Before the Black Panther, widely considered the first black superhero, there was Lothar, Prince of the Twelve Nations. There is real excitement regarding the release of the movie about the heroic king of legendary Wakanda. But it also a perfect time to take an extensive look at the other African prince, a potential contender for the title of first black superhero. After all, Lothar debuted on newspaper comic pages three decades before the Black Panther.
Of course, In the 1930s, there was no way a black character could headline a mainstream comic strip feature. Lothar’s beginnings were humble indeed, serving as Mandrake the Magician’s muscular servant. As the main character of the comic strip, Mandrake’s magic was actually a supremely potent form of hypnotism. (I’ll have an article up on him in the next few months.) But this post is not about him.
Beginning as an unfortunate stereotype, Lothar has come very far in the ensuing eighty years. Based on longevity alone, the character warrants consideration as comics’ first black superhero.
The Early Evolution of Lothar
When Lothar first appears in 1934, he is clearly Mandrake’s servant, announcing his appearance to group of movers and shakers. In this he has the distinction of appearing in Mandrake’s comic strip before the magician himself. He is drawn as a huge and menacing figure, his features rendered in racially insensitive fashion. While he is eloquent in his initial announcement, the few terse utterances thereafter are in broken English.
Writer Lee Falk and Phil Davis fairly quickly humanize Lothar, if only just a little. Within a year, his facial features are drawn more realistically, although he retains the large lips typical of stereotypical portrayals of African Americans. While he still speaks in broken English and short phrases, “Me this” and Me that,” Falk allows him to have a few humorous asides, mostly about women.
But, by 1936, Lothar is teasing Mandrake about his off and on again relationship with Princess Narda. .“Not going to kiss Princess goodbye smack smack?” he asks on one occasion.
Mandrake only momentarily allows the moment of banter to stand. “Hmm,” he pats Lothar on the back, then advises him to back their bags. (11/28/36)
Scant gains, all things considered. While courageous in battle, he is easily unnerved by hints of ghosts—a reflection of the superstitious native stereotype.
Mandrake and Lothar in the Movies and on Radio
In 1939, Mandrake the Magician followed other heroes into live action portrayals in Saturday morning movie serials. Mandrake and Lothar did battle with a masked criminal named the Wasp, who seeks possession of radium energy device. In this instance, Lothar was portrayed by a Hawaiian actor by the name of Ai Kikume. Ai Kikume specialized in playing African natives in jungle movies of the time.
Mandrake was also a radio program for a brief period from 1940 to 1942. The voice actor playing Lothar was Juano Hernandez, a Puerto Rican born actor who also played Kolu, an African native in the Jungle Jim radio show.
The 1940s and 50s: A Royal Lineage Revealed
It was also in 1939 that Falk first revealed that Lothar’s father was king of the Wambesi tribe in Africa. When his father died, Lothar became king. There is little time devoted to what presumably would have been a great loss for Lothar and instead the story is played largely for humor. Our hero finds kingly duties boring and when he learns he must marry his father’s multiple wives, he decides to return to crime-fighting in the States with Mandrake. The story nonetheless represents an upgrade in Lothar’s status. A king who voluntarily gives up a throne is certainly no simple servant.
Lothar’s royalty is explored again in 1946, 1948, and 1952. In each story he briefly resumes kingly duties over what is now described as the Federated Tribes. While the Federated Tribes show none of the tech wonders of Black Panther’s Wakanda, just being portrayed as an independent nation in what was then a heavily colonized continent was something of a novelty.
Mandrake and Lothar (Almost) Make it on TV
There was considerable talk of a Mandrake television series in 1954. And the African American
community was giving positive press to the announcement that popular black athlete Woody Strode had been cast as Lothar.
Standing at 6’4’’, Strode had been a college football star, a professional wrestler, and finally a pro football player for the Los Angeles Rams between 1946 and 1949. Strode was handsome, impressively muscled, and articulate. Hopes ran strong for a Lothar that the community could be proud of.
