January 4, 1890|
Long Island, New York
Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson (January 4, 1890 – 1965) was an American pulp magazine writer and entrepreneur who pioneered the American comic book, publishing the first such periodical consisting solely of original material rather than reprints of newspaper comic strips. Long after his departure from the comic book company he founded, Wheeler-Nicholson's National Allied Publications, would evolve into DC Comics, one of the world's two largest comic book publishers along with rival Marvel Comics.
Early life and military career
Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was born in Greeneville, Tennessee. His father, whose surname was Strain, died in 1894, after the birth of his second son, Malcolm's brother Christopher. Another sibling, a sister, died in 1894, when Malcolm was four. Their mother, Antoinette Wheeler, afterward moved to New York City, New York, became a journalist, and later joined a start-up women's magazine in Portland, Oregon. By this time she had changed her last name to "Straham", a variant of "Strain", and upon marrying teacher T.J.B. Nicholson, who would become the boys' stepfather, reverted to her maiden name and appended her new married name. The brothers were raised in "an iconoclastic, intellectual household" where his family entertained such guests as Theodore Roosevelt and Rudyard Kipling.
Wheeler-Nicholson spent his boyhood both in Portland and on a horse ranch in Washington State. Raised riding, he went on to attend the military academy The Manlius School in DeWitt, New York, and in 1917 joined the U.S. Cavalry as a second-lieutenant. According to differing sources, he rose to become either "the youngest major in the Army", the youngest in the Cavalry, or one of the youngest in the Cavalry. By his own account, he "chased bandits on the Mexican border, fought fevers and played polo in the Philippines, led a battalion of infantry against the Bolsheviki in Siberia, helped straighten out the affairs of the army in France [and] commanded the headquarters cavalry of the American force in the Rhine". His Cavalry unit was among those under John J. Pershing's command that in 1916 hunted the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. The following year, he served under Pershing fighting the Muslim Moros in the Philippines, and with a Cossack troop in Siberia. Subsequent outposts included Japan; London, England; and Germany.
After World War I, Wheeler-Nicholson was sent to study at the École Supérieure de Guerre in Paris, France, where he met Elsa Sachsenhausen Bjorkböm. They were married in Koblenz, Germany in 1920; their first child, Antoinette, was born in Stockholm, Sweden, his wife's home, in 1922.
That same year, following his public criticism of Army command in an open letter to President Warren G. Harding, as well as accusations by the major against senior officers, plus countercharges, hearings, a lawsuit against West Point head General Fred W. Sladen, and what the family calls an Army-sanctioned assassination attempt that left Wheeler-Nicholson hospitalized with a bullet wound, Wheeler-Nicholson was convicted in a court-martial trial of violating an Article of War in publishing his letter in The New York Times. He resigned his commission in 1923, the year his second child, daughter Marianne, was born. Sons Malcolm and Douglas were born in 1927 and 1928, respectively, and daughter Diane in 1932.
Having already written non-fiction about military topics, including the 1922 book The Modern Cavalry, and fiction, including the Western hardcover novel Death at the Corral, also 1922, Wheeler-Nicholson now began writing short stories for the pulps. The major soon became a cover name, penning military and historical adventure fiction for such magazines as Adventure and Argosy. He additionally ghost wrote six adventure novels about air hero Bill Barnes for Street & Smith Publications.
Concurrently, in 1925, he founded Wheeler-Nicholson, Inc. to syndicate his work, which included a daily comic-strip adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island, with art by N. Brewster Morse.
In autumn 1934, having seen the emergence of Famous Funnies (1933) and other oversize magazines reprinting comic strips, Wheeler-Nicholson formed the comics publishing company National Allied Publications. While contemporary comics "consisted ... of reprints of old syndicate material", Wheeler-Nicholson found that the "rights to all the popular strips ... had been sewn up". While some existing publications had included small amounts of original material, generally as filler, and while Dell Publishing had put out a proto-comic book of all original strips, The Funnies, in 1929, Wheeler-Nicholson's premiere comic — New Fun #1 (Feb. 1935) — became the first comic book containing all-original material. As author Nicky Wright wrote,
It was at this point Wheeler-Nicholson made history. He produced a comic appropriately titled New Fun: The Big Comic Magazine, so-called because it was larger than the other comics, measuring 10 by 15 inches. ... Not only was the size different, so were the strips. They were all original, featuring all new characters specially drawn for New Fun ... Besides original strips, New Fun was the first comic to carry advertising.
