Comics | Artist Biographies |
Collecting How To
Museum of Comic Art | Search this Site | Web Links
About Comic-art.com | Art For Sale | Comics For Sale
Comics On CDRom | Movie Posters | Pulps For Sale
We Buy Collections | Contact Us |Home Page
|WILLIAM M. GAINES INTERVIEW|
COMIC-ART.COM: Would you say your greatest contribution to your father's line of comics was for All-American Comics?
GAINES: No, I wouldn't say it was greatest, my first. When they started All-American, the lead feature was called "Red, White and Blue", which was about a soldier, a sailor, and a marine, and he was wondering what to call them, and I said: `Why don't you call them Red, Whitey and Blooey?' which was a pretty dumb idea, but he accepted it, and that's what they were called. If you check back in your early All-American Comics, you'll find it.
COMIC-ART.COM: How old were you when you came up with that?
GAINES: I don't know. I was born in 1922, and if you find the first issue of All-American Comics you can subtract it and figure it out. I remember a lot of anecdotes about Pop but they weren't necessarily connected with comics because I wasn't down there at the business with him until I was older and then I was just down for summers, usually in the stock room, so I didn't have anything creative to do with comics for a long time after that "Red, White and Blooey" except I think I created the Superman code card and also the Wonder Woman code card for their clubs back in those days. One of them was a rotating disk, I remember. I came up with that idea and made a prototype. It might have been for the Junior Justice Society, It's hard for me to remember.
COMIC-ART.COM: These were premiums like from the old radio shows?
GAINES: No, no, no. They were clubs, they were comic clubs. You could join the Superman club for a quarter and you got a lot of garbage, and one of the things would be a card so that you could decode secret messages in Superman and Action Comics. I'm going back into the thirties.
COMIC-ART.COM: So, do you have any memories of when your father first created comics? This was what, 1933 or 34?
GAINES: Well, yeah. The story goes, and I wasn't paying much attention at the time, but this is what I've heard. The story goes that he was putting out these premiums and one day he got the idea of putting ten cent stickers on them and putting them on a newsstand and seeing if they'd sell, and they sold out very quickly, so he went to, I believe Dell, and he sold them on the idea of doing the first commercial issue of Famous Funnies, and if you go into the comic book price guide, Overstreet's Comic Price Guide, there's a Famous Funnies roman numeral one, and a Famous Funnies arabic number one, and one was a one-shot, and one was the first issue of a series. Dad didn't continue them very long; it may have been no more than one or two issues and unloaded them onto, I think Eastern Color Printing Company, who published Famous Funnies for the next, what was it? Twenty years.
COMIC-ART.COM: Well, in those days, do you remember your father being really caught up in the business, really excited by it?
GAINES: Oh, sure. Oh, yeah.
COMIC-ART.COM: It was something totally new.
GAINES: Well, he was a shirtsleeves person like I am and he just went down there and he got to work. Early on he acquired Shelly Mayer as his editor and he and Shelly were together until my father sold the business to DC and retired, for a week. But, Shelly went to DC, where he still is as far as I know. In those days there was DC, and my father's group were called AA, and I'm not 100 per cent clear on all of this but I think what happened was that my father and Donenfeld went into partnership and Donenfeld, in a typically generous turn one day gave his half of the business to Jack Leibowitz, so my father became partners with Jack Leibowitz, and this was the downtown branch, and the uptown branch was DC, which might have been called National Comics then, I don't know, and that was owned by Leibowitz and Donenfeld and then they brought Independent News into it, which had been owned by Paul Samplanner, so now the three men became partners in both National Comics and Independent !
News. Then there were some disagreements between my father and the other three and he suggested that they either sell him their half or buy his half, and they opted to buy his half, and that's how DC acquired AA, with all their characters, Wonder Woman, The Green Lantern, and everything else that came afterward.
COMIC-ART.COM: Was your dad in on the creation of those characters, or did he have the editors do it?
GAINES: Well, largely the editors, I think, but he was in on the creation of Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman was created by my father and a psychologist named William Moulton Marsden, whose widow, I think, is still getting royalties on it, and if you'll notice, even to this day, I believe, Wonder Woman is written by a Charles Moulton. Well, that was my father's middle name and Marsden's middle name, and that's where Charles Moulton came from.
COMIC-ART.COM: I don't think DC is using that pseudonym any more.
GAINES: They're not?
COMIC-ART.COM: Probably not since the fifties or sixties.
GAINES: Oh, well, okay. At least it was there for a long time.
COMIC-ART.COM: That must have been pretty exciting, coming up with a totally new medium and running with it.
COMIC-ART.COM: Your father was involved in comics ever since they were created in the thirties, up until his death, correct? Do you have any strong memories or any memorable stories, say, from the days when you'd be up in the office, or when your father would come home from work?
GAINES: I'm sure there are many memorable stories, but I'm damned if I can remember them. My father was a great practical joker, but most of this was done out of the office, although many times against his business associate.
COMIC-ART.COM: What kinds of things would he do?
