MINI-SERIES The Masked Bookwyrm

#1 - coverLee Falk's Mandrake The Magician

1995, 2-issues (32 pgs. -- no ads -- heavy paper), Marvel Comics -- But it was intended to be a three issue series!

Writer: Mike Barr. Art: Robert Ortaleza.

In the mid-1990s Marvel did a deal with the newspaper comic strip syndicate, King Features to release a bunch of high-end mini-series of some of their most prominent adventure strips. All-new stories and art presented on heavy paper with rich colours and often with more pages than the average comic book. These included the entertaining Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon and the unfortunately underwhelming The Phantom.

And then we come to Mandrake the Magician. In many ways it was the odd man out. Mandrake, though dating back to the 1930s (and some argue was one of the first "super powered" heroes -- even as The Phantom is credited as the first "costumed" hero) has probably had the least exposure in comics of any of those properties. Yet this mini-series is the one that most tries to affect a "special-ness" in the visuals, being fully painted art (whereas the others were regular ink and coloured drawings). It also seems the most like it was blithely re-inventing the character, rather than doing a strictly faithful transposing of the comic strip hero into a comic book (based on the strips I've read which -- admittedly -- were published decades ago).

And it may have been the least successful -- as it was cancelled in mid-run. It was intended as a three issue story and only two issues were published!

Now whether the sales were that bad, I don't know (as I say, Mandrake probably was the least familiar character to the readers) or whether there were behind-the-scenes issues (maybe a publishing delay, or Marvel's rights lapsed). But it does rather affect the story as it's not like each issue was a self-contained adventure.

The issues that were published are hardly "bad" -- but, equally, one can maybe see why they might have failed to inspire readers.

For one thing, writer Mike Barr seems caught between being true to the traditional character and re-inventing him. The result kind of seems to assume the reader will already know who and what Mandrake is (there's no explanation here for what he does when he's not fighting crime) and who will know his pal Lothar (who only really becomes involved in the second issue). Even as it's those fans who might quibble about why Mandrake is dressed in a turtle neck or other more significant alterations to him or the supporting characters. The story involves references to his sister, Lenore -- and in the comic strips he did have a sister, Lenore, but I think she served a different role (I'm just googling it myself).

The story tries to just to be fun, movie serial-style romp -- even as the result is it feels kind of blandly generic. And though the pacing is brisk, it's not exactly a roller-coaster of running about and twists and turns. A female archaeologist discovers an ancient mystical scroll. Later during a museum exhibition, both Mandrake and some villainous thugs try to steal it. Mandrake and the archaeologist end up teaming up (bickering and bantering humorously, of course). They get captured by a villain -- who is working for another villain, who is after mystical power that will be unleashed when all the scrolls (there are thirteen) are recovered.

All of which is depicted in two, 32 page (no ads) issues -- before ending on a cliffhanger as Mandrake and the villain are transposed to a mystical realm.

The result, as I say, isn't bad -- it's just that it's not memorable, either.

The painted art was something that was en vogue in that era, thanks to wunderkind Alex Ross. And like a lot of painted art projects -- it doesn't really add much to the proceedings. It's nice work in spots, Ortaleza having a nice way with light on faces (ala Ross). But like a lot of painted art, it lacks the photorealism of Ross which was, after all, Ross', appeal. Though Ortaleza certainly has his realist aspects in faces or hands. But without a plot that better seems to demand the painted art, and with the painted art simply nice without being exceptional (and even a bit stiff and confused in the action scenes) you might wonder what the point was (particularly given the other mini-series weren't painted).

Admittedly, all that really needs to be said by way of review is: "It's only two issues of a three issue story." But some unfinished comics sagas can still be enjoyable because what's there is sufficiently good. Unfortunately this doesn't fall into that category.