Thursday, March 1, 2012

William Gaines would have been 90 today

Bill Gaines came into comics as part of the family business. His father, Max, was a pioneer who tested out the potential for the pamphlet sized comic book format that is still used today. He went on to be a co-publisher of All American Comics, which would later be folded into what has become DC Comics, and had a large hand in the introductions of both Green Lantern and Wonder Woman. He went on to start another publishing company, Educational Comics, which put out Bible stories, scientific accounts, and tales from American history.

After Max's untimely death in a boating accident, instead of becoming a chemistry teacher the 25 year old Bill was thrust into the role of comics publisher. He reformed his father's company into Entertaining Comics, later abbreviated EC, and produced comic books in genres that revolutionized the industry. He attracted top talent, writers and artists, to make titles such as Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Shock SuspenStories, Weird Science, and Weird Fantasy. Gory tales of terror and revenge with shock endings as well as science fiction yarns populated the comics racks as imitators tried to emulate his company's success. He branched off into other areas, with comics from editor/creator Harvey Kurtzman such as the anti-war Two Fisted Tales and the satirical Mad.

When comic books came under fire for promoting juvenile delinquency, a Senate subcommittee was convened and Bill Gaines volunteered to speak out in defense of his books. After a long day of proceedings where Dr. Frederic Wertham was given center stage to air his anti-comics views, Gaines tripped up in defending this comic book cover, quibbling over how it could be defined as "tasteful" or not.
You can read Gaines' testimony here. The result of the Senate inquiry was the creation of an industry-wide Comics Code Authority that policed content and art. Almost all of EC Comics' output was immediately unacceptable in this system and Gaines was eventually forced to shut down the whole operation, with the exception of moving Mad to a magazine format that was unaffected by the Code.

As publisher of Mad, Gaines recreated his persona as a cheap, fat, and hedonistic publisher wrangling the "Usual Gang of Idiots." Mad went on to become an American institution, an influence on the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, and led to the rise of shows like Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, and The Simpsons as well as publications like National Lampoon and The Onion. Impressively, Mad ran for decades solely on its circulation profits without selling any advertising space. When he died in 1992, they published a full page ad in The New York Times to let people know that the magazine would continue in his absence.

A looming figure in the history of comics and graphic novels, Bill Gaines was inducted posthumously into both the Will Eisner and the Jack Kirby Comic Book Halls of Fame. This annotated transcript of his memorial service is very much in the spirit of his life and sense of humor, and it also displays a small amount of what was lost by his passing.

No comments:

Post a Comment