Gaines Père et Fils: Comic Book Pioneers

The peculiar American invention known as the comic book came into the world in stages but a crucial figure in its evolution was Max Gaines (Maxwell Ginzberg, 1894-1947). Gaines was a salesman for Eastern Color Printing of Waterbury Connecticut, a company that printed Sunday funnies inserts for newspapers (the newspapers themselves had always had black ink presses and subcontracted the Sunday color comics). It was Gaines’ innovation in 1933 to collect batches of Sunday strips and publish them in magazine form, originally as promotional giveaways for clients like Procter and Gamble Soaps. Canada Dry, Wheatena, et al. Customers would mail in coupons to receive their comic book, called Funnies on Parade. The following year, he collaborated with Dell Publishing (which had tried a similar experiment in 1929) to produce Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics, which was distributed at Woolworth’s Department Stores, and is considered the first comic book. Soon, original material was added as part of the content, and it began to be available at news stands and other companies began to imitate their lucrative formula.

In 1938, Gaine’s co-founded All-American Publications, which published All-American Comics, and Flash Comics, and created the characters Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and Hawkman. In the ’40s it was absorbed into National Allied Publications, which produced Detective Comics, which eventually became the brand: DC Comics.

Meanwhile, Gaines started a new enterprise of his own, Educational Comics, or EC Comics, which initially published such things as Picture Stories from the Bible and Picture Stories from American History. In 1947, Gaines died, the company passing to his son, this wild man:

William Gaines (1922-1992) was 25 when he inherited EC Comics. With his editors Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurzman he radically changed the company’s direction in 1949 and 1950, publishing horror, science fiction, exploitational true crime, and war comics like Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, Shock SuspenStories, Crime SuspenStories, Frontline Comics, and Two Fisted Tales (Amusingly, much like the unrelated Educational Pictures, EC strayed very far from its original mission, making the name of the company something of an ironic joke).

Gaines the Son was an atheist; Bible comics were not his bailiwick. He lived to SHOCK. EC’s frankly lurid, unwholesome publications were famous for their O. Henry twists, in which rotten people got their just deserts in colorful ways. Like exploitational cinema they got to have their cake and eat it too, depicting entertaining and graphic atrocities and then punishing those who commit them. But they were also subversive in many ways, sending messages that were very much against the grain of America’s post-war, hawkish, conformist culture. In 1952, the humor comic Mad joined the roster of products, adding overt satire to the company’s voice. (Mad was originally a color comic book, like the other EC publications).

In the mid ’50s a bunch of crusading politicians decided to scapegoat the comics industry for contributing to juvenile delinquency. Congressional hearings were held, and Gaines testified, becoming a celebrated First Amendment martyr in the process. His appearances before Congress are reminiscent of the HUAC hearings, and when Gaines was particularly “on”, of the trials of Oscar Wilde. Still he failed to convince the powers-that-be of the justice of his cause. He stopped producing all EC Comics except Mad, which switched to the familiar black and white magazine format many of us remember in 1955. 

As we wrote here, Mad‘s shadow is long, but this was true also of Gaines’ horror and sci fi comics which I think must have surely influenced such anthology TV shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, as well as the horror films of AIP and Hammer, and later such overt homages as the Creepshow movies, and the Tales from the Crypt TV series. And naturally the fiction of Stephen King. Government may make its period attempts to control culture, but culture ALWAYS wins.