Creating Comics: How Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson and Lee Marrs revived 1930s comic heroine “Sandra of the Secret Service” for Aces Weekly

Volume 56 of the digital anthology Aces Weekly, available as back issue purchase, included the re-emergence of a character from the earliest days of American comic books – before they were even known as comic books!

Sandra of the Secret Service” first featured in New Fun No 1, back in 1935, a mix of assorted tales, and the first to feature original strips, not collections of previously-published newspaper strips, as previously anthologies had. It was the birth of what we came to know as the American comic book, and was the brainchild of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, an ex-army, ex-adventurer, ex-pulp fiction writer, who loved strips and wanted to publish them, and made history in doing so, because his publishing house eventually became DC Comics.

The anthology comic magazine was DC Comics second continuing title, and the company’s first half-tabloid size comic, now the standard US comic book size. It was later renamed New Adventure Comics, then Adventure Comics, running for 11 issues between December 1935 and December 1936.

“Sandra of the Secret Service”, from New Fun No.1
“Sandra of the Secret Service”, from New Fun No.1

Sandra of the Secret Service”, who last appeared in More Fun Comics #28, January 1938, was one of the many concepts in New Fun that was beloved by the Major’s granddaughter and chronicler, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, who decided to bring her back to life in the 21st century, with the help of famed comics creator, Lee Marrs.

Here’s how the new Sandra – now Sondra (we’ll find out why) – happened in a Q&A with her two smart new creators, courtesy of Aces Weekly publisher David Lloyd, firstly aimed to both, and then individually.

“New Fun From New Fun!”

Sandra of the Secret Service - The Cuban Affair - Sample Art

Aces Weekly: How did you get together to work on a resurrection of a character from the earliest days of comic books, and why?

Lee Marrs: We met on a panel at San Diego Comic Con years ago. We bonded during various soireés that Nicky launched while living in Berkeley, California. Nicky had an idea about a book, and approached me about ending that book with a “Sandra” comics story. Stunned by her fabulous, delicious lunch, I said yes. The idea was entirely hers.

Nicky: Because the early comics of the Major’s from ’35 – ’38 are not readily available, my first thought was to do an anthology similar to my DC Comics Before Superman, with a new story for Sandra added to its final pages. In talking with colleagues, it was suggested to me that the new story should begin the book, with the historical piece to follow. And the most important suggestion was that I should look for a woman artist.

Lee immediately came to mind as we are both originally from the deepest of the deep south, are sympatico with the Berkeley, CA. life, and Lee is a super professional. I loved what she did with “Pudge”, and especially liked the fact that she had a background in animation. We’d met many times before, so I approached her about the project at SDCC just prior to COVID, and she said yes! I’m thrilled and fortunate to have her as a partner on it.

We attempted the historical route with it initially, but it became obvious none of the usual comics publishing companies were interested in that approach. Because Aces Weekly is such an innovator and David was a supporter of my work, I felt the title might be a good way to go, so here we are! And I couldn’t be happier. I think Lee’s artwork shows up especially well in the Aces online format.

Sandra of the Secret Service - The Cuban Affair - Sample Art

Aces Weekly: Who suggested, and why, the radical blend of photo and line – a non-traditional approach – to bring her back? And why the new name? A copyright threat or just a need for freshness?

Lee: I developed the style. Nicky liked it. And Nicky consistently pronounced “Sandra” as “Sondra”, so I suggested we change the name. It sounded classier and kept the same alliteration.

Nicky: The radical approach is all Lee. At first I wasn’t sure about it, but as we continued, I realized how cinematic it is, how it creates a three-dimensional quality. The characters practically move through the frames. It was a brilliant idea and I think it works especially well in the online format.

As for Sandra/Sondra, there’s no copyright issue to my knowledge, and I’ve been careful about anything legal with DC. There isn’t exactly a great background, there. Depending on the corporate musical chairs, sometimes they’re friendly and other times I’m in Siberia. Lee suggested the name change, as she explained. The pronunciation’s in keeping with the familial mid-Atlantic accent of my grandparents, aunts, father and uncle. It wasn’t conscious on my part.

Sandra of the Secret Service - The Cuban Affair - Sample Art

Aces Weekly: Lee, tell us the process in your art for Sandra. Was it easier than a traditional art process for you, or was it worth the effort to make change for the sake of the result?

Lee: I knew a fully-realistic style could take forever to draw from the years I assisted Tex Blaisdell on Prince Valiant and the sci-fi work I’d done on Mike Friedrich’s Star*Reach. So to begin with, I was trying to develop some way to convey the richness of ‘30s movies without going crazy.

I researched into mid-1930s clothes, cars, Cuban buildings, military uniforms, etc. (now easy through Google! Yay!) and saw how much of the story could be done with collage. During my years of fine art, I’d done tons of work using collage. The verisimilitude of real objects provides instant recognition on the part of readers and reinforces the reality of the period.

I always start out doing layout in pencils, old school. Then I scan the pencils into the iMac. For decades, I ran my own animation studio and was into computer graphics very early, so using Photoshop is second nature to me. Using Photoshop layers is terrific – trying things out, choosing one way, rejecting another, etc.

I wanted the drawing style to be like the older strips. I was going for a Noel Sickles/Alex Toth look, but that didn’t work with the full colour that Nicky wanted. So I evolved the style to stripped-down color, using abstract blues to enhance figures in perspective.

Nicky created a truly 1930s heroine – a wise-cracking, athletic, reckless-to-a-fault adventuress. Wonderful to draw. Sorta inspired by the original series, but with a great deal of Nicky in her.