A tabloid-sized, 10-inch by 15-inch, 36-page magazine with a card-stock, non-glossy cover, New Fun #1 was an anthology of "humor and adventure strips, many of which [Wheeler-Nicholson] wrote himself". The features included the funny animal comic "Pelion and Ossa" and the college-set "Jigger and Ginger", mixed with such dramatic fare as the Western strip "Jack Woods" and the "yellow peril" adventure "Barry O'Neill", featuring a Fu Manchu-styled villain, Fang Gow. While all-original material was a risky venture, the book sold well enough that National Allied Publishing continued to fill books "with new strips every month". Golden Age comics creator Sheldon Mayer quipped years later of Wheeler-Nicholson: "Not only the first man to publish comic books but also the first to stiff an artist for his check".
The first four issues were edited by future Funnies, Inc. founder Lloyd Jacquet, the fifth by Wheeler-Nicholson himself. Issue #6 (Oct. 1935) brought the comic-book debuts of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the future creators of Superman, who began their careers with the musketeer swashbuckler "Henri Duval" (doing the first two installments before turning it over to others) and, under the pseudonyms "Leger and Reuths", the supernatural-crimefighter adventure Doctor Occult. They would remain on the latter title through issue #32 (June 1938), following the magazine's retitling as More Fun (issues #7-8, Jan.-Feb. 1936), and More Fun Comics (#9-on).
Wheeler-Nicholson added a second magazine, New Comics, which premiered with a Dec. 1935 cover date and at close to what would become the standard size of Golden Age comic books, with slightly larger dimensions than today's. The title became New Adventure Comics with issue #12, and finally Adventure Comics with #32. Continuing for many decades, until issue #503 in 1983, it would become one of the longest-running comic books. In 2009, it was revived with its original numbering.
Despite Wheeler-Nicholson's optimism, however, finding a place in the market was difficult. Newsstands were reluctant to stock a magazine of untested new material from an unknown publisher, particularly as other companies' comics titles were perceived as being "successful because they featured characters everyone knew and loved". Returns were high, and cash-flow difficulties made the interval between issues unpredictable. Artist Creig Flessel recalled that at the company's office on Fourth Avenue, "The major flashed in and out of the place, doing battles with the printers, the banks, and other enemies of the struggling comics".
Wheeler-Nicholson suffered from continual financial crises, both in his personal and professional lives. "Dick Woods" artist Lyman Anderson, whose Manhattan apartment Wheeler-Nicholson used as a rent-free pied-à-terre, said, "His wife would call [from home on Long Island] and be in tears...and say she didn't have money and the milkman was going to cut off the milk for the kids. I'd send out 10 bucks, just because she needed it".
The third and final title published under his aegis would be Detective Comics, advertised with a cover illustration dated Dec. 1936, but eventually premiering three months late, with a March 1937 cover date.
Detective Comics would become a sensation with the introduction of Batman in issue #27 (May 1939). By then, however, Wheeler-Nicholson was gone. In 1937, in debt to printing-plant owner and magazine distributor Harry Donenfeld — who was as well a pulp-magazine publisher and a principal in the magazine distributorship Independent News — Wheeler-Nicholson was compelled to take Donenfeld on as a partner in order to publish Detective Comics #1. Detective Comics, Inc. was formed, with Wheeler-Nicholson and Jack S. Liebowitz, Donenfeld's accountant, listed as owners.
The major remained for a year, but cash-flow problems continued. DC's 50th-anniversary publication Fifty Who Made DC Great cites the Great Depression as "forc[ing] Wheeler-Nicholson to sell his publishing business to Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz in 1937". However, wrote comics historian Gerard Jones:
In early 1938, Harry Donenfeld send him and his wife on a cruise to Cuba to 'work up new ideas'. When they came home, the major found the lock to his office door changed. In his absence, Harry had sued him for nonpayment and pushed Detective Comics, Inc. into bankruptcy court. There a judge named Abe Mennen, one of Harry's old Tammany buddies, had been appointed interim president of the firm and arranged a quick sale of its assets to Independent News. Harry gave the major a percentage of More Fun Comics as a shut-up token and wished him well.
As National Allied Publications went from strength to strength without him, Wheeler-Nicholson "gave up on the world of commerce thereafter and went back to writing war stories and critiques of the American military" in addition to straight "articles on politics and military history".
Actress Dana Wheeler-Nicholson (sometimes credited as Dana Wheeler Nicholson), who has appeared in movies including Fletch and Tombstone, such TV series as Sex in the City, Friday Night Lights and Law & Order: Criminal Intent  and the soap opera All My Children, is the daughter of Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson's second son, Douglas.
