DC Comics Before Superman: Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s Pulp Comics, published by Hermes Press will be premiered at this year’s San Diego Comic Con July 19-22nd. Here’s a glimpse at how it all came together.
In 1934, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson had the idea to create comic books consisting of all original scripts and art as opposed to comic strip reprints from newspapers. He founded National Allied Publications, Inc. and New Fun #1 debuted on newsstands on January 11, 1935 as the February issue. It was tabloid size with the cover featuring a comic story—”Jack Woods”—drawn by Lyman Matthew Anderson. Although Anderson has been listed as both the writer and the artist, the script is by Wheeler-Nicholson from a pulp adventure story, a western, “The Aristocrat,” published in Adventure Magazine, June 1, 1928.
Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s vision followed the model of pulp magazines with which he was familiar as a writer. He knew that in order to realize a profit he would need to have multiple titles and as quickly as possible. In the midst of the Depression within 4 short years he managed to publish 63 comics magazines plus 2 anthologies in 3 titles created by him including Detective Comics and he was working on Action Comics just as the forced bankruptcy case was brought against him by his financial partners, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz. Wheeler-Nicholson edited all but 4 of these magazines, wrote scripts–at a conservative estimate–for 240 comics, and created at least 4 comics: “Sandra of the Secret Service,” “Federal Men,” “Slam Bradley” and “Calling all Cars.” All the while working with more than 30 artists and writers, and at the same time, attempting to juggle the finances in a completely untried new medium in the midst of the Depression doing his best to get everyone paid. Unfortunately, that led to his involvement financially with Donenfeld and Liebowitz. The Major recognized talent and hired many of the people who went on to decades of work in the comics industry including Siegel and Shuster. DC Comics Before Superman: Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s Pulp Comics published by Hermes Press offers a glimpse into this unknown history of DC Comics.
I began researching the life and creative work of my grandfather, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson over 20 years ago. Although I do not know every single nuance of early comics history, one thing I do know is my grandfather’s history and his creative work. As a result, I am able to identify scripts as his work that have been unattributed or attributed to others. Most comics historians, even those interested in pulps, are not familiar with Wheeler-Nicholson’s pulps and most pulp historians who have some knowledge of comics are not as familiar with the first comics that originated from Wheeler-Nicholson. With the exception of a few historians, notably Jim Steranko who wrote the Foreword to DC Comics Before Superman, practically everyone begins comic book history with Action #1 and the appearance of Superman.
Besides the negative press given to the Major for such a long time, the dearth of knowledge is partially due to the scarcity of the early comics and in later years the lack of any substantial, focused reprints. Thanks to Dan Herman at Hermes Press, DC Comics Before Superman aims to begin to address that. After the difficult loss last year of my co-author for a biography on the Major I came up with the idea of presenting some of the Major’s pulp adventure stories that became comics as a way to introduce the Major’s story to a larger audience prior to a biography. Since Hermes Press does such outstanding work with books of this nature I felt this would be the perfect avenue.
In 1997 when I began to actively study my grandfather’s life and work I had little contact with the comics or pulp community. In 2008 “the Major” was inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame at San Diego Comic Con. Comics historians and collectors knew very little about Wheeler-Nicholson and he was often referred to as the mysterious Major. In addition, most of what was known about him was usually uncomplimentary to say the least. No one contacted our family about the award because no one knew we existed! I happened on the announcement, got in touch with the contact listed at SDCC and suddenly the world was a whole lot bigger.
The fateful 2008 San Diego Comic Con opened so many doors into the larger comics community. I will forever be grateful to Gene Williams who was one of the main supporters of the Major for an Eisner award. Jackie Estrada has a tiara with her name on it. She kept her cool with my somewhat clueless family who didn’t quite understand that we were not the stars of the show. You can understand how it must have felt for all of us, after so many years of our patriarch being ignored–and when he was mentioned denigrated–to suddenly find ourselves in the center of the action. Jackie was gracious and kind and went out of her way to make a place for us in the midst of our prevailing giddiness. I met so many people who I now count not only as colleagues but as friends. Mark Zaid jumped in and at the last minute put me on a panel talking about the preservation of comics with J.C. Vaughn among others. J. C. and I became fast friends and he has been a guiding light and support for the last ten years.
Mike Catron of Fantagraphics was filming the panel that day and when questions opened up from the audience he stated that he had been collecting Wheeler-Nicholson art and correspondence. I could barely contain my excitement. After the last 11 years going it alone it was such an emotional moment to suddenly be surrounded by people who were knowledgeable and interested. Mike has been a source of information and inspiration ever since.
Whenever you don’t believe in fate or larger forces at work there are those moments that seem to be a giant wink from the universe. Meeting Michael Uslan was one of those moments. The week before SDCC 2008 I was completely fried. Besides attempting to have some kind of PR pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, presence at SDCC, I had been doing my utmost to herd myself and 9 members of my family into the events. I will tell no tales but suffice it to say that by Monday evening before lift-off Wednesday I was in tears and threatening to let them go on their own. They’re all lovely amazing people but the individualistic, artistic temperament as grand as it is one on one or even two to one can sometimes be a bit much in full onslaught.
Late that night, as I was contemplating excusing myself from the whole thing, I got an email from my college pal Jerry Sims. Jerry and I attended undergraduate school at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama. We were theatre majors and part of a close-knit group of friends. He had recently begun managing programs at the Stephens Center at UAB. Michael Uslan, who is constantly giving back to his community, agreed at the last minute to substitute for a friend who was to give a talk to film students in—of all places—Birmingham, Alabama. While Michael was waiting backstage with Jerry they were chatting and Jerry mentioned that his close friend Nicky had a grandfather who had something to do with—he thought—DC Comics. Well, Michael quickly figured out it was the Major, got excited as only a die-hard comics historian can and prevailed upon Jerry to get in touch with me and give me his contact info.
