Buffalo Soldier

“His eye roved over the bare mesa and out to where quivering heat waves distorted the outlines of the distant hills, huge, angular masses of scarified rock, the slag and clinkers of some ancient volcanic blaze uprearing tortured pinnacles and twisted turrets to the pitiless sky.” This portrayal of Fort Bliss by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s alter ego character Major Davies appeared in a story “Beelzebub the Bane,” Adventure, July 1927. Although the bare mesa is now an urban environment the angular masses of scarified rock are immediately recognizable from the cinematic description.

Fort Bliss mountainside

Fort Bliss mountainside

Wheeler-Nicholson, in his first posting as a young 2nd lieutenant arrived at Fort Bliss, El Paso, Texas on June 22, 1912. He was there for about a year and a half and would return again 6 years later as a Major in late December 1918 for another 6 months.

Fort Bliss Museum 2015

Fort Bliss Museum 2015

The Major’s real life experiences with bandits on the Mexican border, frequent patrols out into the desert, skirmishes with outlaws in Sierra Blanca, Texas and the desert country surrounding Fort Bliss would all make their appearance time and again in many of his pulp adventure stories.

Adventure Magazine, July 1927 from The Fiction Mags site.

Adventure Magazine, July 1927 from The Fiction Mags site.

Of the characters who appeared often in his stories about Fort Bliss and the Mexican border there were a number of memorable African-American soldiers. One of my favorite stories, a 2nd place winner in the O’Henry Short Story Awards for 1932, is “The Sable Phalanx,” Adventure, March 1, 1932. Similar to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern two unnamed African-American soldiers begin the tale peeling potatoes and discussing the situation they are in out in a desert encampment near Fort Bliss. They are acutely aware of the dangerous situation of being surrounded by hostile Mexicans and worry that the white officers in charge seem pretty clueless. Although the two speak in vernacular, which might be off-putting for readers today, they are not the usual stereotype but are well-drawn, well-rounded and sympathetic characters.

Adventure, March 1932 from The Fiction Mag site.

Adventure, March 1932 from The Fiction Mag site.

So how did the Major come to write frequently and with sympathy and awareness about African-American soldiers in the Army? After graduating from St. John’s Military School, one of four feeder schools for the United States Army, Wheeler-Nicholson took the competitive exam for a commission as an officer in September 1911 and passed with a B+ and not surprisingly with a grade of 99 in English. When asked for his preference of posting he requested a commission in the 9th or 10th Cavalry. This was such an unusual request that it was noted in his records, for in 1911, the 9th and 10th Cavalry were African-American Buffalo Soldiers. The officers assigned to these troops were white and most considered it somewhat of a punishment. That Wheeler-Nicholson would request this assignment naturally raised eyebrows.

Fort Bliss Museum depiction of a Buffalo Soldier.

Fort Bliss Museum depiction of a Buffalo Soldier.

It’s possible that Wheeler-Nicholson surmised that he could follow in the footsteps of General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. Black Jack being a softer version of a racist slur due to Pershing’s commanding the African-American Buffalo Soldiers. In a time when promotion was by seniority rather than merit Pershing bypassed those with more seniority with the help of Teddy Roosevelt for Pershing’s leadership of the 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers during The Spanish-American War. Nick, with his knowledge of the politics of the day and his family’s connection with the Roosevelts could easily conjecture that he would be able to benefit from a posting with the Buffalo Soldiers as well. There was also a natural affinity for the love of horses. Buffalo Soldiers were known to be excellent riders and were often assigned to instructing newly commissioned white officers in horsemanship at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where Nick was sent for his initial training.

Buffalo Soldier at Fort Leavenworth Kansas from The 8 Wonders of Kansas site.

Buffalo Soldier at Fort Leavenworth Kansas from The 8 Wonders of Kansas site.

The young 2nd Lieutenant did well in his training and exams and it would seem that his superiors decided he was destined for better things than an assignment with the Buffalo Soldiers. Finally in November of 1915, he got his wish and was transferred to the 9th Cavalry commanding a troop of African-American Buffalo Soldiers from San Francisco to a posting at Camp Stotsenburg in the Philippines.

Buffalo Soldiers headed to the Philippines 1900 from The Arizona Experience site.

Buffalo Soldiers headed to the Philippines 1900 from The Arizona Experience site.

In an article for Pic Magazine written in October 1943 the Major describes his first encounter with his Buffalo soldiers. “Like most young shavetails (2nd lieutenants) I was full of more energy than tact. My first task with my men was to unload our freight at our new Philippine station in a driving tropical downpour. Anxious to speed matters up, without knowing how, I buzzed around like a gadfly, striving to hurry the leisurely motions of the soldiers. The more I fussed the slower they grew. Finally one gray-haired Negro private, evidently annoyed past all endurance, stood up from his labors, wiped his brow and addressed me.

He abjured me gravely, “Shush your fussin’!”

For a moment I was thunderstruck. Then I saw the light—saw myself as the pestering young gadfly that I must have appeared in his eyes.

“All right,” I replied, “if you think you can get this job done more quickly than I can—go to it!”

“Yes sir,” agreed the old soldier imperturbably.” …The task finished itself in short order.”

Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines 1902 from Honor and Fidelity site.

Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines 1902 from Honor and Fidelity site.

Whatever his personal feelings or prejudices might have been in the beginning, it is clear that through his experience with his troops he came to a strong sense of the necessity for equality in the Army and was far ahead of his time.

Early Military photo of MWN.

Early Military photo of MWN.

While commanding his troop of Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines he saw first hand the treatment they received by white officers. His troops were singled out time and again for the slightest infraction, often in the guardhouse and threatened with court martial. “The newly organized machine gun troop was a sad outfit, made up of the undesirables, cast out as unwanted by the other troops in the regiment. Its morale at a low ebb.”

Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines from Mike Liveira's Space.

Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines from Mike Liveira’s Space.

Determined to prove the necessity to modernize the cavalry with the firepower of machine gun troops and the desire to uplift his troops he set about to train these discards of the regiment through his own methods and within a short time his troop’s morale and efficiency was raised. His superior, a Colonel, organized a competition smugly expecting to put Wheeler-Nicholson and his upstart troops in their place. That racism played a part in the desire to shame the young lieutenant and his troops cannot be ignored. Not only did his men perform beautifully but they broke all records for machine gun readiness. It was such a success that it was written in the military journals of the day and published in a text, Machine Guns. This did not endear him to the Colonel and the seeds of Nick’s later troubles with the army were sown and would follow him through the rest of his career.

1909 Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines.

1909 Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines.

I don’t see my grandfather as a pioneer for the cause of racial equality but more as an idealist who believed that every man deserved an equal chance and that those who showed promise should be encouraged. “I’ve seen a near mutiny precipitated among Negro soldiers by the abysmally poor handling of a white officer, and I’ve seen and heard them wrangling, and refusing to carry out the orders of equally incapable Negro Leaders. The fault in both cases was the same, the infliction on the soldiers of inept leaders who reached their rank by routine methods instead of on real leadership ability.”

