An Interview with William M. Gaines, Part One of Three

Posted by on October 12th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

From The Comics Journal #81 (May 1983)

Part one ♦ Part twoPart three


Max C. Gaines was an early pioneer in the field of comic books, and it was through his efforts and experimentations that the actual format came to exist. But if Max Gaines was responsible for the physical format of the comics as we know it, then it was surely his son William M. Gaines who realized the potential of the form.

Left with a failing line of comics by his father, William Gaines and his EC staff went on to create a “New Trend” in the industry. Horror, science fiction, war, and crime were the themes of these comics, and while only the horror titles were great financial successes, they boasted an overall degree of quality for which present-day publishers strive.

Gaines knew little about actual comics publishing, but he supplanted that with a friendly working atmosphere and fair wages, which in turn promoted a strong sense of pride and quality among his staffers.

A proponent of individuality, Gaines fought for what he believed in despite the insurmountable odds of popular opinion. Despite the outcome of those proceedings, it is a reflection of that individuality that gave EC Comics their singular flair and which has sustained a strong fan following in them for over 30 years.

By comparison, there is little or no individuality in today’s comics industry. Writers and artists are no more than uniform cogs in a machine that measures creativity with sales figures. It is difficult to imagine that any contemporary line of comics will ever garner enough acclaim to be reprinted as Gaines’s books have. The interview that follows provides insight into the wit and energy of the father of the EC era — William Gaines. It was conducted by Dwight R. Decker and Gary Groth (with contributions from Peppy White), transcribed by Tom Mason, copy-edited by Gaines, and edited by Groth.




DWIGHT DECKER: Did you and Roald Dahl ever share that bottle of Chateau Branaire Duluc-Ducru ’34?

WILLIAM GAINES: [Laughter.] No, we didn’t. After I wrote to him and he wrote me a charming letter back, I never heard from him again. It’s still sitting in my wine cellar waiting for him if he ever comes, but I think after all this time he won’t.

DECKER: We’ll have to send a copy of the Journal to him.

The best thing to do is to do this more or less chronologically. Let’s start this with the great days of Max Gaines and the beginning of the comics industry.


DECKER: OK. The Mad World of William M. Gaines gives kind of a summary of how comics began. The story goes that Max Gaines was taking out the garbage one day — I think 1933 — and saw the color comics supplement and decided that a lot of people like comics and he liked comics and there’d be money to be made like that.

GAINES: I never heard that particular story, but…

GARY GROTH: Dwight just made it up.

DECKER: No. No, it’s in the book.

GAINES: I can’t believe that’s in the book. No, the way the story was in the book, and if it wasn’t it should have been, was that he was in advertising and somewhere along the line he and some other people conceived the idea of putting out little comic books which were quite logically a Sunday comic supplement size folded twice, which made them quarter size, which they printed Sunday pages in and put out and sold to advertisers as giveaways or — one was the famous Skippy comic book where you sent in a nickel and something — the top of a tube of toothpaste or something — and you got this book.

GROTH: I think the first one was Procter & Gamble.

GAINES: It could have been. I don’t know. First, they were just books produced that anybody could get their name put on. So they were just general. And the Skippy book was special because Pepsodent was sponsoring Skippy on the radio. And the story supposedly was that my father put 10¢ stickers on these things one day and put them on the newsstand and they sold out very quickly. So he took the idea to Dell Publishing and sold Dell on putting out a comic book that you would sell, which had never been done before. Dell did it for one issue, and lost interest, so he went up to Famous Funnies in Connecticut — or what ultimately became Famous Funnies, it was just a printing press then, I think it was called Eastern Color Press — and this is how it all started. Now, the stuff he was doing was all reprint. Other people came along and put original material in comic magazines, but in a different size, and ultimately the size and the original material got together and that’s what led to the present type of comic books.



DECKER: I’ve read that Shelly Mayer said that your father had little interest in the editorial end of it. His interest was more in the production and merchandising, that Shelly Mayer had to argue with him to reproduce the Sunday comic strips in chronological order.

GAINES: That is quite possibly true. But you have to remember that Sunday comic strips in those days for the most part had no chronological order. One of the things that my father loved best was Mutt and Jeff, and of course it doesn’t matter what order you use them in. Regular Fellows, Bringing Up Father, almost all of the comic Sunday comics, had no chronological order. That came later. And Shelly Mayer, you’ll remember was an editor, and my father was a businessman, so I’m sure Shelly sees it one way, and my father, if he were alive, would see it another, but the truth is probably somewhere down the middle.

