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|Interview with Bill Gaines (1991)|
COMIC-ART.COM: Mr. Gaines, my first question is, having lived through the repressive censorship climate of the 1950s, how would you compare the current climate in this country?
GAINES: Well, they don't seem to be bothering publications today. Today it's music they're after. And the only censorship problems I've heard about are what the musicians and the record companies are having.
COMIC-ART.COM: Oh, such as Two Live Crew?
COMIC-ART.COM: So, do you think the climate's changed since the fifties?
GAINES: Oh, yeah.
COMIC-ART.COM: You cited that specific example.
GAINES: Oh, I think so. I think it's a lot more liberal now.
COMIC-ART.COM: Do you mean in general?
GAINES: Well, I'm talking censorship.
COMIC-ART.COM: Do you think there are any limits about what should be published in a comics format?
GAINES: Well, if you're excluding...I guess there's nothing left, no. I mean the...I was going to say excluding pornography, but, of course, you have the underground comics and they've been pretty pornographic for years, so I guess there's nothing left.
COMIC-ART.COM: Is there anything that you personally would find objectionable?
GAINES: I can't think of anything.
COMIC-ART.COM: Would you censor anything if you had the power?
GAINES: Oh, I've never believed in any kind of censorship against anything in any way for anybody nohow.
COMIC-ART.COM: What do you think of the current crop of comics?
GAINES: I'll be perfectly honest with you. I don't know...Once I got out of comics I stopped reading them and I don't have any idea of what's going on. I understand that some of the companies are putting out very good product today. More expensive stuff printed on better paper, with supposedly very fine art. But I really don't know...
COMIC-ART.COM: As far as censorship goes, what battles do you think have already been won out there in the trenches?
GAINES: Well, to the best of my knowledge, the Comic Magazine Association does not have the power that it once had. As you may know, Russ Cochran is reissuing all my old horror comics and he is doing this through the distributor who was most unhappy with me back in the fifties. And this same distributor is now distributing the very same material that he was condemning back in the fifties, and without the Comics Code seal. Because one of the conditions I made was that Russ Cochran cannot put the (Comics Code) seal of approval on any of the stuff that he's publishing. And, as a matter of fact, he's putting all of the material back in its original condition before it was censored, to the best of their ability.
COMIC-ART.COM: Now isn't it true that Cochran published a censored Jack Davis cover?
COMIC-ART.COM: I believe it's out now. It was the Tales From the Crypt number thirty-eight. It was the Davis cover where the man was chopping an axe into a casket. There was a body in the casket, and there were pieces of hair and flesh flying up.
GAINES: I don't remember what the original look of it was.
COMIC-ART.COM: Oh, if you've got a second here, Mr. Gaines, I could show you. I have a sample. (Produces reproduction of Davis cover) That's one thing I wanted to ask you about. It was this cover. My editor, Barry Hoffman, said he had seen this in the comics stores. It's been reissued in some format or other.
GAINES(Pointing at reproduction) This?
COMIC-ART.COM: The uncensored version I believe.
GAINES: What is this? Is this the original publication?
COMIC-ART.COM: That's the original publication when it was put out in a censored form.
GAINES: And who issued this?
COMIC-ART.COM: That's a centerfold from The Monster Times fanzine. I got it out of the E.C. issue, where you were interviewed back in '72.
GAINES: Oh, I don't have any recollection of either giving them permission to do this, or of them doing it. But that's interesting.
COMIC-ART.COM: I know that this poster, or this cover, rather, and a Johnny Craig cover from about the same time period that was also censored, were issued as posters in the uncensored format. I believe that was in the early or mid-seventies.
GAINES: Oh, I remember that now, yes. I didn't think they were in The Monster Times, though. I think they were just issued as posters.
COMIC-ART.COM: They were. The Monster Times may have gotten that reproduction from somewhere else.
COMIC-ART.COM: But, I was wondering. What was the story behind that cover going out in a censored form?