Sandra of the Secret Service - The Cuban Affair - Sample Art

Aces Weekly: Nicky, having resurrected Sandra in AW, would you like to bring back more of the characters your grandfather enabled into life, and, if you would, do you think publishers will want to bring them back to life in the way you’ve brought Sondra back to life in our pages?

Nicky: I’m convinced my grandfather actually created Sandra of the Secret Service. Sandra is the only female character to have her own comic after beginning in the very first comic of the Major’s, and on the very first page. As a woman, I was naturally drawn to her – she’s strong, smart, and attractive, and often ends up saving her male counterparts! She immediately appealed to me.

And, of course, I’d love to bring more of those characters back, like the one in the new Sondra story, a character my grandfather created in his pulp-fiction stories – Major Davies. I promoted him to Colonel in Sondra, but Major Davies appears in at least 13 of my grandfather’s adventure stories, beginning as a 2nd Lieutenant, then becoming a Major.

I’m sure he’s an alter ego of my grandfather. His adventures mirror those my grandfather had in his military career on the Mexican border, the Philippines, and in Siberia during World War One. He seemed like the perfect complement to Sandra.

One of my favorite expressions in Lee’s nuanced artwork is the look he gives Sondra and Kleefield at the beginning of the story. It’s perfect.

So, yes, I do plan to bring some of those characters back, but I wouldn’t bet on anything that any publishers will or won’t want to do in this current atmosphere. For most of my professional life I’ve created my own situations as an independent writer in a number of formats, and as a producer of theatre, audio books and documentary video, so one way or the other I’ll make sure some of those characters show up again somewhere!

Head to www.acesweekly.co.uk to find out more, buy Volume 56 as a back issue, and subscribe to the ongoing title today

Web Links

Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson

Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson

Born in Mobile, Alabama, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson grew up in the deep south. In 1976, Nicky moved to New York City and has been travelling ever since, across the US, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia. Her college education began in theatre and later she was awarded a Master’s Degree in the Divine Feminine in Classical Greek Mythology and Theatre. Nicky has also spent time studying with Native American Elders. The love of mythology has led to writing about popular culture especially the pulps and comics.

Her paternal grandfather, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson founded the company that became known as DC Comics and my recent book features some of his early comics.

Lee Marrs

Lee Marrs

As the first woman to work for DC Comics and Marvel simultaneously, Lee Marrs was one of the founding mommies of Wimmen’s Comix. An Inkpot Award winner and an Eisner Award nominee, Lee is best known for her Pudge, Girl Blimp series (1974-1978), available as a book (2016).

A contributor to the Eisner Award-winning Drawing Power (edited by Diane Noomin, 2019) and Covid Chronicles: A Comics Anthology (edited by Kendra Boileau and Rich Johnson, 2021), she ran a digital design and animation company for 30 years. An Emmy Award winner, she was Multimedia Chair of Berkeley City College. She rarely sleeps.

Sandra/Sondra of the Secret Service: What’s in a name?

Sandra of the Secret Service

Who is Sondra of the Secret Service? And is she related to “Sandra of the Secret Service”? Here’s Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson’s take on Sandra/Sondra and where she originated.

DC Comics Before Superman: Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s Pulp Comics (AmazonUK Affiliate Link)

DC Comics Before Superman: Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson's Pulp Comics

Before Batman and Superman were even a glimmer in Bill Finger and Jerry Siegel’s eyes, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson created National Allied Publications, which would then go on to become DC Comics; one of the largest comic publishers in the world.

Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson (the Major’s granddaughter and noted comics historian) contributes a historical essay that provides an in depth look at the formation of National Allied Publications and the man behind New Fun, New Comics, and other memorable original comics that predated DC Comics’ inception. Other contributions include an intro by Jim Steranko (Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and an afterward by comics historian Tom Andrae.

All the comics included in this tome have been painstakingly reproduced and repaired to show how they would have looked back in the 1930s; and also included are all the pulps that the comics were based on.

This groundbreaking book explores the history of DC Comics before it became the behemoth we know today; the pulp stories that formed the basis for all the different kinds of comics that exist today. Titles included in this historical reprint include “Barry O’Neill and Fang Gow” (script by Wheeler-Nicholson; art by Leo O’Mealia), “Blood Pearls” (script by Wheeler-Nicholson; art by Munson Paddock), “Foe of the Borgias” (script and art by Sven Elven), “The Golden Dragon” (script and art by Tom Hickey) and more.

Famous First Edition: New Fun #1 C-63 (New Fun Comics) (AmazonUK Affiliate Link)

Famous First Edition: New Fun #1 C-63 (New Fun Comics)

Back in 2019, in celebration of its 85th anniversary, DC Comics reprinted for the very first time its first-ever published comic book, New Fun #1, the comic that transformed the fledgling industry by being the first ongoing title made up of new stories instead of reprints of newspaper comic strips.

First published in 1935, this landmark comic book carried a diverse set of original content features cowboys, spies, detectives, funny animals, space explorers, soldiers of fortune and more, including features that were written by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, the founder of the company that would become DC Comics.

This tabloid-size, black-and-white comic was reprinted as a commemorative hardcover will includes essays by comics historian Roy Thomas and Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, grand-daughter of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, and more. Collects New Fun #1.

There’s a web site devoted to Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson at majormalcolmwheelernicholson.com/dc-comics-before-superman | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Sondra of the Secret Service © 2022 Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson and Lee Marrs

The founder of downthetubes, John works as a comics editor, writer, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing for over 30 years, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.



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