GAINES: Well, once there was an attorney associated with National, whose name was Abe Mennon, and Abe was a good violinist, and he had a very expensive, fine violin. I don't think it was a Stradivarius, but something akin to it, and at some party, with Mennon's help, because Mennon might have had a heart attack otherwise, my father pretended to get drunk and snatch the violin out of his hands and smash it. And there was a deathly silence (Gaines chuckles), and Donenfeld came running up and said, `Abe, I'll buy you a new one.' As though you can just go out and buy one of those things, you know Of course, it was then revealed that it was a joke. That kind of thing. He used to have cheap...He had a fine collection of books, but he had a lot of cheap ones, kind of handy, and someone would go in and take one of his books and start to look at it and then my father, switching the book, would scream that he'd damaged the book, and rip the book up, and of course, give that guy a hear!
t attack for a few minutes, that kind of thing. I always enjoyed these things because I enjoyed that kind of humor.
COMIC-ART.COM: Do you have any memories of Sheldon Mayer or Jack Donenfeld?
GAINES: Oh, I don't have any memories of Donenfeld because I didn't know him very well. I saw him, I did see him here and there, but I was just a kid and I don't think he paid any attention and by the time I came along as a publisher, soon after that, I think, Donenfeld suffered a fall in his apartment and had brain damage, which kind of reduced him to a vegetable, I think, for a few years, and then he died. It was a terrible tragedy, so I really never got to know him too well. Jack Leibowitz I knew very well, and I think he's just one of the nicest, finest people in the world, and I haven't seen much of him lately, but I always remember him with fondness. Paul Samplanner the same way, a very fine person. Paul left the business and then died many years ago. The only one of the original four that was doing all this business was Leibowitz.
COMIC-ART.COM: And Leibowitz is still associated with Warner?
GAINES: Oh, yes. As far as I know, Jack is still on the Board of Directors at Warner because he came in with a terribly large, important, valued property, so he's represented, the property being, of course, Independent News, DC, and Mad, and I don't know, maybe four other....
COMIC-ART.COM: What about Sheldon Mayer?
GAINES: Oh, Shelly Mayer I knew very well, because when I was a kid kicking around the office, he was the editor. Shelly and I had a very long friendship, which still continues, except I just never see him now because he's moved up into the boondocks, and I rarely leave Manhattan to go to the boondocks. But, I love Shelly and I love his wife, and they're both wonderful people. Shelly and I used to go down where we were on Lafayette Street then, 225 Lafayette. We'd go down for lunch every day and go through the vegetable and fruit vendors, and in those days, the East Side was still the East Side, and they were all lined with pushcarts, and for fifteen, twenty cents you'd come back with a bag of vegetables and fruit that would sink a ship. And I remember doing that all summer for at least one or two summers with Shelly. He was busy, but he managed to find time for me and we liked each other.
COMIC-ART.COM: Do you remember him as a real warm, funny sort of person?
GAINES: Oh sure. Yeah. He...If he isn't warm and funny anymore it's because he's old and sick, and he is getting old and I know he's been sick for many years. Does he still do Sugar and Spike?
COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah, I think DC's bringing them back, they're doing a line of kids' books.
GAINES: Oh, great. That's nice.
COMIC-ART.COM: The last time I was up there a couple of days ago, they had xeroxes of some new covers that he had drawn up on one of the editors' walls.
GAINES: Oh, beautiful. Because Shelly was a fun guy in his day, and he's just been stuck up there in the middle of nowhere with his wife and they're both ill, and have been for many years.
COMIC-ART.COM: What kind of man was your father?
GAINES: That's a very hard question to ask a son. Sons generally have difficult relationships with their fathers. I didn't appreciate him when he was alive, a mistake we all make. He was very much into his business and he would go in early and work late and worked hard until he retired, and then he decided to come back into business and started working hard all over again. But it was hard for him because he'd lost all his contacts, he'd sold them with the business, sold his paper contracts, and this was right after the war and things were difficult, and, of course, he'd sold his staff. And he'd had a wonderful staff built up, from Shelly Mayer on down, but he couldn't use them any more because he'd sold them, so he found it difficult to get back into business. He tried to do it with a line of children's comics like Tiny Tot Comics and Land of the Lost, and I don't remember all the titles.
COMIC-ART.COM: Picture Stories From the Bible and that whole thing?
GAINES: That came in between. He was doing that, when he sold his comics. He didn't sell that. That was very successful, for a while. He sold an awful lot of those, but to try and get back into newsstand comics, he found it very difficult. And at the time of his death, he had been losing money because the titles that he was putting out weren't successful.
COMIC-ART.COM: And then the business was handed over to you.
GAINES: Well, very reluctantly, I think...I felt that if he couldn't make a go of it, how the hell could I make a go of it, and I wasn't interested anyway. And I really did it as a favor to my mother. My advice to her was: shut it down. And I'm glad she didn't.
COMIC-ART.COM: At the time what were your interested in doing?
GAINES: Well, I was going to be a chemistry teacher. I was finishing up my work to be a chemistry teacher and that's what I wanted to do. Again, I'm awfully glad that I didn't, because I've had a lot more fun in comics than I would've as a chemistry teacher, I'm sure.
