I confess a certain sympathy for the smaller superhero universes. Whether Dell’s THUNDER Agents and UNDERSEA Agents (if they’d have lasted, SPACE Agents were probably next), Gold Key’s Dr Solar, Magnus, Tiger Girl, and Dr Spektor, or Dynamite’s Shadow, Green Hornet and Kato, and Miss Fury, and the Charlton many, I’m inclined to have a look.
One of the oldest of these pocket universes is the King features Syndicate characters. It is only an historical accident that Lee Falk is not recognized as the creator of superheroes partly because of his own success. His heroes first appeared in newspaper strips, the same medium that rejected Superman. When the new medium of comic books appeared, it overtook the genre of superheroes.
Defenders of the Earth is still available on DVD and, sooner or later, someone will repeat it.
Falk created Mandrake the Magician, basically by taking Leon Mandrake, a stage magician, and putting him in comic strips with a super power of hypnosis. At the time (1934) no one was sure how far you could go with hypnosis. So Falk took away the induction of a hypnotic state and made it Mandrake’s super power.
Mandrake has appeared in a number of comics over the years, many of them locally produced in Australia, New Zealand, and India. Lack of centralized creation may have been a mistake.
Appearing with Mandrake was Lothar, one of the first African crimefighters in comics. He was a Prince of the Seven Nations, a powerful federation of African states, but gave up being king to make better use of his super powers. Lothar has super strength and durability, he is immune to weapons and direct magic attack. Super strength and durability, stop me if you’ve heard this. Every other possible influence on Superman is covered 37 times but the black guy is never mentioned.
Lothar appeared in the first episode with Mandrake, so he is co-first super-powered crime fighter.
Does the Fez mean Lothar was originally a Muslim? If so, they’ve dropped that for a more Western look.
Falk’s second character is the Phantom (1936). This is the first crime fighter to wear a skin-tight costume and a mask, and the first mask not to show pupils. When Bill Finger told Bob Kane about that, he probably got it from the Phantom. Lee Falk got it from Greek statues and busts which have no pupils cut into them (Roman ones do). He got the skin-tight costume from Robin Hood and the tights they wore in the movies.
The Phantom has no super powers, but people believe he does, because they think the Phantom and all his ancestors back to the sixteenth century are one man. That is, his super power is immortality, but he doesn’t have it, people just think he does.
The Phantom started as a a playboy millionaire in New York whom no one would suspect fought crime at night in a mask and costume – stop me if you’ve heard this – but before the big reveal to the audience, Falk switched the background to the African jungle to make the Phantom and more mysterious and mythic figure. He also gave Africans important roles in the Bandar and the nations of Bangalla and Ivory-Lana.
The Phantom helped fight World War II. The Nazis never bothered to translate comic strips from Norwegian. The Norwegians knew the Nazis were lying about the collapse of America when the Phantom kept showing up in their papers telling them the Nazis were dirt bags.
The third goldmine King Syndicate had was Flash Gordon (1934). Created by Alex Raymond specifically to compete with Buck Rogers (Amazing Stories novella 1927, comic strip 1929). Flash Gordon was the better strip and won out over Rogers and several fellow imitators.
At the peak of their popularity, Mandrake and the Phantom each had an estimated 100,000,000 daily readers. All four characters have appeared in other media from movie serials to movies to various comic books. In 1986, King Features made an animation, Defenders of the Earth, starring its stars. Set in the then-distant year of 2015, Flash’s old enemy, Ming the Merciless, is running out of resources on Mongo, so he decides to invade the Earth. So that invasion could happen next year. (I live in hope.)
There’s a lot to like and dislike about this series, depending on your preferences. I find the characterization very heavy handed. but the show was aimed at younger viewers who generally don’t respond to complexities in characterization. On the other hand, it was one of the few shows in the eighties directed at children which did not center on an ecological crisis. Ming hasn’t polluted Mongo, he’s exhausted it.
Then again, King Features seems to have borrowed from Hanna-Barbera even down to the stupid alien pet and this makes some of the worst scenes in the 65 episodes. Truth to tell, the help King Features got was from Marvel Productions. The theme song was actually written by Stan Lee. And there are some elements to the show that are unique and some that are very much King Features.
Ming the Merciless was originally a Chinese-style villain. He was in fact an imitation of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. Manchu was so popular the template was stolen again and again. For example, it was the Parliamentary nickname of Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies. But in the eighties cartoons were trying to get away from racially stereotyping non-whites as all evil. So Ming became green, rather like the Mandarin over on the Iron Man animated series on 23 years later.
