Happy 100th birthday to William M. Gaines, the legendary publisher of EC comics and Mad magazine

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

WILLIAM M. GAINES (1922-1992) was studying to become 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 on the family business, a floundering publishing company with the worldly name Educational Comics, or EC Bill had no interest in comic books—educational or otherwise—so at first he came by the offices once a week just to sign payroll checks. 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 dropped lackluster titles and launched comics that followed popular trends, eg, romance, westerns and crime. He also began recruiting a younger staff, including artist Al Feldstein, who became his editor, writing partner, and right-hand man, and artist/writer Johnny Craig. The company was officially renamed Entertainment Comics. Their new crime, horror, science fiction, and war titles (edited and written by another maverick hire, Harvey Kurtzman) transcended their competitors’ fare, and the revitalized EC, by hiring the finest writers and the most talented artists, became the gold standard of the industry. In 1952, Kurtzman introduced a new satirical monthly to the EC line: MAD.

EC’s horror comics were their biggest-selling titles, and Gaines and Feldstein gained notoriety with ghoulish, over-the-top depictions of monstrosity, depravity, and gore. These creepy periodicals were especially targeted at children—who became fanatical, bug-eyed buyers. In 1954, a crusading psychologist, Dr Fredric Werthampublished a blockbuster expose, Seduction of the Innocentwhich claimed that horror and crime comics had harmful effects on children.

Much of the finger-pointing was aimed at EC To defend his work, Gaines testified at a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, which led to him becoming the national poster boy for greedy New York comic purveyors who were inciting juvenile crime. The industry adopted a new standard, The Comics Code Authority, designed to quell the controversy. EC was compelled to jettison their most sensationalistic titles; ultimately only MAD was left standing.

Soon, Kurtzman departed, taking with him MAD‘s artists, to launch a new publication—which soon failed. Gaines had the last laugh. He and his loyal editor Feldstein guided MAD (and its goofy mascot, Alfred E Neuman) into becoming an American institution. The eccentric Gaines would evolve into the world’s oldest and fattest hippie. He described his formula for success: “My staff and contributors create the magazine. What I create is the atmosphere.”

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