Unfortunately, only a pilot was filmed and never aired. Strode went on to star in numerous movies, his physique often on display. Lothar would continue to appear in the comic strip, occasionally featured in an adventure centered around him. It would be 25 years before the original dynamic duo had their second crack at television.
Lothar Reimagined: The 1960s
With artist Phil Davis’ death in 1964, Fred Fredericks took over the art chores the following year. Along with creator Lee Falk, Fredericks also helped engineer a significant modernization of the comic strip. Mandrake began to work as an agent for Inter-Intel and moved into Xanadu, a hip and luxurious mechanized mansion at the end of a winding mountain road.
Over the next few years, the portrayal of Lothar significantly benefited. Fredericks understood the old portrayal could not stand in the new Civil Rights era. Fredricks began to draw the character with less pronounced features. Lothar soon was speaking in proper English. And blessing of blessings, he began to dress in long pants and leopard print shirts instead of an actual leopard skin! Along the way he began to show an interest in volunteering in Black neighborhoods.
Perhaps most significantly of all, Mandrake and Lothar began to portrayed as an equal partnership. The African prince was clearly no longer Mandrake’s servant but his trusted and loyal friend.
Nowhere was this more in evidence than a series of Sunday strips beginning in April 1967 telling the never told story of how Mandrake and Lothar first met. Now the character was a prince from the start who even bested Mandrake in their first encounter, a misunderstanding of course. And the Federated Tribes were referred to as the Twelve Nations. Lothar returned with Mandrake, bored with his life as a prince, seeking the adventure that a new life promised. Our hero was clearly portrayed as Mandrake’s friend—an equal partner in their subsequent efforts.
Lothar as as the First Black Superhero?
It is only then, in 1967, that Lothar could properly be considered a superhero, and is even called one—along with Mandrake—in a subsequent adventure in 1969. An eccentric kidnapper of the best individuals in every domain sought to take the pair as the world’s greatest magician and the world’s strongest man respectively.
The 1967 retelling of Lothar and Mandrake’s first meeting was less than a year after Fantastic Four #52 (7/66), the debut of Marvel’s Black Panther in the comic books. Lothar’s transformation into a hero fully worthy of celebration was already underway, but not yet complete. So who deserves the title of the first black superhero? I would argue each hero could make that claim. While an unfortunate stereotype for roughly thirty years, Lothar has been an admirable one for the last fifty!
(For those interested in a third option, check out my article on the Grey Mask’s crime-fighting associate, the Dove.)
The 1970s and Beyond
The year 1970 represented the culmination of the various changes taking place in the portrayal of Lothar. Karma, his extremely attractive and very distant cousin from Africa arrived in America. Lothar and Karma almost immediately became a couple. References to her being a cousin, however distant, were dropped.
Lothar and Karma were often shown lounging around Xanadu’s swimming pool with Mandrake and Narda.
It is hard to convey how groundbreaking this was for comic strips of the era. African Americans in starring roles were few and far between, Danny Raven of Dateline: Danger (1968-1974) and Friday Foster (1970-1974) being the notable exceptions. And for Lothar and Karma to be portrayed as just as attractive in their swimwear as Mandrake and Narda and in a relationship (with the implied sex life that went along with it) had never really been portrayed in comic strips.
With the addition of Karma to the cast, the two couples were now frequently portrayed as socializing and going on vacations together. (Lothar and Karma would be best man and maid of honor at Mandrake and Narda’s Xanadu wedding decades later.) Lothar’s “upgrade” was essentially complete with few further refinements. While stories of necessity continued to revolve around Mandrake, Lothar was never again portrayed in stereotypical fashion or played for comic relief.
It would await the character’s portrayal on a children’s animated television show for Lothar to take the step in his evolution. But first…
Mandrake and Lothar in a Made-for-Television Movie
Lothar finally made to television in a two hour made-for-television movie that aired on NBC in January 24th, 1979. Soap opera star Anthony Herrera played Mandrake while Ji-Tu Cumbuka played Lothar. Cumbuka had appeared in secondary roles in a wide range of projects which included Roots, Mandingo and black exploitation movies like Blacula and Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde. Arkadian, the villain of the piece, has hypnotic powers like Mandrake and was played by Robert Reed, better known as Mike Brady of the Brady Bunch.