Buffalo Soldiers 9th and 10th Cavalry. From Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club site.

Buffalo Soldiers 9th and 10th Cavalry. From Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club site.

The Major continued to view the importance of equality even after he was forced out of the Army in late 1922. During World War II he wrote several books on military history and strategy and numerous articles in “slick” magazines of the day—Look, Harpers and others. The article, “Are Negroes Good Soldiers?” written for Pic Magazine and later condensed in Negro Digest appears to be a response to official Army policy to segregate troops.

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“Maybe this is a pretty fair formula for us in any case, here in America, since we are stepping out of insular isolation to mix ourselves in the destinies of all sorts of people with different colored skins, different religions, different habits, dress and customs, in all parts of the world. Our destinies are already inextricably entwined with many diverse elements in our own country. The fusing of them should come on the firing line, amongst fighting men, made realistic by the ordeal by battle to the point of realization that enemy bullets are not earmarked for any individual race or creed.”

Special thanks to Robert Wettemann, Professor USAF Academy, Colorado Springs, Co. for his research and support. Check out the various sites noted on photos. There is a wealth of interesting information about the Buffalo Soldiers.

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When Worlds Collide

In every good comic book story there’s a moment when worlds collide, stars line up, and the evil doctor’s death ray machine threatens to blow everyone to hell and back. This is just such a story.

The Mad Scientist. Fleischer Superman cartoons. 1941

The Mad Scientist. Fleischer Superman cartoons. 1941

In 1934 my grandfather, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson began publishing comic books with original art and scripts. He was one of the founding fathers of the modern comic book industry publishing New Fun, New Comics and More Fun Comics. He promptly hired Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to produce comics for these magazines upon seeing the Superman drawing they sent him along with the strips “Henri Duval” and “Dr. Occult.” It’s no surprise that the Major, from his experience as a creator and leader of men, could see the potential in the abundant creative expressions of Siegel and Shuster.

From More Fun #8. February 1936

From More Fun #8. February 1936

At the height of the Great Depression “the Major” had a vision of all original comics and scripts in a brand new medium. In that financial climate, Wheeler-Nicholson required money to keep his unique vision alive. Harry Donenfeld, his printer, seemed to have access to funds. Where those funds came from during a time when most people were struggling just to buy food wasn’t too closely examined. In late 1936 Harry advanced money for a new magazine, Detective Comics, the only stipulation being that the Major must partner with Jack Liebowitz, Harry’s accountant. And thus the players in the drama of Detective Comics, Action Comics and Superman all came together.

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What happened after is a great tale. It doesn’t have a happy ending for most of those involved. Wheeler-Nicholson was maneuvered out of his own company, Nicholson Publishing Inc. through a forced bankruptcy proceeding based on questionable accounting and tactics. It’s not clear how he was pushed out of Detective Comics but by September of 1938 Harry Donenfeld appeared to be the sole owner. In the process Siegel and Shuster lost the rights to Superman and some years later the Donenfelds also lost their majority stake in the empire that was built on the backs of these early creators. The only person who appeared to continue to hold all the cards throughout is Jack Liebowitz.

Harry Donenfeld, Jack Liebowitz and Irwin Donenfeld, Harry's son.

Harry Donenfeld, Jack Liebowitz and Irwin Donenfeld, Harry’s son.

In all the family stories the names Siegel and Shuster and Donenfeld and Liebowitz were foremost. About 20 years ago I began a more formal academic approach in researching my grandfather’s life. It took at least 10 years to locate the legal papers from the bankruptcy case and along the way I discovered the lawsuits of Siegel and Shuster vs. DC. Each lawsuit had a different rendition of Wheeler-Nicholson’s part in the story. Donenfeld and Liebowitz were rarely specifically named and the vs. was a faceless corporate entity.

Siegel and Shuster

Siegel and Shuster

Gerard Jones, my co-author, wrote extensively about Harry Donenfeld in his book Men of Tomorrow and in spite of the fact that Harry was a partner in my grandfather’s loss of DC, I found him to be an intriguing character. I suspect he and my grandfather enjoyed one another’s company and more than a drink or two at whatever local watering hole was near the publishing enclave in the 42nd Street area of New York City.

MWN by Finn Andreen. 1948. Written permission required for use.

MWN 1948. Written permission required for use.

Every good comic book story needs at least one exotic locale and Havana, Cuba is perfect. Photos of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson with his elegant wife Elsa at the bar in Sloppy Joe’s seated next to Vin Sullivan and Whitney Ellsworth tell the tale. Supposedly Harry Donenfeld sent the Major, Sullivan and Ellsworth to Havana at the end of March 1937 on a working vacation to organize the new comic magazine, Detective Comics and begin working on Action Comics.

Sloppy Joe's Havana

Sloppy Joe’s Havana

I had the opportunity to travel to Havana in January of this year and it appears that the DC group most likely stayed at the Hotel Nacional where Meyer Lansky, a known crime figure had his casino. Donenfeld was a frequent visitor to Havana. He had been there at the beginning of March 1937 with his friend Victor Fox who later was involved in a lawsuit with DC over his character Wonder Man. Donenfeld and Lansky shared a mutual friend in Frank Costello reputed to be a member of the mafia.

Hotel Nacional. Havana, Cuba.

Hotel Nacional. Havana, Cuba.

March 1937 was a pivotal month for all the players involved including Jerry and Joe who visited New York in March 1937 just prior to the Wheeler-Nicholsons trip to Cuba. While in New York Siegel and Shuster met with the Major as well as Jack Liebowitz. The Major did not seem to be aware of that meeting and it’s not known if Harry was involved.

480 Lexington Ave. NYC. Early DC offices.

480 Lexington Ave. NYC. Early DC offices.

With the drama of the Cuba trip fresh in my mind, I headed to San Diego last week for San Diego Comic Fest organized by Mike Towry, one of the early founders of San Diego Comic Con. Comic Fest is an old-fashioned comic con in the best sense. Sometime in the fall Mike mentioned that Laura Siegel, daughter of Jerry Siegel might be persuaded to attend. Later Gerard Jones told me that Harry Donenfeld, the grandson of Harry the first had been in touch to talk about his grandfather. It seemed a possibility that he might be able to attend Comic Fest as well. In an unbelievable chain of events it all came together—Wheeler-Nicholson, Siegel and Donenfeld in one place at the same time.

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Never having met one another and carrying our respective family baggage we arrived at Comic Fest. Did worlds collide? Well, in a way, yes but instead of the death ray it was more of a kaleidoscope where the separate pieces coalesced into one clear image. The fans adore Laura and with good reason—she’s a lovely, smart woman who knows her history, not just from the family but from her own research as well. We felt an immediate kinship. Harry has inherited the charm of his grandfather and Laura and I instantly liked him. He is warm, funny and smart. Like me, he didn’t know his family history until he was an adult and like Laura and me he’s done his own research.

Gerard Jones, Harry Donenfeld, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, Laura Siegel. Comic Fest 2016. Photo by Michael Dooley.

