Pulp Fiction Facts: the Secret Origin of Comic Books

If you’re a fan of Golden Age comic book stories with plenty of action thrills, you should know about the military intelligence officer Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. Here’s how Jim Steranko, Silver Age superstar artist on Captain America and Nick Fury, describes him: “He adventured around the globe, from hunting Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa with famed General John Pershing to fighting with Cossack warriors across Russia during WWI. … As one of the youngest cavalry members serving his country, Wheeler-Nicholson faced enemies from the Philippines to Siberia.” This character could have been the star of his own comics during those early, anything-goes 1930s and ’40s, or the hero of numerous 1920s and ’30s pulp fiction tales. And in a way, he was both.

Leo O’Mealia: Action Comics #2 cover, 1938

“O’Mealia’s artwork in the comics is sophisticated and full of action. … His cover art for Action Comics not only tells an action-packed story without a word spoken but is also one of the most sophisticated and beautiful covers of all time.”

Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was a real-life Army Major. He was one of the pulp field’s top writers during those glory days. He was one of the very first comic book publishers to feature all-original stories. And oh, yes: he was the founder of what is now the DC Comics empire. That in itself is another true-life drama filled with daring-do and dastardly skullduggery. As Steranko puts it: “Ironically, his most dangerous foes were those who worked alongside him, whom he trusted, who betrayed him with masked guile and hollow promises, who railroaded him into bankruptcy.”

Steranko’s comments are part of his foreword to the just-released DC Comics Before Superman: Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s Pulp Comics. The publisher, Hermes Press, also has limited edition copies signed by Steranko. The book reprints many of the comics stories that the Major had repurposed from his original pulp prose. And as the author, granddaughter Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, declares, “Pulps were the foundation of comics.”

G-Men Detective Stories (containing a Wheeler-Nicholson story) cover, 1940

Pulp fiction helped to form the structure of comics. The stories that are well-written move along briskly and are visual and cinematic.

Most of the first comics publishers came from a background in pulps, but as salesmen. The Major was the only one with the kind of creative background that greatly enhanced his understanding of genre fiction and story structure. It also gave him empathy for his artists and writers, as he crusaded for their financial equality and ownership rights. Nicky’s text provides background details as seen through her eyes and research. They’re interspersed throughout the book, which primarily displays the Major’s seldom-seen comics, drawn by a variety of artists including Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, whose careers he was instrumental in launching.

A few weeks ago I interviewed Nicky about her own comic book connections, which had its roots in her friendship with Howard Cruse, the pioneering founding editor of Gay Comix and creator of the breakthrough Stuck Rubber Baby graphic novel. Cruse’s handsome, stippled profile of the Major adorns one of the book’s front pages.

Howard Cruse: portrait of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, 2008

Michael Dooley: How did your interest in comics develop?

Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson: I’ve always loved comics from the time I was a child. I was addicted to the Sunday comics page, particularly Pogo and Little Orphan Annie, along with Dick Tracy and Prince Valiant. And I’m of an age to have the classic drugstore spinner rack memories of comics with my favorites – Nancy, Little Lulu, Wonder Woman, and of course, Superman. And like many people who hit college in the late 1960s, I loved and followed underground comix. Howard Cruse and I were both theatre majors at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama. Howard has been a tremendous artistic influence in my life. When I moved to New York City in 1976 I followed Howard’s comics in the Village Voice but that was the extent of my interest in comics for quite some time.

Around 1997 I began to earnestly research my grandfather’s life and work. I came into it through the adventure pulps he wrote. As a writer myself, the pulps made an immediate connection to me. I was somewhat intimidated by the comics aspect of his life and work. It seemed overwhelming: the history, the sheer volume of comics that occurred after his period, the undoing of sixty years of the entrenched stories of my grandfather, the historians and dedicated fans who do not suffer fools. It took a while for me to brave jumping into that vast ocean. When Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame in 2008 and I came to San Diego Comic-Con for the first time, I met several people who opened the door for me into the world of comics. This led to working with TwoMorrows Publishing to produce its 2009 Alter Ego edition about my grandfather.

Alter Ego cover and a page with the Major’s comic strip adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, drawn by Nick Afonsky

I went to MOCCA in Manhattan in 2009 and was exposed to the vibrant indie comic scene, and heard Al Feldstein, Gahan Wilson, and Jules Feiffer talk about comics. I went to New York Comic Con and met Jim Steranko. I fell in love with all the people and the work and found myself immersed in comics. I researched the history, read comics new and old, began to go to more comics conventions, give talks and appear on panels, and write articles.

I’m fortunate that my name opens some doors and feel I have a responsibility to my grandfather’s legacy to honor his name by being meticulous in my research and doing whatever I can within my limitations to promote the artists and writers from the past and those working now. Because I began my creative life in theatre, and then went into publishing, the comics community and industry was a natural progression, and I feel at home within it.

