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

Posted by on October 14th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Conducted by Gary Groth, Dwight Decker and Peppy White

Part onePart two ♦ Part three



GARY GROTH: There’s a great story you once told that sort of pointed out the ludicrousness of criticizing your horror comics, and that was about a distributor who got upset about a story in Mad about a butcher’s…

WILLIAM GAINES: Oh, goodness, that was my friends the wholesalers. They had an East Coast convention, which they do every year, and at that convention somehow this became a topic of… Well, what started it was, I think… Kurtzman was sick with jaundice, and Feldstein and I and everybody was trying to help him get Mad #5 out, and we wrote a lampoon tongue-in-cheek biography of me. We’d done legitimate biographies of everybody else, so we did this thing, and this was supposed to be funny, but also we were putting a zinger in there against one of the comic publishers who shall be nameless and so I was saying that I’m a pornographer, and this and that and the other and these wholesalers, who I didn’t think would catch on got it, and they were very angry because they were very friendly with this publisher. That started the problem.

The second problem was that face to face with this was the first page of “Outer Sanctum,” and you know crazy Bill Elder who put all this junk in his stuff back in those days, and he had something like “Fat Errand Boy Wanted.” Of course as any horror person would know, what would a ghoul want a fat errand boy for? It would be to eat him! But riot these wholesalers, they had something much worse in mind. They had sexual perversion in mind, and they accused us of putting this thing in there, meaning that they wanted a fat errand boy to screw or whatever you do with fat errand boys. And it almost put us out of business. It was another one of these insane things where the combination of that biography and page one of “Outer Sanctum” was more than these old-style wholesalers could absorb. It’s the kind of thing that couldn’t happen today, but it happened then, back in ’53.

GROTH: You really seemed at the mercy of the capricious interpretations of these wholesalers.

GAINES: Absolutely. Absolutely. There were something like 8-900 wholesalers, and you had to go through them to get to the 100,000 newsdealers, there was no other way, and they were in groups, the East Coast group and the West Coast group and the Middle Coast and the South and if you got a group of these guys Mad at you you’d lose a fourth of your distribution. And from each section. So it was a big problem.

DWIGHT DECKER: OK, have we pretty much exhausted EC?

GAINES: Well, you’ve got all the Harvey Kurtzman stuff I’d like to get into before we leave EC, which shouldn’t take long.

PEPPY WHITE: I was just thinking that no matter how ghastly the EC stories were it seemed that they tended to twist things around. Like that editorial that you wrote, where you said that anybody who hates comics is Communist, it was a joke, right?

GAINES: Oh, that. It was supposed to be a joke. It backfired. The Subcommittee grabbed that one, and by that time I was so tired that I said I was serious. I just couldn’t face getting into trying to explain to this group that this was supposed to be funny. Since it wasn’t a good job anyway, I won’t even find it easy to describe to you what happened, let alone a Senate Subcommittee. But I had a very good friend who used to amuse himself by going around until he found somebody haranguing a crowd on the street, and let’s say he would size the guy up as a right-winger, he found that if he went over and said, “You’re a communist!” the guy would be incensed. Because he hates communists and somebody’s calling him a communist, and it’s the worst thing in the world you could call him. So my friend had lots of fun. I’m surprised he lived to tell the tale, but that’s what he did. And he used to tell me this story.

Well, somehow I took this thing, and said, “Well, number one: everyone who’s against my comics is a right-winger. If I call them a communist they’ll be furious!” So I come up with this long, tortured, tedious, stupid thing that Legman, who was quite left-wing, was against comics. So I said, well, if Legman is against comics and he’s connected with the Daily Worker, then anybody who hates comics must be a communist. The title was “Are you a Red Dupe?” And poor old Davis, who probably never read it, drew it, to his eternal dishonor, and that was it. It was one of my dumber things. [Laughter.]


From “Mad Reader!” in Mad #11; Written by Harvey Kurtzman, art by Basil Wolverton, colors by Marie Severin. ©1954 Educational Comics, Inc.


