation: Mandrake has been animated twice, in the 1972 special The Man Who Hated Laughter and the 1986 series Defenders of the Earth. He co-starred with other King Features characters in both projects.
- Badass Moustache: Of the pencil-thin variety, which few good guys can pull off so well.
- Bald of Awesome: Lothar is awesome and bald.
- Bash Brothers: Lothar and Mandrake are inseparable crime fighters.
- Beta Couple: Lothar and Karma, to Mandrake and Narda's alpha.
- Bigfoot, Sasquatch and Yeti: Mandrake discovers the Yeti creatures in the Himalaya. He finds out they are actually technologically-advanced Human Aliens in disguise who lived for millenia hidden from humans, but secretly influenced their advancement of science, while also posing as gods to them. Mandrake wants them to interact with the Earthlings further to help them in human progress, but they have to leave to the stars, not bothering to eliminate/brainwash Mandrake because they know nobody would believe him, especially after they destroyed all remnants of their own civilisation behind. Mandrake decides not to say anything about what he learned.
- Black Sheep: Mandrake's reprobate twin brother Derek and evil half-brother Cobra
- Calling Card: The Clay Camel would always leave a small clay camel figurine at the scene of a crime, and whenever he escaped capture. His daughter, The Brass Monkey, did a similar thing.
- Celebrity Is Overrated: Lothar becomes a champion wrestler in one story, surrounded with riches and glory. When he realizes that this means he cannot go on adventures with Mandrake and friends any longer, he decides to abandon it all and rejoin his old friend.
- Comic-Book Time: In all the decades of the strip's run, the characters never aged.
- Cool Old Guy: Mandrake's dad Theron runs the College of Magic.
- Crossover: As an African prince, Lothar is invited to The Phantom's wedding, and Mandrake gets to tag along. The two strips have had multiple crossovers over the years, establishing that the Phantom, Lothar, Mandrake, and their respective supporting casts are all friends.
- Depending on the Writer: Is Mandrake's trademark hypnotic gesture necessary to his illusion magic, or just a stylistic flourish? One story written by Fred Fredericks has Mandrake rendered helpless when his hands are tied, but a different story by Lee Falk has Mandrake in a similar situation switch to using Hypnotic Eyes without missing a beat.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Qork is a giant alien who is punished with banishment to space, with only a raft and minimal supplies to subsist him. His crime? Falling asleep on his job, where he was in charge with guiding his ship, which hit a meteor.
- Evil Twin: Derek is literally Mandrake's evil twin.
- Fantasy Kitchen Sink: Magic, aliens, robots, parallel universes, time travel, you name it, Mandrake has encountered it at some point.
- Genius Bruiser: Lothar is strong and intelligent
- Gentle Giant: Qork, a giant almost as big as a moon, but who means no harm and is very nice. He is dying of thirst and would like to drink some water from the Earth's ocean, but he refuses to endanger any people and prefers to sacrifice his own life.
- Home Base: Xanadu is Mandrake's elaborate home and H.Q.
- Informed Attractiveness: Lee Falk sometimes went to extreme lengths to point out just how beautiful Narda is.
- Laser-Guided Amnesia: Mandrake's memory has been "fixed" several times, usually by well-meaning, but condescending aliens and time-travellers who think it's too dangerous to let him remember all the fantastic things he has seen.
- Luke, I Am Your Father: In the beginning, Mandrake didn't know Theron was his dad.
- Magicians Are Wizards: Mandrake's public persona is a stage magician of the top-hat-and-evening-dress school, but he also possesses genuine magic.
- Master of Disguise: The Clay Camel is a criminal master of disguise.
- And later his daughter, The Brass Monkey.
- Master of Illusion: Mandrake gestures hypnotically.
- Meet Cute: Mandrake first meets Princess Narda after two of her servants try to mug him.
- Mental Picture Projector: Mandrake can make a subject's memories appear as moving images on a wall.
- Mobile-Suit Human: One storyline features a retired circus midget who has invented a normal-sized-human costume that he can use to go out in public without being treated differently. He operates it from inside the torso, and has a collection of different heads for different occasions. He also uses it to rob banks, switching to a different head as soon as he leaves the bank so he can pass as an innocent bystander.
- Nice Hat: Mandrake's top hat.
- The Notable Numeral: The villainous 8 gang
- Our Giants Are Bigger: One story had Mandrake help Qork, an alien giant who is so big he is the size of a country while Mandrake is the size of a micro-organism compared to him. He communicates with him using telepathy.
- Power Crystal: The Crystal Cube, source of tremendous magical power, watched over by Theron at the College.
- Proto-Superhero: Mandrake first appeared in 1934, four years before Superman's debut, and may be regarded as part of a transitional stage between older adventure stories and modern superhero comics.
- Pull a Rabbit out of My Hat: In one story, Mandrake did a magic show for a group of school children in which he appeared to pull an elephant out of his hat (it started out tiny, grew to normal size, and then shrank again as he put it back). When the school bully suggested that he'd merely used an elephant-shaped balloon, Mandrake stuck him into the hat, and invited the rest of the children to look into the hat and watch him being chased around by the tiny elephant.
- Rebel Prince: Lothar is the prince of a nation in Africa, but prefers to go around the world having adventures with Mandrake.
- The Shangri-La: Collegium Magikos, the College of Magic in the Himalayas
- Society Marches On: In the early comics, Lothar was essentially Mandrake's manservant/porter/slave, who barely spoke, did menial tasks (and beat up villains on command), and tended to vanish and appear when convenient. (Nevermind the fact that his initial appearance resembled less an actual human being and more Black Sambo.) When this sort of depiction became unacceptable, he developed into a proper character with an actual personality and on equal footing with Mandrake.
- Stage Magician: Mandrake's public persona is a stage magician of the top-hat-and-evening-dress school.
- The Syndicate: The "8" Gang, led by Octon who is finally revealed as Cobra.
- Tunnel King: The Mole, a genius inventor with a headmounted broad-beam heat ray capable of vaporising rock. It was so effective, his regular outfit included a jetpack so he could keep up. Naturally, he used it to steal from banks.
- Verbal Tic: Lee Falk... really seemed to like... ellipses! It can give the characters... a certain... Shatneresque quality!
- Villain: Exit, Stage Left: The Clay Camel would almost always get away in the end by disguising himself into an inconspicuous bystander or police officer and sneak away. The heroes would then realize they've been foiled when they find a discarded disguise and one of his Calling Card camel figurines. The Brass Monkey used the same trick.
- Wizarding School: Collegium Magikos is a school of magic in the Himalayas.
- World's Strongest Man: Lothar has always been billed as the strongest man in the world.