Smash Pages Q&A: Erica Schultz

The writer and instructor discusses the new ‘Legacy of Mandrake the Magician,’ her work at The Kubert School and more.

Mandrake the Magician was one of the great classic adventure strips. Created by Lee Falk, who also created The Phantom, the strip ran from 1934 until 2013 and told of a stage magician and hypnotist who also traveled the world fighting criminals and occasionally supernatural forces.

The comic strip ended in 2013, but now has a new life in comic books in the new series Legacy of Mandrake the Magician. The new series from Red 5 Comics and StoneBot Comics launches next week; it’s about a young teenager named Mandy who’s trying to figure out her own talents and her own relationship to the original Mandrake.

The writer behind the comic is Erica Schultz, who readers might know from her work on comics like Forgotten Home, M3, Xena and Charmed. She’s also an instructor at The Kubert School and was kind enough to answer a few questions about what’s essential about the character, what elements needed updating and why Mandy has a secret identity.

To start, how did you come to comics?

My older brother would read X-Men, Batman and Spider-Man, so my introduction to comics was through stealing his comics and watching Super Friends. I also enjoyed the Batman series with Adam West and Burt Ward. I didn’t start writing comics until 2008/2009 when I was recovering from a car accident. I wrote my first story, M3, and adapted it for a comic script. Vicente Alcázar worked with me as the artist and co-creator, and issues 1 through 3 launched at New York Comic Con back in 2010/2011.

So how did you end up writing Mandrake?

Last year, I was contacted by Matias Timarchi of StoneBot Comics to check on my availability for the project. When I came on board, the StoneBot team had already been fleshing out Mandy and her supporting characters with King Features for a while. I was basically given a character bible that I built the stories around. 

Did you know anything about Mandrake or before you were approached for this project?

I knew of the existence of Mandrake the Magician as a character both in cartoons and the Lee Falk strip from the papers, but I wasn’t very knowledgeable about who he was. When I was asked to be a part of Legacy of Mandrake, I did a deep dive into researching all the characters: Mandrake, Lothar, Princess Narda, Cobra, Clay Camel and the rest of the heroes and villains. It was very interesting to see how these very old characters influenced more contemporary characters today. There were a lot of dated tropes that we obviously got rid of, but the core principles of justice of the original Mandrake are in this new series. 

As far as researching the old strips and this character, when you had spent time with it, what to you was essential to the characters and the concept?

The original Mandrake stories centered around the ideas of justice and doing the right thing. Even though our Mandy isn’t traveling around the world, she still has that sense of justice. 

Mandrake was very much an old school crimefighter where everywhere he goes, almost everyone seems to know who he is, so people will say, “Can you help save my cousin/overthrow the dictator/fight this crime boss?” Which I feel like is one of the first things that needs to be changed in this new version.

Unlike the original strip, Mandy has a secret identity. That’s something we discussed early in the process of this project. What were the advantages and disadvantages of her having a secret identity? As a group, we landed on it being best for her to have that duality. 

What about that duality is interesting to you as a storyteller?

I feel like everyone has at least two sides to them. There’s the one we present to colleagues, or maybe on social media, and the one we present to those most intimate friends and family. Mandy being in high school makes this especially important as just being different makes her a target for bullying. Having a secret identity protects those she cares about as well as avoids giving bullies something else to pick on. As the reader, you get the best of all worlds, seeing the all facets of Mandy as she’s strong, vulnerable, unsure and kick ass!

How much is that about starting with a character who may have a legacy, but is young and unformed and unsure and not a fully formed character yet?

When working on a legacy character, you want to be able to allow both characters to be separate, but compliment each other. Mandy is young and still learning about her abilities, so her link to Mandrake is more through Lothar and Mabel (Mandy’s mother) who were colleagues of the OG Mandrake. 

So who is Mandy?

