If you lived in the DC universe in the 1950’s and were a greedy relative or unscrupulous lawyer trying to swindle someone out of his fortune by posing as a ghost or a space alien or a time-traveller, you didn’t stand a chance. Not with all the DC sleuths who made a living out of exposing the fantastic as simply larcenous fellows wearing sheets or bizarre masks.
There was the self-styled “Ghost Breaker”, Doctor Thirteen, from Star-Spangled Comics. And the Phantom Stranger---the original version, that is, who was just an ordinary guy in a black overcoat and fedora, with no magical powers of his own, except for the ability to leave or enter a room unnoticed. The grandmaster of them all was Roy Raymond, who not only unraveled the mysterious, he did it on national television.
And then there was Mark Merlin.
Mark Merlin got into the game late, making his first appearance in House of Secrets # 23 (Aug., 1959). There was nothing immediately remarkable about him. He worked out of an ordinary office. He had the requisite attractive secretary---Elsa, by name. Merlin himself had that paternal, suit-and-tie look of the era. He could have been Ward Cleaver, if Ward had been a private investigator. (Come to think of it, it never was shown what Ward did for a living after seeing off Wally and the Beaver off for school and kissing June good-bye.)
But Mark Merlin wasn’t just an ordinary private eye. He specialised in impossible mysteries, situations which defied reality, things beyond normal ken. And here, Merlin was slightly different from his philosophical brethren. Roy Raymond, the Phantom Stranger, and Dr. Thirteen (especially him) absolutely refused to believe in the unearthly. To them, everything had a rational explanation. (Well, almost everything; the Stranger once encountered a djinn and Raymond had a one-time run-in with a pest from the Fourth Dimension.) But Merlin allowed for the existence of the supernatural. As he put it himself in his debut:
"Generally speaking, there are three types of cases I receive . . . the most common one being ‘supernatural’ events which have a perfectly natural explanation . . . [The second most common occurrences] are man-made, created, as a rule, to perpetrate a hoax . . . [The third kind] I cannot explain or classify.”
Those in the last category, Merlin put into his “Question Mark File”. As it would develop, over the course of Mark Merlin’s series, that Question Mark File grew pretty thick.
It took a while for DC to tell us---it didn’t get around to it until House of Secrets # 58 (Jan.-Feb., 1963)---but Merlin got into the hoax-busting business while investigating the death of his uncle, a stage magician known as the Mighty Merlin. The elder Merlin had become famous for exposing charlatans and phoney spiritualists. Mark’s investigation led him to Count Mylo of Monte Grande.
While visiting the count’s castle, Mark found himself abruptly transported to a mystical courtroom presided over by the magical Council of Three. There, Merlin was forced to undergo three trials of magic. He passed the tests, but deduced that the entire set-up was a sham, concocted by Count Mylo. The count killed the Mighty Merlin in order to get his hands on a valuable relic the magician possessed, a medallion reputed to possess genuine magical powers.
That sort of thing---a fantastic occurrence turning out to be a hoax---would prove to be a rare thing in Mark’s career. In that first Mark Merlin tale, “I Scout Earth’s Strangest Secrets”, he reveals that mysteriously levitating objects are actually caused by powerful electro-magnets. Rational explanations like that cropped up only a couple more times over the course of his DC career. Even though every story carried the sigil “A Mark Merlin Mystery”, they actually weren’t much in the way of mysteries. Nearly all of Mark’s cases actually did have a supernatural or other-worldly cause. The only question was how Merlin would defeat that issue’s menace.
Why were Mark Merlin’s adventures so bizarre, when his predecessors’ were so grounded in reality? It’s important to remember what was going on in DC’s editorial offices at the time. Roy Raymond and Dr. Thirteen and the Phantom Stranger were created when the first great era of super-heroes was fading away. Looking for the next Big Thing, comics publishers turned to more realistic genres---private eyes, newspaper reporters, cowboys, historical figures.
However, by the time Mark Merlin came along, there had been a thematic shift. Irwin Donenfeld, editorial director for DC, had noticed how the company’s science-fiction-themed comics were outselling all of its other titles. He connected this with the public’s growing interest with flying saucers and movies with giant creatures, such as Them! Consequently, he issued marching orders to the DC editors to add space aliens and monsters and genies to their stories.
Some titles, such as Superman and Wonder Woman, could adapt to the shift. For others, such as Batman and Detective Comics, it was a complete mismatch. And it certainly took Mark Merlin out of anything resembling reality.
Nevertheless, Merlin did O.K. He quickly became the cover feature and no doubt, the series’ popularity was aided by the artwork of its regular penciller, Mort Meskin. Meskin was one of DC’s greats from the Golden Age. His work was stylistic, but solid and uncluttered, with a great sense of composition. As was so often the case, superlative art could elevate an otherwise mediocre or even abysmal story.