Gerard Jones, Harry Donenfeld, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, Laura Siegel. Comic Fest 2016. Photo by Michael Dooley.

We spent as much time together as possible talking non-stop and learning from one another. Each of us carries a piece of the historic pie and listening to one another’s stories helped make sense of things unknown. The fans and even long-time comic book industry people were awestruck. At one point when we were all onstage with Gerard moderating, I looked out at the audience and I swear everyone’s mouth was wide open. We went into one of those obsessive discussions over a minute detail that only true blue comic book aficionados can appreciate. It was huge fun!

Harry Donenfeld, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, Laura Siegel. Comic Fest 2016. Photo by Mike Hammersky.

Harry Donenfeld, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, Laura Siegel. Comic Fest 2016. Photo by Michael Hamersky.

What happens from here, who knows but as Harry said, with the three of us coming together and connecting so strongly there was a definite ripple in the force!

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Cuba Si!

Cuba Si!

Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was born on this day, January 7, 126 years ago. It’s fitting that tomorrow I’m leaving for Miami en route to Cuba retracing some of the steps of my grandparents on their fabled trip to Cuba in 1937.

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Cuba is one of the Shangrilas of travel I have wanted to visit since I was a child. I grew up in Mobile, Alabama on the Gulf Coast and Cuba isn’t so far away. The history and culture are intertwined with the part of the world I know well—New Orleans, Tampa, Miami and Key West. When Castro overthrew Battista, I was old enough to be aware of events and later knew Cuban refugees who settled in the Mobile area. In college my swim coach whom I adored changed his name to Carlos de Cuba as a constant reminder of his country. I have longed to visit for most of my life.

vinyl-magnet-cuba-havana-16

I’m starting out the year visiting a place that looms large in the story of my grandfather’s loss of DC Comics. Why did Harry Donenfeld decide to send my grandparents and then 5-year old Auntie Diane to Havana for a “working vacation?” Also along for the ride was Vincent Sullivan and Whitney Ellsworth. The idea purportedly was to finalize the new magazine published in partnership with Jack Liebowitz—Detective Comics.

Detective_Comics_1

Detective Comics was Wheeler-Nicholson’s idea. The title is similar to pulp titles that he knew so well. The Major became partners with Jack Liebowitz for financial reasons due to not having the capital to launch three unprecedented comics magazines in the middle of the Depression. Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz appeared to be floating in money.

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Gaines, Donenfeld and Liebowitz

March of 1937 was a busy month for the players in this drama. On March 1st, Harry Donenfeld and Victor Fox appear on a passenger list arriving from Havana to Miami. Were they there to organize the Cuba trip or just gambling with Harry’s pal Meyer Lansky? And where does Lansky fit into the story? He was intimately involved with the casinos in Cuba and he and Batista had a long history with one another.

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Victor Fox has his own unique saga and ran afoul of Donenfeld and Liebowitz in March of 1939 with a lawsuit for copyright infringement. Fox had Will Eisner create Wonder Man who was similar in make-up to Superman. It’s also rumored that Fox was somehow involved in the finances of Detective Comics but there appears to be no clear evidence.

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On March 16, Siegel and Shuster visited the Major in New York. They also met with Liebowitz separately and possibly Donenfeld. Then the entourage of Wheeler-Nicholsons, Vin Sullivan and Whitney Ellsworth headed to Havana.

Siegel&Shuster

Although there are slight differences in the various family stories they all follow pretty much the same narrative. After struggling to establish comic magazines with all original material Harry Donenfeld helped to finance the Major and suggested my grandparents take a working vacation to Cuba in order to organize the new magazine Detective Comics.

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There are photos of my grandparents in Havana at Sloppy Joe’s along with Vin Sullivan and Whitney Ellsworth. Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson and his wife, Elsa are dressed in elegant tropical attire and the Major is holding the requisite panama hat. They’re both smiling broadly. This is in contrast to an earlier photo taken in 1936 where they both appear exhausted and stressed. Sullivan and Ellsworth look slightly out of place and uncomfortable. Vin Sullivan and Whitney Ellsworth appear on ship’s passenger lists returning to New York on April 4th. However, so far there is no firm date of the Wheeler-Nicholsons either going to Cuba or returning, which lends some credence to my mother’s version of the story that they continued their trip onto the Bahamas.

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Why did Harry send everybody to Cuba in the middle of the Depression on a working vacation to organize a comics magazine? It’s an interesting question. If the magazines weren’t making any money why would a supposedly astute businessman like Harry spend all that money when they could have easily worked in New York?

480 LexingtonAve

480 Lexington Ave. One of the earlier DC offices.

The family legend is that while MWN was in Cuba Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz masterminded the eventual takeover of the company from him. In some versions of the family story it happens in a cinematic sequence where the Major comes back from Cuba and his name has been removed from the office door. In my mother’s post divorce version, told to me as a young girl, my grandfather was bamboozled out of Superman for a trip to the Bahamas. These are great stories but like all things that happen in life it took a lot longer and was much more painful.

H.J. Ward painting of Superman © respective holders.

H.J. Ward painting of Superman

In a way my mother’s version has an element of truth. The Major was bamboozled out of Superman for a trip to the Bahamas but he didn’t realize it until it was much too late. From legal documents of 1936 and 1937 it appears that Donenfeld and Liebowitz were already orchestrating the takeover of the company. For a man like my grandfather who prided himself on strategic thinking the bankruptcy proceedings that began Christmas of 1937 were a shock and a huge blow. He fought like hell to keep the company that he envisioned and created but with no capital and one young inexperienced lawyer he was no match for the tactics of Donenfeld and Liebowitz. They had at least two large law firms and several accounting firms and a head start on the plan to acquire the comics publishing company. Again, the question arises, if the comics weren’t making money why all the effort expended to acquire them? To make matters worse, Asa Herzog, one of the attorneys for Donenfeld and Liebowitz was a colleague of the lawyer appointed as trustee in the bankruptcy proceedings—Abe Menin. It’s a cozy little group.

nicky 2 final print

This is just one aspect of the larger story but with the exotic locale and characters like Victor Fox and Meyer Lansky on the periphery it’s well worth exploring. What do I hope to find in Havana? I’ll at least get a feeling for a time and place before it becomes overly developed. And I’ll do my best to search for some of the details that always lead one to a larger picture. Every step of this 20 some odd year adventure has been helped by writers like Larry Tye (Superman) and Brad Ricca (Super Boys). My co-author Gerard Jones (Men of Tomorrow) has laid a solid foundation for our upcoming biography Lost Hero. I am dubbing the guys who have been so generous with their terrific research the Fourth Avenue Irregulars! Tom Andrae, David Lawrence, Alex Jay and Todd Klein among others have contributed to this chapter of the story. Do yourself a favor and check out Todd’s incomparable blog. With the help of all these wonderful colleagues, the Major’s story is becoming more well known. He had an extraordinary vision and deserves to be remembered. Cuba Si!

The Major c. 1948 in Sweden. © Finn Andreen.

The Major c. 1948 in Sweden. © Finn Andreen.

