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

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



GROTH: When you began the New Trend books, since it was entirely new to you, how did you assess the material, and how did you acquire the new artists and writers… Well, you wrote most of the material, but the new artists that came in…

GAINES: Well, remember, I was a big fan of this stuff from the pulps, and the first thing I did was steal as many stories as I could remember from my kid days. I was stealing classics. [Laughter.] I didn’t even know it because what I thought was tremendous when I was 10 years old was tremendous. “He Who Shrank” is a classic of science fiction and I swiped it and gave it to Harvey and that was his “Lost in the Microcosm.” But it was my memory of “He Who Shrank” and I probably did a good job of remembering it. That’s why as a rule today I’m very easy on people who steal my stories because I started out that way. [Laughter.]

GROTH: You stole from Bradbury.

GAINES: Oh yeah, we stole from Bradbury. And Bradbury caught us. He was very good about it, very nice gentleman.

WHITE: He didn’t threaten to sue you?

GAINES: No, no… He wrote this fun letter, something to the effect, “I think you’ve overlooked sending me payment for so-and-so” [laughter].

So we sent him what he wanted, and then we said, “Listen, how about letting us do some more,” and where we were in luck with Bradbury was that he was a comics fan. We didn’t know that but he was a longtime comics fan and the idea of seeing his stuff in comic books really appealed to him, so we paid him the gigantic sum of $25 a story. Imagine that? But he loved it. Really got a kick out of it.

DECKER: OK. It’s been said that the horror books pulled the company out of financial trouble, that Max Gaines died with the company something like $100,000 in debt and Leader News went bankrupt…

GAINES: Well, we’re condensing now. Wait a minute. My father died with the business $100,000 in debt, that is true. Leader News did not go bankrupt until eight years later, in about 1955…

GROTH: Owing you $100,000.

GAINES: Yeah. I never thought it was the same sum, but you’re right.



DECKER: Anyway, to restate my question — I’m sorry if I got a bit confused there —your father died with the company $100,000 in debt, and the story goes that basically the New Trend, the horror books, made the company prosperous. But there is a span of some years here. Did the mediocre books do well enough to put the company on its feet, more or less?

GAINES: No, they were just breaking even: losing a little, making a little. It was really a shoestring operation in those days. There was almost nobody in the office; everything was freelance. I paid my editors freelance, by the issue, and of course keep this in mind, because this is what leads to the fact that there is a Mad Magazine today, the way I paid my editors. And of course that’s an interesting story, which we’ll get into. Or do you want to get into it now?

DECKER: Whenever it’s most…

GAINES: Well, Kurtzman was very slow. He was putting out two books in a two-month period. Feldstein was very fast and he was putting out seven books in a two-month period. By simple mathematics you can see that Feldstein was making three-and-a-half times as much as Kurtzman. This rankled Harvey, because he felt that his books were better than Feldstein’s books, and in one sense they were, but they weren’t selling as well, so that was negated. There was no reason in the world to pay Kurtzman more than he was getting unless I also gave Feldstein a raise because Feldstein was putting out three-and-a-half times as much material and making more than three-and-a-half times as much money doing it.

So the only solution I could come up with was to suggest to Harvey that he put out a humor book. Harvey remembers that he suggested to me that he put out a humor book, but that’s not what happened. I suggested to him that he put out a humor book because number one, I remembered what I had first seen him doing, which was that stuff he brought in that had me rolling on the floor, and since that day I never saw anything funny from Kurtzman because he never did anything funny for us between then and then — well, a little bit with the science fiction, like “Henry and His Goon Child,” but that was droll humor.

I said, “Look, for God’s sake, it takes you a month to research Frontline Combat and a month to research Two-Fisted Tales; but you can stick Mad in there; it will take you a week to write it” — it wasn’t Mad yet, but it became Mad — “and your income will go up 50 percent,” and that’s why Mad was born. That’s the real, stupid reason why there’s a Mad Magazine, because he was discontented with Feldstein working three-and-a-half times as fast as he did. And this was the only way… what am I gonna do? I can’t pay him more money; this’ll make Al mad. So I said, “Harvey, put out a third book, stick it in between the two war books, and you’ll be 50 percent richer right away.”

