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William Gaines and the Birth of Horror Comics

Through comics, films and television ‘Tales From The Crypt’ and EC Comics have proven to be an enduring pop culture franchise and one that’s dear to the heart of many horror fans. Its legacy continues to manifest itself through the innumerable writers, directors and artists whose childhoods were shaped by nights reading those gloriously gruesome early comics by flashlight under the blankets. In the first of what I’m hoping will be a series of articles on the EC phenomenon (encompassing the comics, the 1970s films and the fondly remembered HBO TV series) I’m taking a look at the man who started it all, William Gaines.

The EC comics brand – though unrecognizable at the time, standing as it did both in name and nature for ‘Educational Comics’ – was founded in the mid 1940s by Max Gaines, himself an important figure in comics history. Having worked on titles such as ‘The Green Lantern’ and ‘Wonder Woman’, he was bought out of Action Comics (to the impressive sum of $500,000) following a creative dispute and went on to begin his own company which very much reflected his own stoic, conservative firm-hand sensibilities. While America’s youth was preoccupied with superheroes, westerns and romances as the Golden Age of comics unfolded, former school principal Max felt that titles such as ‘Picture Stories From The Bible’ and ‘Animal Fables’ signalled the way forward. The company began losing money immediately.

EC was not Max’s only pressing concern. His son William, born in 1922, was to his mind an obstinate, clumsy and directionless mess. For his part, Bill resented his father, who he found to be a relentlessly intimidating and overbearing figure, and throughout his early life had no interest in comic books either instead spending his time pulling pranks (mostly on Max) and generally acting the fool. Following a stint in the army that seemingly left little impression on him or anyone else, he enrolled at university with the intention of becoming a chemistry teacher. Fate changed all that however, when in 1947 a tragic boating accident took Max’s life. At his mother’s request, Bill reluctantly took over the family business which was by now $100,000 down.

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Recognizing that the company couldn’t afford to continue in its current direction, Bill, no longer in the shadow of his father, perused the comic market with new eyes. To his surprise he loved what he saw – a vibrant, exciting medium with huge potential. By now slice-of-life teen comics  were the order of the day and so after re-purposing the company’s initials to ‘Entertaining Comics’, Bill hired the now legendary artist Al Feldstein to begin work on a new title to capitalize on the trend. As it turned out the series ‘Going Steady with Peggy’ would never see the light of day as mid-way through its production, Gaines noticed that the teen comic trend (with the exception of the still-enduring ‘Archie’) was already on the wane. Feldstein, desperately in need of work and a paycheck, offered instead to assist Bill in redeveloping the EC line.

Westerns, romances and crime comics continued to hold a steady share of the market, so Al began illustrating and later – unhappy with the quality of the commisioned scripts – writing in the genres for EC. The company was slowly gaining a foothold in the comics business and Bill and Al’s friendship and working relationship continued to grow. The pair quickly became inseparable, writing, attending roller derby matches and dining together. It was after one such evening, while driving Bill back to the home that he still shared with his mother, that Al suggested that rather than constantly chasing trends perhaps the company could be better served by innovating.

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The pair had discussed at length a shared love of horror stories in various forms. The long running ‘Inner Sanctum’ radio show was a particularly significant influence with its eerie but tongue-in-cheek host Raymond casting a malevolent eye over each story’s events. The idea was mounted to bring horror to EC, though as the genre was virtually without precedent in comics, it was decided to test the waters by slipping more macabre tales into the existing line of crime comics. The idea paid off in spades as readers snatched up the sensational issues in greater numbers than any previous EC comics. In ‘Crime Patrol #15’, Feldstein’s punning, wise-cracking and iconic Crypt Keeper made his debut appearance. The experiment was repeated when the Vault Keeper was added to issue 10 of ‘War Against Crime’. Readers couldn’t get enough, and it quickly became clear where the future must lie.

In January of 1950 Gaines announced the ‘new trend’ in comics with ‘The Crypt of Terror’ (later ‘Tales From The Crypt’), ‘The Vault of Horror’ and a third title ‘The Haunt of Fear’ precided over by The Old Witch, completing Feldstein’s trio of ‘GhouLunatics’. For the next several years Bill, fueled by Dexedrine and his own delirious imagination would consume horror novels by night and fire ideas at Feldstein by day. By 1953, Feldstein would be writing four stories a week and serving as editor on seven different comics. Artists like Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Davis would all be featured, along with 26 Ray Bradbury stories.

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Even Bill and Al’s fertile minds would have been boggled to think of what would follow – sixty years of film spin-offs, a TV series, endless reprints (as recently as last month’s Fantagraphics hardback collection) and a hearing in front of a Senate subcommittee that would find them charged with indecency and inspiring juvenile delinquency.

Likewise, it’s hard to imagine how Max Gaines would have reacted to seeing what had become of his beloved company. In 1942 a New York paper published an article concerned with violence in comics including Max’s stipulations to his artists about what constituted good, wholesome material. The rules included ‘Never show a coffin – especially with a corpse in it’, ‘Never chop the limbs off anybody’ and ‘Never show anybody stabbed or shot’. By the end of their run, EC’s horror comics had (perhaps not coincidentally) broken all of these rules and more. Millions of kids remain eternally grateful.

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  • Jared Grace

    This is an awesome story. I am a huge comic book collector and lover of the horror genre, yet I didn’t know the background story to EC comics or Tales from the Crypt. Whenever I go to comic expos or even the neighborhood comic shop I always look to find those old Tales from the Crypt and other horror classics from the golden age of comics. Though Max would have been upset about the way his company was re-branded, I believe his love for his company would have allowed him to change with the times. Max should be smiling at the world from his coffin.

  • Cranky Steven

    William Gaines is a god.