 

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The Traveling Comic Con Show

It’s been a busy year on the trail with the Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson Traveling Circus and Wild West Show. Beginning in January with Wizard World Comic Con New Orleans–a short drive from my Gulf Coast winter habitat. Not a bad start–beignets, Cafe du Monde, Streetcars of Desire and all the great food to be had in the Crescent City. The extra lagniappe in New Orleans–the local comic book store named after MWN’s early comics.

More Fun Comics Store in New Orleans.

More Fun Comics Store in New Orleans.

Danny Fingeroth organizes much of the programming for Wizard World and he continues to bring in a stellar group of people who know and love comics. I met Dean Haspiel, a talented artist who is part of Hang Dai Studios in Brooklyn, NY. Dean worked with Harvey Pekar who was an obvious influence and I love that he and the incomparable Mark Waid are currently working on The Fox originally drawn by Irwin Hasen.

Dean Haspiel with his book Fear My Dear.

Dean Haspiel with his book Fear My Dear.

Ben Katchor, a very fine artist and the recipient of several prestigious well-deserved awards presented his work along with Dean’s. It was a special treat to have the opportunity to see these artists in such an intimate setting showing and speaking about their work. It was obvious from the numerous examples that their environment–New York City–in some form is a character in each artist’s work. Ben’s gorgeous drawings and washes of color were new to me and it was a pleasure to meet him as well.

Ben Katchor art.

Ben Katchor art.

Danny Fingeroth, Dean Haspiel and Ben Katchor.

Danny Fingeroth, Dean Haspiel and Ben Katchor.

It was also fun to meet Gabe Soria who knows cousin Ian Wheeler-Nicholson from their New York City days working on various magazines. Yes, it runs in the family. Gabe currently lives in New Orleans and he and Dean discussed their project for Batman ’66, a clever take on the old series and beautifully drawn. Gabe has a new Batman ’66 story out featuring Batgirl and drawn by Ty Templeton. I can’t wait to read it.

Gabe Soria and Batman.

Gabe Soria and Batman.

This particular con had a number of very fine independent artists including the very cool Jim Mahfood and James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook whose book The Late Child and Other Animals has a haunting memoir at its heart.

The Late Child and Other Animals.

The Late Child and Other Animals.

Appearing on a panel with Danny Fingeroth (Superman on the Couch, Disguised as Clark Kent) and Travis Langley (Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight) speaking about “World War II and the Comics: The Joker, The Flash and Captain Marvel” along with Sherry Lupkes Craig, an impressive comics scholar teaching at Southeastern Louisiana University was one of the high points.

Dr. Travis Langley doing his thing.

Dr. Travis Langley doing his thing.

Clockwise: Nicky, Danny, Dean, Ben and Travis at WW Comic Con New Orleans.

Clockwise: Danny, Dean, Ben, Nicky and Travis at WW Comic Con New Orleans.

To top off a super experience Eris Walsh of the MarySue interviewed me. Since I’m often the only woman on these panels I have the opportunity to talk about women in comics as well as the way women are portrayed in comics.

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In late February I drove down to Fort Lauderdale for Rich Harvey’s Bold Venture Press first Pulp AdventureCon there. He’s been doing a Pulp Convention in Bordentown, New Jersey for many years and it was one of the first events I attended when I first started getting to know the pulp community. The Fort Lauderdale Pulp AdventureCon took place in a classic Hollywood setting with huge luxury condos on the intracoastal canal and yachts anchored below with palm trees swaying in the ocean breeze. Could there be a better place to delve into the pulpish world?

Scott Hartshorn, Michael R. Hudson and J. David Spurlock.

Scott Hartshorn, Michael R. Hudson and J. David Spurlock.

My fellow southerners and good pal pulpsters William Lampkin who maintains the excellent The Pulpnet.com, and Yellowed Perils and Jeff Shanks, a top Robert E. Howard scholar who is not too shabby in the comics history department, Scott Hartshorn and author Michael R. Hudson were all there for the fun. J. David Spurlock of Vanguard Publishing brought his gorgeous books. I especially love the Margaret Brundage, one of the few women cover artists for the pulps. I’ll talk more about her in a later column.

Jeff Shanks and Scott Hartshorn in the art of the deal.

Jeff Shanks and Scott Hartshorn in the art of the deal.

Audrey Parente

Audrey Parente

It was exciting to meet Audrey Parente as there are so few pulpster dames. Audrey has written a biography of pulp writer Theodore Roscoe and she told me about Charles Boeckmann, one of the last of the pulp writers still going strong. She recently edited his memoirs Pulp Jazz: Blue Notes and Purple Prose. I had a chance to talk with Charles and his wife Patty on my way back to the West Coast which I’ll share in a later post. I finally got to meet David T. Alexander of DTA Collectibles, a lovely gentleman whose selection of pulps I have been enamored of for some time. The best part, of course, was the talking, talking, talking pulps, comics, the writers, the artists and the fun behind the scenes stories we all love.

Rich Harvey and Bob Deis.

Rich Harvey and Bob Deis.

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By April I was back in Berkeley and Dan Herman of Hermes Press asked me if I would jaunt down to San Jose with Tom Andrae and participate on a panel celebrating Walt Kelly and Pogo for the Big Wow Festival in San Jose. I was more than pleased as I always love hanging out with Tom. He’s a comics scholar whose head is crammed with tons of facts profound and obscure of everything you could possibly ever want to know about early comics and the super heroes. He’s also written more than a few books. Hermes Press does very fine reproductions of comics in beautifully bound books and their Walt Kelly’s Pogo: The Complete Dell Comics is no exception.

Tom Andrae and Dan Herman

Tom Andrae and Dan Herman

Dan always makes a beautiful presentation for his panels. It was fun to bring in some little known facts to the guys including the knowledgeable Mark Brustein and Scott Daley, step-son of Kelly who know just about everything there is to know on the subject. MWN hired a young Walt Kelly and I brought in a couple of slides of cartoons he created for MWN’s early comics appearing in More Fun 7 and 8. Dean Yeagle came to the panel and afterwards we all got the chance to talk–what else? Comics.

Grant Geissman & Nicky

Grant Geissman & Nicky

Al Gordon

Al Gordon

Part of the fun at these events is running into some of your favorite pals like the multi-talented Grant Geissman, jazz musician and writer of books about EC Comics. It was great to stroll through Artists Alley and see the ever dapper Steranko holding forth, as well as Al Gordon and Steve Leialoha among other talented guys. I finally got to meet the legendary Steve Bissette and I thoroughly enjoyed the panel he was on moderated by my good pal and fine artist Mike Pascale.

Steve Bissette and Nicky

Steve Bissette and Nicky

Mike Pascale's panel on Storytelling for Comics.

Mike Pascale’s panel on Storytelling for Comics.

A short catch of the breath and then on to Sacramento in June once again for Wizard World. Danny outdid himself on this one with panels featuring among others the iconic  Howard Chaykin; a reprise of our panel on comics during World War II with Mel Gordon, Tom Andrae (who co-authored Siegel and Shuster’s: FunnyMan) and Trina Robbins; and Travis Langley’s popular panel on The Joker, Robin, The Flash et al. Travis who is nothing if not au courant has a new book out The Walking Dead Psychology.