DECKER: And when it came into producing original material, I read that you still have original pencil sketches from Superman that your father was…

GAINES: Well, I did have until The Mad World of William M. Gaines was published, and then I got a letter from Jerry Siegel. He sent me copies of correspondence he had had with my father, which proved to my satisfaction that my father had borrowed those sketches and that in truth they were Jerry’s, so I sent them back to him. I was appalled to discover them selling at a dealer’s booth in Dallas for a relatively small amount of money. Jerry told me when he wrote me that he had great love for these sketches and he wanted to have them so he could cherish them, and he cherished them to the nearest dealer. If he had told me that he wanted to sell them, I would have been happy to pay more than the dealer was offering them for, which I think was something like $700 or $800. I would have paid Jerry more than that myself. But he made this big issue about how he wanted them for his children or something.

PEPPY WHITE: Weren’t you going to hand them down to your son?

GAINES: I would have. [Laughter.]

DECKER: Your father had a chance at Superman himself, didn’t he?

GAINES: Yes. Again, you know, this is all hearsay, because I was a kid at the time, but the way my father told it, and the way Shelly tells it, the thing had been shopped all around town and nobody was interested. The syndicates had all turned it down, most comic books had turned it down, so it came to my father’s desk, and my father at that time had a rough working arrangement with what is now DC Comics, and he knew that they were just putting out Action Comics and needed a lead feature and so he sent it up there. I’ve always said that was his biggest boo-boo. [Laughter.]

GROTH: Can’t get much bigger.

GAINES: Can’t get much bigger. Well, I did one almost as bad. I had Action Comics #1 all over the house. We had dozens of them. We probably bundled them up and threw ’em away one day. Of course, now they’re worth something like 14 grand apiece. So that was a pretty big boo-boo too.

DECKER: That’s why you can’t find them today. You threw them all out. [Gaines laughs.] Your father sold out his interest in what is now DC sometime in the ’40s.

GAINES: Yes. It was about ’44, I would guess. He couldn’t get along too well with them. By this point in time, as Mr. Nixon would say, my father was partners with Jack Liebowitz, who then became the primary moving force at DC, but he was partners with Jack Liebowitz in the AA group (Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern). But he didn’t get along with him for various reasons. Primarily I think the fight was over advertising. I think the DC people wanted to put more ads in the book than my father wanted. For one reason or another they didn’t get along. So finally he said, “Either you buy me out or let me buy you out,” so they bought him out.

And he was out of business for about a week and then he went back into business with things like Picture Stories from the Bible and various educational comics — Tiny Tot, Land of the Lost, Animal Fables, and like that. And lost his shirt.

GROTH: Just to backtrack for a moment, wasn’t Liebowitz Harry Donenfeld’s business manager?

GAINES: Yeah. Actually, Liebowitz was Donenfeld’s accountant.

GROTH: What was your father’s relationship with Donenfeld?

GAINES: Well, Donenfeld didn’t really do much in the business. Donenfeld was a very valuable man. There were three partners up there, and Donenfeld was the man who you might say was in charge of wholesaler relations. And the wholesalers liked Donenfeld very much and he got along with them. He was really in charge of keeping them happy and on good terms with the company. Liebowitz rapidly, because he had a talent for it, became the main businessman. And the third person up there was Paul Samplimer, who came into the business because he owned the Independent News Company, which was a distribution outfit. So somewhere along the line they decided that Liebowitz and Donenfeld would pool their resources with Samplimer and have a publishing/distribution outfit. My father was off to one side, not really part of that group.

GROTH: How did your father first get involved with DC, first acquire his share and interest?

GAINES: Well, he never had any part of DC. He had the AA group, and apparently what happened there is that he went into business with Donenfeld, and Donenfeld put up the money and my father put up the expertise, and it was one of those typical partnership working arrangements, of which there have been many. Somewhere along the line, Donenfeld, in a typical gesture of generosity — which he was capable of — gave his half of the business to Liebowitz. At least that’s the story as I get it. This all becomes legend and to say what’s true and what isn’t when I wasn’t really there is difficult. But as far as I know he gave his half of the business to Liebowitz so my father became partners now with Liebowitz.


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