Granddaughter of famous cartoonist explains his work

By Katie Landeck

It was almost like a Thanksgiving dinner, when relatives gather around an oversized turkey and talk about the memories of crazy relatives. Except, there was no turkey. Instead, writer Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson Brown was talking about her grandfather Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, a pulp fiction writer who published the first original comics, to a sparsely attended lecture hall.

“I think he was an amazing person who did a lot in one very short life,” said Brown.

Wheeler-Nicholson, who was born in 1890, was a pioneer in the developing field of comics in the 1920s, when the idea of original comic books was first being formulated. Up until that point, comic books were simply reprinting of newspaper comics.

“In 1926, he was conceiving the idea of the graphic novel and how to get it out to the general public,” said Brown.

His first project was converting “Treasure Island” by Robert Lois Stevenson into comic form to create a comic book, according to Brown. Following this success, he started to dedicate more time into comic books creating his own company.

“The printers started to see some money come in and they were interested in his work,” said Brown.

From there, he hired two young cartoonists – Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the masterminds behind the Superman comic strip.

However, Brown questions how much of Superman Siegel and Shuster came up with on their own. Due to a letter she found between the men and her understanding of her grandfather’s personality, she believes Wheeler-Nicholson may have been influential in the conceptualization of the comic.

“He was not the kind of person to be interested in the idea of intellectual property,” she said. “He just gave them ideas and considered it theirs. He was much more interested in creating a larger company.”

Through his own company, he published “New Fun,” “New Comics,” and later, “Adventure” and “Detective Comics,” which were all originals works. Despite Wheeler-Nicholson’s efforts to develop a larger company, due to financial issues he lost the company in 1937, according to Brown.

“After that, he was devastated. He had really believed in it, and it was gone,” said Brown.

The company later became DC comics.

Before becoming a comics writer, Wheeler-Nicholson served in World War I and was a pulp fiction writer. Pulp fiction was a type of creative fiction printed on cheap paper that was easily accessible to the public at the turn of the century.

According to Brown, most of his pulp fiction has military undertones and were actually “thinly veiled” accounts of his own experiences with war.

While he was in the military, he was sent to work in Paris where he met his wife, Elsa Sachsenhausen Bjorkböm.

“There are two family stories for how he proposed to her,” said Brown about Wheeler-Nicholsons Eiffel tower proposal. “The first story is that he bribed the band leader to last fascination over and over until he said yes. The other is that he bribed the operator to not let them down until she said yet.”

Towards the end of his military career, Wheeler-Nicholson worked in counter intelligence, where he quickly became disillusioned with the American military.

“He thought the American Army was not organized very well,” said Brown. “So what did he do? He decided he was going to write a letter to President Harding, which is a court-martial offense.”

Therefore, Wheeler-Nicholson was sent state-side where an assassination attempt on his life was made before his court-martial.

“He was shot in the head,” said Brown. “It was very clearly an assassination attempt. He was left bleeding on the ground for several hours.”

After spending several months in the hospital, he recovered and attended his court-martial, during which he was cleared of all charges except writing a letter to the President.

Katie Landeck can be reached at [email protected].