COMIC-ART.COM: Originally. Back in the fifties. I assume that was around '54, '55?
GAINES: Well, it was obviously censored by one of the associations. There were two of them that I was involved in.
COMIC-ART.COM: Did they force the E.C. art staff to censor it themselves?
GAINES: No. Well, I mean they forced them to make the changes. I wouldn't say to censor it themselves...If Russ (Cochran) reissued that, it was probably because he didn't even know that it had been censored. I don't know...
COMIC-ART.COM: I can always ask Russ that...
GAINES: And I don't know where they got the art unless they just made it up. Because where would they have gotten the original, uncensored art?
COMIC-ART.COM: That is a good question.
GAINES: I think they just made it up, because first of all, it doesn't look very good, and secondly...Now I know there's a cover kicking around where we took a meat cleaver out of a head. Do you know that?
COMIC-ART.COM: That's the Johnny Craig cover.
GAINES: Okay, so that meat cleaver has been put back into the head. But that was probably a simple matter of peeling off something which had been...
COMIC-ART.COM: A paste-over or something?
GAINES: A paste-over, yeah. I don't know how they could have gotten this because if they would have changed the art back it would still have been changed back when Russ used it. So, I can't imagine where that poster came from.
COMIC-ART.COM: So, it was the objections of the Comics Code people, or the wholesalers to the Davis and Craig covers that caused the changes?
GAINES: Oh, well, the Comics Code was formed because of the objections of parents and wholesalers. So, you might say, in a sense, that the wholesalers started it, but the wholesalers were upset because the parents and newsdealers were upset, probably, so one thing led to another.
COMIC-ART.COM: During the time that your work was being censored like that, how was it affecting your sales?
GAINES: Back then?
COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah, back then.
GAINES: It wasn't affecting them at all until we had to drop all those titles and put out new titles. And those new titles never sold, for a variety of reasons. So, in that sense we were affected, but I don't think the average reader knew what had been censored. So, what he didn't miss, he didn't worry about.
COMIC-ART.COM: Well, given that the Comics Code expressly forbid the use of the words Weird, Horror and Terror, did you feel that your company was being particularly targeted?
GAINES: I would say so, yes. (Chuckles)
COMIC-ART.COM: That brings up another point. Something I was curious about. John Goldwater, who published the Archie/MLJ line, was one of the prime movers behind the Comics Code, as far as I understand. Do you think that Goldwater may have taken exception to the parody of Archie that appeared in Mad?
GAINES: I don't think so.
COMIC-ART.COM: Do you know John Goldwater personally?
COMIC-ART.COM: How would you describe your relationship with him?
GAINES: Cool...Of course I haven't seen him in twenty or thirty years. I'm going back a ways.
COMIC-ART.COM: Did Goldwater ever express to you that he simply didn't like the kind of comics you were doing?
GAINES: Oh, sure.
COMIC-ART.COM: Did you change Mad from a comics format to a magazine format to escape the censors?
GAINES: No. No, I did not. I changed it because Harvey Kurtzman, my then editor, got a very lucrative offer from, I believe, pagent magazine, and he had, prior to that time, evinced an interest in changing Mad into a magazine. At the time I didn't think I wanted to because I didn't know anything about publishing magazines. I was a comics publisher. But, remembering this interest, when he got this offer, I countered his offer by saying I would allow him to change Mad into a magazine, which proved to be a very lucky step for me. But that's why it was changed. It was not changed to avoid the Code. Now, as a result of this, it did avoid the Code, but that's not why I did it. If Harvey had not gotten that offer from pagent, Mad probably never would have changed format.
COMIC-ART.COM: Before you changed Mad into a magazine, you did a whole new line of magazines, or comics, rather; the New Direction line. Were titles like MD and Psychoanalysis sort of an attempt to mollify some of the criticism from your detractors?
