Interview: Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson

Conducted by Kim Munson

An interview with Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson and her adventures on The Texas-Siberia Trail (Off-Trail Publications)

T-S-TrailLast week I shared a dinner with Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, a recent transplant to the San Francisco Bay area. The granddaughter of Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, Nicky grew up in a family of storytellers. Her smile and warm hearty laugh reflect her Southern roots, making it a joy to hear tales of her search for the unvarnished truth of her grandfather’s history.

After a career in the military that took him from the cavalry in the Mexican Revolution to spying in Siberia, Major Malcom Wheeler-Nicholson (aka “the Major,” 1890 – 1965) mined his own history to craft a series of enthralling adventure tales for 1930s pulp magazines like Argosy and Adventure. After steady success as a writer, he moved into publishing, and is best known as one of the founding fathers of the comics industry, who lost his stake in the first publication of Superman and his company (soon to be DC Comics) due to bankruptcy.

As is the case with many of these stories, the actual history is more complex, and Nicky has spent the last 15 years trying to piece together the real story of her grandfather’s life and business affairs. Along the way, she became a fan of his adventure stories, which have been recently collected in The Texas-Siberia Trail (published by Off-Trail Publications, specializing in pulps and noir fiction).

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Kim Munson: Being a visual person myself, I always have to start with art and artists. The Texas-Siberia Trail includes a prominent portrait of your Grandfather by Howard Cruse. The two of you have been friends for decades. How did you meet?

Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson: Howard and I were both theatre majors at the same college in Alabama: Birmingham-Southern College. It is a small liberal arts college and one of the few alternatives in the south for a true “liberal” arts education. Our professor, Dr. Arnold Francis Powell, was a man far ahead of his time and his productions were innovative and legendary. The theatre Dr. Powell designed had a split-lift-revolve stage that the Metropolitan Opera in New York adopted as design template. He promoted Beckett and Pinter, as well as the classics like Molière. Other teachers were recruited from the Guthrie Theatre in Minnesota, so we were exposed to the latest in theatre.

Howard was several years ahead of me. He wrote a play that I appeared in and we became fast friends and have remained so all these years.

KM: Wow! I completely lose track of people from high school. How did you stay in touch after all that time?

NWN: We saw one another in New York often after we each moved there, and later in the Berkshires in Massachusetts where we both ended up. Howard’s graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby is one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read. He is an artist in every sense of the word and one of the kindest and most generous people I know. I am so grateful to him for the beautiful drawing of my grandfather.

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Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson with Howard Cruse at her reading at The Bookstore, Lenox, MA. 2014

KM: You’ve been out on the road promoting The Texas-Siberia Trail. How has the audience responded?

NWN: It’s been positive but a lot of work. I’ve been at two comic cons, one in New Orleans and one in Pensacola, FL, and at both those events I had to do a lot of explaining about who my grandfather was and why he’s important. However, people who showed an interest became very interested and bought the book. I also did a reading at a bookstore in Lenox, MA, that is a hangout for a lot of New York and local writers. Quite a few people I know from the publishing industry showed up, not so much for my grandfather’s work but to support me. After I read some excerpts from the stories people got excited and almost everyone bought a book. One of my long-time friends who is quite erudite said to me, “Why, he was a very good writer.” Well yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been saying!

KM: Through your research, you have formed a very different view of your grandfather and his life than that of the rest of your family. What was it about him that drove you into taking on this huge project?

NWN: My parents were divorced when I was quite young and I did not know my grandfather. I was always interested in him because I wanted to be a writer from the time I was quite young — writing poetry at the age of 8, and by the time I was 12 I was the editor of our elementary school paper. My mother and my mother’s family have always owned newspapers and been writers or professors, so it’s very much a part of my family culture from both parents. When I was 30 my father, Malcolm, Jr., gave me some letters and photographs of my grandparents. I didn’t realize the significance of what he had given me until 20 years later. Much of my search is based on a very personal journey for the father I never had as a child and my grandfather’s legacy. My family has a divided attitude towards my grandfather: on the one hand being proud of his accomplishments but on the other feeling that he was in many ways a failure because he “lost” Superman and DC. I never saw him that way because he is first and foremost a writer and a creative person. I know what that’s like and how difficult it can be to reconcile with a traditional lifestyle of marriage and children. I believe so strongly that he deserves his place in history for his amazing accomplishments and that has been the driving force for me these last 15 years.

KM: You have a degree in Greek classics. Did this give you different insight into the Major’s life and stories?

NWN: Absolutely. Going through the rigors of a master’s degree and a thesis makes such a difference to one’s approach to one’s work. I like to know the origins of things. “Where did this come from?” is almost always my first question because it tells you so much more about a story. In some ways it’s been similar to being a detective. I have always loved storytelling. My maternal grandfather, whom I spent a great deal of time with, was well-educated, a great reader and a fantastic raconteur in the best Southern tradition. The Greek myths and plays resonant with the archetypes we see in the stories we love and read over and over. I think comics in their simpler story forms are especially conducive to archetypes and archetypal stories. Superman, the orphan, the stranger, raised by foster parents and who has powers to help others less fortunate. That’s about as classic as it gets, not to mention Wonder Woman, with her connections to the Amazons of the Greeks.

KM: You told me that out of all the stories in the current book, you like “The Road without Turning”the best. What is special about this particular story?

