Saturday, January 9, 2010

Episode #108: Happy Birthday, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson!

To begin the year in which DC Comics celebrates its 75th anniversary, there's nothing more appropriate than to commenorate the birthday of the founder of the company that would eventually become the comics publisher we know today as DC. Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was born on January 4, 1890, and died on January 1, 1968. He founded National Allied Publications in 1934, and holds the distinction of publishing the first newsstand comic book with original material, not Sunday comic strip reprints as had been the case with previous publishers.

At the end of the last episode, when I announced that my next episode would feature Wheeler-Nicholson, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an e-mail from one of his granddaughters, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson Brown. She mentioned that she had been to Eustis, where I live, and called it "a beautiful classic old Florida town". Nicky also mentioned that the family had created a website and blog about their esteemed family member: I would like to thank Nicky for letting me know about the site. It was a valuable resource for this episode.

Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was born in Greenville, Tennessee. His father's last name was Strain, and he died in 1894, the same year Malcolm's brother Christopher was born and a sister died. It was not a good year overall for the family. His mother's maiden name was Antoinette Wheeler, and she moved her family to New York City. She worked as a journalist there, and later at a new women's magazine in Portland Oregon. She would remarry, to a teacher, T. J. B. Nicholson, and that is how Malcolm's last name became Wheeler-Nicholson. He grew up in Portland and a nearby horse ranch in Washington state. Teddy Roosevelt and Rudyard Kipling were houseguests. Malcolm's interest in writing grew as he worked as a reporter, and he became fascinated by comic strips as they began to appear in newspapers.

He attended Manlius School, a military academy in DeWitt, New York and joined the U. S. Cavalry in 1917 as a 2nd Lieutenant. He became the youngest Major in the Cavalry. Under Gen. Pershing he commanded Troop K as the U. S. Army hunted for the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa, and fought the Muslim Moros in the Phillipines. According to the family website, in 1917 he served on a diplomatic mission as the liason and intelligence officer to the Japanese Embassy in Siberia, as a mediator in the conflict between the Cossacks and the Bolshevicks. The Major's military career took him to London, Germany and Japan. After WWI he attended the Ecole Superieure de Guerre in Paris, France's premiere military academy. There he met his wife, Elsa Sachsenhausen Bjorkbom, who the family described as a Swedish aristocrat. They married in Koblenz, Germany in 1920. Their first child, Antionette was born in his wife's hometown of Stockholm, Sweden in 1922.

That same year the Major's military career ran into controversy. He wrote a letter to President Warren G. Harding, over his superiors heads, critical of Army command because of strategic and administrative problems he saw. The New York Times covered the story and published the letter. According to the family's website there was concern about what the Major might make public because of his job as an intelligence officer. As the website recounts, the Major was shot at as he entered his darkened quarters, at Fort Dix, by a guard watching from an upstairs window. The bullet entered his skull above his ear, missing his brain, so he suffered no permanent damage. The Major was convicted in a court martial for violating an Article of War because of his letter's publication, and placed back in rank. That meant that he could never expect to be promoted, so he resigned his commission in 1923. His second child, daughter Marianne was born that same year. Sons Malcolm and Douglas were born next, in 1927 and 1928 respectively, and youngest child Diane was born in 1932.

The family settled in Grenwich Village in New York City and became part of a group of artists and writers. During the 1920's the family moved to a chateau outside Paris, France. After the stock market crash of 1929 wiped out the family finances they returned to New York City. Wheeler-Nicholson concentrated on his career as a writer. His literary career began in the military on nonfiction topics such as Modern Cavalry in 1922 (which is still cited in military journals, according to the family website), and the fictional western novel Death At The Corrall published the same year.

As a civilian he wrote short stories for the pulps, military, historical and other adventure stories for pulp magazines such as Adventure and Argosy. The Major also ghost wrote adventure novels about the air hero character Bill Barnes for Street & Smith, publisher of Doc Savage, The Shadow and other pulp heroes. In 1925 he founded Wheeler-Nicholson, Inc., a newspaper syndicate.While his syndicate efforts were not very successful, he did adapt the classic Treasure Island as a comic strip drawn by N. Brewster Morse.

In 1933 Famous Funnies was published, considered the first modern comic book sold on the newsstands for a dime. Wheeler-Nicholson was drawn into the ebryonic comic book industry and formed National Allied Publications in 1934. Son Douglas recalled hearing his father talking about the potential of comic book as graphic storytelling, as both a new type of literature and an educational aid. Newspaper comic strips' reprint rights were bought up, and the Major found either the rights too expensive, or all or most strips bought up for reprint rights. He solved that problem by filling a comic book with original material, in his first publication, New Fun: The Big Comics Magazine, cover dated February 1935 and published around January 11 of that year. It was a 10"x15" magazine with the cover price of 10 cents, and had a color cover with black and white art inside. The only feature in color was the one on the cover, Jack Woods, a western detective strip written and drawn by Lyman Matthew Anderson. The editor was Lolyd V. Jacquet. The strips covered a variety of genres from detective, adventure, period pieces, westerns, sword and sorcery, science fiction, humor and funny animals. Several text articles were also included.