- Book: Wheeler-Nicholson, Maj. Malcolm, Modern Cavalry: Studies on Its Role in the Warfare of To-day with Notes on Training for War Service (Macmillan, 1922)
- Book: Wheeler-Nicholson, Maj. Malcolm, Battle Shield of the Republic (Macmillan, 1940)
- Book: Wheeler-Nicholson, Maj. Malcolm, America Can Win (Macmillan, 1941)
- Book: Wheeler-Nicholson, Maj. Malcolm, Are We Winning the Hard Way? (Crowell Publishing, 1943)
- Interview with son Douglas Wheeler-Nicholson (August 2009). "His Goal Was the Graphic Novel". Alter Ego 3 (88): 9.
- Brown, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson. "About the Major". Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson (Official family blog). Archived from the original on October 13, 2013. Retrieved July 24, 2013.
- "The 2008 Eisner Awards: Eisner Hall of Fame Nominees Announced". Comic-con.com. Archived from the original on April 1, 2008.
- Daniels, Les (1995). DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes. Bullfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-8212-2076-4.
- Douglas Wheeler-Nicholson interview , p.10
- Marx, Barry, Cavalieri, Joey and Hill, Thomas (w), Petruccio, Steven (a), Marx, Barry (ed). "Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson DC Founded" Fifty Who Made DC Great: 5 (1985), DC Comics
- Brown, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, ed. "About the Major". Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson (Official family site). Archived from the original on July 14, 2011.
- Douglas Wheeler-Nicholson interview, p. 11
- Wright, Nicky. The Classic Era of American Comics (Contemporary Books, Chicago, 2000) ISBN 0-8092-9966-6, p. 16
- Jones, Gerard (2004). Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. New York: Basic Books. p. 101. ISBN 978-0-465-03656-1. OCLC 55019518.
- Goulart, Ron (1986). Ron Goulart's Great History of Comic Books. Chicago: Contemporary Books. p. 55. ISBN 0-8092-5045-4.
- Douglas Wheeler-Nicholson interview, pp. 11-12
- Douglas Wheeler-Nicholson interview, p. 13
- Douglas Wheeler-Nicholson interview, pp. 12-13
- Goulart, p. 56
- Coville, James. "The History of Comic Books: Newsstand Period Part 1. 1922-1955". TheComicbooks.com. p. 2. Archived from the original on July 22, 2011.
- Young, William H; Young, Nancy K. (2007). The Great Depression in America: A Cultural Encyclopedia, A-M. Greenwood. p. 105. ISBN 978-0-313-33521-1.
- Berk, Jon (January 1996, revised July 1997). "New Fun Magazine - The Birth of an Industry". Comic Book Collecting Association. Archived from the original on November 20, 2011. "New Fun represented the next step in the evolution of this entertainment medium in that the book contained original — not reprint — material. Actually, the idea of all original material had been tried in 1929 with the introduction of The Funnies by [Dell publisher] George Delacorte. Oversized like the Sunday funnies, the series never caught on." The U.S. Library of Congress exhibition, "American Treasures of the Library of Congress" (Archived March 6, 2010 at the Wayback Machine) described The Funnies as "a short-lived newspaper tabloid insert", while comics historian Ron Goulart describes the 16-page, four-color, newsprint periodical as "more a Sunday comic section without the rest of the newspaper than a true comic book," in Comic Book Encyclopedia. New York City: Harper Entertainment. 2004. ISBN 0-06-053816-3.
- Wright, p. 17
- New Fun #1 (Feb. 1935) at the Grand Comics Database. The entry notes that while the logo appears to be simply Fun, the indicia reads, "New FUN is published monthly at 49 West 45th Street, New York, N.Y., by National Allied Publications, Inc.; Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, President ... Inquiries concerning advertising should be addressed to the Advertising Manager, New FUN,...."
- Evanier, Mark (April 21, 2002). "WonderCon, The Second Day". P.O.V. Online (column). Archived from the original on June 8, 2011.
- Adventure Comics (DC, 2009 series) at the Grand Comics Database
- Wright, p. 18
- Goulart, p. 60
- Goulart, p. 61
- Jones, p. 125
- FilmReference.com "Dana Wheeler-Nicholson Biography"
- Film.com: "Dana Wheeler-Nicholson"
- Interview with granddaughter Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson Brown, "He Was Going to Go for the Big Idea", Alter Ego #88 (August 2009), p. 49
- Who Drew Superman?
- CBW Comic History: The Early Years...1896 to 1937, Part II
- Dana Wheeler-Nicholson on IMDb
- Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson on LinkedIn