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

Posted by on October 13th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Conducted by Gary Groth, Dwight Decker and Peppy White

Part one ♦ Part two ♦ Part three

 

 

GARY GROTH: [To Dwight] Back to EC. Do you want to get into the whole furor over the horror comics and the Senate hearings…?

DWIGHT DECKER: Does everyone know about the camaraderie in the office, the anecdotes…

GROTH: The joy [laughter].

GAINES: Well, we always had a kind of family atmosphere here and we still do, except it’s a different family. I think the only people left from the old days are Feldstein and Davis; almost everyone else has changed. But it was a big family then and it’s a big family now. In a sense now more than ever, because of all the trips we’ve taken. Everybody that normally might never have seen each other… It was amazing: when I announced the first trip in 1960 to Haiti, I got everybody in the office. They didn’t know what was happening. Probably thought I was going to tell them we were out of business. And I announced this big trip to Haiti, but before I did that I introduced everybody, because they didn’t know each other! Amazing how many guys can come to the office and never bump into each other, because they’d come at different times. Now, of course, everybody knows everybody, it’s led to a lot of interesting collaborations, and it’s very pleasant.

Back in the other days everybody knew everybody because we were a smaller group, but they had tremendous admiration for one another. Wally Wood would come in with a story and three artists would crowd around him and faint, just poring over every brushstroke and every panel, and of course Wally who’s getting this adulation sits there and loves it. Next time around it’s his turn to adulate someone — Williamson comes in with his story and Wally Wood faints. And everybody tried to outdo each other, which is one of the reasons we got such incredibly good art. They were all in a friendly competition to see who could make everybody faint more than the other guy. And it was wonderful: just a nice, warm place.

DECKER: From what I’ve heard from the old days in the industry, there weren’t any other companies like this…

GAINES: I don’t think there were. I wouldn’t know. I was always kind of an isolationist. I don’t know anybody else, I never knew anybody else in the industry. I didn’t know ’em at DC either, because [laughter] we were pretty low-class stuff to DC in those days and they didn’t want to know us. So I really didn’t know anybody else.

DECKER: Your comic books are different from everybody else’s too: it seemed that EC took their comic books much more seriously, in terms of quality and interest.

GAINES: Well, we did, and one of the reasons is, every story was custom-made for the artist. Al and I would sit down and the first thing I would say — because I kept the schedule — would be, “today we’re writing an eight-page lead for Ingels for Haunt of Fear number so-and-so.”

As soon as I’d say that, both our minds are in a certain frame of reference for Ingels. It’s not going to be a Jack Kamen story, which is a whole different can of worms. Kamen, you’re looking for something light, humorous, pretty women, a little sex, a little double entendre. With Ingels, you know what we’re looking for: Yuchh! Rotting corpses, moors, like this. So we knew exactly who we were writing for.

Makes a hell of a lot of difference than up at a big outfit where they probably largely have scriptwriters turning out scripts for they don’t know who, and they’ve got a million things, and you take one from Column A and two from Column B and you’ve got a book. I’m sure that isn’t true of all the stuff anywhere, but it’s got to be true when you have 30 comic books, there’s got to be a lot of that. Or else you can’t handle it. We never had more than five books a month. That was the absolute top. Almost all our books were bi-monthlies so they would come out six times a year, and we’d have 10 titles coming out, five a month. So it was relatively easy to do what we did. It was depressing when we came out with three successful horror books to see Marvel come out with 30, because now they had 10/11ths of the marketplace and that doesn’t include the 16 from this one and the 12 from that one, but we had to live with it because we were not going to put out 30 horror books. We couldn’t. Where the hell were we going to get stories and artists for 30 horror books? So we stuck to three.

 

 

GROTH: It might be hard for readers today to conceive of how many comic books were being published then. There were literally hundreds of titles.

GAINES: Hundreds? There were seven to eight hundred titles: seven to eight hundred titles. It was the heyday of comics and the minimum print order was 300,000. It wasn’t economically feasible at a dime to put out less than 300,000. I mean, the nut you had to get over of your business costs, your office space, which is divvied up by how many titles you put out, plus of course what it cost to put out an issue, 32 pages of script and 32 pages of art and covers and everything else, and you add it all up, plus the make-ready and the press, and this is a technical thing, but comic presses are different than offset presses. It costs so much money just to get ready to roll that you’ve got to print a large number or it just isn’t worth it.

GROTH: You’d be surprised at the minimum required now.

GAINES: Well, I know DC is down to 150,000.

GROTH: The minimum for the printing is 50,000.

GAINES: Fifty thousand? I don’t know how they do it. I know that with some of those EC reprints, those boys were printing 20,000, but they were charging a buck. I’m talking about charging what other comics charge [laughter], which in those days was a dime and today is 60¢. I don’t know how they do it on a run of 50,000, I really don’t. Unless there’s some new technology that I don’t know about: Which is quite possible.

GROTH: Well, at 75¢ or a dollar it’s easier.

GAINES: Yeah, but a dollar today is not much different than a dime 30, 40 years ago, so I don’t know.

GROTH: The one thing that was so startling about EC was that the ’40s and ’50s was really a hack period for comics, but at EC you had a kind of unselfconscious sense of quality and conscientiousness.

GAINES: Well, about halfway through it we suddenly realized that we were good. Up to that point we didn’t know. We were just bopping along trying to make a buck and trying to keep alive and trying to keep — since I wanted all my artists to work for EC exclusively, I had an obligation to keep them busy. That’s why Al and I had to work so hard. In all that time, with maybe occasional exceptions with some accidental tragedy, an artist would walk in and there would be a lettered job waiting for him: I mean, this was the rule. An artist knew that when he came in with his job there was a job waiting for him, all lettered and ready to go. And there always was; that was the way we did it. He also got paid the moment he walked in. To this day — you know, I was up there briefly helping Carmine Infantino at DC; it didn’t work out because they let Carmine go and after Carmine went I was not particularly interested in staying and the new people were not particularly interested in having me stay. The first meeting I had with them I said, “Look, I’m a consultant, I speak when I’m spoken to,” and they never spoke to me, so that was that! [Laughter.]

But when I was up there with Carmine I realized what a different operation DC was. The first thing I said was, “Why are the artists waiting six weeks to get paid? Why don’t we pay them when they come in?”

Carmine says — well, Carmine’s an artist — he says, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.”

I said, “Jeez, we always did that at EC, I do it at Mad. An artist walks in with a job, he gets a check.”

So we told the people up there, “From now on we’re going to…”

Well, you can’t believe the screaming and yelling: “We can’t do that! Can you imagine how much work we’ve got to go through to stop what we’re doing and write a check! We only write checks once a week up here!”

And this is for real. There was no way to break through this monolithic whatever and get these guys to write a check the day the artist came in. Literally couldn’t do it. I gave up. Weird: really weird.

GROTH: One of the advantages of a major corporation.

GAINES: It’s a whole different way of life. And there are all kinds of things like that that I wanted to do there that I couldn’t. And I realized the only way to do it was to fire everybody and start building up again… well, who could do that either? So you’re stuck with the mores of the company that have been 30 years in the making. You can’t just walk in and change it. To this day I don’t believe for an instant that they couldn’t have written a check every day, but they didn’t want to be bothered. And this is a big 20-person place that writes checks! [Laughter.] And they keep books and write checks and whatever the hell they do and they don’t want to be bothered, so they put up this big stink. So I said, “OK.”

But we still pay the moment an artist walks in, he walks out with a check.

 

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