One thing I’ve learned about myself as a writer is that I can’t write well about someone unless I’ve come to care about them. There’s a process of building compassion and connection I have to go through that’s not unlike the process of building a friendship—and unless I hang in with it, the story I tell is going to be too cool and too distant to make anyone care.
I’ve also learned that the strongest bonds are built (and I think this may be true in real-life as well as literary relationships) when I’ve started off by misjudging the person. So it was with with Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, whom I initially dismissed as a colorful oddball who sort of accidentally founded DC Comics and so laid the foundation for the American comic-book industry. It was only after Men of Tomorrow came out that some of the Major’s descendants, especially Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, made me see him as quite another person entirely—a military hero and extraordinary non-conformist, a writer and liver of great adventures, and the true father of the comic book as we know it. A man worth writing a whole book about, in fact. Which is just what Nicky and I are doing now, with a book called Lost Hero.
So it is with affection as well as respect that I wish the “old man” (as his family still calls him) a happy 125th birthday. He was born in another world, the Tennessee of 1890, but he went on to discover and build some things that are still vitally part of the world we know. He was a complex guy, capable of great invention and boldness but also of great overreaching and self-sabotage. He possessed extraordinary knowledge and competence in a wide range of fields, but at the same time a strange naïvété about how the world worked. But it was those contradictory qualities that make him, for me, worth caring about and writing about. I think they were also what enabled him to play such an important role in the complex and often contradictory history of popular culture.
He never did get his due. His company was taken from him, right before the character he discovered, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman, saw print. His role in history was buried and distorted by the people who took over the industry he founded, then neglected by generations of fans and historians (like me) who didn't yet realize how deep the roots of comic books run and how far they branch through the soil of American history. Discovering his life has helped me understand a great many things about my country and its culture, as well as about the medium in which I worked for so many years. I’m remembering, today, that it will be good to give a little bit back to him by helping to tell his story to the world.