Golden Age Comics: Chandu the Magician

If you’re like me you probably went to go see the new Marvel movie this weekend: Dr. Strange.

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If you haven’t seen it my spoiler free review is this: GO SEE IT NOW!!!

It’s trippy, mind warping, Benedict Cumberbatch is an awesome edition to the Marvel Universe, and it has some of the coolest fight scenes I’ve ever seen.

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Normally I would do a blog post about the history behind Dr. Strange but here’s the thing, the character really doesn’t belong to the Golden Age of Comics.

Dr. Strange was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the creative team behind Marvel’s greatest hero: Spider Man.

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Dr. Strange premiered in 1963 in the anthology series Strange Tales.  Since the character was a sorcerer and master of magic Ditko used the comic to create some of the coolest and most mind bending artwork ever seen.

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Sadly, while the art was fantastic, Dr. Strange didn’t really catch on as a solo character in his own series like Iron Man or the Hulk.  While he was popular with college kids who were experimenting with Eastern mysticism and psychedelic stimulants like LSD, the character was more at home as a supporting hero who was useful to other heroes whenever they were confronted with magical threats.

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Like I said before, Dr. Strange really doesn’t fit the bill for this blog.  However, while researching the character’s history I discovered that Stan Lee took a lot of influence for Dr. Strange from an old radio program called Chandu the Magician.

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After looking up Chandu on the internet I decided to write this week’s blog post on this instead.  Sure it’s a radio show turned into a movie series, but it’s got enough comic book elements in it to justify a place here.

Origin

Before there were comic books and comic book movies, there were radio shows and pulp novels.

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Chandu the Magician premiered in 1931 on the Los Angeles station KLR.  The show featured a man named Frank Chandler who was played by radio actor Gayne Whitman

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Frank was an American who had traveled to India to learn the mystic arts from the yogis.  Such skills included astral projection, hypnosis, and escape artistry.

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After he had learned everything he could he was sent into the world to fight evil in all its forms with the new identity of Chandu the Magician.

He would have various adventures every week, broadcast in 15 minute adventures, and sponsored by companies such as White King Soap and Beech Nut Gum.  He had several love interests such as the Egyptian princess Nadji who was played by actress Veola Vonn.

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The program was successful and lasted from 1932 to 1935, and was even revived in the late 1940’s.

On top of the radio show, they even made a movie about Chandu in 1932.

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Chandu the Magician stared actor Edmund Lowe as the title character,

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and horror movie icon and king of over the top epic performances, Bela Lugosi as the villain Roxor.  You probably know him better as Dracula.

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The movie was 71 minutes of glorious 1930’s cheese filled with magic, sappy romance, and death rays.  If you don’t believe me please watch this clip of Bela giving the best damn evil villain monologue I have ever heard.

The movie was successful enough to spawn sequels and I can assume the studios loved Lugosi because they cast him as Chandu in the sequel.

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So what happened?

Life and society moved on, leaving radio and old heroes like Chandu in the dust.

While I normally feel a pang of regret and nostalgic longing for the heroes that I write about in this blog I’m really not feeling a whole lot for this one.

Sure he was a cool magician and yes the adventures were creative and exotic, and we got one of the best Bela Lugosi performances I’ve ever seen out of it, but the character was definitely a product of his time.  There’s a pretty strong undercurrent of some of the more uncomfortable ideas that permeated American entertainment during the 1930’s.  Everything from blatant racism to casual sexism is on call here.  Granted, a lot of the early comics played with that as well, but I get the feeling that a lot of people won’t be lining up to see the Chandu reboot at the box office.

Still, it was a fun little story and it seemed to have enough of an effect on a young Stan Lee to create Doctor Strange, so it wasn’t all bad.

Golden Age Showcase: Monako

So I’m really excited for the new Dr. Strange movie coming out in November.

What’s even better is that, thanks to this movie, Marvel decided to give Dr. Strange his own modern comic book series in order to increase awareness and interest in the character.

I really like this series, mostly because it’s written by one of my favorite comic book writers: Jason Aaron.

If you’ve never heard of him I HIGHLY recommend Southern Bastards and Scalped.  They are fantastic comic books that elevate the comic book medium to an entirely different level.

The reason why I bring this up is because in Mr. Aaron’s Dr. Strange run there is a character named Monako.

Without going into too much detail (I don’t want to spoil anything, you should really be going out and buying the comic) Monako is a grizzled old veteran magician who takes no crap from anyone and is one of the most powerful magicians in the Marvel Universe.

Also, he was originally created in 1940 so we’re going to talk about him today.

Origin and career:

Monako first appeared in Daring Mystery Comics #1 in January of 1940.

He was written and created by writer Larry Antonette.

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In Monako’s first appearance he rescues a childhood friend, Josie Nottington, from being run over by a car.

Monako sees that the car was being driven by his mortal enemy Mr. Muro,

It turns out that Mr. Muro is after Josie’s brother Al Nottington because he as developed a secret formula for an explosive that Mr. Muro wants.  However, it turns out that Al has memorized the formula and destroyed all his notes, prompting Muro to kidnap Al and attempted to torture him into revealing the formula.

Monako manages to follow Mr. Muro using his magic (he uses an astral form, kind of similar to what Dr. Strange uses) and Monako manages to put up a good fight.

but unfortunately he is captured and tied up beside Al.  Muro intends to torture them with a swinging ax blade.

Here’s where it gets fun.  Monako manages to escape by talking to the ax blade and convincing it to let them go, and the ax listens.

Monako manages to escape by shrinking himself down to the size of an ant and crawling through a key hole.

He proceeds to save Josie from a bomb,

and they all manage to escape and save the day.  Sadly, Muro has escaped as well and would return for another round.

Muro and Monako would meet three issues later in Daring Mystery Comics #4 when Muro attempted to take over secret military fortifications that were supposed to guard the Panama Canal (not a bad plan actually) and Monako was able to stop him.

You’ll notice that Monako has a fez now, which is awesome.

Despite the fact that Muro managed to escape the two would never meet again.  Monako would have two more appearances, one where he thwarted a gang of jewel thieves, and another where he helped a man rescue his sister from a gang of thugs.

His last story featured the first and only appearance of Pere Kauraka, Monako’s super strong and super durable assistant.

It should be noted that while the artwork is somewhat lacking (not necessarily the artist fault since it’s fair to assume they were pressured to cut corners due to tight deadlines) Monako’s stories feature the magician using his powers in very interesting and creative ways.  He could project his form on the astral plane, he could talk to and influence inanimate objects, he could use magic to punch people, and in possibly the greatest use of magic ever…in his final adventure he turned a pit of snakes into puppies (god I wish I could find a picture of that).

So what happened?

Monako disappeared.  I wish there was more to his story but it’s probably because he just wasn’t popular enough to warrant future stories.  His last appearance was in September of 1940 so he never got to kick some Nazi butt during the war.

Also, he didn’t have any sort of revival in the post war comic book scene (although someone like that would have been perfect for the boom in horror comics that were popular after World War 2) and he would remain unused until recently where he was re introduced in Jason Aaron’s Dr. Strange.

Monako was an interesting hero.  Despite his short story run the man was one of the first Timely heroes to utilize magic in some of the most interesting and creative ways imaginable.  He was an interesting hero and one of the most interesting characters to come out of the Golden Age.