GAINES: No. They were...What do you mean to mollify them?
COMIC-ART.COM: Well, I mean...
GAINES: I was putting out comics that I thought would not be criticized. But I didn't do them to mollify anybody. This was a whole new...We put out a whole new line of comics. Extra! was about newspaper reporters. Piracy was about pirates. Aces High was about World War I aircraft. And MD was about doctors, and Psychoanalysis was because I undergoing it at that time.
COMIC-ART.COM: So, you were interested in that process? That's what prompted the title?
GAINES: Yeah, so was my editor, so we both...
COMIC-ART.COM: During the time when E.C. Comics was being criticized most harshly in the fifties, during the juvenile delinquency hearings, Senator Estes Kefauver singled out one of your covers. It was Crime Suspense #22, the Johnny Craig cover with the severed head. At the time, Kefauver accused you of indulging in, at the very least, bad taste, and you countered with the argument that you thought the cover was not in bad taste.
GAINES: Yes. And what Kefauver didn't know, and I did know, was that when Craig originally brought that cover in, there was blood dripping from the neck. The head had been held higher so that you could see the blood dripping from the neck, and I, myself, had suggested that he raise the bottom of the cover up to cover the neck, so the neck was cut off before it was shredded, and I made one or two other minor changes which would soften the cover. And that's why when they said do I think it's in bad taste, knowing what it had been originally, I said, `No, this is in good taste.'
RINGGENBERG; Did you offer that explanation?
GAINES: No. I don't think I had the opportunity.
COMIC-ART.COM: One thing I'm curious about is the Jack Davis baseball story in Haunt of Fear #19. That was the one where the evil baseball player was dismembered.
GAINES: One of our worst.
COMIC-ART.COM: I was wondering, was this a deliberate attempt to bait the people who were criticizing you, or just a miscalculation?
GAINES: No, no. No, it's just that Al and I were turning out a story a day, and it's not easy to turn out a story a day. And that day we were probably very late coming up with a plot and so we took this thing, and did it out of desperation because we absolutely had to have a story written that day. It was a bad story, it was a stupid story. It was certainly in bad taste. And I'm sorry we did it, but we did it.
COMIC-ART.COM: Is there anything else that E.C. put out that, in retrospect, you wish you hadn't done?
GAINES: No. Not that I can think of.
COMIC-ART.COM: Let's jump ahead a little bit, to the New Direction comics. In Impact #4 you had a story called "The Lonely One", which was about prejudice against Jews. The Jewish in the story had a very bland name. It was "Miller".
GAINES: Oh, well, that's very probably the Code at work. I'll tell you an even funnier one. In Psychoanalysis we had a guy, who, one of whose problems was that he was Jewish. This was giving him problems. And we were not allowed to say he was Jewish. And we had to take all reference to the fact that he was Jewish, thereby the entire story made no sense at all, because it was a story about a man with a Jewish problem and we're not allowed to say he was Jewish. This was the Code.
COMIC-ART.COM: So you weren't allowed any kind of depictions of different ethnic backgrounds?
GAINES: Not allowed to call any attention to it. My favorite story of all was where I finally challenged the goddamned Code because I knew I was giving up comics and I sent up my last issue, which was, I think, it was science fiction...I forgot the...
COMIC-ART.COM: It was Incredible Science Fiction #33.
GAINES: Probably. And the Code turned down this beautiful Torres story on mutants.
COMIC-ART.COM: "An Eye For An Eye".
GAINES: I don't even remember. Because it never got published until much later, maybe in a fanzine.
COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah, I spoke with Angelo Torres about that and he told me that you kept promising him that one way or another you'd get that story in print.
GAINES: Well, we eventually did, but I don't remember how many people saw it, it was just in a fanzine. But they wouldn't allow it to go through. So I wasn't about to go out and write another story because this was my last issue ever.
COMIC-ART.COM: This was the very last color comic you were going to do?