Well, the official blurb is: Mandragora Constanza Terrado Paz, or Mandy Paz, for short, looks like an ordinary teenager just trying to make her way through high school, but she’s got a secret…a big one. Mandy is actually a magician who’s just now learning about her powers and what she can do. So, when strange and sinister occurrences plague her small town, Mandy takes action! And while she’s questing to save her home from evil-doers, she just may discover something about herself in the process. 

Why 17?

The short answer is, “That was in the character bible.” But we wanted to introduce Mandy as a hometown hero before setting her off around the globe like Mandrake. She’s got a lot to figure out about herself and her powers, and that’s where a lot of the drama and storytelling comes in. 

I would imagine that updating Lothar was essential.

Lothar was such an important character to the original Mandrake strip that he had to be a part of this series. He’s the father of Mandy’s best friend, LJ, and a close friend of Mandy’s mother, Mabel. 

I mean, he is an essential part of the strip and that dynamic is key, but the character is dated at best, racist at worst and required rethinking.

Yes, Lothar is definitely one of the dated tropes I spoke about earlier. His portrayal in the original Mandrake strip was downright offensive, and we definitely rectified that for Legacy of Mandrake. Lothar is a caring dad, a good friend to Mabel (Mandy’s mom), and still the strongest man on Earth; he just keeps it a secret. 

It sounds that you’re coming at the character and concept as a writer who’s worked on fantasy and approaching magic as a set of rules and figuring out how it would work.

Much of my published work is more in the realm of crime thrillers (like Daredevil, M3 and Twelve Devils Dancing), but my latest book with Marika Cresta for comiXology Originals, Forgotten Home, is an urban fantasy series with magic, so I got some practice delving into that kind of world. I think you need to set up rules for your story especially if you’re working with with otherworldly and/or supernatural factors. The reader needs to know what they’re getting into and what the rules to the world are. And it’s your job as a storyteller to not break those rules. 

As far as calling it Legacy of Mandrake, is there any callouts or references for old fans to villains or stories that you want to mention?

There are several Easter eggs for hardcore Mandrake fans to find. We wanted Mandy to stand on her own, but also to show that she’s still part of a long line of magicians. 

The original Mandrake was a comic strip and very all ages in terms of the content. Are you thinking in similar terms for the book? 

Legacy of Mandrake is a YA adventure for everyone. Mandy and LJ are a lot of fun, and we know they’ll be a hit!

You’ve joined the Kubert School recently. How have you found teaching?

I actually minored in secondary education in college, so teaching was something I always thought about pursuing as a career. It’s great teaching at the school and helping to curate the next generation of visual artists. Anthony Marques, the president of the school, was my editor on Charmed, so when he asked me to come aboard as an instructor, I was happy to join the family. 

Is there a chance that your fellow Kubert faculty member Tom Mandrake will be drawing a cover for Mandrake? (Or is that just too pun-ny?)

I was actually approached about the project before I had started working with Tom at The Kubert School, so I don’t know if that was ever part of the plan. But Amelia Vidal has done an incredible job on the covers. Matias Timarchi from StoneBot is really the mastermind behind the art team, so you’d have to ask him. 

So what else are you working on right now?

For someone who feels they’ve been unproductive during the pandemic, there’s a lot going on. Forgotten Home with artists Marika Cresta (art), Matt Emmons (colors), and Natasha Alterici (covers) was collected in late June and is available on comiXology, comiXology Unlimited, Kindle Unlimited and Prime Reading. I’m editing a series with Mad Cave Studios that will be announced late this year. I’ll resume teaching classes in Writing & Imaginative Drawing and Story Adaptation at The Kubert School this fall. I’ll be working again with A.J. Mendez and Aimee Garcia with artist Liana Kangas on East Side Saints, from Scrappy Heart Productions. And I THINK this may be the last thing…I teamed back up with Christian Carnouche (The Resurrected) to edit an anthology. I think that’s it. Is that enough? [laughs]

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