In his email Jerry informed me that the producer of the Batman movies wanted to get in touch with me. I thought it was a joke and I sent back a snarky reply. Jerry immediately emailed me back and said no, it’s for real and gave me the details. I emailed Michael, we set up a meeting at SDCC and what an incredible richness came from that crazy, serendipitous, Alabama connection. Michael and I hit it off immediately with a kindred spirit of obsessiveness for this period of DC history. Michael has been stalwart in his support of me and the work I have been doing. I can count on him to be there whenever I have needed him to shore up panels, write blurbs for reprints of the Major’s pulp stories, answer questions, chat about discoveries one or the other of us have made and for his always terrific suggestions for next steps. He’s the best and I couldn’t have made it this far without his tremendous enthusiastic support.
The very first suggestion Michael had was to connect with John Morrow of TwoMorrows publishing. As a result, I had the good fortune and privilege of working with the legendary Roy Thomas on AlterEgo #88 featuring the Major. Recently I sent Roy the notice about the book being published and he immediately responded with a generous note and said he felt they had helped to midwife. He and Jim Amash went above and beyond and helped to provide a foundation for everything that came after. I am in their debt.
The other person who was there at that fateful panel in 2008 was David Armstrong. His recount of the story follows. David has been there for me personally and professionally from that moment. He has opened so many doors for me and introduced me to some of the legends of comics history. Through David, I met and became friends with Jim Steranko, Ramona Fradon and have danced in the aisles with Howard Chaykin. How great is that! David has been supportive, kind and generous in so many ways. He is an incredible fount of knowledge about this period of comics and no matter where we go he seems to know everyone. We have been working towards a documentary of these early days so who better than David to be my partner in this latest project—DC Comics Before Superman. How do you acknowledge the contribution of the person who procured over 170 pages of original art from scarce and rare comics? It’s literally 3/4ths of the book! We came up with Associate Editor but that doesn’t really do his contribution justice. I have been referring to him as the curator because what he has done is more akin to the work of someone who puts together a museum quality show. This book would not have happened without his contribution and I am so grateful to him and all the comics collector and comics history guys who supported this project. David continues his part of the story.
David Armstrong: I originally began research on the career of Bert Christman. He was an artist who, after working for Noel Sickles on “Scorchy Smith,” created (along with Gardner Fox) The Sandman. I contacted Creig Flessel, Fred Guardineer and Vin Sullivan to speak with them about Christman’s career in the early days of DC Comics. It was my curiosity which lead me to ask about the creation of DC Comics and their interaction with Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. Without much existing written information about the Major, I thought perhaps I could contact family members to see if any history had survived. I had done the same with Leo O’Mealia, tracking down family members after months of work, striking pay dirt with his son in law in Ohio (who had actually rescued a great batch of Leo’s newspaper work from the trash can).
After googling Wheeler-Nicholson, an actress came up – Dana Wheeler-Nicholson. I called the Screen Actors Guild to find out who her agent was, got a name and promptly called. In talking with the agent, I explained that I thought Dana was the granddaughter of the founder of DC Comics. She said she’d known Dana for 20 years and she had never heard anything about it and sincerely doubted that there was any connection. I asked that she contact her client and ask the question. If the answer was no, she was done. If the answer was yes, then I’d like to speak with her. I got a call back within 5 minutes. “Well, you learn something new, every day,” was what the agent said to me. I got in contact with Dana who told me that the family was going to San Diego Comic-Con. In checking the schedule, I saw that Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson was slated to be on a panel. I sat in on that panel. During the question period, I raised my hand and said that during my video interviews with Flessel, Guardineer and Sullivan, that their recollection of the Major was based on their being twenty-something kids and did she think that flavored their remembrances of the interactions with an adult. She answered that perhaps it did and then she narrowed her eyes and added “We need to talk later.” We certainly did and over time it brought us to the relationship we have now. I am so happy to have been able to use my experiences and the material I’ve gathered to help tell Nicky’s story.
It has been a long journey to get the story pages together which comprise the art in the book. I started out scanning the pages from the books I bought at 100 dpi. Since the original idea was to use this material for a video documentary, I checked to see that the standard for video reproduction was 85 dpi, so I thought that would be fine. That was years ago and I soon learned that if I ever wanted to do an accompanying book, that 100 dpi would not work at all. I then used 450 dpi as my standard and realized that, wanting to get all the O’Mealia adventure pages (Bob Merritt and Barry O’Neill), I would need to re-acquire the pages I’d already done to complete my original task. That was easier said than done. I was unable to find a copy of More Fun 18, even though O’Mealia’s son in law had loaned me a copy. And many of the issues I still needed were either very hard to find or so expensive it would be almost impossible to finish the task. Fortunately, I was able to find several collectors and dealers who were very generous with their collections and their time to assemble the pages for the book. It’s a very rare opportunity to follow the continuity on several of these features – probably the one and only time!
NWN: There is oh so much more but this gives you a small taste of the book—20 years in the making. If you’re at San Diego Comic Con please come to our panel on Friday at 4 pm. David and I will be holding forth about the book. Dan Herman will moderate with Trina Robbins and Michael Uslan lending their expertise. It should be lively and fun. And by all means stop by the Hermes Booth. David and I will be there to sign books and there are special editions signed by his eminence Jim Steranko. David has another project airing at SDCC. He’s the Executive Producer of “Lily” a short documentary on the extraordinary life and career of Lily Renee. It is showing Saturday at 8:30 pm. These artists deserve to have their stories told!
Thank you to one and all who’ve helped bring DC Comics Before Superman into the world. It feels like so much has come full circle in the best possible way.