GAINES: The last color comic I was ever going to do . And, so I took "Judgement Day", which I thought was one of our very finest stories. Are you familiar with it?
GAINES: And I sent that out. And they turned it down because there was a bead of perspiration on the black's forehead in the last panel. And on that basis, they turned down the story. And I said, `If you turn down this story, I am going to take you to court, and I'm going to take it to the Supreme Court. You better let that story through.' So they did.
COMIC-ART.COM: Do you think their objection was that the astronaut in the story was black?
GAINES: I have no idea what their objection was. I think they were just a bunch of fucking idiots, that's what their objection was.
COMIC-ART.COM: I've seen the story that they wouldn't let you run, "An Eye For An Eye". It looked relatively innocuous.
GAINES: It was a beautiful science fiction story. But they didn't like mutants. You have to understand. This thing was run by three or four old ladies who were shocked by almost anything. They were the ones who did the censoring. George Murphy ran it, but I don't think he read things. The staff of old ladies read it and it wasn't hard to shock them. And mutants are just something they don't understand.
COMIC-ART.COM: I know that they had a problem with the preceding issue of Incredible Science Fiction in the story "Food For Thought". that was the one where the plant intelligence was eating the expedition from Earth and they made you add an extra page.
GAINES: I don't even remember this one.
COMIC-ART.COM: It was an Al Williamson-Roy Krenkel job. One of the best E.C. splash pages ever.
GAINES: I disremember it. It's a long time ago and there were so many.
COMIC-ART.COM: There was something in the Code, I guess, that the human race couldn't lose.
GAINES: I'll have to pick it out and read it because I don't remember.
COMIC-ART.COM: Let's jump ahead then to the Mad magazine days. Why did Irving Berlin try to sue you in the sixties?
GAINES: Well, because we were making fun of his lyrics. And that in itself...We were saying, `Sing to the tune of...' And we were saying sing to the tune of songs that he and a number of other songwriters had written. And they had the feeling that if we're saying, sing to tune of their song, they should get royalties. But, of course, we didn't print their music and we didn't print their lyrics, so they really didn't have a leg to stand on, and when it went to the Supreme Court, they lost.
COMIC-ART.COM: That case set a precedent, didn't it?
GAINES: Yes. It was one of two things that set precedent. We had something else that, I don't remember what it was, it went up to the Supreme Court and set a precedent.
COMIC-ART.COM: Was that before or after the Berlin case?
GAINES: I think after.
COMIC-ART.COM: Do you remember specifically which songs it was about?
GAINES:(Gaines digresses here to ask a question of his wife, Ann Gaines, who had come in bearing some paperwork)...Well, there were a whole pile of them.
COMIC-ART.COM: Some of his better known ones like "God Bless America" or something?
GAINES: I don't think we did that, but I don't remember We did about...
ANN GAINES: It's probably in the book (Gaines biography, The Mad World of William M. Gaines). I was just reading the chapter on him.
GAINES: All right. Check it out if you can find it.
COMIC-ART.COM: I was reading Judge Kaufman's decision on the Berlin case and basically what he said was that Mad had the right to engage in parody, that there was a basic social need for parody.
GAINES: He put it very funny. He said that, `Irving Berlin does not own iambic pentameter'.
COMIC-ART.COM: That wasn't in the quote I read. But what I have down here is: `While the social interest in encouraging the broad-gauged burlesques of Mad magazine is admittedly not readily apparent, we believe that parody and satire are deserving of substantial freedom, both as entertainment and as a form of social and literary criticism'.
GAINES: But he also said what I said, which I thought was a gem.
COMIC-ART.COM: So, did this go up to...
GAINES: It went up to the Supreme Court...We won right down the line, and when it went up to the U.S. Supreme Court, they declined to review. When they decline to review, that's a win.
COMIC-ART.COM: How did you feel after that?
COMIC-ART.COM: Did you ever have any run-ins with the Disney company over parodies of their characters?