Jacquet edited the first four issues before founding comic book packaging company Funnies, Inc. His company created the content for a variety of publishers, including Martin Goodman's Marvel Comics #1. Wheeler-Nicholson edited the fifth and sixth issues. In the sixth issue Jery Siegel and Joe Shuster made their comic book debut with two features, Henri Duval, a musketeer swashbuckling story under their real names, and Dr. Occult, a supernatural crimefighter created under the pseudonym Leger & Reuths. New Fun was renamed More Fun for issues 7-9, and More Fun Comics from issue #10 forward. Siegel and Shuster contributed strips through issue #32.

According to the family's website Wheeler-Nicholson mentored Siegel and Shuster by providing character ideas and possible storylines. He also played more of a role in the development of Superman than is acknowledged in most comic book histories, even though he would be out of comics before Superman premiered in Action Comics #1. The website did not share a lot of details because the family did not want to interfere with, or become entangled in, the ongoing Siegel/DC lawsuit. Eldest daughter Antoinette Harley stated that her father recognized the connection with the Nietzien ideal of the superman, because of his educational background, and recognized the potential of the character because of his belief in the power of graphic communication.

Later that year the Major published a second comic book titled New Comics, cover dated December 1935 and published around November 12, 1935. It contained 80 pages for a dime. While still containing more pages than the average comic book of the day, it was closer to the standard size of a comic book of the era than New Fun.
With issue #12 the title changed to New Adventure Comics, and then became Adventure Comics with issue #32. This title would be the oldest DC title continuously published until issue 503 in 1983. Last year DC began a new Adventure Comics and acknowledged the original series by counting issue #1 also as #504 and so on with subsequent issues.

Wheeler-Nicholson had continual financial problems both personally and professionally as he built his business during the Depression. The family website stated that the Major was a stronger creator and editor than businessman and failed to find someone who could run the business side for him and allow him to concentrate on the creative side. The fight for shelf space with distributors was intense, and the competition with other comic books reprinting familiar newspaper comic strips was a challenge for a title containing new unknown material.

The last comic book title the Major published was Detective Comics. Issue #1, cover dated March 1937 appeared around February 27, 1937, containing 64 pages for a dime. It holds the distinction as the first comic book title dedicated to one genre, detective stories. It's most famous character would not appear until issue #27, Batman, but that would not be until after the Major lost his company. Vin Sullivan was the first editor, and another title, Thrilling Comics fell through for the time being. Siegel and Shuster contributed two continuing features that began with Detective #1, Bart Regan, Spy and Slam Bradley.

Continuing financial problems forced the Major to take on his printer, Harry Donenfeld, as partner to cover printing debts, and when money ran out again Harry would eventually buy out the Major. There are various stories about how Harry wound up with the company. He sent the Major and his wife to Cuba to "work up new ideas" and then changed the locks to their offices. Donenfeld sued for nonpayment and forced the company into bankruptcy. He arranged for the judge to appoint an old Tammany Hall buddy as interim president and sent Jack Liebowitz to bankruptcy court to buy the assets. Detective Comics, Inc. was formed. Harry gave Wheeler-Nicholson a "go away" token of a percentage of More Fun for the next decade.Liebowitz would instruct Vin Sullivan to get Thrilling Comics ready to publish, under the new title of Action Comics, and the rest is history. And so the Major was forced out of the industry he played a large role in founding. Like most pioneers in any walk of life he did not reap the benefits of his trailblazing, which has grown tremendously and we are reaping the benefits and enjoyment today.

According to the family website he wrote 93 novels, novellas, short stories and serials, four books of military strategy and hundreds of nonfiction articles. In his 60's he taught himself the basics of chemistry and patented some inventions that are still used in industrial applications. When a renewed interest in comic book history grew some inconsistencies in the Major's story were becoming accepted truths in various accounts of that history. Wheeler-Nicholson's children and grandchildren established the website as a way to correct such errors. Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson Brown and other family members contribute. Among the most famous accounts were Gerard Jones' Men Of Tomorrow and David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague. While Nicky has talked with Gerard Jones on a number of occasions she recommends his book, except for his accounts of her grandfather. The family considers Hajdu's book to border on character assassination about the Major. Nicky wrote an article for the International Journal Of Comic Art, vol. 10 #2, Fall 2008 in rebuttal to Hajdu's book. That issue, and others of the journal, can be ordered from the website.

Another magazine featuring Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson is Alter Ego #88, August 2009. Print and digital editions are available at

Next Week's episode: Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane #1!

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