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

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



DECKER: After your father sold out, it seemed like he was a wealthy man, set for life. I’m wondering why he went back into the business to work his own line.

GAINES: Well, because he was bored after the first week! [Laughter.] Many of us who have been used to working all our lives can’t face retirement. One of the tragedies today is when some people are forced into retirement. I’ve seen it happen with people over at DC and Independent time and again. They’re hale and hearty people and two years later they wither and three years later they’re dead. You couldn’t sit around and do nothing. Of course my father didn’t have very long to sit around because he was killed in a motorboat accident. He did go back into business for those three years.

GROTH: How old a man was he when he was killed?

GAINES: To me, he seemed old, but at the time — I guess I’m older now than he was. He must have been in his middle 50s. He was killed in ’47, I expect he was in his middle 50s.

DECKER: I understand he really died a hero. He was trying to save someone’s life in the accident.

GAINES: Well, he did save somebody’s life, but he didn’t do it at the cost of his own. He was out in the middle of a lake with another man and the man’s son and this boat came right toward them, driven by a woman who couldn’t see where she was going — because it’s difficult in a motorboat, the front goes up, and you’ve got to learn to look around, you can’t look over the top, you won’t see anything, so she went right through the boat they were in. What he did was, he picked up this kid, and threw him in the back seat, and it worked, because this woman’s boat went through where the two men were sitting and the kid would have been — at least, that’s the kid’s story. He was 10 years old, and that’s what he said happened.

DECKER: So your father was killed and the company was left without a manager…

GAINES: Yeah. And as I say, it was doing very poorly at the time, because all these educational and relatively nice-type books that he was trying to publish weren’t taking. I was finishing up my work at NYU and I had planned to be a chemistry teacher and I had a year to go when this happened. We had a business manager down there and I really had no interest in the business at all and didn’t feel I could run it because I didn’t feel I had any talent for business, and I wanted to close it up and be done with it. As I said to my mother, “If he was losing money, what do you expect me to do?”

So the whole thing was absurd. But she wanted to keep it going mostly out of sentiment. So I said, “Fine. OK.” So we kept it going and I would just drop down there and sign checks and that’s about all I did for the first year. Around about March of ’48, which was six-eight months after my father was killed, Feldstein dropped in. He had been doing teenage work at the time and he showed me all this artwork that he had been doing for a publisher named Victor Fox, and all the broads had big busts and I was so taken with those busts that I hired Feldstein on the spot to put such a book out for me.

DECKER: Headlight comics.

GAINES: Something like that. Before we ever got it out — and the first title would have been Going Steady With Peggy — before we got it out I discovered that teenage books suddenly were losing money, so I decided not to put out this book, but we decided to try something else. And just having Feldstein around to talk to, there was a rapport between us, so we just started to horse around and we put out love books and crime books and Westerns; all very mediocre stuff.

DECKER: Was it just experimentation to see what would take?

GAINES: No, no, we were putting out what we thought was selling. We were like the smallest, crummiest outfit in the field at that point with definitely the worst distributor, Leader News. It was just a way of keeping the business going. We just imitated. Whatever we heard was selling, that’s what we did, and probably not nearly as well. I had absolutely no interest in these titles because love books and Western books and true crime books have absolutely no interest for me. I had never been interested in those things, so why would I be then? We did them all because we thought they might sell. But then somewhere along the line Al and I started talking and we realized that we both enjoyed things like Suspense and Inner Sanctum.

GROTH: If I may break in, how did you wind up with the lousiest distribution company? Was it because you were the smallest…?

GAINES: I inherited it from my father. You see, everything in business is contracts. Now, when he had the AA group, he was all set: he had his distribution; he had his paper. During World War II paper was very important and paper was allocated on the basis of what you had used or a percentage of it. So when he sold his business to DC, what they were buying, largely, were his paper contracts. They were interested in Wonder Woman and so forth and so on, but they were more interested in the paper. As luck had it, the war was over six months later, there was plenty of paper [laughter], and they didn’t make as good a deal as they could have made if they’d waited six months. But that was his good luck and their bad luck. When he went back in business, he was without contracts, he didn’t have his characters any more, he didn’t even have Shelly Mayer, because Shelly Mayer was up at DC, and this was the best distributor he could get. And when he got killed, Leader News became my distributor.



DECKER: OK. I guess we’re getting up to the point where you switch over from the fuzzy bunnies to Shock Suspense.

GAINES: Well… almost. Feldstein and I were working along, putting out this crap, and suddenly talking — because we talked a lot, of course — realized that we both had similar interests in suspense and horror stuff, and although I’m a little older than he is — I grew up on the horror pulps and the science-fiction pulps and The Witch’s Tale on the radio and things like that and at that point they had things on television like Suspense, Lights Out, Inner Sanctum, so we just started doing that kind of story in our crime books. And you know that the Crypt-Keeper and Vault-Keeper were introduced two issues before War Against Crime and Crime Patrol went out of business. And they went out of business because we decided to change their names to The Crypt of Terror and The Vault of Horror. The Crypt of Terror we later changed to Tales from the Crypt because wholesalers objected to the word “terror.” They didn’t object to horror [laughter], but there’s no logic to wholesalers, that’s something I’ve learned over the years.

GROTH: Wholesalers aren’t your favorite people.

GAINES: The wholesalers in those days were very strange. It’s a whole new generation of wholesalers today. But then, today the wholesaler is a college-bred, reasonably sophisticated person. In those days their fathers were as a rule not college people, they were people that had brought themselves up by their bootstraps and gotten nice businesses, but they weren’t sophisticated, and unsophisticated people are appalled by things more easily than more sophisticated people, as a rule. So, does that answer your question, which I don’t remember what it was?

GROTH: I don’t know either, but I think it does. [Gaines laughs.]

DECKER: Well, in other words, the old wholesaler, who was unsophisticated and not a college graduate, had little knowledge of what he was actually selling.

GAINES: He didn’t know and he really didn’t care and the only time he would care is if he got into some kind of difficulty with some local groups who started screaming at him and, after all, these guys do live in the communities. Publishers sit in New York and something happens out in Skeedonk, it doesn’t mean very much to us because we don’t live out in Skeedonk, but in fairness to the wholesalers, they were under pressure not to distribute things which the community disapproved of. And if they did, well, people would yell at them. [Laughter.] It wasn’t pleasant, I suppose.


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