GAINES: Nothing substantial that I can recall. We've done it over the years over and over.
COMIC-ART.COM: I seem to remember specifically a parody of the Mickey Mouse newspaper strip with Mickey and Donald and Goofy. But Disney never went after you, huh?
GAINES: No. If he ever did it was...You know, it's one thing to go after somebody with a letter and it another to file a suit. Disney never filed a suit.
COMIC-ART.COM: They do have a reputation for being rather litigious...Well, let's just talk about the censorship climate in general, now. We currently have a very conservative Supreme Court. Do you have any fears about freedom of expression being abridged in any way by the current court?
GAINES: Well, we'll see. Most of these guys are very conservative, but I don't think they're idiots, and I don't think anybody in the Supreme Court seriously wants to abridge free speech, and I'm not too concerned about it.
COMIC-ART.COM: What was your feeling on some of the recent things like the Robert Maplethorpe case where they were trying to close down that photography exhibition in Cincinnati?
GAINES: Give me a little more of the background.
COMIC-ART.COM: Maplethorpe did a lot of art photos of flowers and portraits of people, but a lot of his work is, well, very sexual, very homosexual in nature, and very explicit.
GAINES: Right. Right. What kind of exhibit was this? Who was paying for it?
COMIC-ART.COM: It was at the Cincinnati art museum, and I believe it was partly funded with public money. The people who were objecting to the Maplethorpe show really only took serious exception to, I think, six photos in a collection of over a hundred.
GAINES: Well, I'll tell you. I'm glad I don't have to be a judge on that kind of thing because I tend to think that there's a difference between things that are done with public money and things that are done with private money. If part of the public was offended by this and they were paying for it, I can see their point. It if had been a private museum, they don't have a leg to stand on.
COMIC-ART.COM: That seems like a pretty balanced reply. I can see where you're coming from.
(Ann Gaines enters at this point and gives S.R. a xerox of a page from the Gaines biography showing which Berlin songs Mad had parodied.)
ANN GAINES: These two sons were probably, maybe there were more, but "Always", and "There's No Business Like Show Business". And then the judge said, `We doubt that even so eminent a composer as Irving Berlin should be permitted to claim a property interest in iambic pentameter'.
COMIC-ART.COM: Seems like a pretty droll jurist.
GAINES: He is, very...We were so happy with him.
COMIC-ART.COM: Was Kaufman sitting in New York state?
GAINES: I believe so. I think it went from Kaufman...I think it was a three man court and he was probably the lead judge. And it probably went from him to the Supreme Court. That's my recollection.
COMIC-ART.COM: What's the story behind the visits the FBI made to the Mad offices?
GAINES: Well, the FBI is a little touchy, and we were...We put out a three dollar bill which turned out to be making change at change machines in airports. And of course we had no such idea and this upset the FBI, I guess with some justification. (chuckles) So they came in and insisted on taking our artwork and plates and whatever we had for these things, with the full consequences and a chuckle out of it.
COMIC-ART.COM: Wasn't there another case when they spoke to you about something that had run in Mad which made reference to a town called Mafia, Italy?
GAINES: Yeah, I have a vague recollection of that.
COMIC-ART.COM: I think that's mentioned in this book here, The Mad World of William M. Gaines.
GAINES: Yeah, could be. I don't remember. Oh, they were probably upset by the State Department, who, for obvious reasons, thought we were doing something that would cause an international incident.
COMIC-ART.COM: Have you had any current censorship problems, or even legal problems, stemming from parodies, such as being sued by someone whose product you were making fun of?
GAINES: Oh, not for years.
COMIC-ART.COM: What about personalities, like show business people or something?
GAINES: Not for years.
GAINES: As I always like to say, it's been terribly dull around here, so we must be doing something wrong.
COMIC-ART.COM: Did you ever think that you'd be part of the publishing establishment?
GAINES: Well, I'm not.