Danny Fingeroth and Travis Langley.

Danny Fingeroth and Travis Langley.

If you like straight talk and your art innovative, here's your guy: Howard Chaykin.

If you like straight talk and your art innovative, here’s your guy: Howard Chaykin.

Alice in Wonderland checking out the comics.

Alice in Wonderland checking out the comics.

In Artists Alley there were sightings of Neal Adams (so you know it’s going to be a good show), Peter Bagge and Steve Leialoha.

Neal Adams himself.

Neal Adams himself.

Peter Bagge.

Peter Bagge.

Steve Leialoha

Steve Leialoha

Seth Everett from the new ConTV interviewed Trina Robbins, Genese Davis (The Holder Dominion) and me about women in comics. Seth did a great job managing three women with strong points of view. Trina, of course is the final word on this subject having written a number of books of the history of women artists in comics with the latest Pretty in Ink from Fantagraphics. She has a new book coming out that I’m excited about and will talk about it in the SDCC post. Seth came by my table later and we had an in depth conversation about “the Major” and early comics. You can hear it here.

Trina with her book about cartoonist Tarpe Mills and Miss Fury.

Trina with her book about cartoonist Tarpe Mills and Miss Fury.

Our friend and comics scholar David Armstrong came up from L.A. to join us. Part of the fun for those of us working at these conventions is the opportunity hang out and talk shop. I always learn so much from being with these incredibly gifted artists and writers. The other plus was that we found terrific food in Sacramento. Being from the snobby food scene around Berkeley who knew!

Yes there were comics at WW Sacramento  Comic Con.

Yes there were comics at WW Sacramento Comic Con.

Next stop the big Prom and Cinderella Ball of them all–San Diego Comic Con.

 

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Happy 125th Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson

Happy 125th Birthday to my grandfather Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, soldier, writer of adventure stories and novels and founder of DC Comics. What does it mean to inherit the legacy of a man who lived a life of adventure and unbelievable creativity all the while maintaining his dignity and grace under fire at various points in his life? I did not grow up around the Major due to my parents’ early divorce and I am one of 20 grandchildren from the five children of my grandfather Nick and grandmother Elsa. A few people in my family including an influential elder male question my right to tell his story because I’m a woman and I did not know him.

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I think that’s in my favor because I’m not your usual comic book family member who carries the legacy simply because of my name. Unlike other members of my family I’ve had to make a conscious and deliberate search for the facts of my grandfather’s life. It’s been an incredible 15-year journey and one that is not only a search for facts but also one that is deeply personal. Anyone and everyone can decide to pursue a biography. I am fortunate in that I have been privileged to have the access that most people would not have and an innate understanding of shared DNA. Through the search for the facts of his life and reading and studying MWN’s amazing creative work I’ve come to have great respect and deep regard for all the things he accomplished in his life.

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What I’ve come to understand is my legacy is the genetic predisposition to be creative especially as a writer and to enjoy the company of those who are on similar journeys. I’ve been writing stories and poems since the age of 8 and learned to edit in blue pencil under my mother’s watchful eye when helping her after school in her office. Publishing, writing and editing are in my blood from both sides of my family and the gene pool in which I swim.

Written permission required for use.

Written permission required for use.

My grandfather was a courageous man on the battlefield, in his creative vision and his refusal to be laid low by the difficulties of life. One thing I have learned is that courage is not the absence of fear but rather the acknowledgement of fear and somehow moving forward in spite of it. I understand my grandfather’s motivations and character through my own experience and the inherent sense of who I am as one of his grandchildren.

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There are other comic book families that have been in the news recently having to do with legacy–the Kirby family, the Marston family and now just within this past week, the Liebowitz family. I understand the controversies in these cases from my own experience with family legacy and inheritance. The Kirby family has finally received the monetary rewards and more importantly the recognition of creative ability so richly deserved.

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The Marston family has been at the center of a retelling of the story of that family’s life and it’s connection to the archetypal character of Wonder Woman. There is controversy surrounding the revelations of family and creator and not everyone in the Marston family is pleased with the rendition of their family and legacy.

© respective copyright holders.

© respective copyright holders.

The Liebowitz family is now embroiled in a fight for the monetary rewards of Jack Liebowitz’s empire. That empire was not only built on the backs of the creators like Siegel and Shuster but the creative genius of my grandfather, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. In light of the controversy of the Liebowitz legacy perhaps it is far better to have the legacy of creative genius, which was lost to history and now is being celebrated without the confusion of monetary gain.

Donenfeld and Liebowitz.

Donenfeld and Liebowitz.

As we gather to cheer the birth of this extraordinary man in celebratory spirit and the start of a new year it’s a good time to acknowledge some of the good people who have joined in to support this grand journey—to my co-author Gerard Jones without whom I would not be able to cross the finish line, to my father who initiated the journey with the gifts of family archives, to Jason Brown who encouraged me on the journey, to Michael Uslan for his friendship and support, to John Locke for his prolific and outstanding research and his support in creating The Texas-Siberia Trail, to Danny Fingeroth for being a Knight in Shining Armor, to Howard Cruse, Shannon Wheeler and Drew Friedman for the luminous gifts of their creativity, to Tom DeHaven, Brad Ricca and Larry Tye for moving the story forward in such good ways, to Tom Andrae for his meticulous scholarship and generosity, to Jackie Estrada, J.C. Vaughn, Robert Overstreet, Dr. John Lent, Roy Thomas, John Morrow and Jim Amash for giving the Major a platform and to so many more of you who have been kind, helpful, thoughtful and encouraging. Let’s all raise a glass of champagne. Here’s to the biography Lost Hero and a very Happy 125th Birthday to Grandfather Nick!

nicky 2 final print

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“The Major”

Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson had an extraordinary military career. Just recently I spent time in the National Archives in Washington, DC once again sifting through files there. One of the treasures found was MWN’s test for entry into the US Army. His test score—99 out of 100! That’s pretty impressive, I’d say.

From photos, family stories and by combing through the Major’s many pulp adventure stories based on his own exploits and juxtaposing these against archival military records it’s possible to get a fairly accurate timeline of where he was and when and what he was doing.

Early Military photo MWN

As John Locke noted in the introduction to The Texas-Siberia Trail, the recent reprint of some of the Major’s adventure tales and as Gerard Jones noted on the cover of the book, Wheeler-Nicholson was unique in that his stories were based on actual adventures unlike some of the other writers of the time. The stories in The Texas-Siberia Trail published by Off-Trail Publications are organized by the biographical military adventures of “the Major” rather than the dates published. The reader then gets a sense of the flow of MWN’s real life adventures.

Cover

When MWN was middle-aged and had quite a few energetic and talented teenagers working for him in the new comics venture that would become DC Comics, his stories must have seemed fantastical and unbelievable. And that is often how people like Vincent Sullivan related them to later comics historians with a roll of the eyes and shrug of the shoulder. That MWN was also court-martialed in a dramatic manner with headlines in the New York Times added to the question of his veracity. Not to mention that the world he came from was far removed from that of so many of the young writers and artists who worked for him.