Making the show different from the comics was single-parent theme that underlay it. And this is one of the best aspects of the show. Each of the four heroes had one (and only one) offspring. Three were the same age, one, Kshin, was a bit younger. Their natures all followed those of their parents except Mandrake’s apprentice, Kshin.
So Flash Gordon the ace pilot has a son, Rick Gordon. Rick is a computer genius, and naturally, his computer is controlled by a gem which houses the soul of his mother, Dale Arden, who is killed by Ming in the first episode. Lothar’s son, Lothar Junior, is called LJ and is a martial arts master with some form of super strength. Mandrake has an apprentice, Kshin. The Phantom has a daughter, Jedda, and she has power over animals which, it’s hinted, she got from her father. Naturally, the Phantom has a super power here, too, in that he can call on summon temporary super strength and may have power over animals.
The children of the heroes are brought to the fore rather nicely. Flash is the leader but he’s headstrong and gets into trouble a lot. His son, Rick, is wiser and smarter than his father. LJ is a chip off the old block, and Jedda shows every sign of eventually exceeding her father. Kshin, as Mandrake’s apprentice, seems to be a bit younger than the others, so the ‘how to grow up’ stories are generally aimed at him. And he’s a lot more lighthearted than Mandrake.
In the usual way of TV and Hollywood, ever issue is made a family issue and every side faces a kind of doppelganger. In other words, Ming is a single parent and his son, Prince Kro-ton naturally hates his guts. In one arc he thinks he’s killed Ming and takes over the attack on Earth. As is usual with these things and certain spills of Parliamentary leadership, it is not a dispute over policy, it is just a matter of power.
So the main fight is between the defenders and a more desperate Ming who doesn’t have the various populations to throw at his enemies. He takes a more direct hand in these shows. There are no hawkmen here, but Ming does have ice robots. As is usual, they can’t shoot straight and they are easy to destroy, but they’re nameless and given a good action sequence. And they slow the Defenders of the Earth down while Ming’s plans mature.
And Ming is not always the enemy. For example, the Defenders face Dracula. In this version he has a unique twist of using a magic potion to turn people into animals, the animal being in line with the person’s personality. The Defenders also go back in time to meet Prince Valiant, another King Features star who does not become a Defender. I guess he’s got enough troubles in his own post-Arthur Dark Ages.
What’s bad about the show? Some people say it’s improbable that a jungle defender, a space pilot, a magician, and a super-strong African prince would get together. But it seems to me improbable that anyone would expect only heroes with a theme to show up to try to stop the conquest of the world. As to all the characters being King Features Syndicate characters, which Robot chicken targeted, I really don’t expect anything else. Do you go see the latest Marvel movie and complain when Superman or Batman doesn’t show up? (Though I really want to see Thor and Superman fight.)
But to be truthful, the show has its limitations. There’s a horrible little alien creature, Zuffy, who should have been killed early on. Some of the scenes are taken wholesale from earlier animations of other characters, suggesting the company saved money when it hired the writers. Naturally, some of the writing is cliched. The animation is of the standard of the times, and things are better now. And there is the annoying thing that everybody including Prince Kro-ton has a thing for the Phantom’s daughter, Jedda. Which thing isn’t exactly clear because the show is aimed at kids.
On the other hand there are some surprisingly original elements to this show: the single parent thing has already been mentioned. There are some good action sequences and some engaging arcs. Top of these is when Prince Kro-ton (sometimes spelled Croton on various sites) kills Ming (he gets better) leaving Kro-ton the ruler of Mongo.
The one thing that no one has noticed about the Defenders of the Earth, and is probably it’s best point, is it is the only animation I know of made for America that has no Americans in the main team. The Phantom and Lothar come from Africa. Flash may have originally been American but he emigrated to Mongo years ago. And straight-laced Mandrake is British – inscrutable people, the British.
So how is it all up? There’s a lot more good than bad in this. I think kids would like it, and it should hold their parent’s attention at least once. But there is now better stuff on the market. This is possibly one to pick out of the cheap bins or to complete collection. Defenders of the Earth was good in its time, better than most, in fact, but it’s time passed by even though it’s time isn’t until the future. And that’s a shame. King Features knew it had gold, I don’t think it ever worked out how to properly mine it. They should try again.