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William Maxwell Gaines (March 1, 1922 – June 3, 1992), better known as Bill Gaines, was an American publisher and co-editor of EC Comics. Following a shift in EC's direction in 1950, Gaines presided over what became an artistically influential and historically important line of mature-audience comics. He published the popular satirical magazine Mad for over 40 years.
Gaines was the son of Max Gaines, who as publisher of the All-American Comics division of DC Comics was also an influential figure in the history of comics. The elder Gaines tested the idea of packaging and selling comics on newsstands in 1933. In 1941, Max Gaines accepted William Moulton Marston's proposal for the first successful female superhero, Wonder Woman.
As World War II began, Bill Gaines was rejected by the United States Army, United States Coast Guard and United States Navy, so he went to his draft board and requested to be drafted. He trained as an Army Air Corps photographer atLowry Field in Denver. However, when he was assigned to an Oklahoma City field which did not have a photographic facility, he wound up on permanent KP duty. As he explained in 1976 to Bill Craig of Stars and Stripes, "Being an eater, this assignment was a real pleasure for me. There were four of us, and we always found all the choice bits the cooks had hidden away. We'd be frying up filet mignon and ham steaks every night. The hours were great, too. I think it was eight hours on and 40 off."
Gaines was stationed at DeRidder Army Airfield in Louisiana, at Marshall Field in Kansas, and then at Governors Island, New York. Leaving the service in 1946, he returned home to complete his chemistry studies at Brooklyn Polytech, but soon transferred to New York University, intent on obtaining a teaching certificate. In 1947, he was in his senior year at NYU when his father was killed in a motorboat accident on Lake Placid. Instead of becoming a chemistry teacher, Bill Gaines took over the family business, EC Comics.
The EC initials stood for both Educational Comics and Entertaining Comics, and the company was at that point best known for its adaptations of Bible stories.
Bill Gaines found his niche in publishing horror, science fiction, satire and war comics. His comic books, including Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Shock SuspenStories, Weird Science and Two-Fisted Tales, featured stories with content above the level of the typical comic. For a complete roster of titles, see the List of Entertaining Comics publications. Begun in 1952, Mad was the company's biggest and longest-lasting success. Its popularity inspired dozens of similar publications, including EC's own Panic.
EC horror comics were not generic compilations of ghoulish clichés, but subtle, satiric approaches to horror with genuine dilemmas and startling "twist" outcomes. Likewise, EC's science fiction and fantasy titles dealt with adult issues like racism and the meaning of progress. In part because of the higher-quality material, EC soon assembled a stable of artists unparalleled in the industry then (and some argue, ever). Regular contributors included Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Will Elder, George Evans, Harry Harrison, Graham Ingels, Al Williamson, Johnny Craig, Reed Crandall, Jack Kamen, Bernard Krigstein, John Severin, Joe Orlando and Frank Frazetta, along with editor/artists Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein. The company treated its illustrators as selling points, profiling them in full-page biographies and permitting them to sign their work, a rarity in 1950s comic books. EC was notable for its lack of a "house style," as the artists were encouraged to pursue distinctive techniques.
All this was promoted with a snappy company attitude, in which the EC readers themselves were regularly tweaked and insulted for their poor taste in having selected an EC product. This only had the effect of attracting an avid fanbase who enjoyed the impudent posturing and in-jokes. Pressed for content, Gaines' company soon began adapting stories drawn from classic authors, such as Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. Kurtzman periodically ran humorously illustrated versions of famous poems to fill space in Mad.
Gaines' comics may have appealed to adults, but comic books were (and to a degree, still are) considered by the general public to be aimed at children. With the publication of Dr. Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, comic books in the Gaines style drew the attention of the U.S. Congress. Gaines' testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954 achieved notoriety for his unapologetic, matter-of-fact tone, and Gaines became a boogeyman for those wishing to censor the product. One exchange became particularly infamous:
- Chief Counsel Herbert Beaser: Let me get the limits as far as what you put into your magazine. Is the sole test of what you would put into your magazine whether it sells? Is there any limit you can think of that you would not put in a magazine because you thought a child should not see or read about it?
