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 loyal and 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, we were never really shown what Ward did for a living after seeing Wally and the Beaver off for school and kissing June good-bye.)
But Mark Merlin wasn’t an ordinary private eye. He specialised in impossible mysteries, situations which defied reality, things beyond normal ken. And here, Merlin was different from his fellow sleuths. 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. In fact, his business thrived on it.
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 ghost-hunting 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 had 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, lawyers.
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.
Accordingly, Mark Merlin investigated the unworldly, and he 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 the series entered the next decade, Merlin dropped his 1950’s-dad appearance and took on a distinctive look. Where before, he had dressed in attire fitting to the situation, Merlin started wearing a tuxedo day and night, whatever the occasion. It became his “costume”. He even acquired a more stylistic headquarters, abandoning his business office for new digs in Mystery Hill Mansion, inherited from his deceased uncle. 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 in other realms 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 gimmicks 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 début of the Silver-Age Flash back in late 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 Secrets # 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 course 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.
By the mid-60's, 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 tale in House of Secrets # 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, as of this issue, 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 shrink the occult adventurer to nothingness.
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.
But the wily Kranak had arranged for an escape. A beam from the mystic lamp of the high priest Imhotep had cast their pyramid prison to the freedom of this other-dimensional world. Under the peculiar rays of the six-sided green sun, Kranak and his people did not age.
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 knows 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 entices Mark to forget Elsa.
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 thuds the distracted adventurer over the noggin and kidnaps his lovely tour guide.
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 in exchange for the emerald gem of power clutched 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. Merlin has an idea, though. 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 Mark’s mindless body collapses to the floor, his consciousness enters the cat statue and he 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. The would-be despot is woefully outmatched. With his mind-over-matter power, Merlin takes out Gamal in three panels.
When the occult detective returns Rimah to her father, he is greeted with startling news. Now that Mark has absorbed the powers of the emerald jewel, it's 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 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 from existence.
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, as the villain is trussed up in two shakes. The Gargoyle ruminates bitterly that it was just his luck to run into a friend of Mark Merlin.
“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, but before he died, he contacted the prince by mystic means to rescue her. For reasons never explained, Ra-Man doesn’t tell 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. In the next issue, 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. And that was it for the mystic investigator who used to head the series. He'd get a passing mention here and there, but it was Prince Ra-Man's show now, all the way.
With Elsa and Memakata at his side, the Mind Master takes over the job of fighting preternatural threats. But none of it grabbed the attention that a third-tier title like House of Secrets really needed. Apparently, Schiff had hoped that having an exotic man of mystery as the lead would build interest. But the fans' reactions were more "Oh, hum," than "Oh, wow!".
Nor did it help that, months previous, Mort Meskin’s stylistic, clean lines had been replaced by the muddy, lifeless art of Bernard Baily. And if you’re going to have lackluster stories, the art had better be damn good.
In an effort to add some pathos to the character, writer Jack Miller had Ra-Man preöccupied with a desire to return to the peaceful other-dimensional world of Ra. But homesickness wasn't the only thing stirring inside him. The beautiful, and apparently fickle, Rimah was now enamoured with the swarthy prince, and he couldn't help but think about all the snuggle time he was missing out on.
Over the remainder of the series, the Mind Master does manage to get back to Ra a couple of times, but his sense of duty gets in the way. He inevitably departs, insisting that he's needed on Earth to protect it from supernatural menaces. Some of the older readers, seeing Rimah's hot-blooded overtures, probably figured Ra-Man should be thinking, "Is this trip really necessary?"
In a final gambit to lure readership, two issues, # 76 (Jan.-Feb., 1966) and # 79 (Jul.-Aug., 1966), pitted Prince Ra-Man against the magazine's other star, the villainous Eclipso, in book-length confrontations. Bob Haney scripted these, and he went all out, merging the two storylines in a pair of exciting adventures.
But it wasn't enough to save either character. After one more issue, # 80 (Sep.-Oct., 1966), the title was cancelled. (It would be revived in 1969 as an anthology series featuring tales of supernatural horror.)
Mark Merlin had been sacrificed not for the sake of the lovely Elsa, but for the ultimately 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.
Mark Merlin, Requiescat in Pace.
I always wanted Scooby-Doo Teamup to use Dr. Thirteen. Now I'm expanding it to want Mark Merlin in the story as well (and yes, I know it's been canceled).
Was the tuxedo meant to represent Mark's role as a magician?
I read a couple of Ra-Mans as a kid. Wasn't impressed. I have the crossovers in the Eclipso TPB but they didn't make me like him any better.