COMIC-ART.COM: I've read a little bit about the E.C. days and it sounded like you had a pretty good time.
GAINES That was a good three or four years. I always say those were the happiest days. Since I've come to Mad, or since Mad has become my only business, I enjoy it very much, but it's not as much fun because I'm in the business end. In those days I had nothing to do with the business, I had a business manager and I was just having fun with Feldstein creating this stuff and plotting and being an editor, and it was just great.
COMIC-ART.COM: Do you think you'll continue to stick with Mad, or do you see any kind of retirement on the horizon?
GAINES: Well, I'll eventually retire, I don't know when. I'll say two to four years on that. I have no target date. And I plan to stay with Mad for a while. It's just that I, I don't know if this is of any interest to your readership, but I developed this business all alone. I still run Mad like a Mom and Pop candy store and I do it all myself, and it's very wearying, and I have no one to help because I never developed anyone to help me. So, the next guy that comes along, I'm sure they'll have enough sense to do it all differently.
COMIC-ART.COM: Al Feldstein, your editor is retiring at the end of the year, isn't he?
GAINES: Feldstein retired at the end of last year. He was never any help to me, any more than I was help to him. He was the editor, and that's a whole different department, which I never had too much to do with. Feldstein and I had great rapport, and almost everything he did I approved of, so I never kept much touch on what he was doing until the final book. I always read the book just before it went down and rarely found anything to quibble with.
COMIC-ART.COM: So who are the new editors now?
GAINES: Well now the new editors are the two who used to be the associate editors, Nick Meglin and John Ficara, and they brought two new boys in to become editorial assistants to replace them. And everything seems to be running smoothly, but time will tell. (Laughter) You don't find these things out for six months and if it's running at the end of six months, I guess it's okay.
COMIC-ART.COM: When you were doing E.C. Comics back in the old days did you ever have any idea that they were going to be as highly regarded as they are now?
GAINES: No. No. We knew what we were doing was considered quality material and we worked very hard to make it that way, but we didn't think it would become anything like a classic. We were just trying to make a buck and make a living, and when you consider the fact that we had the weakest distributor and got the lowest price of anybody, I think we did very well. We made a lot of money for a few years, till the roof fell in, in a couple of different ways. But, back in those days, while DC was getting five and three quarters cents for a ten cent comic, were getting five and a half. And we were the only company that was so weak that that was the best deal we could get. And those quarter cents make a tremendous difference when you add up all the comics you sell. That's a lot of money that we didn't get and we had to exist without. Despite that, we were very successful and made a lot of money. We had respectable sales.
COMIC-ART.COM: Just out of curiosity, what kind of numbers were you selling in those days? Because I know that Superman would sell a million copies.
GAINES: Oh, sure. We never got that high. The highest we ever got was half a million, but that was still very respectable.
COMIC-ART.COM: Was this for one of the horror titles, like Tales From The Crypt?
GAINES: They would sell about four, four or four-fifty. the science fiction would sell...At the beginning it was selling three, but then it fell off. Harvey's war books were doing very well until the Korean War was over and then they fell off. Shock and Crime Suspense always sold well, not as well as the horror, but better than anything else. It fell just about the way you could predict, but the...The most shocking books sold the best, and then the next most shocking book sold the next best and so on. Really, what we considered our class act, the science fiction, sold the worst. then Mad came along, and Mad had its peak as a comic with 750,000, I think. Now, that was very, very good, better than the horror comics.
COMIC-ART.COM: Were you surprised by Mad's success? Did you think that people would take to it that rapidly?
GAINES: Probably not. I mean probably I was very surprised, and I didn't think that they would. BUt what had happened here, and of course, this story has been batted about a thousand times, and Harvey (Kurtzman) and I each have our different versions, but from my point of view what happened was that Harvey was putting out two comics in the time that Feldstein was putting out seven. Now since I paid by the issue, that meant that Feldstein was making three and half times as much as Kurtzman, and so Harvey was very unhappy with this arrangement. So I said, `Harvey, it's very simple, you're a humorist. You can put out a humor book very quickly,' Boy was I wrong about that, `and you'll up your income fifty per cent, because I figured he could do a humor book quickly. It took him about a month to write and edit each war comic. He was very slow. Well, he was just as slow with Mad, because he ended up dropping the war comics to do Mad, and my economic plan for him never quite worked oUT!
COMIC-ART.COM: Did you know what to make of Mad when you first saw it? As a humor comic it was pretty bizarre. It wasn't like anything that had come before.
GAINES: Well, I was in on it. I saw it happening, so I wasn't exactly surprised. Actually, I've gone back and read Mad #1, and I don't think it's nearly as good today as I though it was then, and then I thought it was a very fine magazine. In retrospect, I don't think it was. He hit his stride by three and four and then it really, not only by four, it took only. The first three issues lost money. With "Superduperman" in there, it took off, and I think he found that you have to lampoon something specific. In his first issues, he was a little general. I think the specific thing he lampooned was the Lone Ranger in issue three, and that's when he really found the way, and that was very successful, and then by (issue) four, with Superman, he really took off.
We thank interviewer Steve Ringenberg for this transcript