GROTH: I wanted to talk about the various publishers associations that began to thwart the public outcry. You belonged to the very first Comics Code, although it probably wasn’t called the Comics Code…

GAINES: Wait: There were three. The first one we didn’t belong to because I wasn’t even in comics then. I don’t even know when… That was a long time ago, during my father’s time. The second Code I belonged to…

GROTH: But you quit after about two or three years.

GAINES: Oh, I think we were in longer than that.

GROTH: According to the Senate Subcommittee hearing, you dropped out because of finances, because you had expected the other publishers to join and they didn’t, and that you were paying the association about $3,000 a year which, was more than you could…

GAINES: Yeah, but it seems like I was in there more than two or three years. But it’s true. What it was, of course, was that the comic publishers like DC who weren’t having a problem didn’t want to be associated with me, or Marvel, or any of the others who were having a problem, so they didn’t join. So the whole burden financially was on the few of us who were publishing horror and crime comics. I can see their point of view. Maybe if I had been one of them I would have felt the same way about it. I also figured it was ridiculous. One by one other people started to drop out. Every time someone would drop out, everybody else had to pay more money, because the guy Schulz who was running the thing had to be paid. So I finally said to hell with it.

GROTH: And there was someone by the name of Judge Murphy?

GAINES: No, that’s the third comics association. After the Senate Subcommittee hearings, and this isn’t very well known, but I can prove it again, I sent a letter to every comics publisher, invited them to a meeting and footed the bill for the hall. We took a big place somewhere, and all these people showed up and I tried to convince them that we should form an association and hire the Gleuks of Harvard or anybody else we could find who could do some sort of independent, honest research into whether comic books in truth were the horrendous things that people said they were. And since I really didn’t think they were, I figured, such a study would exonerate us.

None of these guys wanted to do that, and right away the whole thing was taken away from me, and they turned it into a situation where they wrote a Code, and the Code forbade the use of the words horror, terror, or crime — this was all my books — and weird, even weird, [laughter] so that would wipe me out. So I didn’t join the association. But then I decided to drop all those books anyway and put out the New Direction stuff. I put out the six first issues, six b-imonthlies, and they sold 10, 15 percent. You can’t believe how horrendous the sales were. And I later found out that it was because the word was passed by the wholesalers, “Get ‘im!” So they got me.

As soon as I heard this I joined the Association. You’ll notice that from the second issue of each title on, I’m an Association member. So my sales went up from 10 to 20, but it was still disastrous. I kept it up for as long as I could, and then I dropped all the comics and went into Picto-Fiction. Meanwhile, of course, Mad had turned into a bestseller arid it had started to make money. At this point my national distributor went bankrupt, wiped me out, and my mother and I had to put $110,000 fresh money into the business to keep Mad going, and everything else was hopeless. One of the things I have always felt badly about with Harvey is that he went up with me to talk my mother into putting her $50,000 in, and then he left [laughter]. I don’t want to open old wounds, because as I say Harvey and I are now friends, but this was a very painful period for everybody. Fortunately it had a happy ending for me and Harvey did me a big favor by going up and talking my mother into putting the money in, and I matched hers and then came up with another $10,000 later on, because Mad then took off and even without Harvey it became very successful. Meanwhile, of course, I owed the printer a fortune, so I was really in debt there, and I made an arrangement with him whereby I would give him I believe 75 percent of all the profits we made until we had paid him off. And that didn’t take long. We did so well that we had paid him off in a year and a half. So I’m free, I don’t owe anybody anything, I never stuck anybody.

GROTH: When your distributor went bankrupt owing you money, weren’t you also confronted with the situation where retail stores wanted to return copies to you and be rebated money, which you actually hadn’t even been paid?

GAINES: Yeah. But I wrote them all letters and explained to them that it was not money I owed them but money that Leader News owed them. See, Leader News, when they went bankrupt, they screwed everybody in both directions. When I gave them my comics and they gave the comics to these guys, I wasn’t paid yet, and when these guys tried to return their stuff, which they’d paid for, there was nobody there to redeem it. I couldn’t redeem it, I hadn’t been paid for it in the first place; it was all Leader News. But it blew over.


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