MWNEstate1

It’s a good lesson for all of us who toil in the comics history field—just because somebody put it in a book doesn’t mean it’s so. Many of the stories that abound about that early period when the Major was creating original comics like New Fun and More Fun with Siegel and Schuster, Bob Kane, Walt Kelly and artists like Craig Flessel, are oral anecdotal history. There are a lot of great stories but it’s good to do some background checking before buying them all the way. I love to trace some of these tales back to the person who appears to be the original teller. It can offer some interesting insights about the motives and intentions of the teller.

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So what do we know about Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s military history? The facts from the archives are clear. “Nick” as he was called by his fellows graduated from Manlius Military Academy in June 1910. Manlius was one of the four feeder schools into the US Army at that time. He did well on his tests to enter the US Army, specifically the 2nd Cavalry as a second lieutenant in 1911. His first assignments were to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, then Fort Meade, South Dakota and finally to Fort Bliss outside of El Paso, Texas.

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He spent several years there on the Mexican border chasing bandits. Under General Black Jack Pershing he commanded Troop K of the African-American Buffalo soldiers. This period made a deep impression upon him and it figured prominently in many of his stories such as “Shavetail” (a term for a new 2nd Lieutenant) and one of the hardback novels published originally in Adventure Magazine, The Corral of Death. One of my favorite stories of this period is “The Sable Phalanx” from Adventure Magazine, nominated for an O’Henry Short Story Award in 1932. Two African-American soldiers are the Rosenkrantz and Gildenstern of the story and it is through their telling that the action is revealed.

nicky 2 final print

In 1915 Wheeler-Nicholson was stationed for a time at Fort Ethan Allan, Vermont and Plattsburg Camp where he was an instructor. He accompanied the 9th Cavalry Machine Gun Troop to the Philippines to engage in the continuing fight against the Muslim Moros. There are a number of stories in the pulps from this period such as “The Captain was Crazy” and “Dark Regiment” that reveal a nasty side to this operation and a possible mutiny that may have been averted at the last moment among his men. This is an ongoing area of research with help from military historians particularly Robert Wetteman who teaches at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. It was also during this time that MWN was promoted to Captain and then Major and won awards for his troops’ machine gun readiness. That’s the ability for these men on horseback to dismount and prepare the heavy machine guns and have them in place in a very short time period.

Nickonhorseback

In 1917 the Major appears to be in military intelligence according to Army records and he was in China and Japan according to passport records and ship’s manifests. He was then sent to Siberia with the American Expeditionary Force commanding the Third Squadron, 9th Cavalry. The AEF is a little known aspect of the US involvement during World War I in Russia at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. It was even more exotic and adventurous than his service in the Philippines. The Major saw firsthand the cruelty of the Cossacks and wrote frequently about this period of his life in his pulp adventure stories like “The Red Spider’s Den” and “The Song of Death.” These stories are rich in detail of the time and place and gave the Major an understanding of the forces that would come into play later in World War II.

©respective holders

©respective holders

After this heady adventure by 1919 he was back at Fort Bliss and chafing at the bit to go to Europe. In September of 1919 he was issued a passport for diplomatic service and went to France to study at the Ecole Superieure de Guerre, attached to the American Embassy in London and to the American Cavalry on the Rhine. A fascinating story in the pulps entitled “The Shadow of Ehrenreitstein” from this period of his life hints at an attempted military coup by the Germans immediately after World War I. There is evidence in Army records that there may be some basis of fact in the story.

By December of 1920 MWN’s troubles with his superior officers began to surface and he came back to the United States to Fort Dix in New Jersey. The subsequent attempt on his life and the sensational headlines in the New York Times in early 1922 when the Major wrote an open letter to President Harding culminated in a court martial. He was absolved of all counts with the exception of the letter to Harding and put back in the files meaning he would never be able to advance his military career. The court martial is a whole other adventure and much too long to tell in this post but there’s a lot more to the story than was previously thought. After leaving the Army the Major embarked on his writing career for the pulps, started a newspaper syndicate, developed early comics and after the loss of DC went on to write numerous articles and books during World War II about military strategy such as Battle Shield of the Republic. His assessments were highly regarded and he penned numerous articles during World War II in Look and Harper’s Magazine to name a few.

BattleShield

It is obvious from his precise descriptions of military life in his stories and his concerns later in life about how the military operated during wartime that the Major truly loved this life and had studied it well. His military bearing throughout earned him the sobriquet–”the Major” and some of his own children referred to him as “the old man,” a military term denoting the person in charge. Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson served his country well in more ways than his service and I honor my grandfather for his military career.

MWNolder

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Comics abroad

Ever since looking at a Romita (Sr.) Spiderman when I was eight, I’d been obsessed with comics. I’d been working on my stories ever since I was a kid, but really dove in head-first when I got laid off in 2008 from my job doing graphics for the fashion industry. I put all my energy into making comics. I won a Xeric and got nominated for an Eisner for the first two chapters of Power Out, but there was a lot of uncertainty about the future.

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Power Out

I got a substantial comics job when Hill & Wang needed someone to step in for an artist who got sick before he could finish a 150-page comic explaining the Affordable Care Act. I have an economics degree, so Thomas LeBien (editor at H&W) thought I’d be a good match with Jonathan Gruber, the health care economist who advised Obama on the ACA. Since my unemployment had long run out, I moved in with my parents to save money while I worked on Health Care Reform. I’m lucky to have parents I could stay with, but when my friend Sarah Glidden told me about a residency program she was doing at the Maison Des Auteurs in Angoulême, France, it sounded like a dream. I was shocked when I got in.

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France didn’t feel like a completely different universe after living in America, but there were a lot of new experiences, like living in a 600 year old building and spending two hours at lunch. The food – I could write pages. French culture loves the arts, and comics in particular. When you tell people you’re a dessinateur (literally, “draw-er”), they’re really impressed, like you told them you were a doctor or something.

The MDA (Maison Des Auteurs) was incredible. I shared a studio with Julien Zanesi, and our studio was in a turret, so we had light from three directions and views of the city and river. There’s galleries and comics libraries and even a museum, but the best resource is all the different artists in the program with you. Everyone takes their work seriously but approaches it with their own unique method, so there’s a lot of good habits to pick up.

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BDVille

While I was there I took Frank Santoro’s correspondence course, which completely changed the way I thought about creating images. There were a lot of things about comics that were getting me down at the time, but I started having fun again, just focusing on the pleasure of creating images. I was in a good mindset for it.  My off-the-plane French was hot garbage, and it simplified things. Some stuff that I used to be hung up on just seemed trivial when trying to deal with satisfying your basic needs while living in a foreign country. So I had a lot of energy to put into comics. I took more chances, both visually (like with Retrofit’s 4090) and emotionally (my diary comic BDVille). Honestly, it was a pretty big transformation in my process and outlook, which is why it’s so hard for me to finish Power Out. I was a different guy when I started that book, and while I still have a passion for the story and characters, it’s difficult to get into the right mindset to finish it.