- Bill Gaines: No, I wouldn't say that there is any limit for the reason you outlined. My only limits are the bounds of good taste, what I consider good taste.
- Beaser: Then you think a child cannot in any way, in any way, shape, or manner, be hurt by anything that a child reads or sees?
- Gaines: I don't believe so.
- Beaser: There would be no limit actually to what you put in the magazines?
- Gaines: Only within the bounds of good taste.
- Beaser: Your own good taste and saleability?
- Gaines: Yes.
- Senator Estes Kefauver: Here is your May 22 issue. [Kefauver is mistakenly referring to Crime Suspenstories #22, cover date May] This seems to be a man with a bloody axe holding a woman's head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?
- Gaines: Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it, and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.
- Kefauver: You have blood coming out of her mouth.
- Gaines: A little.
- Kefauver: Here is blood on the axe. I think most adults are shocked by that.
Gaines' opening statement was out of touch with the mood of the day, and of the subcommittee hearing in particular. But it has come to be remembered as a steadfast defense of the intellectual and creative freedoms later affirmed by Gaines'Mad, among others:
- "Entertaining reading has never harmed anyone. Men of good will, free men should be very grateful for one sentence in the statement made by Federal Judge John M. Woolsey when he lifted the ban on Ulysses. Judge Woolsey said, ‘It is only with the normal person that the law is concerned.’ May I repeat, he said, “It is only with the normal person that the law is concerned.” Our American children are for the most part normal children. They are bright children, but those who want to prohibit comic magazines seem to see dirty, sneaky, perverted monsters who use the comics as a blueprint for action. Perverted little monsters are few and far between. They don’t read comics. The chances are most of them are in schools for retarded children.
- What are we afraid of? Are we afraid of our own children? Do we forget that they are citizens, too, and entitled to select what to read or do? Do we think our children are so evil, so simple minded, that it takes a story of murder to set them to murder, a story of robbery to set them to robbery? Jimmy Walker once remarked that he never knew a girl to be ruined by a book. Nobody has ever been ruined by a comic.”
Gaines was depicted by the national media as America's most amoral publisher. By 1955, EC was effectively driven out of business by the backlash, and by the Comics Magazine Association of America This was an industry group that Gaines himself had suggested to the industry in order to insulate themselves from outside censorship, but he soon lost control of the organization to John Goldwater, publisher of the innocuous Archie teenage comics. The Comics Code that was approved and adopted by most of the country's prominent publishers contained restrictions specifically targeted at Gaines' line of horror and crime comic books. Although he had already ceased publishing his line of horror comics, Gaines refused to subscribe to the Code, considering it hypocritical and not applicable to the new, clean line of realistic comics that he was promoting by then. This refusal, together with his already tarnished reputation, put EC on the verge of bankruptcy. Although Gaines relented and accepted the code, distributors refused to pass his titles along to newsstands. The damage was done, and Gaines abandoned comic books completely. He chose to concentrate his business on EC's only profitable title, Mad, which had recently changed to a magazine format. After distributor Leader News went bankrupt in 1956, EC was left with over $100,000 in unrecoverable debt. Gaines invested a considerable portion of his personal fortune to keep the company alive until a deal could be made with a new distributor.
Gaines converted Mad to a magazine in 1955, partly to retain the services of its talented editor Harvey Kurtzman, who had received offers from elsewhere. The change enabled Mad to escape the strictures of the Comics Code. Kurtzman left Gaines' employ a year later anyway and was replaced by Al Feldstein, who had been Gaines' most prolific editor during the EC Comics run. (For details of this event and the subsequent debates about it, see Harvey Kurtzman#Departure from Mad.) Feldstein oversaw Mad from 1955 through 1986, as Gaines went on to a long and profitable career as a publisher of satire and enemy of bombast.
Although Mad was sold in the early 1960s for tax reasons, Gaines remained as publisher until the day he died and served as a buffer between the magazine and its corporate interests. In turn, he largely stayed out of the magazine's production, often viewing content just before the issue was shipped to the printer. "My staff and contributors create the magazine," declared Gaines. "What I create is the atmosphere."
