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

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


Don Martin’s cover to Mad #68.


DECKER: I see. Mad has been successful over the years. But I notice that you haven’t tinkered much with the basic format. A friend of mine had a copy of Mad from ’62, and it doesn’t seem like the mag has really changed very much in appearance.

GAINES: That is true. And the only thing I can say is, have you noticed Cutty Sark’s ad lately for their Scotch? Same ad they’ve been running for 40 years, it’s the windjammer. [Laughter.] Somebody once said, “Why do you do this? Why don’t you…?”

They said, “Why? We’re selling Scotch!” [Laughter.]

That’s what I say. I’m selling Mad. Why tinker with it? I think it’s a good format. It’s basically the format that Kurtzman started. Al has modernized it a little bit, added a lot of artists that weren’t here when Harvey was, a lot of writers. But it’s true, it hasn’t changed much since ’62. It hasn’t changed much since ’58.

DECKER: Do you feel any threats from the National Lampoon, any competition there?

GAINES: Well, there’s no question that the Lampoon took away readers. Before the Lampoon, Mad had a readership which was predominantly teenage and went into college. Mad still has a readership, which is predominantly teenage, but now a lot of them graduate to the Lampoon. So the Lampoon has taken away readers. On the other hand, the Lampoon has been singularly unsuccessful over the last few years; their sales are very bad. So are Mad‘s, I mean, there’s a recession in the industry, and practically all magazines except for the girlie magazines are doing poorly, paperback books except for the occasional boffo bestseller are doing poorly, publishers generally are doing poorly and some of them are losing their shirts. Mad is not losing its shirt, I suspect that the Lampoon may be, except that Lampoon had that successful movie that helped it over the bad hump, which we didn’t, so that’s to their credit that they got a good movie, but the actual magazine is selling, oh, as far as I can make out, it’s selling about 400,000 copies, which isn’t very good — maybe less.

Of course they have an income from advertising; but you see: this is a trap you get in. When you start taking advertising and your sales fall you have to rebate to all your advertisers. Let’s say you get a lot of ads and you put out a very slick package on coated stock and you’re printing a million copies, and instead of selling 800,000 you suddenly find yourself selling 400,000, it’s going to cost just as much to print that slick package on that paper, only you’re not getting that advertising money that you got before because you’re selling only 400,000. (This is a made-up example. Rather a little extreme.) You’re in bad trouble. That’s how Look folded, that’s how the old Life folded: a lot of magazines over the years have gotten into that thing. Gee, how could Look fold when they’re selling three-and-a-half million copies? Because they’re losing money at three-and-half million copies [laughter], that’s how they folded! It doesn’t matter how much you’re selling, if you’re losing money you’re losing money. Publishing is a rough industry right now.

But the Lampoon definitely hurt us. Cracked hurt us in the other direction. They got the youngsters, the 8, 9, 10-year-olds; the precocious ones are reading Mad anyway. But the non-precocious 10-year-olds who might try Mad and find it a little difficult but still try it may now read Cracked.


John Severin’s cover to Cracked #157.


DECKER: I was wondering if you’d seen Marvel’s Crazy, which seems like a Mad imitation.

GAINES: We heard they went out of business. Is that true?

GROTH: Yes. John Severin does an awful lot of work for Cracked, speaking of sleazy competitors. What is your relationship with him?

GAINES: John Severin used to work for Mad and he and Harvey had a falling-out. This was back around the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh issue. I don’t know at what point it was. And at that point I think he went to Cracked. He’s very happy at Cracked. The rates are of course not anything like our rates, but he gets a lot of work there and I guess he turns out a lot of work and I guess he makes a good living.

GROTH: I can’t understand why he’s doing all that schlocky stuff for them, though.

GAINES: It’s a living. You’ve got to make a living.

GROTH: Right. Could I ask you what the rates are at Mad, approximately, these days?

GAINES: With a couple of exceptions, our old-timers are getting $490 a page script, $490 a page art. And the rates go up every year. They just went up from $460 to $490.

GROTH: One interesting thing you’ve done that no other comics publisher has done is that you’ve made the rates of writing the same as those for art.

GAINES: Oh, a long time ago.

GROTH: Can you talk about the philosophy behind that?

GAINES: Oh, sure. That’s one of my favorite subjects. I forgot about it. I learned it from Jack Benny. I once read an article about Jack Benny, and Benny paid his writers very, very well, much better than anyone else in radio at that time. Whatever it was I have no idea, but it was very good. And he said, “Listen, I’m my writers. Without my writers I’m a schlemiel. The whole program is based on my writers. Of course I pay them a lot of money. They’re worth a lot of money.”

And I never forgot that. That was long before I was a publisher. And when I got into comics and the prevailing rate for script was six bucks a page — I never paid that little, but that’s what it was — and art was about 25 at the time. I said, “This is craziness! The artist has nothing to draw if he’s got no script!” [Laughter.]

And a long time ago I said, “I’m bringing it up to parity as soon as I can.”

So I started. Way back in 1956 I’d already gotten script to 25 and art to 75 and that was basic. And then I started working it up until a long time ago I had script up to art. And absolutely that’s the way it should be, no question about it. Writers are God’s creatures. Do you realize — well, you guys are writers, so you probably realize — without the writer you have no theater, you have no television, you have no radio, you have no movies, you have no books, you have no magazines, you have nuthin’. About the only thing you’ve got is roller derby because somebody could write that very easily… [Laughter.] I don’t think they even use a writer, to decide who won what in what glamorous way. Except for sports, there isn’t a thing that doesn’t depend on the writer in the entertainment field. So sure, we love our writers. They’re the greatest. We have a lot of writer-artists. They get paid double.

GROTH: That’s an interesting attitude, because these days, artists are held in much greater esteem than writers in comics, which I don’t like.

GAINES: Well, the artist of course is very important. The artist can enhance a good story, but he can’t save a bad one. He’s very important, but he’s not as important as the writer. We never thought so. That’s why you asked, “Did the artists complain that there would be no room for the drawing?”

That’s because both Feldstein and I are really writer-people, we’re writer-oriented. Of course that we were writing our own stuff may have had something to do with it. [Laughter.] It had to come first, though. EC without the great stories wouldn’t have been anything, as for example the Warren stuff. It’s bad to talk about it because I haven’t read it for years, but many years ago, Warren went off and got all my artists, but he didn’t have any stories. So what good does it do to have Joe Orlando and George Evans and Al Williamson if they have nothing to draw?

GROTH: A lot of people would say that the emphasis on text — not necessarily on writing per se, but on text — was a big defect. But you never saw it as that.

GAINES: I do now. I do now. I now realize that this is still a visual medium. And I can assure you it’s still a defect in Mad. And I recognize it as such. A lot of our copy is much too heavy. But I don’t know what I can do about it, because my editor thinks that way, and we have a lot of writers who write “heavy.”

GROTH: And it sells.

GAINES: And it sells. But it’s a defect.


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