A little over 20 years ago I embarked on an adventure to discover my paternal grandfather Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s legacy in comics history. In the process of updating the website I had an opportunity to look back at the road travelled and to reflect on what lies ahead. Like any adventure there have been some difficult losses and enormous challenges as well as rewards and the support of good people to keep me going. I am grateful to my friends and colleagues in the pulp and comics community with some able assistance from a couple of super lawyers and two terrific military historians (Bob Wettemann and Dwight Zimmerman) to round it all out.
Early in January of this year I was interviewed for “The Trials of Superman,” one of the 6-part series in Robert Kirkman’s (The Walking Dead) The Secret History of Comics. I was excited to be able to tell Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s story in a venue that had the potential to be far-reaching. Although I made the cut in the program, the Major’s story did not. I certainly told the story but it was nowhere to be found on the version of The Secret History of Comics that aired this November. Comics history to most people, including a lot of comics historians begins with Action Comics and Superman. The Major’s story appears to be somewhere in the realm of myth if it is even acknowledged.
The very title Action Comics is part of the Major’s legacy. From the beginning of his first comics appearing on the newsstands–February 1935 Fun Comics, followed by New Fun Comics and More Fun Comics his vision was to have a series of comics magazines of all original material. The Major’s model was the pulps. Lloyd Jacquet, his first editor later said, “Major Nicholson’s pulp magazine background helped here, for it was a natural step from the “general” title of “comics” (of the “funny” type, incidentally), the western, and the detective, aviation, and so forth, that were even then the backbone of the pulp magazine sales on the newsstands all over.” Jacquet also noted that the Major brought in pulp magazines to the offices at 49 West 45th Street in New York City and suggested them as inspiration for the comics. The comics magazines titled Adventure, Action and Detective Comics were a direct connection to the pulps that he knew so well.
Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson began writing for the pulps in 1924 and continued until 1956 in a variety of genres: adventure tales, semi-autobiographical tales of war and the army, western stories and detective stories. These same genres appeared in the comics and some of his pulp stories became comics. The cover of New Fun #1 is a comics story—“Jack Woods vs. Pancho Villa.” The artist was Lyman Anderson and many comic data bases list him as the writer as well. However, the story is from one of the Major’s pulps. Many of the early comics stories were not signed by the Major but were attributed to the artists. It is only recently with the focused research I and a few others have done into the Major’s pulps and his comics that scholars and historians have become aware of the body of his work that exists in those first comics.
The Major’s story is also an important piece of the story of Siegel and Shuster because it is intricately enmeshed in their story and their creation of Superman. That story cannot be fully understood or known without the Major’s involvement. Jerry Siegel loved the pulps and was aware of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson as a writer of pulps. When he discovered the Major was accepting material for a comics magazine Siegel sent him “Henri Duval” and “Dr. Occult Ghost Detective” along with a pencil sketch of Superman. The Major saw the potential of the young artists as well as their concept of Superman and he ordered pages from them. Note that he did not “hire” them. His contracts with his artists and writers were similar to pulp contracts with the publisher given first North American serial rights and then the rights went back to the creator. Jerry Siegel, in an anniversary issue of Batman said that without him they would have never made it into print.
Siegel and Shuster’s first stories appeared in New Fun #6 with a cover date of October 1935. The Major also provided them with several ideas including Slam Bradley. Slam Bradley was the Major’s creation detailed down to the way Slam should look, his personality and the kinds of stories Slam would be a part of. See any resemblance to anyone?
Just as important as the open door into comics, the Major’s story and Siegel and Shuster are also entwined with the loss of creator control over Superman and the decades long fight to regain that control. Not even diehard comics historians know the full story of the forced bankruptcy and the loss of the Major’s company to Donenfeld and Liebowitz. The complex legal maneuvers that occurred to obtain the Major’s company and his interest in Detective Comics happened at the same time as the machinations to obtain the rights to Superman. Like a good detective story seeing the timeline of what happened, when it happened and who perpetrated it gives a more complete picture of the modus operandi that Donenfeld and Liebowitz used time and again to gain full control over the intellectual and creative property of others. However you want to excuse it—“they should have gotten a lawyer;” “the Major was not a good businessman;” etc. etc., the bottom line is that using dirty tricks to take someone else’s creative enterprise still comes out as unethical behavior. And my question is, if Wheeler-Nicholson was such a terrible businessman, why did Donenfeld and Liebowitz have to resort to such complicated legal maneuvers to take the business?
It’s also especially interesting to look at that period in history–the Depression, when a lot of cash was floating about and washing through various enterprises at a time when so many citizens were desperately poor. As I noted on the AMC program it is ironic that the Justice League is founded on injustice. Plus ca change, plus le meme chose.
So, what was I doing in this comics TV program with no explanation of why I might be interested in Superman? After 20 years of research, networking, being evenhanded and polite to everyone in the comics realm, doing my vaudeville routine at countless comic cons and the like, mostly on my own dime, it’s kind of discouraging to have a moment like this that could have helped so much to put the Major’s story before a much larger audience.
However, in the process of putting the website together and going back over all the blog posts I came away with a sense of all that has been accomplished in spite of the odds. I read all the posts going back to the 2008 San Diego Comic Con where the Major received an Eisner Award and was inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame. There have been achievements with a little help from my friends—In Fall of 2008, Dr. John Lent, publisher of The International Journal of Comic Art gave me a platform to bring out the Major’s story; John Morrow, Roy Thomas and Jim Amash of Alter Ego Magazine involved me in the nuts and bolts of putting together the issue on the Major in August of 2009, in 2014, John Locke of Off-Trail Publications published reprints of some of the Major’s best pulp stories, The Texas-Siberia Trail. 2015 was a busy year with Shannon Wheeler’s wonderful comic strip of the Major’s story in The New Yorker Cartoons of the Year, Mike Chomko of The Pulpster Magazine and Rich Harvey and Audrey Parente of Pulp Adventure Magazine published articles on the Major’s history in pulps. BMA Studios produced an audio version of The Road Without Turning with Jim Frangione award winning actor as the narrator. Robert Overstreet included Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson in his Overstreet Guide Hall of Fame with many thanks to J.C. Vaughn.
And there has been so much more, radio, interviews, chapters in noted books by excellent scholars like Tom DeHaven, Brad Ricca and Larry Tye. And of course there has been the vaudeville circuit of Comic cons with the help of the estimable Danny Fingeroth, Michael Uslan, Tom Andrae, Trina Robbins and Christie Marston to name a few.
The big event for me in 2016 was going to San Diego Comic Fest and meeting Harry Donenfeld and Laura Siegel. It has proven to be the beginning of good friendships and super support. Thank you Mike Towry!!
Looking back at all the posts it was eye opening to see the path I have travelled in my Quixoten journey to the promised land—the acceptance of the Major’s legacy to the comics industry. Although I have discovered new information and many more rich details about Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson over these past 20 years, my core ideas about who my grandfather was and what he accomplished is the same and that feels mighty good.
Looking ahead, the coming year is promising. Although I will be writing the biography on my own I owe a lot to the contributions of Gerard Jones. The biography is now moving ahead rapidly aiming for a 2019 publication date. I’m very excited about working with Hermes Press. They are publishing one of their gorgeous art books of some of the early comics the Major scripted and that is scheduled for a late June 2018 publication date just in time for San Diego Comic Con!
Stay tuned and welcome to the Major’s new website and blog. Cheers!