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

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



GROTH: Just for the benefit of our readers, could you talk just briefly about the method of distribution: There were about 10 distributors who then distributed to wholesalers, who then distributed to retail stores?

GAINES: Right.

GROTH: I guess I just did it.

GAINES: Atypical — now, this is no longer true of most magazines, but a typical breakdown of the money in those days, which might be of interest: if a magazine sold for a quarter, I got 14-and-a-half cents. One-and-a-half cents went to the distributor, who sold it for 16 cents to the wholesaler, who sold it for 20 cents to the news dealer, who sold it for a quarter. So the, dealer got a nickel, the wholesaler got four cents, the distributor got a penny and a half, and I had to make a profit out of my 14-and-a-half cents. That was the breakdown. Today, for most people, it’s worse. The publisher gets less; the middlemen get more.

GROTH: Why has that come about?

GAINES: Because the middlemen are very voracious and they have the clout.

DECKER: In other words, you’re making less percentage-wise now on 90¢ than you were in 1956 off a quarter?

GAINES: I personally am not making too much less, because Mad had enough clout to keep where it started. But the average magazine today, certainly a beginning magazine, which doesn’t have the kind of circulation that Mad has had over the years, wouldn’t get anything like that good a deal.

GROTH: So it depends really entirely on how much clout you have. That is, Time-Life would be able to make a much better deal than some new publisher who has no clout.

GAINES: No question. But that unfortunately is true everywhere in all walks of life. [Laughter.] In any business I guess. I mean, Macy’s always can buy cheaper than Ma and Pa’s store down on the side street, which makes it easier for Macy’s to cut prices below Ma and Pa’s store. That has ever been thus. Which is why there aren’t a hell of a lot of Ma and Pa’s stores any more, which is a tragedy for the country but nice for the consumer… I guess.

GROTH: Now we get into EC.

DECKER: Harvey Kurtzman I understand came into your office one day looking for work and you sent out to your uncle —

GAINES: You said the magic word. I have a request. I read very carefully the interview you did with Harvey. Now Harvey and I are friendly at this point and I have nothing but the greatest of respect for Harvey’s talent. The man is a genius, no question about it. But I always have this problem with Harvey. Harvey has a very bad memory, and he gives lots of interviews, and in all of his interviews he says things which are not the way I remember it. And I would like an opportunity to tell my side of the story because I rarely get it. [Laughter.]

GROTH: You got it.

GAINES: Not only do I want to tell my side of the story, but I plan to prove it because I dug up some documentation. This is all no-big-deal stuff, but I’d just like to go on the record with my version of what happened and show you why I feel that what I’m saying is accurate because I think I can prove it to your satisfaction. In any event, you started to say, Harvey walked in here, yes?

DECKER: Yeah, well, I understand that his first job for the Gaines family was, you steered him to your uncle who was doing educational material and Harvey’s first job for you was a comic about VD.

GAINES: That was one of his first jobs. What happened is Harvey walked in here. Because the name of the company at that point was still “Educational Comics.” When we started putting out the type of material that we put out, it seemed absurd to call it “Educational Comics.” In fact, one of the funniest things I ever did was write two letters to the New Yorker, which they published, because they got a kick out of them. One was as President of EC Publications complaining that they had credited us with putting out such dry stuff as Picture Stories from the Bible and another one from Educational Comics saying we had nothing to do with horror comics and so on and so forth and I signed both of them as President. I thought it was very funny and they ran it and sent me 50 bucks, which as I recall Feldstein and I spent at the Moroccan Village, a nightclub which is now defunct. [Laughter.]

Anyway, thinking we were an educational outfit, Harvey walked in with some typical Kurtzman stick-figure stuff of an educational nature, but very funny. Feldstein and I just split a gut. We just sat there, I was at my desk and Al was peering over my shoulder, we just went through one thing after another, you know how it builds: the first one is funny, the second one you chuckle at, the ninth one you’re hysterical, and after that — every one is a gem. And we must have spent 45 minutes laughing at his stuff, at the conclusion of which we said, “But I don’t know how we can use it!” [Laughter.] “We’re not really educational comics any more.”