4090

4090

My favorite thing I’ve ever worked on is my current project, Science Ninjas. It’s a Dragonball-style action-adventure that actually teaches science fundamentals to children. It’s totally legit too! I’m working with  Dr. Amanda Simpson – she has a phD in chemical engineering and everything! It’s quite hands-on, which is unique for a comics project. I’m integrating it into a comprehensive science education program that involves lab experiments, science games, and design competitions. It’s a ton of work, but it’s fun stuff. I’m playing a lot with animation, which is a blast, and kids really respond to it.

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I’m working with day camps next summer where kids can do science experiments, read (and create) comics, and maybe even learn karate! I know it’s not a traditional path for a cartoonist, who usually think in terms of books. But there’s something about projecting your comics on a screen while kids read the parts for the characters that is profoundly satisfying. Health Care Reform sold something like 30,000 copies, but I didn’t get to see one person really engage with it. Watching children enjoy – and learn from – my work in real time does a lot to reaffirm my love for making comics.

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My Comic Book Life, Part 2: I Discover Derring Doers

It’s Operation Lois Lane this week at New York Comic Con. That will be me cosplaying as Lois Lane. I’ll be in disguise as mild-mannered Nicky. My very first Comic Con was San Diego Comic Con in 2008 when my grandfather, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame forty three years after his demise. I had no idea about comic cons, what they were, who attended and why. I arranged for ten of us from my family to come to this event and the phrase—herding cats fits well here. Not for nothing is everyone creative, dramatic and full of individuality. Well what did you expect with the Major—a prolific creator and courageous adventurer—as the father and grandfather?

ComicCon

It was mouth gaping, mind blowing, amazing wading through thousands of people, many dressed in incredible costumes, with the noise on the floor and the lines of people waiting to get in to see the celebrities. It was a grand opera and an amazing spectacle. Every time I attend a comics convention I still have some of that initial beginner’s reaction whether it’s the wonderful artist centric MoCCA or the big cons in San Diego and New York, specialty events like Pulpfest, Windy City or mid-size conventions in various cities promoted by organizations such as Wizard World. They have their differences but there are some common threads.

San Diego Comic Con 2014

San Diego Comic Con 2014

Denise Dorman, wife of artist Dave Dorman (Batman, Star Wars)  has recently written about the difficulties for artists at the comics conventions these days. Whatever you may think about her point of view, it brought up a lot of necessary talk about the very creators who make comics and how they fit into these conventions. I’m not sure that I have a complete grasp of what cosplay is much less have an opinion about it other than it seems so much a part of the whole that I don’t have a dog in that fight. Cosplay or no cosplay one of my favorite things to do is walk the aisles of Artist Alley. Each time I find an artist whose work I admire like Jim Steranko and I often find someone new who is doing something exciting and fun.

Me&Steranko

The Coolest Guy in any town. Me and Steranko.

At San Diego Comic Con in 2010 not only did I get to meet Keith Knight whose work I have always related to and found laugh out loud funny but I also got a signed print! I discovered I could buy art that wasn’t in the million dollar category but affordable and desirable. I also happened upon the Strangler Brothers—an amusing comic drawn by the terrific Melinda Davidson and written by Judge Leverich and Josh Frankovich.

Keith of the K Chronicles

Keith of the K Chronicles is completely surprised by my gushing.

This year at San Diego Comic Con I bought a wonderfully quirky comic byDoug Paszkiewicz–Arsenic Lullaby because I love the artwork and the story line is clever and sophisticated. In Richmond just 3 weeks ago I met Shawn Martinbrough, whom many of you probably already know. He’s currently working on Thief of Thieves. Shawn is so talented, smart and focused and it was a real pleasure to connect with him and the fabulous Ayanna. I also discovered two adorable young artists just starting out. Their artwork caught my eye and their stories are interesting. More to come.

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I met Danny Fingeroth, one of my best pals when I attended MoCCA for the first time in 2009. At the same time I discovered a young artist named Nathan Schreiber. Nathan was doing his own comic that was beautifully drawn and had an interesting story line. I stopped and talked with him for a while and we exchanged information and stayed in touch from time to time. I have been following his career for 6 years now and I’m even more excited about the way Nathan has developed as an artist. I fell in love with the work he did while he was in France. His style has matured and developed in a wonderful way. I’ve asked Nathan to tell you his story. It’s a classic tale you’ll enjoy and what’s especially nice is that it’s just the beginning.

 

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COMIC STRIPS, THE PULPS, COMIC BOOKS, AND HARRY DONENFELD

The origin of the Pulps (so called for the cheap paper they were printed on) date back to the 19th century. In 1860 dime novels arose as spin-offs to adventure stories published in the weekly papers, and were read in great numbers by soldiers of the Union Army during the Civil War. Frank Munsey’s “cheap fiction weekly for boys and girls,” The Golden Argosy, debuted in December of 1882, and this development marked the beginnings of pulp literature as we know it. By the 1920s and 1930s, the pulps were phenomenally popular; they began their decline in the late 1930s, supplanted in part by the rise of the comic book. The pulps, as a genre, were to last until 1955.

© respective holders.

© respective holders.

Newspaper comic strips effectively originated in 1896. By 1915, daily strips were a recognizable phenomenon; they were firmly established by the 1920s. The first American collection of “comic strips and cartoons,” A.B. Frost’s Stuff and Nonsense, appeared in 1884; newspaper strips in comic book form first appeared as early as 1897. But the pioneer effort in mass-marketing the comic book was George Delacourt’s abortive 1929, 36-issue run of Dell Publishing Company’s The Funnies, “the first regular comics magazine to be published and sold on newsstands.”

The Funnies

The newspaper comic strip and the pulps had a great many similarities which made them the ideal hatching ground for the modern comic book: the pulps contributed the genre conventions, significantly, the template of the action-adventure hero; the serially published news stand magazine format; and the combination of print and illustration. The comic strip contributed the basic format, and the convention of the continuity strip, which was a serially told story with words and pictures.

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“When there were no premier [comic] strips left to recycle,” Major Wheeler-Nicholson’s tabloid-sized New Fun became the first four-color comic book to feature previously unpublished comic strips. It was cover-dated February 1935, and was later to be called More Fun.

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Early in 1937 Donenfeld and Wheeler-Nicholson formed Detective Comics, Inc. The initial issue of Detective Comics, cover-dated March 1937, was among the first to gather all-new single-themed material and present it in four colors. Wheeler-Nicholson lost control of his titles around February 1938; by June his assets were “purchased…at a bankruptcy auction” by his former printer and business partner Harry Donenfeld, who, with his partner, Russian-born Jacob Liebowitz, founded Detective Comics, also known as DC Comics.

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What is not widely known is that many of the principal comic book publishers got their start in the pulps. The list reads like a who’s who of industry heavyweights: Martin Goodman (Timely); John L. Goldwater (Archie); George T. Delacorte (Dell); Lev Gleason (Crime Does Not Pay), and Harry Donenfeld (Superman-DC).