Joseph Clemens Gretter: New Fun #3 cover, 1935

“In 1935 my grandfather, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, was one of the first publishers to produce comics with original art and scripts, beginning with New Fun.”

Dooley: And how did you acquire your appreciation for art?

Wheeler-Nicholson: I’ve always wanted to be an artist but don’t have the skills. My mother exposed me to art by taking me to museums. The art books in our house ranged from Peter Arno’s work in The New Yorker to 16th-century Japanese woodblock prints. Art, music, writing, and literature was a significant part of my life.

In college, I took a number of art classes and learned how to look at art and discuss it. My first job out of college was with the Birmingham Museum of Art, as an art history lecturer. Luckily, as a drama major, I quickly learned how to make art interesting to bored high school students. This is one of the great benefits of a liberal arts education: having an understanding of art and a way to communicate about art. Of course, it might just stem from the DNA.

H.J. Ward: Spicy Mystery Stories cover, 1937

“Without Wheeler-Nicholson’s vision of original art and scripts and his ability to recognize talent and encourage the artists and writers to be their best, [DC Comics publishers Harry] Donenfeld and [Jack] Liebowitz would be known today as the publishers of spicy pulps and the owners of parking lots.”

Dooley: Okay, so what future Wheeler-Nicholson adventures can we look forward to?

Wheeler-Nicholson: I’m working on the Major’s complete biography, which I’d like to have out by 2020. And there are a couple of other book projects in the planning stages, which will be announced soon.

I went to Cuba in 2016 and connected with a professor who teaches about comics and a publisher of comics. Periodically I send American comics to them, which aren’t easy for them to get. And when the stars align with the gods of the postal connections between our two countries I get packages of Cuban comics. I’d love to be able to collaborate with them.

I was in my late thirties when I went back to university and got a Master’s degree in the Divine Feminine in Classical Greek Mythology and Theatre; thus my love of Wonder Woman. My dream is to be able to do an animated piece with vase paintings expressing the Greek myths.

Walt Kelly: “Gulliver’s Travels” spread (from New Fun), 1936 (click to enlarge)

“The 22-year-old Walt Kelly appeared in New Comics #1 with his rendition of a classic, ‘Gulliver’s Travels.’ His drawings are intricate, with strong definition hinting at his later development.”

Joe Shuster (Jerry Siegel, script): “Federal Men” page, 1937 (note the character “Jor-L”)

“Jerry Siegel was submitting the Superman story in many different places in the attempt to get it published. … Many people in the burgeoning and close-knit industry knew about the comic, and several had turned it down. There was only one person in that publishing arena who believed in Superman from the very beginning: Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. … Jerry Siegel would later remark, ‘And so, because Nicholson had not tossed away the wrapping paper sketches, Joe and I broke into print.’”

Sven Elven (Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, script): “Foe of the Borgias” splash page (from New Adventure), 1937

“The choice of artists to illustrate scripts shows keen editorial decisions on Wheeler-Nicholson’s part. Artist Sven Elven’s finely drawn and elegant illustrations fit well with the theme of ‘Foe of the Borgias.’”

Munson (“PAD”) Paddock (Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, script): “Blood Pearls” spread (from New Comics and New Adventure Comics), 1936-37 (click to enlarge)

“The Black Pearls story is grounded in the Major’s experiences in the Philippines where he was stationed in 1915, commanding a troop of buffalo soldiers. … In a surprise twist ending, the protagonist proves to be a noble man who is Chinese, and goes against the usual stereotyping portrayal of the period.”

Leo O’Mealia (Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, script): “Barry O’Neill and Fang Gow of China” page (from New Fun), 1936-37

“The strong-jawed O’Neill is often called ‘the first action hero in DC Comics.’ It was based on a pulp story written by Wheeler-Nicholson. … In what can be seen as equal opportunity stereotyping, just about every foreigner in the comic is portrayed stereotypically.”

Munson (“PAD”) Paddock (Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, script): “The Monastery of the Blue God” page (from New Adventure), 1937-38

The Monastery of the Blue God was originally a pulp story. It is one of the Major’s pulps that has thinly disguised biographical details. Even though the plot is classic pulp adventure with exotic locales, spies, evil German villains, and treasures hidden in temples on the edge of Tibet, the story is grounded in Wheeler-Nicholson’s own experiences in these places.”

Leo O’Mealia (Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, script): “Bob Merritt and His Flying Pals” panel (from New Fun), 1935-36

“Wheeler-Nicholson studied military history and strategy and often employed these elements in his pulps. This carried over in the Bob Merritt comic with the military organization, strategy, and necessity of air fights of Bob Merritt and his Flying Pals.”

left: cover, right: Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson presenting at San Diego’s Comic-Con International

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