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

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


Cover to Shock Illustrated #3, art by Rudy Nappi. ©1956 Entertaining Creations, Inc.


GROTH: Could you relate the story of Shock #3?

GAINES: Yeah, well, it was the same time, we had now put out two of each of the four titles of Picto-Fiction and Shock just happened to come first, so the next one coming out would have been Shock #3, and I printed about a quarter of a million, either 250 or 300,000 — stupid thing to do — but I was thinking comics, I really had never published anything but a comic, and I didn’t know that you don’t print quarter magazines like you print 10¢ magazines, you print 100,000, 75,000. I printed 250 to 300,000, just like a comic book. And there literally was no money to bind them, if you can imagine the situation where I have a quarter of a million insides and a quarter of a million covers, and I’ve already got to pay for all this, which I did, but I didn’t have the few thousand bucks to put the covers on the books so I could ship them out! And so I said, “Hand bind me 100 and destroy the rest.” They chopped up a quarter of a million covers and a quarter of a million insides, but there were 100 copies of Shock #3, which I just got in for the artists and for myself, and they were sitting there, and everybody was coming over and taking a handful, and today they’re worth $800 apiece, or at least that’s the theoretical price.

DECKER: If it’s any sort of comfort, that sort of mistake is still being made. When Marvel put out a digest fiction magazine about ten years ago, The Haunt of Horror, they printed more copies of the first issue than Analog.

GAINES: Well, comic publishers just don’t know. They find out the hard way. But I never published any of these little magazines, but all the little science-fiction magazines, which are so popular and the fans — you know, you publish science fiction, you get in 5,000 letters, and you think, “My God, there must be a million people out there!” No! There’s 5,000 [laughter] and they all write you, and these great things like Galaxy and Fantasy and Science Fiction, they used to print 50,000, 70,000, that was their print order, and to a comics person like myself, I couldn’t even conceive of a print run like that. In my whole life I’ve never printed less than a quarter million of everything. I just couldn’t understand it.

GROTH: You wanted to talk about Kurtzman.

GAINES: Well, I just wanted to clear up a few points in your last article. First I have to find them.

GROTH: Otherwise it was a good issue.

GAINES: Damn good issue. It was a damn good interview, too. Most of this I loved and concur with. Let’s see. Someone asked, “I know Panic had at least one very major problem with censorship, the Santa Claus story, and I was wondering whether Mad, while it was a comic book, had any such conflicts?”

And I just wanted to point out that the trouble we had on the Santa Claus story was Bill Elder. He had put a sign on the sleigh of Santa Claus, “Just Divorced.”

Now how do a bunch of iconoclastic, atheist bastards like us know that Santa Claus is a saint and that he can’t be divorced and that this is going to offend Boston? [Laughter.] So that’s how that happened. Now this was a thing between Harvey and I many times.

As he said here, he feels that “the comics business had brought censorship down on its head because of the kind of thing the horror comics were doing” and he thought they were “evil” and he thought they’d “turned sick” and so on and so forth, but what Harvey never could grasp then, and still doesn’t, is that the only reason there were his war books and the only reason there was a Mad was from the money we made on the horror books, and it doesn’t seem fair — it didn’t then and it still doesn’t — that Harvey has these bad feelings toward these very magazines — whatever he may have thought of them — which provided the money that the magazines he edited were published with, because his magazines didn’t make money then.

Then we get into the fun of how Mad started. And Harvey says, “Ever since Mad started, I’ve heard 20 stories about who’s responsible and to hear it I had very little to do with it. But as I remember it I became desperate to do a quick comic, I wasn’t making any money with the war books, there was too much research and laying out and authenticity” and so on and so forth. Now this is true except who had the idea. And he says he got tired and he went to the hospital with yellow jaundice and it was in the hospital that he thought of Mad. Now I can demonstrate very easily and I will at the end of this that at the time Harvey went in the hospital with yellow jaundice, Mad #5 was just being published. Therefore he could not possibly have thought of Mad while he was in the hospital with yellow jaundice.