Made-for-television movies often served as pilots for subsequent television series. Superhero shows had begun to appear on television: Six Million Dollar Man (1974-78), Wonder Woman (1976-79), The Incredible Hulk (1978-82), Dr. Strange (1978 made-for-tv movie) and The Amazing Spider-Man (1978-79). It was a reasonable risk done in by lackluster production values.
The Defenders of the Earth
Lothar was a featured character on the weekday animated kids series, the Defenders of the Earth, debuting in the Fall of 1986. The Defenders were comprised of Mandrake, Lothar, Flash Gordon, and the 27th Phantom (the latest in a long line of costumed White defenders of the African jungle). In addition, one each of the heroes’ children were also members of the team. While Lothar had been increasingly portrayed as an equal partner of Mandrake in the newspaper comic strip, Mandrake remained the star character. With the Defenders of the Earth, Lothar was featured as a co-equal to the other leads.
Each of the four heroes had a four line introduction as part of the program opening musical theme. “His strength is a legend,” Lothar’s intro went, “his skills conquer all, armed with his power, we never will fall—Lothar!” Those words were penned by none other than Stan Lee, as Marvel was involved with its production and was publishing a Defenders of the Earth comic book to go with it.
Lothar in the Defenders series was said to be from Jamaica, not Africa, and he spoke with a soft Jamaican accent. He was portrayed as extremely strong, but he also demonstrated exceptional mechanical skills and was considered a tactical genius. He was something of a Rambo character, only smarter. His son on the series was L. J. The identity of his mother was never revealed. Karma didn’t make it into the animated version.
Still, Lothar was not as centrally featured as the better known King Features heroes. Each of them had an arch villain in the series, Flash Gordon had Ming the Merciless while the Phantom and Mandrake had arch villains created for the series. During a visit to Jamaica, Lothar and the other Defenders defeated a voodoo like villain named Papa Duke, but he never returned. An interesting side note is that the Jamaicans in that episode were portrayed in a rich variety of skin tones. And Lothar’s son had slightly lighter skin than Lothar himself. Make of that what you will.
Lothar’s voice was provided by Buster Jones, the same voice actor who portrayed Black Vulcan on The Super Friends. The biggest sign, however, that Lothar had arrived was that he was awarded his first action figure!
Lothar as the New Phantom
A new set of comic books featuring King Features comic strip characters was introduced in 2013. These were published by Dynamite, a comic book company that specialized in licensed properties. The adult characters featured in the Defenders of Freedom were joined by Jungle Jim and Prince Valiant in a series called Kings Watch.
The Phantom in this series , however, was not the Phantom of the comic strip but his son—the 22nd Phantom in a role passed down from father to son creating a sense that the Phantom himself was immortal. Lothar figured prominently in the plot, especially when the 22nd Phantom was killed in action. Lothar adopted the name and costume of the Phantom, swearing to fulfill his family’s jungle mission until an heir could be found to take up the mantle. As such, in 2015, Lothar got to be the Phantom for a four issue series entitled King: The Phantom. If there was any doubt that Lothar was a superhero, his status was now officially confirmed.
Mandrake’s comic strip was cancelled in 2013, but the Phantom’s comic strip continues to this day. In the comic strip, the 21st Phantom still has the mantle. And from December 2015 to June 2016, Lothar was a featured in a Phantom storyline entitled “Trouble in the 12 Nations.” When Lothar learns that his designated successor as President of the Federation is threatened by old foe Otanka, he returns to his native land. Mandrake skypes with the Phantom and asks him to assist Lothar in any way he can. The two share an adventure while Mandrake stays home with Narda. It is a marvelous moment and something of a cap to Lothar’s eighty year career.
Enjoy what promises to be a marvelous Black Panther movie, but give a mental shout out to Lothar as you do. We are always standing on the shoulders of those who have gone on before.