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

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


Fredric Wertham.


DECKER: When people talk about the ’50s now and comic books, the problems, Dr. Wertham, the Senate Subcommittee hearings, and so on, somehow the name Joseph McCarthy always gets brought in, by association if nothing else. Do you think that the complaints, the criticisms: attacks on comic books was in any way political?

GAINES: No. McCarthy was in no way responsible for what happened to the comic books. McCarthy was busy with his own dirty tactics, which had nothing to do with something as unimportant as comic books. He was after much bigger game. It was the temper of the times which led both to McCarthy and the problems that comics were having. McCarthy didn’t create the times, the times created McCarthy, and they also created a bad time for comics. It was just the way people were then — they were against everything, just the general population. They were convinced that comics were going to do terrible things to their children; they really believed it, and so did Wertham. But you can’t blame McCarthy for that. [Laughter.]

DECKER: Right. But I’ve always been — other countries were concerned about comics. I believe Canada banned comics in 1948, and other…

GAINES: They might have banned them, but they were buying my plates and publishing them right up to the end.

DECKER: Maybe it was just importing them…

GAINES: No, no, they weren’t allowed to import. What comic publishers did those days was, you sold your press plates. Comics were such a chintzy business that if you could sell your press plates for two, three hundred dollars, this was a consideration. If you put out 60 comics a year like I did and you sold each one for $300, that was 18 grand, which was a lot of extra money in those days for nothing. So we sold our press plates to Canada, to a publisher called, I believe, Superior. Who they were and what they were I have no idea. And they published them up there. A very shitty job, and you can still find them at conventions, and people who are such specialists of EC comics that they want everything go after the Superior comics versions, which were identical except that instead of saying EC they probably said “S.”

DECKER: Right. Still, there had always been censorship in this country. That is, pornography was illegal up until recently, and still is technically… but certainly before the ’50s people could be hauled into court for publishing material that would be fairly innocuous now.

GAINES: Yeah, but this was all sex. Nobody was after violence in those days. But there were groups after it, and as a result of this… Dewey was governor of New York State in those days, and New York has always been the key state for legislation: As New York goes — or at least then — so went the rest of the country. There were many people trying to pass legislation — year after year — banning horror comics. And I remember it because I was publishing them, so I was damned interested, and every year, both houses of the New York assembly would pass the law and governor Dewey would veto it as being unconstitutional: which it would have been. Finally, a law was passed and just for your information, as far as I know, it is still on the books. It is illegal in New York State to publish a crime or horror comic. [Laughter.] You can theoretically be arrested and thrown in jail for doing it. I don’t think the law would hold up if it went all the way to the Supreme Court…

GROTH: That certainly sounds unconstitutional.

GAINES: But I don’t plan to be the one who goes to jail and tests it. [Laughter.] So just for your information, as far as I know that law is still on the books. I never heard that it was repealed and the only way it will be repealed is if someone tests it and it becomes unconstitutional.

DECKER: Yes. It seems that people around the country were reacting very strongly to the violence and the horror, they thought it wasn’t good for their children, and in reading the press clippings that we’ve got a whole file full from that time, people like Dr. Wertham seem to be unable to conceive of comics as even deserving the right of free press, that they didn’t see comic books as anything but a product on the order of spoiled meat. Dr. Wertham saw no artistic expression or anything of that nature in them.

GAINES: That’s true. He didn’t. I had a couple of little tussles with Wertham, he was taking things out of context in front of the Senate Subcommittee, but I’ll tell you the truth, I was so nervous when I was up there that I barely knew what I was doing. First of all, I’d been up all night writing my introductory speech, which I wrote with Lyle Stuart. Actually, Lyle probably wrote more of it than I did but I was with him writing it. And when I got into the Senate Subcommittee hearings my Dexedrine wore off.

GROTH: So you went down.

GAINES: And maybe you know better than I do, because it’s been so many years since I’ve taken it, but if you’re on something and all of a sudden it wears off, you’re like — well, for the last half hour or so of my testimony, they were just batting me around. They were like whacking a corpse. They didn’t know it…

WHITE: Like a wet sponge.

GAINES: A wet sponge, that’s how I felt. And I didn’t know what I was doing. I just wanted to get the hell out of there.


William Gaines testifies in front of the Senate Subcommittee hearing.


WHITE: You should have popped another one.

GAINES: I would have if I’d had it! As a matter of fact I wanted to, it was after lunch that I was going on, and I started to feel it, and I said to Lyle and the girl who I later married, “I’m starting to feel like I’m getting very tired and I want another Dexedrine,” and they said, “Oh, don’t take a Dexedrine, you won’t know what you’re doing.”

Well, they were dead wrong. It’s because I didn’t take the Dexedrine, in the condition I was in those days — maybe if today I took one it would give me too much of a high — but in those days I was used to it and I needed it. And I didn’t have it. And it was tough facing these guys. You’re up there all alone and there’s nine of them and a guy who’s kind of like a prosecuting attorney and it was rough answering all these questions. Everybody looking at you like you’re a freak and a criminal and so on and so forth. But you asked a question, which brought that on, and I forgot the question, as usual.

DECKER: I just commented that it was ironic that Wertham would see comics as the spoiled meat when he himself was about the ultimate liberal, since he had a free clinic in Harlem for the Blacks and he himself had testified against censorship in 1928 in a case involving a banned book and later testified in the defense of a nudist magazine.

GAINES: Well, you’ve got to understand that really what Wertham was doing was, he was trying to defend the kids. And as did Clarence Darrow before him — and Clarence Darrow was a great man and a great defense attorney — they felt that rather than attribute any bad act to the kid, they’ll blame the kid’s environment, and if the kid read a comic book, then obviously it wasn’t the kid that did the bad thing, it’s the comic book that led him into the path of badness, and Wertham did that over and over and over in the many… And of course cynically you could say that Wertham was making a good living testifying at trials with this line, and writing these books and everything else, but I think the man was relatively sincere in what he did. It’s just that when someone is making a living at doing something you’ve got to be very suspicious of what exactly is the motivation. He wasn’t a pure scientist making these observations; he was a man who was making a living on this kind of point of view.

But he went up there and he read out of one of my Shock stories and started showing how we used the word “Spic.” I don’t know if you remember the story… of course we had the bad guys using the word “Spic” in the story. To pull the word out of context and say that we were using the word “Spic” in a comic book as though we had done a bad thing, when what we had done was a good thing, was the kind of thing he was capable of. And I don’t know whether he did it maliciously or out of stupidity, because I don’t think he understood half of what he was talking about.

DECKER: There are a number of stories he quotes in his books, which he obviously misread completely. Like that story in Shock SuspenStories where during the parade the blind man doesn’t salute the flag and gets stomped because they don’t know he’s blind. Wertham misread that story, didn’t understand the point, and thought it was advocating…

GAINES: That’s precisely what he did. And as I say, he did that in front of the Senate Subcommittee too. And it’s very hard to defend your point of view when you don’t have the material to argue back with, and I didn’t have that story with me…

GROTH: Still, you took exception to that.

GAINES: I definitely took exception to it, but I don’t think it did any good. These things — that committee was there to hang the comic publishers, and I was one of the first comic publishers to go on. I had requested to appear. So before they started subpoenaing people, although actually they subpoenaed me, and perhaps they would have subpoenaed me anyway, but having asked to appear, at least I didn’t go up there feeling I was being dragged up. I felt I was being given the chance that I’d asked for. So I at least went up there a little less nervous than I would have been.


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