Gaines ran his business in an eclectic and sometimes counterintuitive fashion. When agreeing to contracts, he insisted on striking the standard clause prescribing that both parties must settle disputes in a reasonable manner, saying that he could never promise to be reasonable. On the other hand, Gaines rejected a lucrative incentive package from Warner Brothers that would have been based on increased sales of Mad; Gaines explained that the act of accepting the incentive would have falsely suggested that he was not already doing everything within his abilities to maximize the magazine's circulation.
He valued reader Larry Stark's letters of critical commentary to such a degree that he gave a lifetime subscription to Stark, who later became a well-known Boston theater critic. The original EC comic books ran paid ads, but Mad magazine quickly dropped all advertising and never accepted it again during Gaines' lifetime. Kurtzman and Feldstein urged Gaines to accept advertising, without result. Merchandising was also scarce and heavily overseen by Gaines, who apparently preferred to forego profit rather than risk disappointing Mad's fans with substandard ancillary products. In 1980, following the colossal success of National Lampoon's Animal House, Gaines lent the name of his magazine to the bawdy spoof Up the Academy. When the movie proved to be a disjointed botch, Gaines paid the film company to remove all references to the magazine from all future prints and even issued private refunds to fans who wrote complaint letters.
Gaines was devoted to his staff, and fostered an environment of humor and loyalty. This he accomplished through various means, notably the "Mad trips." Each year, Gaines would pay for the magazine's staff and its steadiest contributors to fly to an international locale. The first vacation, to Haiti, set the tone. Discovering that Mad had a grand total of one Haitian subscriber, Gaines arranged to have the group driven to the person's house. There, surrounded by the magazine's editors, artists and writers, Gaines formally presented the bewildered subscriber with a renewal card. Eventually the trips became more elaborate, and the staff would visit six of the world's continents.
In 1960, Gaines had arranged to move the magazine's offices to the 69th floor of the Empire State Building, but switched to a different location in the East 50s because one of the women in Mad's subscription department would have been terrified of the length of the elevator ride. He would frequently stop meetings to find out who had called long-distance phone numbers. His passions for gourmet food and wine prompted him to build a wine cellar in the middle of his Manhattan apartment. He managed to go from his apartment to his favorite restaurant by mapping out a route so he could get there by walking downhill only.
Mad writer Dick DeBartolo's memoir, Good Days and Mad, provides an image of Gaines as a fun-loving and sometimes eccentric mogul. DeBartolo recounts Gaines' generosity to contributors (e.g., the Mad trips), his insistence on Mad's "cheap" image (at one point paying double the amount to keep Mad on low-quality paper although it was in short supply) and his offbeat methods for running a magazine.
DeBartolo's book, filled with anecdotes and forewords from Mad contributors, shows Gaines loved elaborate practical jokes (both played by him and on him) and verbal abuse from his staffers. These eccentric behavior patterns are also described in Gaines' biography The Mad World of William M. Gaines, written by Mad writer Frank Jacobs and published in 1972 by Lyle Stuart, a longtime friend. A film biopic, Ghoulishly Yours, William M. Gaines, has long been in pre-production; director John Landis and screenwriter Joel Eisenberg have been attached to the project since 2008, with Feldstein as a creative consultant.
According to the Jacobs biography, Gaines professed himself an atheist since age 12 and once told a reporter that his was probably the only home in America in which the children were brought up to believe in Santa Claus but not in God. Toward the end of his life, Gaines' name on Mads masthead grew more and more elaborate, ending as "William Mildred Farnsworth Higgenbottom Pius Gaines IX Esq." When asked about the magazine's philosophy, he said, "Mads philosophy is, we must never stop reminding the reader of how little value they get for their money!"
- ^ Comics 212
- ^ Winn, Marie (1981-01-25). "Winn, Marie. "What Became of Childhood Innocence?", The New York Times, January 25, 1981". Select.nytimes.com. Retrieved 2011-02-02.
- ^ Adler, Tim (May 16, 2010). "CANNES: John Landis Developing Biopic of 1950s EC Comics Crusader William Gaines". Deadline London.
- ^ Worley, Rob M. Feldstein consulting on Gaines biopic", April 14, 2008.