Gaines, William Maxwell

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Gaines, William Maxwell

(b. 1 March 1922 in New York City; d. 3 June 1992 in New York City), founding publisher of Mad magazine and creator and publisher of EC Comics, including Weird Science and Tales from the Crypt.

Gaines was one of two children of Max C. Gaines, who published the first comic books in the 1930s, and Jessie Postlethwaite, an elementary school teacher. He was an unruly and unorthodox child; he became an atheist at the age of twelve and took up magic as a hobby. After graduating from James Madison High School, he majored in chemistry at Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn, New York, from 1941 to 1942, but dropped out and joined the Army Air Corps during World War II. While serving as the base photographer at De Ridder Army Air Corps Base in Louisiana, he married Hazel Grieb in 1944; they had no children.

After his discharge in 1945 as a private first class, Gaines enrolled at New York University (NYU) and majored in education. In 1947 he and Grieb divorced. Shortly thereafter his father was killed in a boating accident. Gaines took over Educational Comics (EC), the current family business, while finishing his studies, graduating from NYU in 1948. At first Gaines was happy to allow EC’s managers to run the company, which published children’s comics devoted to religion and science, but slowly he became more involved. When the artist and writer Al Feldstein submitted a portfolio of sexy young female characters as examples of those in the then-popular teenage comics, Gaines’s attention was caught as it never had been by the illustrated books of Bible stories put out by EC.

Gaines and Feldstein became friends, and together they became passionate creators of the comic book as an art form. They assembled a stable of artists, and Gaines became the editor in chief. In 1950 Gaines changed the name of the company to Entertaining Comics and premiered a new line, beginning in that year with Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, two of the first horror comics ever published. Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, both science fiction comics, were the next new titles, followed by Shock SuspenStories and Crime SuspenStories, and another horror title, The Haunt of Fear. Gaines and Feldstein wrote stories that were gory, gruesome, and darkly humorous. But these comics were often morality tales as well, which focused on aspects of social inequality. Later in 1950 Gaines hired Harvey Kurtzman, an artist and writer who created two new comic books, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat.

Gaines’s “new trend” comic books were an unqualified financial success, especially the horror and crime comics, which allowed him to run EC in a very unorthodox style. The staff lavished loving care on stories of vampires and rotting corpses, artists were encouraged to develop unique styles (in an industry that usually treated them as factory workers), and the war comics had a decidedly pacifist bias. Plots had surprising twists and “good” did not always triumph.

Meanwhile, Kurtzman was developing another new idea, one that would bring comic books back to their humorous roots. In 1952, with Gaines’s encouragement and backing, Kurtzman premiered the first issue of Mad. Like the other EC comics, Mad was a thirty-six-page color comic book that cost a dime. The early issues parodied other comic books, television, movies, and other aspects of American culture. The writing and art was wildly experimental, incorporating images found in other sources, chunks of type from foreign newspapers, and covers that mimicked other kinds of books and magazines. For example, Alfred E. Neuman, Mad’s gap-toothed mascot, was originally an image swiped from popular postcards of the time. Within four issues, Mad had found its own fanatical following and had become a financial success. When Mad’s parodies of Madison Avenue offended advertisers, Gaines simply discontinued advertising in Mad.

Meanwhile, however, parents became worried about the blood and carnage churned out in the hundreds of horror and crime comics that were now choking the newsstands and began to organize against comic books. In 1954 Frederic Wertham, an influential liberal psychiatrist, published Seduction of the Innocent, the result of seven years of research at “mental hygiene” clinics. The book detailed Wertham’s observations of the ravages of comic books on youth: not only as dangers to literacy but also stories of children carrying out crimes, even committing suicide and murder, after reading comics.

Gaines’s comics quickly became targets. Parents and demagogues continued the anticomics crusade, which culminated in federal hearings on the issue. In April 1954, at the Foley Square Federal Court House in Manhattan, Gaines testified before the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency of the Committee on the Judiciary. He was the only speaker in defense of comics and was pilloried by the press.

Despite attempts by EC to organize other comic book publishers against censorship, the industry instead devised the Comics Code Authority, based largely upon the current production code then used by the motion picture industry. The code outlawed much of EC’s current content. Although Gaines continued publishing his comic books, distributors refused to deliver them to retail outlets.

As sales flagged, Kurtzman convinced Gaines to change the format of Mad from a comic book to a magazine, which he thought would allow more creative freedom. Gaines capitulated, and then realized that since Mad was now technically a magazine, it was exempt from the Comics Code. While Gaines battled problems with the rest of his publications, Kurtzman developed the new Mad into a twenty-five-cent, black-and-white, advertisement-free magazine that premiered in 1955. Also in that year Gaines married Nancy Siegel, who had been working in Mad’s subscription department. They had three children.

By 1956 the only publication remaining in the EC line was Mad, which was a success not only with teenagers but also with many adults. When Kurtzman left to develop a color magazine for Hugh Hefner, Gaines appointed Al Feldstein the new editor of Mad. Feldstein refined what Kurtzman had begun and Mad grew steadily more popular.

In 1961 Gaines sold ownership of Mad to Premier Industries, which changed hands several times and in 1969 became part of Warner Communications, later Time Warner. Throughout the ownership changes Gaines remained the publisher and retained full authority over the content of Mad.

During the 1960s Mad’s circulation rose, reaching a high of 2.4 million in 1972. It was also printed in seventeen foreign editions. Gaines let his hair and beard grow long and took the staff, writers, and artists on annual trips to places all over the world, including Italy, Greece, Kenya, Japan, Thailand, and Morocco. In 1971 Gaines and Siegel divorced. He became a gourmet and wine-lover and also assembled important collections of Statue of Liberty objects and airship models.

In the 1980s Gaines began a serious relationship with Anne Griffiths. They married in 1987; they had no children. Tales from the Crypt, a horror series based on the old EC comic books, premiered in 1989 on the HBO cable network and became a successful original series. Also in the 1980s and 1990s, all of the original EC comics were reprinted in hardcover compendiums.

Gaines died at home of natural causes on 3 June 1992. His ashes were scattered over the Statue of Liberty and in the wine cellar of his favorite restaurant in Paris, among other places.

Beginning in the 1950s, William Gaines provided noncommercial, widely distributed publications that were wildly original, vivid experiments in the emerging new medium of comic books. The original EC comics are still regarded by collectors and connoisseurs as the best of their time and among the best ever published. Mad magazine became a rite of passage of American adolescence, a place where youngsters could confront the gap between traditional values and ideals and the ruses and corruption they encountered in the contemporary world.

Frank Jacobs, a regular contributor to Mad, is the author of the only biography, The Mad World of William M. Gaines (1972). Maria Reidelbach, Completely MAD: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine (1991), details the history of EC and Mad. The entire run of EC comics, including those written by Gaines, has been reprinted in hardcover, annotated editions by Russ Cochran. Vincent P. Norris, “Mad Economics: An Analysis of an Adless Magazine,” Journal of Communication (winter 1984), analyzes Mad’s unorthodox financial practices. Seduction of the Innocent (1954), Frederic Wertham’s diatribe against comics, contains illustrations of EC comics, while The Mad Morality (1970) by Vernard Eller, a minister, is a theological defense of Mad. An obituary is in the New York Times (4 June 1992), along with an editorial (5 June 1992).

Maria Reidelbach