Comic book fans love a meaty origins story, and Berkeley author Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson has a heckuva one to tell. It’s not only a true story on the rollicking formative period of a powerful publishing house but also one that gives an inside look at the genesis of perhaps comics’ best-known character, Superman.
Wheeler-Nicholson is the granddaughter of Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, founder of National Allied Publications, which later became National Comics Publication, which eventually morphed into DC Comics. She’s a writer, speaker and a frequent panelist at San Diego’s Comic-Con.
In her book “DC Comics Before Superman” (Hermes Press, $60, 256 pages), Wheeler-Nicholson details how her grandfather – referred to affectionately as the Major – went from an adventurous military career to becoming a prolific writer and intrepid comic book publisher noted much more for nurturing creativity than for his accounting acumen.
Her book takes a detailed overview of the early years of comics and the pulps – those inexpensively produced comics printed on wood pulp and narrating cliffhanging adventures.
Wheeler-Nicholson, a friend of mine, says stitching this together required the assistance of many, including a helpful online community devoted to pulps and comics.
She knew from the get-go that she had better get the dates and facts right, or she’d hear back from that engaged community.
“These comics guys, you better not mess with the details,” she says laughing.
About 20 years ago, Wheeler-Nicholson started a deep dive into her grandfather’s colorful backstory. She recalls growing up and hearing relatives refer to her grandfather’s work as “trashy novels. They didn’t even use the name pulps.”
While she enjoyed comics as a child and later embraced underground comics, her appreciation for the form took root when she read her grandfather’s pulps, which he began writing around 1924. He went on to publish New Fun Comics #1 in 1935, which – unlike others at that time – featured all original stories.
In fact, one of the biggest draws of “DC Comics Before Superman” is that it assembles illustrated panels from the pulps and the comic books. Gathering those for the book might seem to have presented the biggest challenge. But Wheeler-Nicholson said it was easier than expected.
“The reason for that is David Armstrong. He had most of these pages.”
Armstrong is a highly regarded comics collector who – in the book’s afterword – discusses a desire to make a comic book documentary series. Well-versed in film and TV, Armstrong decided to start video interviews with comic book veterans, including some who worked with the Major. They provided context and insight and telling details.
One comic the Major wrote that Wheeler-Nicholson connects with is “The Monastery of the Blue God,” a fast-paced narrative emblematic of pulps of the time with a storyline built on hidden treasures, numerous locations and a despicable villain. Unbeknownst to many, it also served as a love letter that the Major penned to his wife, Elsa Bjorkbom.
Part of what motivated Wheeler-Nicholson to write her book was that she could pick up on these personal clues others might miss.
“The comics guys had no idea that that comic is full of biographical details about my grandfather,” she said.
Certainly, the Major’s life reads like an action comic.
Born in Tennessee in 1890 but raised largely in the Pacific Northwest by a mother who was a journalist, the Major served under John J. (“Black Jack”) Pershing in 1912 and was a commander of “buffalo soldiers” troop in the Philippines. His run-in with a colonel while he was trying to improve how African-American troops were being treated turned out be one of several factors that needled military brass. An eventual court martial and a trial that led to all but one charge being dropped clipped his military career.
So he gravitated to writing – no surprise, given ink was in his family’s bloodlines.He produced more than 154 stories in various forms and wrote for the pulps.
As publisher, he eventually went on to release works by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, creators of Superman. He was also in on the early stages of Clark Kent. Wheeler-Nicholson refers in her book to a letter in which the Major discussed the possibility of turning Superman into a four-color comic. Siegel, however, wasn’t sold about teaming up with the Major and requested that he return the artwork. The Major did.
During these early years of the comic book industry, creativity was in full force, and the Major loved that part, Wheeler-Nicholson said.
“My grandfather just kind of threw out ideas,” she said. “It was very exciting. This was brand new.”
Wheeler-Nicholson speaks with great enthusiasm about the artwork in those early stories, and while she’s impressed by some modern works, including Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” she prefers the earlier ones.
“I find them too busy,” she said.” There’s not enough space in them. And they have a sameness in the storylines and the characters and the look. However, having said that, there’s a lot of innovation. And there is some amazing work.”
She’s also pleased to see the heightened presence of women in the profession and that they’re getting recognized for their work. In contrast, she estimates the “pulp” community breakdown is 93.4 percent male.
“Women took over the Eisners (the annual comics awards) this year and not just younger women,” she said. “That’s very exciting.”
While women were the rarity on the early comic scene, Wheeler-Nicholson was pleased to see how the Major created strong female characters in his work.
Sadly, he lost the company after partnering with Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, who forced him into bankruptcy, and he was out of the publishing business.
But the Major carried on his literary career, writing books that were mostly about war and returning to the pulps. He died in 1965 in Long Island, New York.
Wheeler-Nicholson said she gained an even greater appreciation for her granddad while researching the book.
“The more I learned about him, the more I became just in awe of his creativity,” she said. “He was just incredibly courageous.”
He, of course, had his doubts and his fears and his flaws. But then he would just press on anyway, she said.
You might even say just how a superhero would act.