As the series entered the next decade, Merlin dropped his 1950’s-dad appearance and took on a distinctive look. Where before, he had worn whatever was fitting to the situation, Merlin started wearing a tuxedo day and night, whatever the occasion. It became his “costume”. He even acquired a distinctive headquarters of sorts, abandoning his business office for new digs in the Mystery Hill Mansion. Reeking with mystic atmosphere, it was as much a museum of ancient artifacts as it was a place for Merlin to put up his feet.
The artifacts weren’t just for show, either. As his cases grew more and more bizarre---increasingly he and Elsa would find themselves on other planets or dimensions or time eras---it was no longer enough for Merlin to simply use his brains and whatever was at hand to take on his opponents. He had to start fighting fire with fire. He took to carrying magic potions and other occult devices which were part of his Mystery Hill collexion. The pockets of his tux seemed to hold as many conveniently handy tools as Batman’s utility belt.
These changes weren’t purely inspiration on the part of writers, either. It was during this time that the next age of super-heroes, launched by the debut of the Silver-Age Flash in Showcase # 4 (Sep.-Oct., 1956), was in full swing. The revived versions of the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Atom, along with the new super-team, the Justice League of America, were selling as fast as they hit the spinner racks. Ordinary business-suited mortals just weren’t cutting it as heroes, anymore. Mark Merlin had to be ramped up.
So it wasn’t too surprising when Mark was given a super-power of his own, of sorts. In House of Mystery # 60 (May-Jun., 1963), he and Elsa are investigating a series of mysterious accidents that lead to the recently uncovered tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh. While exploring the tomb, Merlin discovers a cat charm hidden inside a secret wall panel. When Merlin touches the charm, he finds that his mind is transferred to the body of a near-by black cat.
In short order, Mark learns how to control the mind-shift and he adopts the cat as a pet, naming it Memakata. At first, Merlin is reluctant to use the power of the charm, again. But as he finds himself having to use it more and more often to escape danger, he takes to wearing the charm around his neck as an amulet.
To complete the “super-heroing” of Mark Merlin, he is provided with his own arch-enemy in the next issue. House of Secrets # 61 (Jul.-Aug., 1963) introduces him to Doctor-7, an evil sorcerer who dubs himself “King of the Supernatural”. Doctor-7 squares off against Mark five times over the remainder of the series. Their battles, essentially magic potion against mystic charm, are little more than bargain-basement versions of Doctor Strange-Baron Mordro duels. Even when the writers gave Doctor-7 a monstrous changeling hench-beast called the Morloo, it didn’t crank up the excitement that much.
The essential problem, as I see it, was that there is suspense in the notion of an ordinary man pitted against an unearthly powered menace, but magic versus magic is actually quite dull. Almost by definition, with magic, anything can happen---and as keener minds than my own have pointed out, when anything can happen, pretty soon you no longer care what happens
It was pretty clear that the readers had stopped caring, anyway. Editor Jack Schiff decided it was time to really shake things up. The title of the supernatural sleuth’s story in House of Mystery # 73 (Jul.-Aug., 1965) said it all: “The Death of Mark Merlin”.
The last Mark Merlin tale begins with a scream from Mystery Hill Mansion. Merlin rushes to his study, where his secretary and recently promoted to “fiancée”, Elsa, is working. He finds her being attacked by his “old” (though heretofore unseen) enemy, the Gargoyle. Before Mark can pull a magic trick out of his bottomless tuxedo-jacket pocket, the Gargoyle uses a device to vapourise the occult adventurer.
At least, that’s the way it seems to Elsa’s point of view. Actually, Mark has been transported to another dimension, to a world that exists under a green hexagonal sun. The civilisation of this world, called Ra, models that of ancient Egypt. Making the acquaintance of a scientist, Kranak, and his beautiful (of course) daughter, Rimah, Merlin learns that the people of Ra had originally lived on Earth four thousand years ago. When Kranak had refused to use his abilities for their evil pharaoh, the tyrant had the scientist and his followers entombed in a pyramid. Then, using a magic lantern that had been the property of Imhotep, the pharaoh cast the entire pyramid to this other-dimensional world. Under the peculiar rays of the six-sided green sun, Kranak and his people became immortal and eternally young.
Merlin realises that, back on his own world, the Gargoyle must have found Imhotep’s lantern and used it to send him to Ra. He also remembers that Elsa is at the villain’s mercy. But Kranak tells him flatly that there is no way to send Merlin back to Earth.
The fact hits Merlin hard. To take his mind off of Elsa, Rimah takes Mark on a tour of the city. She is already smitten with the man from Earth (it was probably the tuxedo; any guy looks good in a tux) and she throws herself shamelessly at him. She tells Mark to forget Elsa. “Four thousand years I have longed for a man like you---you can be happy here . . . under the green sun!”
Merlin considers. Let’s see . . . (1) can’t get home; (2) eternal youth; (3) gorgeous babe in a filmy gown throwing herself at him. Yeah, he can live with that.