© Archie Comics

© Archie Comics

But who was Harry Donenfeld? Was he a legitimate businessman–or something else?

The comic book industry, according Harry Donenfeld’s son Irwin (as cited by interviewer Robert Beerbohm), was established in part by “bootlegger mob money.” According to comics historian Gerard Jones, there is also speculation that in the 1920s Harry was working via Frank Costello, a notorious gangster, to move illegal alcohol from the Canadian border along with shipments of pulp paper. Donenfeld’s fortune was made when, in 1923, though Hearst newspaper salesman Moe Annenberg, another mobbed-up businessman, he gained a lucrative contract to print supplements for popular magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping.

© respective holders

© respective holders

Harry was a very level-headed businessman, always eager to seize the main chance, and apparently, in other respects he was a very hard man. Also in 1923, he forced his two older brothers out of their partnership in Martin Press and renamed it Donny Press. With the help of partners, Harry Donenfeld launched Independent News Company in 1932, making him both a publisher and distributor.

Donenfeld and Liebowitz.

Donenfeld and Liebowitz.

In May 1932, Frank Armer was compelled to surrender two of his “Girlie Pulp” titles to Harry Donenfeld for printing debts owed; “in like manner, Donenfeld accrued many girlie pulp titles during the 1930s.”

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Incidentally, Harry hated Superman; didn’t want to see such a ridiculous character on the cover of Action Comics, and relented only when sales figures showed that the character was a hit. (Nor did his dislike of the character prevent him from making a deal with Superman’s creators which made him a wealthy man and left them in litigation limbo for decades.)

Harry Donenfeld with Bud Collyer and painting of Superman by H.J. Ward in background.

Harry Donenfeld with Bud Collyer and painting of Superman by H.J. Ward in background.

According to William Gaines, whose father Max and his AA Publications was partnered with Donenfeld and Liebowitz, by the 1940s, “Donenfeld was the man who you might say was in charge of wholesaler relations. And the wholesalers liked Donenfeld very much and he got along with them. He was really in charge of keeping them happy and on good terms with the company.”

Max Gaines, Donenfeld and Liebowitz.

Max Gaines, Donenfeld and Liebowitz.

With a foothold already firmly entrenched in the pulps, Harry Donenfeld was one of those ruthless businessmen who had a knack for migrating the business methodologies of pulp publishers over to the nascent comic book field. According to Dale Jacobs, for both the pulps and the comic books, distribution was key to sales. If, in the 1940s, Donenfeld became something of a glad-hander, this status does not efface his earlier role as a mover and shaker–not to mention a ruthless conniver. However, this close connection of the pulps and comic books helped pave the way for a major setback for the industry.

 

When the newspaper comic strip first migrated to the comic book, particularly during the period 1929-1937, there had been a certain degree of quality control in terms of content, since newspaper publishers were reluctant to print syndicated material that would cause large numbers of readers to complain and possibly cancel their newspaper subscriptions. However, by 1938 nearly all comic books were almost entirely composed of original material and many publishers, some of them veterans of the pulp fiction industry, felt under no obligation to prevent objectionable material from appearing in their periodicals.

The rapid expansion of the industry in the late 1930s created chaotic conditions in which market contingencies were paramount. The more popular and lucrative that comic books became, the more their publishers sought to out-do one another. The tone of their content became even more vulgar, and as a result they began to attract more and more unfavorable notice. This culminated in the 1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency, with the special focus on Comic Books.

Senator Robert C. Hendrickson. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Senator Robert C. Hendrickson. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

It is ironic, perhaps, that, by 1955,”the pulps had virtually all vanished from the stands…victim to all manner of afflictions—comics, paperbacks, television and eventually the withdrawal of their major distributor.” It is equally ironic that the success of Superman, the character so despised by Donenfeld, made it possible for Liebowitz and Donenfeld to jettison their Spicy pulp magazine line, which, according to Will Murray, “had come under intense scrutiny from public censors, and to concentrate [instead] on their safer and more profitable comic books.”

 

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My Comic Book Life: Part 1, The Lay of the Land

I’ve been on a quest for about 16 years researching my grandfather, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s life and work. In the halls of the Court of Comic Book Land I’ve encountered Courtiers who would flatter one out of the few gold pieces held. I crossed swords with an Evil Wizard who is still lurking about. And I thought I had found the one true Knight but he turned out to be a rusty Tin Man without a heart, no brain and poor thing, is cowering in the bushes–and I thought I was the scaredy cat! On the other hand I have gathered at the roundish table several brave and true Knights who will don their armor and do battle for me. I’ve also found a few Wise Men and Women that shine a light upon the sometimes dark path. I would never have gotten this far without the Allies of surrounding kingdoms who have helped to keep me in bread and wine. The best part of the journey is the Good Companions well met who keep my spirits up. And a good thing too as I’ve fallen into the mire more than a time or two, lost my way in the deep woods and been knocked off my steed into the dust. In the requisite skirmishes for the Kingdom of Comics I’ve lost a couple of battles here and there and made one or two enemies.

Cover of AlterEgo magazine, August 2009.

Cover of AlterEgo magazine, August 2009.

I am the proverbial fool from the Tarot deck stepping off into the void whistling a tune, a juggler trying to keep all the plates spinning and Dorothy blithely skipping down the Yellow Brick Road. But somehow through all the ups and downs I’ve managed to keep going. A good friend who knows most of the gritty details recently asked me if I would describe myself “tough as nails.” Not by a long shot! I’ve cried buckets and like a mealy mouthed Melanie from GWTW fallen on the fainting couch for months after being pushed out of the cafeteria by the mean girl table. It takes courage and a spirit of adventure to keep going forward in the face of impossible odds. There is a difference between being tough as nails and having courage and an adventurous spirit. The difficulties I’ve encountered have helped me feel in my bones the inherited DNA of the Major’s determination throughout his life to courageously face the enemy in battle and in life. I have refused to give up and now here we are near the end of this journey with a book of the Major’s adventure stories, The Texas-Siberia Trail recently published by Off-Trail Publications, a biography of the Major’s life in the making with Gerard Jones as a co-author who is one of the best writers and historians in the industry, and several other exciting media projects in the works.

Cover

In the process of organizing my overwhelming mounds of research for our upcoming bio, Lost Hero, The Adventurous and Tragic Life of the Man Who Invented Comic Books I’ve discovered bits and pieces that reveal some of the moments from the long journey. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll showcase some of the people who have helped me along the way and their thoughts about comics and comic book history. I’m beginning with a post from my friend Francis DiMenno. Francis is an erudite Harvard graduate and a librarian who loves comics. He wrote his thesis on Comic Books and he was one of the first scholars I interviewed about comics history at least 10 years ago. Francis reveals the basics of how the industry began and who was there. He discusses the connection between the pulps and the comics. Since the Major is an important link between the two it’s fitting that we start our journey with his post. Feel free to add your own thoughts about How It All Began.

nicky 2 final print

 

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