A model of the cover of Action Comics No. 1, featuring Superman, during the press preview for The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes Lego exhibition - which has over 120 works, created with more than 2 million LEGO bricks - at the South Bank, London. (Phot

Action Comics No. 1, featuring Superman, created with more than 2 million LEGOs (Photo credit: PA Images/Sipa USA)

Berkeley Author Tackles Origin Story Of DC Comics In Comic-Con Talk

July 19, 2018 - 9:31 am

BERKELEY (KCBS Radio) — Desperate dames, gamy gunsels and dogged detectives graced the country's earliest comic books three years before caped crusaders made their debut -- a little-known fact a Berkeley author is bringing to light.

Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson will lead a panel discussion of her book, "DC Comics Before Superman," at Comic-Con International 2018 in San Diego, the country's biggest comic book convention, this weekend. The event runs Thursday through Sunday.

Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson as moderator of a panel at Comic-Con in San Diego in 2015.
Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson (Photo credit: Michael Dooley)

The Berkeley resident's book covers a little-known publisher, her grandfather, the late Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, and his work during the period 1935-1938. These were the years immediately preceding Superman's debut in April 1938.

Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson in 1934 founded National Allied Publications Inc., which became the company known as Detective Comics, also known as the iconic DC Comics. However, he has received little attention for the accomplishment.

"My grandfather's place in this has been the missing piece of comic book evolution for a long time," Wheeler-Nicholson said in an interview. "He was the publisher and creator of National Allied Publications, and Detective Comics was his idea."

In 1935, the Major, as he was known -- he served in the Army in World War I -- started publishing comic books that were tabloid size, then comic book size, Wheeler-Nicholson said. 

"The comics he used for this were from pulp novels. He was the bridge between the two genres," she said. "He bought pulps and put them on the shelf for artists to look at when drawing their characters."

Hard-boiled detectives and shady ladies characteristic of the pulp genre populated the pages of such comics as "New Fun" and "FUN: The big comic magazine," published by the Major. The comic books also feature cowboy character Jack Woods riding and roping on the range.

According to his granddaughter, "He was the first publisher to see a drawing of Superman and he hired Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1935."

But it all came to an end in 1938, when the Major's partners, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, forced him out of the business just months before the April 1938 Action Comics #1 appeared, marking the debut of Superman lifting a car on the cover.

"But my grandfather wouldn't want to be thought of as a victim," Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson said. "He was a courageous, innovative person who made an incredible brand."

Trina Robbins, a legend in the comic book world who was the first woman to draw Wonder Woman, praised "DC Comics Before Superman."

"The art in the book is gorgeous. Nicky is bringing an important piece of comic book history to light in her book," said Robbins, herself the author of a number of tomes on comic book history. "Most people think it all started with Superman, but it didn't.

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