Who was the first superhero in comics?

posted in: Find the Firsts | 2
mysterious silhouette of first superhero in comics

With the superhero genre so prevalent in movies and TV shows, have you ever wondered, “Who was the first superhero in comics?”

Since 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has brought us 27 movies and 25 TV Shows. Since 2013, the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) has delivered 11 films and eight TV shows (known as the Arrowverse). These numbers don’t include previous movies and TV shows that the studios added to their respective universes. Nor does it account for the countless other superhero-related media content in recent history.

Tracing this genre back in modern history, where did it all start? Let’s find out!

Highlights:

  • The first superhero in comics appeared on June 11, 1934, four years before Action Comics #1 introduced Superman.

  • The hero’s abilities include projecting illusions, instant hypnosis, telekinesis, teleportation, and invisibility.

  • Superman is the first comic book superhero.

The first superhero in comics

The first superhero in comics appeared on June 11, 1934. This appearance was four years before that of a certain famous Kryptonian. In fact, another superhero preceded Kal-El. His name was The Phantom, and he appeared in comics on February 17, 1936.

So, who was the first superhero in comics? The answer: Mandrake the Magician.

The history behind the character

Inspired by Harry Houdini and similar magicians and escape artists, American comic writer Lee Falk devised the character of Mandrake the Magician while he was still in college in 1930. At first, Falk did the artwork and patterned Mandrake’s features after himself.  In 1933, he met Phil Davis, and they started a partnership where Falk was the writer and Davis was the artist.

(Left) Lee Falk, writer and (right) Mandrake the Magician, the first superhero in comics
(Left) Lee Falk, writer of “Mandrake the Magician” and (right) Mandrake the Magician, the first superhero in comics

Falk and Davis pitched the comic strip to King Features Syndicate, and the company agreed to distribute their work. On June 11, 1934, the New York Journal first published Falk’s tale of a magician fighting crime. The title of their first strip was “The Cobra,” and newspapers worldwide would later print the adventures of Mandrake the Magician.

When Davis passed away in 1964, Fred Fredericks handled the artwork. When Lee Falk died in 1999, Fredericks became both writer and illustrator. Printing of Mandrake the Magician continued until July 2013, when Fredericks retired. Currently, Mandrake is reprinted.

The comic strip broke more ground as the first comic to feature an African American in a crime-fighting role.

Character biography

Mandrake is a stage musician who also fights crime. His abilities (which grew throughout the years of publication) include:

  • projecting illusions
  • instant hypnosis
  • telekinesis
  • teleportation
  • invisibility
  • shape-shifting
  • levitation

Additional biography:

  • Mandrake studied his craft in the Himalayas under the direction of his father.
  • His arch-enemy is also his half-brother, the Cobra.
  • Mandrake’s bodyguard and best friend is Lothar, the “Prince of the Seven Nations.” Lothar also possesses superpowers, like invulnerability and super-strength.
  • His love interest is Narda, Princess of the nation Cockaigne. They married in 1997.
  • Mandrake and Narda live in Xanadu, a secret home on a mountain top outside New York City.
  • Hojo is the head of Inter-Intel, a global crime-fighting organization, and is skilled in martial arts. He is also Mandrake’s chef at Xanadu.

Honorable mention

Lee Falk also created The Phantom, which debuted in 1936. With his purple suit, The Phantom was the first superhero to wear a skin-tight costume. Ray Moore illustrated The Phantom’s eyes without iris or pupils, a signature look that future superheroes like Batman would mimic.

Superman is the first comic book superhero. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had tried selling the series to newspaper syndicates as a daily strip but were unsuccessful. DC then took a huge risk in 1938 by publishing an unknown character. Now, Action Comics #1 is the most valuable comic book.

Enjoyed discovering the first superhero in comics?

Did you enjoy this look at the first superhero in comics? The “Find the Firsts” series digs throughout history, searching for that exciting first element.

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2 Responses

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