Obituary: William Gaines

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The Independent Online
THE AMERICAN publisher William Gaines was a good deal more than just an overweight and cuddly maverick who fathered Mad magazine, and whose EC Comic Book company figures so prominently in the horror-comics scare of the mid-1950s, writes Jack Adrian (further to the obituary by Denis Gifford, 5 June).

Detested by his father, he spent much of his life, even when he was successful, in an endeavour to live down Max Gaines's strongly held belief that his son was a schlemiel. The events of 1954-55 would certainly have bolstered Max's view. Back in the 1930s he had virtually created the million-dollar American comic-book industry; 20 years later, his son, whose publications became a US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee's 'Exhibit A', all but destroyed it.

Yet, despite the anti-EC findings and a full-scale assault by a slew of bandwagon-jumping psychiatrists headed by Dr Frederic Wertham, Bill Gaines was not a corrupter of youth. He originated comic books whose storylines were certainly shocking and often violent, but were also literate, iconoclastic, absurdist, often hilariously funny (probably their chief fault in the witch-hunters' eyes), and beautifully illustrated by most of the finest young artists in New York City at that time.

Gaines and his chief editor Albert Feldstein wrote most of the material themselves, although under deadline pressure they were not above plundering other writers' oeuvres: Cornell Woolrich, Ray Bradbury, Poe, de Maupassant, HP Lovecraft, Katherine MacLean and William Fryer Harvey were all high on their swipe- list (Bradbury wrote in after an especially conspicuous plot-theft, mock-innocently wondering if they had perhaps neglected to put his royalty cheque in the post). Gaines got the point, paid up and thereafter blazened Bradbury, then the most bankable SF/fantasy writer, on his covers.

The genres in which Gaines and Feldstein were happiest were crime, SF, fantasy, horror and, what with hindsight may now be regarded as the very best of EC, the twist-enders and social-comment tails in Shock Suspenstories, in which anti-rape, anti-lynching, anti-bigotry, anti-racist and other dangerously (for the time) liberal themes were regularly explored. Gaines also let Harvey Kurtzman loose on two war comics, which, during the Korean War, became notoriously ambivalent towards their main selling-points, combat and killing.

Although Gaines's influence was profound - the EC fan, intelligent and articulate, tended, post- teens, to gravitate towards media employment, thus disseminating what had been absorbed from EC - it was out of all proportion to his sales, since his comic books included some of the poorest sellers in the field. Half a million copies per two-month period was EC's best shot (Gaines's superb SF titles were nowhere near even half that figure), while some of the crime titles put out by rivals were regularly racking up over four million copies a month.

Yet Gaines's name, and that of EC, will live on far beyond those of his rivals, for he created material that, even 40 years later, has still not been bettered.