NWN: Besides the fact that it is one of MWN’s best and has an amazing twist at the end, it has personal resonance. My grandmother was Swedish, and several years ago I was in France for a large family gathering. My father’s first cousin, Finn Andreen, whom we refer to as Uncle Finn, is the family archivist for that side of the family. My grandfather visited Sweden in late 1948 and 1949 to help settle my great-grandmother’s estate. Finn took some wonderful photos of my grandfather that we have posted and reprinted in various places. While I was in France, Finn drove me to the chateau at Vic-sur-Aisne just to the northeast of Paris. My grandfather used the chateau as the setting for “The Road without Turning” and several other stories as well. My grandparents lived there in the late 1920s just before the stock market crash. There are wonderful photos of them there during that period in tennis outfits, on the steps of the chateau, in the gardens, etc. The day Finn drove me to the chateau was one of those magical out-of-time days. We happened to arrive while one of the owners happened to be there, and she took us on a personal tour. It was fantastic. Afterwards we ate lunch in the little café that my grandfather used to frequent. Seeing the inspiration for the story made it come alive for me.

KM: In the book it seems like you have tried to select stories that reflect a range of different places and themes in MWN’s writing. Did he leave a lot of stories to choose from?

NWN: The publisher, John Locke, notes in his introduction that MWN was not a prolific pulp writer because he took a lot of care with his work, unlike some of his contemporaries who churned out formulaic writing in order to make the money they needed at little more than 2 cents a word. MWN’s care with his writing is evidenced by most of the work being polished and by the fact that he was in the best of the pulps, such as Adventure and Argosy. His stories were nominated 3 times for an O’Henry Short Story Award.

KM: Is there a story that has shown real longevity? One that readers might recognize today?

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Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson

NWN: Perhaps“The Road without Turning,” as it was first published in 1932 and reprinted a number of times even as late as 1967. I think that shows how a story that has archetypal elements can stand the test of time.

KM: In Men of Tomorrow, Gerard Jones’s epic history of the early comics industry, he portrays the Major as a character straight out of a Wes Anderson movie: dishonorably discharged, still in military garb, and full of “horse manure.” Yet the two of you are collaborating on a biography of him. How did that happen?

NWN: When Gerard came out with Men of Tomorrow — which is an excellent book, by the way — he, like almost everyone else, simply took the established storyline that my grandfather was a minor player and very eccentric. Because his book is so seminal for the history of comics, there was a lot of press. In one review in Business Week, the section on my grandfather was quoted. My Auntie Diane who lived in London saw it and went on a tear. She emailed me, and I called her and tried to convince her to let me get the book and read it before she did anything. But Auntie Diane was a force of nature and did things her way. She wrote a scathing letter to the editor of Business Week that got passed on to Gerard. Being the gentleman he is, he contacted her, and she told him to get in touch with me because I was doing research into my grandfather’s life. The first thing I did was send him a photo that disproved the more eccentric claims.

We corresponded off and on, and then I met Gerard for the first time in 2008 at SDCC when my grandfather was inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame. We hit it off, and he indicated interest in helping me with my grandfather’s story. I chose to collaborate with him because he has the background in comics history that I do not, and also because he is a terrific writer. I am especially interested in keeping this book from being a family hagiography. I’d like it to be a book that can stand on its own as an important book in comics history and encourage further exploration and knowledge.

KM: Beginning in 1934, the Major was the first person to publish comic books as we are familiar with them today, filled with original content instead of reprinted strips from newspapers. He gave many young cartoonists and writers their first break including Walt Kelly, Bob Kane, Jerry Siegel, and Joe Shuster. At this point in your research, what can you share about his involvement in the founding of DC comics?

NWN: MWN’s first company was National Allied Publications established sometime in the fall of 1934. Originally he was distributed by McCall’s and the printing was done through the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. So far I have not been able to pinpoint exactly when he and Harry Donenfeld got into business together, but it was probably some time in 1936. It seems from the written evidence of letters to Jerry Siegel that MWN probably saw the idea for the Superman strip in mid-1935. By October 1935 Siegel and Shuster are in New Fun #6. MWN writes them that he has pending deals, so he was obviously looking for a backer for his new comics magazine, Adventure. Action Comics was in the planning stages. Note that both names stem from the pulps. Supposedly MWN and Donenfeld and Liebowitz started doing business in early 1936. By August 1936, Donenfeld’s printing company, Donny Press, was printing the glossy covers for the comics. In the Authors and Journal trade magazine of February 1937, Nicholson Publishing, Inc. is listed as publishing three magazines including Detective Comics Magazine. So it’s probable to assume that DC as an entity was formed sometime in late 1936 or early 1937 with Jack Liebowitz and Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson as the corporate entity. In April of 1937 Donenfeld and Liebowitz take over distribution of the magazines, as McCall’s is no longer listed as the distributor. It’s a murky trail, and I’m still unraveling the story into precise dates and details. The bankruptcy proceeding is surprisingly fascinating and will be an important part of the book Gerard and I are writing. There is a lot to be revealed that most people don’t know about how DC came about and the origins of Superman.

KM: Like most people interested in comics history, I’ll be looking forward to this book! Thanks, Nicky.

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Get your copy of The Texas-Sibera Trail and as well as books that discuss the history of comics and Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson:

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The Comics Alternative is a podcast and blog focused on the world of alternative, independent, and primarily non-superhero comics.

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