About the Major
In the mid-1930s, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson created one of the most enduring icons of modern American culture—the comic book.
With a few exceptions, before the Major came along, comic books that existed were reprints of the comic strips from the daily newspapers. This changed in 1934 when the Major began publishing Fun Comics and New Fun Comics, featuring original artwork and stories. What could possibly motivate someone to launch such an untested venture at the height of the Great Depression, when a staggering 25 percent of the American populace was out of work, and to do so in a new and unfamiliar medium? It was an enormous risk.
The Major’s vision to create graphic representations of stories first appeared in newspapers in 1926 with comic strips of classic novels such as Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers and Ivanhoe among others. This early foray into graphic storytelling with his experience as a successful writer of adventure stories led the Major to create characters and comic script based on these stories. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster saw these first comic books and sent Wheeler-Nicholson several ideas for scripts including a drawing of a Super Hero on butcher paper. The drawing was the first appearance of a character that would go on to become one of the great fictional creations of the 20th century: Superman.
Wheeler-Nicholson hired Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1935, at the beginning of his initial efforts to push the boundaries of the medium of comics. The Major, as publisher and editor, nurtured the creative side of the two younger men, providing character ideas like Slam Bradley and some story lines. The two boys from Cleveland responded with a prolific outpouring of stories and artwork. Jerry Siegel said that without the Major’s help they would never have made it into print. Wheeler-Nicholson saw the potential of Superman from the very beginning and—contrary to the version that has been widely disseminated by modern comic-book historians—he was instrumental in nurturing Superman all the way from its conception to its realization in Action Comics.
Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was born in 1890 in the mountains of East Tennessee. In 1900, Malcolm’s mother, Antoinette, a journalist and suffragette, moved her family to Portland, Oregon. Young Malcolm spent his boyhood in Portland, Oregon, and on a horse ranch in Washington State, just across the Columbia River. It was here that he took the first steps in the pursuit of writing and journalism.
In 1912 Malcolm was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Cavalry after graduating from St. John’s Military Academy. He moved quickly through the ranks, becoming at 27 one of the youngest majors in the Cavalry. Along the way he saw action in Mexico, chasing Pancho Villa under General “Black Jack” Pershing. In 1915 he was posted to the Philippines commanding Troop K of the 9th Cavalry’s famed African-American Buffalo Soldiers and by 1917, when most American soldiers were being sent to the trenches of France, he was on a diplomatic mission as a liaison and intelligence officer to the Japanese embassy in the far reaches of Siberia, to gather intelligence in the shifting alliances between Cossacks, the Chinese, the Japanese and the Bolsheviks. At the end of WWI, the Major was sent to the École Supérieure de Guerre in Paris. There he met the beautiful Swedish aristocrat Elsa Bjorkböm, and after a romantic courtship they married in Koblentz, Germany, under the crossed swords of his fellow officers. His military career ended with a dramatic assassination attempt during a court martial under trumped up charges. Entering his darkened quarters at Fort Dix late at night, the Major was fired at by a guard watching from an upstairs window. He was left bleeding on the ground for some time before any help arrived, and the circumstantial evidence pointed to an assassination attempt. In an unlikely twist of fate, the bullet entered his temple above his ear, missing his brain.
Recent scholarship by military historians has uncovered possible motivations for his problems with his superiors, which can be traced back to his refusal to allow his superiors to harass the men of the African-American Buffalo soldiers under his command. The Major was declared innocent of all charges with the exception of publishing a letter in The New York Times to President Warren Harding openly criticizing the Army. He was discharged from the Army and began to pursue his literary career.
His first two books are indicative of the dual paths his professional life would follow—The Modern Cavalry (1922), a classic military-strategy book that is still quoted in military journals today, and Death at the Corral (1929), a western mystery published in hardcover. His writing is visual and immediate, and it is not surprising that he was also interested in the potential of the graphic medium of comic books. Living in Greenwich Village in the mid 1920’s, The Major and his wife were part of a social set of artists and writers from which Wheeler-Nicholson would draw the talent for his first foray into publishing. He began his publishing career in 1925 with the establishment of Wheeler-Nicholson Inc., a newspaper syndicate.
His initial syndication efforts failed, but he was more than successful with his adventure stories featured in the best of the pulp magazines. Shortly thereafter the family moved to Paris and lived in a fairy-tale chateau in the countryside in Vic sur Aisnes. The Great Stock Market Crash of 1929 took what fortune they had with it, and the Wheeler-Nicholsons were forced to return to New York. They soon found themselves, like so many others, in dire straits. The Major decided that the only way to survive was to follow his creative vision. He returned to syndicating comic strips but quickly realized the potential of newly formatted comic books. He believed that what the American public needed at such a dark time was the comic book, with its simple humor and its archetypal heroes—and, crucially, not just reprints of lowbrow comic strips but innovative and artistic graphic versions of literary classics.
With the appearance of New Fun in early 1935 and its mixture of educational material and classics (Ivanhoe) along with the funnies there is a natural progression in the Major’s ideas. This culminated in Detective Comics with the adventure stories in picture form that were reminiscent of the pulp fiction he knew so well. Thus it was in the midst of the economic darkness of the 1930s that the ideas of the Major and the two kids from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, met and a new, never-before-seen kind of hero was born. In the figure of Superman, the Major saw the ideal representative of hope, Nietzsche’s Übermensch, literally the “super man,” who could lift the American spirit out of the depths of the Great Depression and the modern comic book became a reality.
Ian Wheeler-Nicholson, Editorial Contribution