COMIC-ART.COM: How do you see yourself?
GAINES: Certainly not part of the publishing establishment. I don't even know any other publishers except Lyle Stuart, and he's certainly not part of the publishing establishment, either. Oh, and (Al) Goldstein, at Screw.
COMIC-ART.COM: Didn't Lyle Stuart do the Anarchist Cookbook?
GAINES: Yeah. He's still doing it.
COMIC-ART.COM: How do you feel about your friend Lyle publishing a book for bomb-makers?
GAINES: I thought it was horrible. Lyle and I do not see eye to eye in many ways. And he's one of my dearest, probably my dearest, closest friend. But, over the years we have had many differences of opinion. I think it's a disgrace that he publishes The Anarchist Cookbook. On the other hand, I'm delighted that he can get away with it because that shows that this is a free country after all.
COMIC-ART.COM: How would you describe yourself politically, Mr. Gaines?
GAINES: I am part-liberal, part-conservative. It depends on which part you're talking about. In foreign policy I'm a conservative. In domestic policy, in things having to do with sex, abortion, pornography, and what have you, I'm completely liberal.
COMIC-ART.COM: So I guess you feel that almost anything goes as far as publishing?
COMIC-ART.COM: What about something like child pornography?
GAINES: I personally have no objection to it. They might arrest the guys for what they did to the kids, but I don't have any objection to the pictures they took.
COMIC-ART.COM: Do you see any kind of censorship danger coming from special interest groups, such as gays, or the Women's Movement, or ethnic groups that might not like to be parodied?
GAINES: Say that again.
COMIC-ART.COM: Do you see any special danger of censorship from special interest groups such as the gay community, the Women's Movement, or perhaps an ethnic group that might be sensitive to being parodied?
GAINES: Yes, I see definite dangers from that. I'm not comfortable about it, but so far it hasn't bothered us too much. I know once a troop of very conservative Jews came up to the office and had a long discussion with my editor and ended up putting a mezzuzah outside of his door, where it remained until we changed editors. They were upset about something we had done, or allegedly had done. I don't know. A lot of people misunderstand what we do, and they write bitter...I know we did that Al Jaffee flag poster. Remember that episode, where we did the...
COMIC-ART.COM: I remember something of that. That was in the seventies, wasn't it?
GAINES: A long time ago, and of course we got a terrible letter from a head of a Jewish group in Florida, who was threatening to sue and taking to Congress and everything else, and I wrote him a letter and it's in the book. And I pointed out that Jaffee and his brother, who wrote and drew this thing, their parents were killed in concentration camps and they had this thing ass-backwards. They didn't understand because they were probably too old. But, our readers understood it, and I'm sure they enjoyed it.
COMIC-ART.COM: Do you find that a lot of the people who criticize Mad and maybe criticized the E.C.s back in the fifties lacked a certain sense of humor?
GAINES: Oh, sure, absolutely. All our horror stuff was written tongue in cheek, and as horrible as it gets, it was all done tongue in cheek, in the spirit of black humor. And of course, most people that didn't like it didn't understand that, and wouldn't understand any black humor, when you get right down to it.
COMIC-ART.COM: Do you ever watch horror, Mr. Gaines? Horror films or anything?
GAINES: I watch Tales From The Crypt every time they come on.
COMIC-ART.COM: How do you like the way they're doing your stories?
GAINES: I love it. I love it. They've done a splendid job.
COMIC-ART.COM: You've been fairly lucky as far as film adaptations. The first Tales From The Crypt movie was pretty good.
GAINES: Well, I had objections to parts of it...
COMIC-ART.COM: Mr. Gaines, considering all the people Mad and E.C. have managed to offend over the years (Gaines breaks out into laughter at this point) is there anybody you consciously want to offend?
GAINES:(Laughing) I must be mellowing. I can't think of a soul.
We thank interviewer Steve Ringenberg for this transcript