Of course it didn’t work that way, because Harvey does everything slowly and meticulously, and there’s no way he got Mad out in a week. It took him a month to get Mad out and therefore it threw the whole schedule out of whack [laughter] and it never did work.

GROTH: And it didn’t help him a bit.

GAINES: It didn’t help him much. But it was a good theory. And it led to Mad Magazine, which really probably never would have been published. I didn’t want to publish a humor magazine, that wasn’t the stuff I was doing. Our official reason for publishing Mad was, we were “tired of the horror, weary of the science fiction, we wanted to do a comic comic.” That was not true, it was just publicity. It was so Kurtzman would get a 50-percent raise.

DECKER: I understand that the schedule on the science fiction and horror titles was really grueling as far as writing them: that you practically had to have a story out virtually…

GAINES: We had to have a story out every day for four days a week. The fifth day we edited, we wrote the letters pages, did all the miscellaneous junk, the covers and the lead-ins and all the other stuff. But Al did write four stories a week. While AI was doing seven books, Johnny Craig of course was doing a book, and I used to work with Johnny in the evenings, so I was doing eight. But Johnny was so slow, so slow. He would take an entire month to write and draw one story. So I only had to work with him one evening a month to come up with a springboard he’d like and then he’d go away for a week and write it. And when he’d come back, we’d get it lettered, and then he’d go away for three or four more weeks and draw it: very slow. It was just his nature. A lot of guys in comics bat stuff out. Johnny never did. Everything had to be perfect, which was too bad, because Johnny made less than Harvey! [Laughter.] How much could he make? He edited six books a year and he wrote and drew 12 stories a year and that’s all he did. That’s all he did! He worked for no one else.

WHITE: So he was even slower than Kurtzman.

GAINES: Slower than Kurtzman.



GROTH: On your working relationship, my understanding is that you acted as a catalyst for the writer. You didn’t actually write, but you came up with springboard, talked it out, and then the writer would go down and write.

GAINES: That’s how I worked with both Johnny and with Al. Now, I was on Dexedrine in those days. Dexedrine is something that helps you diet; it’s supposed to kill your appetite, but it has a side effect, which I guess is like speed. And I didn’t realize it then and I didn’t know what speed was; people weren’t into things like that then. But I was taking this Dexedrine and as a result of it I couldn’t sleep more than three or four hours a night. I went crazy. I finally went on a program where I didn’t even attempt to go to sleep until four in the morning and I would get up at seven or eight. The number of crossword puzzles I did in those days is numberless [laughter]. What I would also do is read like a maniac. I would read every science fiction and horror story I could get my hands on. They couldn’t publish them fast enough. I went through the anthologies… all the old crap, mostly just to keep busy.

Every time I would read a horror story, I would get three or four springboards. I always read with a pad and pencil, and I would jot down these springboards, each one on a separate piece of paper, and I would bring these in, and I had a wad of springboards that would sink a ship, and my whole thing — this was my life — was to get Feldstein, who would sit in that chair, or what was that chair then in relation to me, and I would try and “sell” him springboard after springboard, and finally I would “sell” him a springboard. As it started to get toward one o’clock I’d start to get hysterical, because we’d been working three hours and he’s got to get a script written today, no horsing around [laughter]…

GROTH: Al was a hard sell?

GAINES: He was a very hard sell sometimes. Sometimes I’d sell him in five minutes, sometimes it would take all day. So by one o’clock I would get hysterical, my stomach would be in knots, but I’d finally sell him on something, and he’d say, “OK,” he likes that, we’d work it out, and then he’d go away and he’d write it. And he was a very fast writer. Once he had in his mind what he wanted to do, then it was one-two-three.

