Happy 100th Birthday to William M. Gaines, Legendary Publisher of EC Comics and Mad Magazine

Drew Friedman drew this beautiful portrait of MAD publisher William M. Gaines to honor his 100th birthday earlier this month. The portrait is available in limited edition print.

WILLIAM M. GAINES (1922-1992) was studying to be a chemistry teacher when his father, Max, was killed in a boating accident in 1947. Bill’s mother insisted that her 25-year-old son take over the family business, a house of edition in difficulty with the banal name educational comics, or EC Bill had no interest in comics – educational or otherwise – so in the beginning he would come into the offices once a week just to sign paychecks. But Bill was an avid reader, and he began to investigate his company’s offerings, as well as those of other publishers. What he found delighted him, and he became intrigued with his father’s business.

Taking control, he abandoned lackluster titles and launched comics that followed popular trends, for example, romance, westerns and crime. He also started recruiting younger staff, including artist Al Feldstein, who became his publisher, writing partner and right-hand man, and artist/writer Johnny Craig. The company was officially renamed Entertaining comics. Their new crime, horror, sci-fi and war titles (edited and written by another Maverick, Harvey Kurtzmann) transcended the fare of their competitors, and the revitalized EC, hiring the best writers and most talented artists, became the industry’s gold standard. In 1952 Kurtzman introduced a new satirical monthly to the EC line: CRAZY.

EC’s horror comics were their best-selling titles, and Gaines and Feldstein rose to prominence with gruesome, over-the-top depictions of monstrosity, depravity and gore. These creepy periodicals were especially aimed at children, who became fanatical, bug-eyed buyers. In 1954, a crusading psychologist, Dr Fredric Werthampublished a successful talk, Seduction of the innocentwhich claimed that horror and crime comics had harmful effects on children.

Much of the charge was against EC. In defense of his work, Gaines testified before a Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency, which led to him becoming the national poster child for greedy New York comic purveyors who incited juvenile crime. The industry has adopted a new standard, The Comics Code Authority, designed to quell controversy. EC was forced to drop its most sensational titles; finally, only CRAZY remained standing.

Soon Kurtzman left, taking with him CRAZY‘s artists, to launch a new publication, which soon failed. Gaines had the last laugh. He and his faithful editor Feldstein guided CRAZY (and its wacky mascot, Alfred E. Neuman) to become an American institution. The eccentric Gaines would become the oldest and fattest hippie in the world. He described his formula for success: “My team and my collaborators create the magazine. What I create is the atmosphere.”