William Maxwell Gaines (/ɡeɪnz/; March 1, 1922 – June 3, 1992), was an American publisher and co-editor of EC Comics. Following a shift in EC's direction in 1950, Gaines presided over what became an artistically influential and historically important line of mature-audience comics. He published the satirical magazine Mad for over 40 years.
He was posthumously inducted into the comic book industry's Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame (1993) and the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame (1997). In 2012, he was inducted into the Ghastly Awards' Hall of Fame.
Gaines was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a Jewish household. His father was Max Gaines, who as publisher of the All-American Comics division of DC Comics was also an influential figure in the history of comics. The elder Gaines tested the idea of packaging and selling comics on newsstands in 1933, and Gaines accepted William Moulton Marston's proposal in 1941 for the first successful female superhero, Wonder Woman.
Senate Subcommittee investigation
With the publication of Dr. Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, comic books like those that Gaines published attracted the attention of the U.S. Congress. In 1954, Gaines testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. In the following exchanges, he is addressed first by Chief Counsel Herbert Beaser, and then by Senator Estes Kefauver:
Beaser: "Is the sole test of what you would put into your magazine whether it sells? Is there any limit you can think of that you would not put in a magazine because you thought a child should not see or read about it?"
Gaines: "No, I wouldn't say that there is any limit for the reason you outlined. My only limits are the bounds of good taste, what I consider good taste."
Beaser: "Then you think a child cannot in any way, in any way, shape, or manner, be hurt by anything that a child reads or sees?"
Gaines: "I don't believe so."
Beaser: "There would be no limit actually to what you put in the magazines?"
Gaines: "Only within the bounds of good taste."
Beaser: "Your own good taste and saleability?"
Kefauver: "Here is your May 22 issue [Crime SuspenStories No. 22, cover date May]. This seems to be a man with a bloody axe holding a woman's head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?"
Gaines: "Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it, and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody."
Kefauver: "You have blood coming out of her mouth."
Gaines: "A little."
Kefauver: "Here is blood on the axe. I think most adults are shocked by that."
End of EC Comics and conversion of Mad format
Gaines converted Mad to a magazine in 1955, partly to retain the services of its talented editor Harvey Kurtzman, who had received offers from elsewhere. The change enabled Mad to escape the strictures of the Comics Code. Kurtzman left Gaines' employ a year later anyway and was replaced by Al Feldstein, who had been Gaines' most prolific editor during the EC Comics run. (For details of this event and the subsequent debates about it, see Harvey Kurtzman's editorship of Mad.) Feldstein oversaw Mad from 1955 through 1986, as Gaines went on to a long and profitable career as a publisher of satire and enemy of bombast.
Although Mad was sold in the early 1960s for tax reasons, Gaines remained as publisher until the day he died and served as a buffer between the magazine and its corporate interests. In turn, he largely stayed out of the magazine's production, often viewing content just before the issue was shipped to the printer. "My staff and contributors create the magazine," declared Gaines. "What I create is the atmosphere."
1960 - 1992
Gaines was devoted to his staff, and fostered an environment of humor and loyalty. This he accomplished through various means, notably the "Mad trips." Each year, Gaines would pay for the magazine's staff and its steadiest contributors to fly to an international locale. The first vacation, to Haiti, set the tone. Discovering that Mad had a grand total of one Haitian subscriber, Gaines arranged to have the group driven to the person's house. There, surrounded by the magazine's editors, artists and writers, Gaines formally presented the bewildered subscriber with a renewal card. When the man's neighbor also bought a subscription, Gaines declared the trip to be a financial success because the magazine had doubled its Haitian circulation. The trips became a more elaborate annual event, and the staff would eventually visit six of the world's continents.
Despite his largesse, Gaines had a penny-pinching side. He would frequently stop meetings to find out who had called a particular long-distance phone number. Longtime Mad editor Nick Meglin called Gaines a "living contradiction" in 2011, saying, "He was singularly the cheapest man in the world, and the most generous." Meglin described his experience of asking Gaines for a raise of $3 a week; after rejecting the request, the publisher then treated Meglin to an expensive dinner at one of New York's best restaurants. Recalled Meglin: "The check came, and I said, 'That's the whole raise!' "And Bill said, 'I like good conversation and good food. I don't enjoy giving raises.'"
In his memoir Good Days and Mad (1994), Mad writer Dick DeBartolo recalls several anecdotes that characterize Gaines as a generous gourmand who liked practical jokes, and who enjoyed good-natured verbal abuse from his staffers.
Frank Jacobs paints a similar picture in The Mad World of William M. Gaines (1972), a biography published by longtime friend Lyle Stuart. c. 2008, director John Landis and screenwriter Joel Eisenberg planned a biopic called Ghoulishly Yours, William M. Gaines, with Al Feldstein serving as a creative consultant. The film, however, did not subsist past pre-production.
One of his last televised interviews was as a guest on the December 7, 1991, episode of Beyond Vaudeville.
Gaines' first marriage was arranged by his mother. He was married to his second cousin, Hazel Grieb. They announced their plans to divorce in August 1947. According to Completely Mad: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine by Maria Reidelbach, Gaines married Nancy Siegel in 1955. They had three children, Cathy (1958), Wendy (1959), and Christopher (1961). They divorced in 1971. In 1987 he married Anne Griffiths. They remained married until his death in 1992.
Gaines was an atheist since the age of 12; he once told a reporter that his was probably the only home in America in which the children were brought up to believe in Santa Claus, but not in God.