But before Mark and Rimah can compare mating rituals, a chariot-riding warrior konks the distracted adventurer over the noggin and kidnaps the girl.
When Mark regains consciousness, Kranak tells him that Rimah is now in the hands of Gamal, who, having gotten bored with happily ever after, seeks to conquer Ra. Gamal is offering a deal. Rimah for the emerald gem of power clenched in the stone fist of the giant cat-god idol. It’s a no-brainer to Merlin. Make the trade, he urges.
Not so fast, tux-boy, says Kranak. In all these centuries, no-one has ever figured out the secret to making the cat-god statue release the jewel. Then Merlin gets an idea. Maybe the cat-charm which enables him to transfer his mind to Memakata will let him do the same to the cat-god idol. It’s crazy, but it just might work.
Actually, it does work, and as Merlin’s mindless body collapses to the floor, his mind, now occupying the cat statue, makes the fist unclench. Unfortunately, the emerald falls directly on Merlin’s cat-charm amulet, and both gem and charm explode in a flash of light. It’s not a disaster, though. Merlin’s mind automatically returns to his own body and he discovers that, when the emerald exploded, it transferred its power to him. He can now control matter with his very thoughts.
Armed with his newfound ability, Mark tracks down Gamal and takes him on. It’s pretty much Godzilla versus Bambi. With his mind-over-matter power, Merlin takes out Gamal in three panels.
When the occult sleuth returns Rimah to her father, he is greeted with startling news. Now that Mark has absorbed the powers of the emerald jewel, it is possible for one of Kranak’s inventions to send him back to Earth.
Well, not quite. There’s a hitch. Mark himself cannot go home, but the mind-over-matter power he has absorbed will let him transfer his life-force to Earth and into the body of another. Just his life force and his memories. Not his mind. Or his own physical form. Those will disintegrate.
Rimah does everything short of the dance of the seven veils to get Mark to stay, but all Merlin can think about now is rescuing Elsa from the clutches of the Gargoyle.
Do it, he tells Kramak.
The scientist gives Mark a potion to drink. It will cause Merlin’s life-force to enter a certain body on Earth, that of a long-dead prince, Ra-Man, believed to be the descendant of the Egyptian sun god, Ra. Mark stretches out on a lab table and Kramak activates his invention, which the occult sleuth boosts with his mental powers.
And Mark Merlin fades away.
On Earth, a green-clad, orange-caped figure with a goatee and a white streak in his hair materialises in Mystery Hill Mansion. The Gargoyle, wrapped up in stealing Mark Merlin’s stores of ancient knowledge does not see him until it is too late. It’s Godzilla versus Bambi again, and the villain is trussed up in two shakes. “You're some friend of Merlin,” the Gargoyle says bitterly.
“True,” replies Prince Ra-Man, “I am a kind of friend of Merlin.”
Ra-Man sees to Elsa’s safety, then gives her the bad news. Mark Merlin is dead, he tells her, but before he died, he contacted Ra-Man by mystic means to rescue her. For reasons never explained, the prince doesn’t her the whole story, but he vows to replace Mark Merlin in combating occult evil.
Replacing Mark Merlin with an honest-to-gosh super-hero must have seemed like the way to go at the time. With the next issue, Prince Ra-Man makes himself at home at Mystery Hill and picks up where the former occupant left off. He solves Merlin’s last, unfinished investigation. After that, Mark Merlin was never mentioned, again. It was Prince Ra-Man, super-hero, all the way.
Schiff and his writers seemed to be following some kind of super-hero-story primer. They threw super-villains, such as the Heap and Lord Leopard and Helio, the Sun Demon, at the new hero. They featured a couple of book-length “epic” battles between Ra-Man and the other House of Secrets star, the villain Eclipso. They even managed to send the prince back to the world of Ra a couple of times for more alien-type adventures.
But none of it worked. The chief drawback was that mental powers just aren’t that visually interesting. But that wouldn’t have been fatal if there had been any depth to the Ra-Man stories. Instead, the writers seemed to be just going through the motions. Hero? Check. Villain? Check. Damsel in Distress? Check. O.K., we’re done. Consequently, the characters just seemed to be going through the motions, too. There was no sense of drama or tension to make the stories compelling.
Nor did it help that, months previous, Mort Meskin’s stylistic, clean lines had been replaced by the stiff, muddy art of Bernard Baily. And if you’re going to have lackluster stories, the art had better be damn good.
A slipshod effort with a super-hero is still a slipshod effort. The adventures of Prince Ra-Man, Mind Master lasted only seven issues, then House of Secrets was cancelled.
Mark Merlin had been sacrificed not for the sake of the lovely Elsa, but for the misguided idea that, in the Silver Age, all it took was a super-hero star to make a book a success. Yet, Prince Ra-Man had barely a tenth of the run that his predecessor did. Somewhere, Mark Merlin is grinning smugly.