In 1941, the founder of DC Comics publicly floated the idea of creating a Batman army unit to fight Hitler. And he published it and everything. And the army listened to him and gave it a go and everything.
Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was an American pulp magazine writer and entrepreneur who pioneered the American comic book, with his National Allied Publications publishing the first such periodical in the US consisting solely of original material rather than reprints of newspaper comic strips, including Detective Comics. National Allied would later be known as DC Comics.
He joined the US Cavalry in 1917as a second lieutenant, making Major aged 27, describing his military career as one who “chased bandits on the Mexican border, fought fevers and played polo in the Philippines, led a battalion of infantry against the Bolsheviki in Siberia, helped straighten out the affairs of the army in France, commanded the headquarters cavalry of the American force in the Rhine”.
Accusations he made against senior officers, and public criticism of Army command led to countercharges, hearings and a lawsuit. His family believe he was the victim of an Army-sanctioned assassination attempt, and he was hospitalized with a bullet wound. Wheeler-Nicholson was court-martialled in 1922 and resigned his commission in 1923.
He would go on to write military nonfiction books and Western novels, pulp short stories and adventure novels. In 1934, having seen the emergence of Famous Funnies and other oversize magazines reprinting comic strips, Wheeler-Nicholson formed the comics publishing company National Allied Publications, resorting to generating new content as existing newspaper strips had all been bought up. Wheeler-Nicholson’s premiere comic, New Fun #1 in 1935, became the first comic book containing all-original material. It was also the first comic to carry advertising. His second title, New Comics in 1935 would become New Adventure Comics with issue #12, and finally Adventure Comics with #32, running until issue #503 in 1983 from DC Comics, briefly revived decades later, ending again in 2011 with issue #529. His third title was Detective Comics. However, by the time Detective Comics #27 was published, featuring Batman, Wheeler-Nicholson had been pushed out of the publisher by his partners with some rather dodgy practices.
But he kept writing, was continually published, including this appeal in Mechanix Illustrated in 1941, to the US Government to create what he dubbed ‘bat-man’ troops.
Consider the possibility of bat-man troops! It’s a weird sounding idea. The bat-man stunt was first developed by American trick parachute jumpers at air shows here several years ago. The bat-man equips himself with a set of diving wings attached to his arms, and with a quick-opening parachute. He jumps from a plane, spreads his arm-wings and dives toward the earth. The arm-wings enable him to check the speed of his fall and, more important, to control the direction of his fall. Near the earth, he opens his parachute for the final descent.
The bat-man idea, adapted to military purposes, would solve two of the greatest problems which confront parachute troops in their present form. The first weak spot in parachute troop maneuvers is the fact that airmen are highly vulnerable to enemy fire when coming down the 400 to 500 feet required for a ‘chute to open vertically. Equipped with bat-wings, the ‘chute soldier could flatten out in flight a comparatively short distance above earth, release his parachute and allow it to open while he was in a glide of perhaps 30 degrees. In this manner, the time he would be left helpless, dangling from his shrouds, would be cut down materially.
A second weakness of parachute troops lies in the fact that, under present methods, due to the spaced interval necessary at which the jumpers leave their plane, troops come to earth scattered out all over the terrain. Precious tactical minutes are lost as the troopers assemble on the ground. With bat-wings, on the other hand, the ‘chutists, being able to control the direction of their dives, could assemble in loose formations while still in the air and land in much closer groups.
And what’s more, they listened to him and trialled the idea. That’s right, the US Government listed to the founder of DC Comics and Detective Comics to test out an army of ‘bat-men’ paratroopers with ‘bat-wings’. And there is photographic evidence that this actually happened.
Of course that’s as far as they went. They also didn’t attack Japan with the Bat-bomb, the designers of which believe could have avoided the use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki…
Thanks to Bleeding Cool’s pop culture historian Mark Seifert for a) telling me about this and b) never getting round to writing it himself. There may be a few more of these to come.