Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson – Army
According to Maj. Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s biography, he began publishing Fun Comics, the first publication consisting of original material rather than reprints of newspaper comic strips, in the mid-1930s.
The History Channel’s documentary “Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked,” reveals that he was also responsible for launching the golden era of comic books with the first publication of Action Comics and the Superman character in 1938. Action Comics would eventually evolve to become DC Comics, which along with Marvel Comics are the two largest comic book companies in the world.
But before he entered the comic book business, the Major had a military career that began in 1909 when he entered the Manlius Military Academy in New York at the age of 19. After graduation he joined the U.S. Cavalry and quickly moved through the ranks. By the age of 27 he became one of the youngest majors in the Army’s history.
He saw action in Mexico as commander of the 9th Cavalry under Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing. He fought in the Philippines against the Muslim Moro. During World War I he was a diplomatic liaison and intelligence officer to the Japanese embassy.
His military troubles began when he wrote an open letter to President Warren Harding in The New York Times criticizing the Army’s chain of command. According to his biography, there was an assassination attempt on his life shortly after that. He was shot by a guard while entering his quarters at Fort Dix. The bullet entered his temple but missed his brain.
He was court-martialed after his recovery. But with the help of his mother and public lobbying of newspapers, senators, and Teddy Roosevelt’s family, he was allowed back into the ranks. He was discharged a few months later and began to pursue his literary career that would eventually lead to comic books.
In 1939, the success of Superman and Action Comics would inspire the creation of Timely Publications and its first issue, “Marvel Comics #1.” The first issue sold out of its 80,000 copies and prompted Moe Goodman – the founder of Action Comics – to produce a second printing that sold about 800,000 copies. With a success on his hands, Goodman began to assemble his comic book team and hired his first official employee, writer-artist Joe Simon.
In 1941, Simon brought on Jack Kirby, and together they created Captain America. Inspired by current events, the patriotic superhero became a hit. The demand for Captain America caused Timely to hire a third employee, inker Syd Shores. But after only ten issues, Simon and Kirby left the company for National Comics (DC Comics) in 1942. At that point assistant Stan Lee stepped up as editor.
When the U.S. entered World War II, Joe Simon enlisted in the Coast Guard; Syd shores and Stan Lee enlisted in the Army, and Jack Kirby was drafted into the Army.
Joe Simon – Coast Guard
Simon’s autobiography states that he served with the Combat Art Corps in Washington, D.C. as part of the Coast Guard’s Public Information Division. Simon created “True Comics,” which was published by DC Comics and syndicated nationally by Parents magazine. “True Comics” led to to the creation of “Adventure Is My Career,” a comic aimed at driving Coast Guard recruitment.
Jack Kirby – Army
Kirby was drafted into the Army in 1943 and stationed in the 5th Division as an infantryman. He saw action in France, earned two battle stars and a severe case of frostbite that almost led to the amputation of his feet. After his service, he re-teamed with Simon at Harvey Comics.
Syd Shores – Army
Shores served in the Army from 1942 to 1946 in France and Germany until he was wounded in Metz, France, which earned him Purple Heart. After his four-month recovery in England, he was re-assigned to an engineering unit and then to the Occupation Forces in Germany before finally being discharged. When he arrived home, he took his job back at Timely and once again took over Captain America (according to a short biography by Alan Hewetson).
Stan Lee – Army
Stan Lee’s biography states that he enlisted in the Army’s Signal Corps where he wrote manuals, training films, slogans and the occasional cartoon. He was one of the nine soldiers with the playwright designation. After WWII, like Shores, returned to Timely Comics.
For more on this subject watch he following documentary on the history of comic books, from the first appearance of Superman through today’s characters: