It was a major undertaking, in more ways than one: Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson of Great Neck — ex-U. S. Cavalry, pulp-fiction author, military gadfly who earned headlines and a court-martial for an open letter to President Warren Harding criticizing the Army — founded the company that became DC Comics. When that home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman celebrates its 85th anniversary soon, it commemorates the date the Major published his landmark comic book "New Fun" No. 1.
Hitting newsstands Jan. 11, 1935, it was the first comic book to contain all-original material rather than reprints of newspaper comic strips. Comic books in close to today's format had existed before this, and a couple of proto-comic-book predecessors had run original material, but "New Fun" tied it all together in the basic form we know today. DC in January is reprinting it for the first time, as a hardcover book.
"A lot of people who've written about this period of comics history make a slightly derogatory remark, like the Major did this because he couldn't get the rights to reprint newspaper strips," says granddaughter Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, calling her kin by the title he went by. A journalist turned comics historian, who will be signing copies of her book "DC Comics Before Superman" at table J-7 in the New York Comic Con's "Artists Alley" next week, she says that, "He was interested from the beginning in doing original material. He came out of pulp magazines creatively, so he was used to being in a world of original material."
David Hajdu, author of "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America," agrees. Calling him "the link between the pulps and what we know of as comics today," he says the Major "was writing genre fiction for adults and luxuriating in the aesthetic of the pulps. He brought that mode of thinking when he created the first comic book of all-original content." Additionally, says Hajdu, the Major saw "New Fun" as "a vehicle to showcase new comics stories so that he could sell the rights to newspaper syndicates. That's where the money was in cartooning in those days."
"New Fun," from the Major's National Allied Publications, proved successful enough than under that name and "More Fun" it ran nearly 13 years. A second series, "New Comics," gradually evolved into "Adventure Comics" — longtime home of DC's popular Legion of Super-Heroes.
But the Major was long gone by that point, pushed out of his own company shortly before Superman debuted in 1938, launching an archetype and a media empire.
Up to then, the Major's life had been as colorful and adventurous as that of any pulp hero. Born in Tennessee and raised riding horses in the Pacific Northwest, he came from an iconoclastic family whose matriarch, his mother Antoinette, was a freewheeling feminist, suffragist, crusader against capital punishment and magazine founder. Malcolm attended military school in Syracuse, New York, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Cavalry in 1911.
Following postings around the country, he spent 1916 in the Philippines attached to the 9th Cavalry's Troop K — one of the famed African-American "Buffalo Soldier" companies, which by law were led by white officers. According to the Major's autobiography, he also "chased bandits on the Mexican border, fought fevers and played polo in the Philippines, [and] led a battalion of infantry against the Bolsheviki in Siberia…."
In 1920, during his time studying at a military academy in Paris, the Major met and married the aristocratic Swede Elsa Bjorkböm. After a sojourn in her native Stockholm, where the first of their five children was born, he brought his new family to America in 1921. But his public criticism of the Army that year led to a court-martial conviction in June 1922. He was allowed to remain in the service but, with no more chance of advancement, resigned his commission.
Having already authored the military-strategy book "Modern Cavalry" (1922), the Major turned to writing as a livelihood, becoming a cover-featured name in pulp magazines and pursuing such ventures as a self-syndicated comic strip. By the time the Major founded National Allied in 1934 to publish comic books, he had moved his family into a house on Avalon Road in Great Neck.
Operating on a shoestring, he nurtured young talent. "New Fun" No. 6 published the first comic-book work of future Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and "New Comics" No. 1 featured Walt Kelly years before Kelly's classic comic strip "Pogo." A third title followed in 1937: "Detective Comics," future home of Batman. It was published by a sister company, Detective Comics, Inc., formed of necessity when the cash-strapped Major took on two partners: Harry Donenfeld, a publisher and distributor of racy magazines, and Donenfeld's accountant, Jack Liebowitz.
Then in early 1938 — not long before Superman would change comics forever — the new partners ousted him using dubious means involving a Donenfeld-crony judge and a bankruptcy declaration while the Major was out of the country. Detective Comics, Inc. absorbed National Allied and through further mergers and name changes eventually became today's Warner Bros. division DC.
The Major went back to writing. He and Elsa eventually downsized to a house in Bayside, Queens, after the kids were grown, and he died Sept. 21, 1965, in New York City — returning to Long Island to be buried at Nassau Knolls Cemetery in Port Washington. He was inducted into the comics industry's Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2008.
But Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson and DC have always been on good terms. The publisher even bought a $12,000 copy of "New Fun" No. 1 for its archives at her urging. "He was more focused on the creative end," she says of her grandfather, "and they were more focused on the business end. Donenfeld and Liebowitz were incredible businessman. But without his vision and creativity, there wouldn't have been anything. It took all three to make it happen."
WHAT TO EXPECT AT NEW YORK COMIC CON
New York Comic Con takes over the Javits Center and other venues from Oct. 3-6. In addition to an exhibition floor, the giant convention will stage numerous panels by comics and book publishers, film and TV companies and others, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson and others. The season-premiere episodes of "The Walking Dead," "Castle Rock" and "The Purge" and the series premieres of Syfy's "Resident Alien," CBS' "Evil" and The CW's "Nancy Drew" will screen.
Among the dozens of guests scheduled to hawk autographs, photo ops and projects are actors including Sean Astin, Tom Hiddleston, Paul Rudd, Nichelle Nichols, Vincent D'Onofrio Paul Reubens, Billy Dee Williams and Sean Young, plus cast members of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "The Good Place," "Outlander," "Star Trek: Discovery" and other shows. Authors include William Gibson, Laurell K. Hamilton and R.L. Stine.
Comics and animation guests include filmmaker Bill Plympton; "Sin City" and "300" creator Frank Miller; star artist John Romita Jr., of Port Jefferson; "The Walking Dead" creator Robert Kirkman; popular X-Men writer Chris Claremont; longtime Spider-Man scribe Dan Slott; Deadpool creators Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld; Jim Starlin, creator of the movie supervillain Thanos; and 87-year-old Iron Man, Thor and Ant-Man co-creator Larry Lieber.
And you might see one or two people walking around in costume…. — FRANK LOVECE