But he was so talented that we didn’t want to let go of him. So we threw him a commercial job on VD that had come in.

GROTH: Funny VD comics…

GAINES: No, this wasn’t funny. This was commissioned by some group that was trying to prevent the spread of VD, I dunno. We had a lot of that stuff coming in. And then we started giving him jobs, and we gave him jobs in the crime or horror books or whatever we were publishing, and first we wrote the scripts, but then we found out he could write so we started letting him write them, and of course he gravitated to the science fiction and did the classics that you all know about as well as I do, and then at a certain point he indicated that he would like to do an adventure book, and I said, “Fine.” And that’s how Two-Fisted [Tales] was born, and then the Korean War broke out, and so Two-Fisted became a war book, and that led to Frontline Combat, and I hope that answers that part of your question.



GROTH: Did the war books sell well?

GAINES: So-so. At their best they sold moderately well.

GROTH: The science-fiction books did not sell well and the horror books did.

GAINES: The science-fiction books sold moderately well too for a while and then they went downhill. The bestsellers always were the three horror. The next two best were the Shock and Crime Suspense; then Harvey’s two, and the science fiction two held their own for a couple of years and then dropped into the red. But by the time the war books had dropped into the red, the war was over, so we couldn’t put out war books any more. They became adventure, and by that time Harvey was so busy on Mad that he really dropped both of them and DeFuccio and Severin and another guy whose name escapes me started putting them out, but they didn’t last long. Then they died.

DECKER: I think when we originally broke off we were talking about how you and Feldstein realized you had a commonality of interests and that led to the horror books…

GAINES: It led to the horror books and the horror books led to the science-fiction books. Well, actually, they all came out in one fell swoop. In the beginning of 1950 — right away in January 1950 was the switchover. We came out with the first issues of at least those five titles.

DECKER: Yes. So was this all part of a concrete marketing plan? Did you have set plans to change the company around, in other words?

GAINES: Oh, sure! We’d already done it. We’d dropped everything else. If Modern Love came out any more, it came out with only one issue into 1950, I think. We had decided to drop everything. At this point Feldstein and I, working together, had decided to drop everything we had and switch everything over into “New Trend.”

DECKER: It was a gamble, though, wasn’t it?

GAINES: Well, everything was a gamble. And then you have to understand that in those days, we weren’t making money, but we weren’t losing money. And for me it was a big Monopoly game. I wasn’t seriously involved in that thing. I came and put in my time, and we had a good time [laughter], Feldstein and I and Johnny Craig and then Kurtzman doing this thing, and if we made money, that was terrific! But I didn’t even take a salary for a few years because the idea was to let the business just survive. Then it started to build and it started to make a profit and I did start to take a salary.

WHITE: How did you live without a salary?

GAINES: Well, fortunately my father left my mother and I and my sister well fixed, so we didn’t have to — none of us took a salary.

WHITE: Reportedly he sold it for $500,000 or something?

GAINES: He sold for $500,000 tax-free. That means they paid the taxes and he got the half a million. Now half a million in 1944 was anywhere from 5 to 10 million in today’s money. You’ve got to multiply… I use the hot dog rule [laughter]. I figure everything in terms of hot dogs. Hot dogs were a nickel. Now they’re a dollar. At least at Nathan’s at Coney Island where it counts, they’re a buck. And that means the nickel is now a dollar and that’s 20 times. So as far as I’m concerned the half a million dollars would have bought the same number of hot dogs in 1944 as you would now need 10 million dollars for.

WHITE: That’s a lot of hot dogs.

GROTH: That’s 10 million hot dogs.

GAINES: Listen, back in 1941, my first car was a Dodge Convertible and I got it for $600. A beautiful Dodge Convertible. You kids can’t conceive what things used to be. It’s hard for me to get used to today’s prices.

GROTH: We can hardly conceive what they are now.

GAINES: If you remember 10 years ago, it’s bad. But I remember 30-40 years ago, and I get sick.


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