From “Hey Look” in Mad #8; Written and drawn by Harvey Kurtzman, colors by Marie Severin. Reprinted in Mad Vol. 2 (Russ Cochran, publisher), ©1986 Harvey Kurtzman.


GROTH: He was probably just thinking about Mad at the hospital. The sixth issue.

GAINES: No, he says, “So I proposed the format Mad,” and then he says, “Something was in the air with the first issues, we started getting letters, we got an avalanche of mail.”

Mad lost money for three issues. Harvey either didn’t know it or had forgotten, but Mad was a loser until “Superduperman” came out. That’s what changed it.

GROTH: How far into the run was that?

GAINES: What do you mean?

GROTH: Well, farther than three issues?

GAINES: After three issues, Mad then became profitable. “Superduperman” was in issue #4. But it was a loser for three issues. Lots of comic-book publishers were putting out comic books for one or two issues, and if one issue lost money, they’d drop it. We never did that because if we liked something we’d run it as a loser as we did for a long time with the science fiction.

And then the business of who thought of the word “mad.” And Harvey of course thinks he did, but I can demonstrate to you that in the old horror comics, when Al and I would write the letter pages, we referred to our magazines as “EC’s Mad mags,” and I will show you at least three issues back in ’50 where this was true, and of course Mad didn’t even come along until ’52. What really happened, we decided to do, for reasons I’ve explained, a humor magazine. Johnny Craig, Al Feldstein, Harvey and myself sat around, we said, “we’re going to do a humor magazine,” and the title proposed by Feldstein was “EC’s Mad Mag.” It was an expression we’d been using right along. Johnny Craig came up with the sidestrip, “Humor in a Jugular Vein,” and then Harvey in a stroke of genius, either then or later, took off “EC’s” and “Mag” and just made it Mad, which is a brilliant title, and that Harvey did do. But he didn’t just sit down and think up the title Mad, He got the title Mad from EC’s Mad Mag.

Panic. Now this is another problem between Harvey and I over all these years. Harvey says, “Panic was another sore point. Gaines, by some convoluted reasoning, decided to double the profit of Mad by doing a Feldstein version of Mad and he just plundered all of my techniques and artists. For this there was a real conflict of interests.”

Sometimes Harvey loses sight of the fact that this was my business, that I was publishing these magazines, that one of my magazines was Mad, that I had a lot of other magazines making more or less profits, some of them none, and what’s so immoral about me putting out another magazine imitating my own magazine? You see Harvey could never realize that Mad was mine; he thought it was his. [Laughter.] That was the basic problem. To me Mad was one of the EC Comics. If we put out The Vault of Horror and it’s successful, what’s wrong with putting out Tales From the Crypt? If we put out Mad and it’s successful, what’s wrong with putting out — all the time we put out Panic, Harvey felt we were competing with him, and I used to say, “Harvey, we’re not competing with you, we’re all one company. [Laughter.] The money comes from everywhere and it goes into a pot and from this pot we publish.” Why am I competing? And it was something that Harvey could never understand. He felt it was separate. The fact that 30 to 70 other people were imitating Mad, Martin Goodman had half a dozen, there were 70 titles I understand, my printer once counted them up, because he used to keep a list of all the comics published and he told me there were 70. I think he was wrong, but there were certainly 30, 40, or 50 imitations of Mad. You know, Eek, Ecch, Oook, Turn Blue was Shelly Mayer’s, I can’t even remember them all, Crazy, Cracked, Nutty, Silly, Woppy, Daffy, we got all these imitations of Mad, that’s OK, but if I put out Panic it’s immoral [laughter].

WHITE: He’s very possessive about Mad, though.

GAINES: Very possessive. Which is OK, except that not so possessive that his own publisher isn’t allowed to put out another one. If I’d been Martin Goodman I would have put out 30!


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