GROTH: There was never a script; he would write it on the boards.

GAINES: That’s the way he worked. He would take his six, seven, or eight sheets of paper, because we had a formula — it was either an eight, seven, or six-page story, he’d take a ruler, rule out the panels, he’d letter right into the panels, he’d hold his lettering three lines down so the letterer could read what he was lettering. Because he used Leroy lettering sets with templates, and you had to leave room for the template. He would block it in, put in the balloons, put in everything, work out the panels, the whole thing was done, and he would come in around four thirty, quarter to five, and it was the big time of the day. And I would sit and read all the stuff out loud, because we were big believers — in fact, we had some letters pages where we suggested to the readers that they read our stories aloud because our stories were really almost designed to be little plays. I would read his story out loud, correcting, making occasional changes, typos or punctuation. Al’s biggest kick is if he got me really clutching myself, that this was a fabulous story, which many, many of his stories were. And it was always a big thrill for him for me to read the story and for me to love it, and that was it. Then we’d go home. The next morning the letterer comes in and picks up the story, and we’re off on the next one. And that was it, day after day, except for one day a week. That was our life from ’50 through ’54. Except the last year, we got very tired. Things were lousy, the sales weren’t too good, we had all this pressure from the do-gooders as we called them and we started using scriptwriters, and then we’d have them come in and we’d have script conferences and sometimes I’d use my springboards, but frequently they’d bring theirs which were better than mine sometimes because they were fresh and I was tired, and they’d take them home and write them and then Al would tear the whole damn thing apart again. They would bring in a typewritten script and he’d still take it and break it down, rewriting it as he went. He still does practically the same thing now in Mad, but he does it in his typewriter, copycasting as he types. But he still retypes and rewrites every script that goes into Mad, through his typewriter, copycasting.

GROTH: What do you mean “copycasting”?

GAINES: Well, it comes out even, square. There’s no loose ends. You’ve got to count spaces to make that happen. He does that as he types — I don’t know how he does that, he writes in casted copy!

GROTH: He must have some kind of instinctual grasp for this.

GAINES: Well, by this time I guess he does, he’s been doing it so long. It’s crazy, what he does. He doesn’t have one of these fancy new typewriters that does it for you automatically. He’s got to do it himself.

GROTH: Even back then he must have had some sort of an instinctual grasp, to write on the board and lay it out as he goes on.

GAINES: He saw it as he did it. Now one of the differences between the way Al wrote and the way Harvey wrote is that Al would always give the artist blank pages, and he’d just go over them with the artist and say, “Now, in this panel, so-and-so is happening,” and Harvey, of course, like a conductor of an orchestra, made a pencil sketch, pretty tight pencil sketch, of every single panel of every single story, and God help the artist who tried to change it! And of course it was a different way of working. Harvey wanted to draw the story himself but knew that George Evans could draw it better. So he drew it using George Evans’s hands, which is practically the way’ he would work, if you can think of it that way. This ended up a Kurtzman story in Evans’s style, because Kurtzman really drew the damn thing in his head, and made Evans — I just picked Evans because he hated it. He hated it! [Laughter.]

GROTH: In our latest issue we print a letter from Evans with some anecdotes about Harvey.

GAINES: [Laughter.] I think of all the people that Harvey did this to George Evans resented it the most. He really hated it.

GROTH: In his letter, Evans wrote that he would come in with a minor figure in a background of one panel changed, and Harvey would start to sweat and…

GAINES: Well, what would happen is, Harvey was very timid, and he didn’t really like to fight with people. And so with Evans more than anybody — I think Evans deliberately did these things — he made a change that he knew would drive Harvey crazy, he knew that Harvey would not have the nerve to say anything about it, and so it would go through, and then after it was over, Harvey would say, “You ruined my story.” [Laughter.]

GROTH: That’s exactly what Evans said.

GAINES: Well, it’s exactly what happened. [Laughter.]


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