Max Gaines - Biography
Maxwell Charles Gaines (c. 1894 - August 20, 1947) was a pioneering figure in the creation of the modern comic book. Born Maxwell Ginsburg or Maxwell Ginzberg, he was also known as Max Gaines, M.C. Gaines and Charlie Gaines.
In 1933, Gaines devised the first four-color, saddle-stitched newsprint pamphlet, a precursor to the color-comics format that became the standard for the American comic book industry. He was co-publisher of All-American Publications, a seminal comic-book company that introduced such enduring fictional characters as Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and Hawkman. He went on to found Educational Comics, producing the series Picture Stories from the Bible. He authored one of the earliest essays on comic books, a 1942 pamphlet titled Narrative Illustration, The Story of the Comics.
After Max Gaines' death, Educational Comics was taken over by his son Bill Gaines, who transformed the company (now known as EC Comics) into a pioneer of horror, science fiction and satirical comics.
Early life and career
Maxwell Charles Gaines was a “hard-nosed, pain-wracked, loud aggressive man”. (MW pg. 42) At age four, Max had leaned out too far from a second story window and fell to the ground, catching his leg on a picket fence. The leg would give him pain and discomfort for the rest of his life, aggravating his disposition. As an adult he developed a vicious temper, and according to his son, William M. Gaines, “expected the worse from his son and was rarely disappointed.” Max continually reinforced this belief by venting his frustrations on the boy, beating him savagely with a leather belt while shouting “You’ll never amount to anything!”
Max, who bore a strong resemblance to actor Bert Lahr, had been a teacher, an elementary school principal, a munitions factory worker and a haberdasher. In 1933 he had just begun a new job as a salesperson at Eastern Color Printing, when, one day, as the story goes, in the process of throwing out some old Sunday newspapers, Max caught himself re-reading the color comics. It dawned on him that if packaged together they would make an excellent promotional device. Max immediately contacted Harry L. Wildenberg, Eastern’s sales manager and his direct superior. The two had been racking their brains trying to think up a promotional gimmick for one of their clients, Proctor and Gamble, and a tabloid size book filled with full color Sunday comic reprints available for five cents and a label or coupon off any Proctor and Gamble product, seemed like the perfect idea. “Good idea?” Max asked the Proctor and Gamble representative. “Lousy idea.” They told him. “Nobody likes it around here.” (MW pg.43)
Undaunted, and with Harry’s blessing, Max decided to see if he could sell his idea to other companies, naming the promotional book Funnies on Parade. Maybe Proctor and Gamble didn’t like it, but other companies sure did. Over the next year Eastern was deluged with orders for hundreds of thousands of copies of the magazine, which was now given away by major retailers such as Wheatena, Canada Dry Soft Drinks, Phillips’ Dental Magnesia, Kenny Shoes, and John Wanamaker Department Stores . (Man World of William Gaines pg. 43) (Ten Cent Plague pg. 21)
Together, Max and Harry “figured out how to produce a small, cheap promotional item by (a) printing eight pages on each sheet of standard newsprint [tabloid size] and (b) do so on the shop’s third shift, during the press downtime.” (TCP pg.21)
“The typical comic book [of the era] measured about 7 1/4 by 10 1/4, averaging sixty-four pages in length,” Jules Feiffer wrote in his book The Great Comic Book Heroes., “was glisteningly processed in four colors on the cover and flatly and indifferently colored on the inside, if colored at all. (For in the early days some stories were still in black and white; others in tones of sickly red on one page, sickly blue on another, so that it was quite possible for a character to have a white face and blue clothing for the first two pages of a story and pink face and red clothing for the rest.)” (Great Comic Book Heros, pg, 14)
This 64 page format was actually dictated by the printing presses themselves. The typical newspaper page, folded in half, produced a tabloid size, about ten by fifteen inches, folding it once more, you have the comic book page, just over seven by ten inches. (Fold it once more and you have digest size.) A 64 page comic book was printed using four rolls of newsprint (and later, one roll of slick stock for the cover) each roll laced through four separate printing units, one for black ink, red, yellow, and blue. On the larger presses, like the Goss City press, all the pages can be printed at the same time and automatically joined together and folded to size as they come off the press, then stapled together and trimmed. On smaller presses, the pages are run in segments, then inserted one section within the other before finishing.
With the book’s continuing success it suddenly occurred to Max “Why bring out comic books as premiums for other people when they could be sold directly to kids and I can collect the profits?”
The resemblance between Max’s Funnies on Parade and Dell publisher George Delacorte’s 1929 The Funnies, right down to the printed size and title, however, suggests that Max just happened upon an old issue of Funnies and in February of 1934, went to George at Dell (instead of Harry at Eastern) to put together the book now called Famous Funnies. Delacorte already had experience in the field, as well as having a huge backlog of material to pick from. Max’s true contribution was suggesting the book be half tabloid size. George agreed, and backed a printing of 35,000 copies of the 64 page comic book sized magazine
Gaines was the first to distribute through newsstands. His Funnies on Parade and Famous Funnies offered reprints of Sunday newspaper comics. Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics featured reprints of Reg'lar Fellers, Dixie Dugan, Joe Palooka, The Nebbs, Keeping Up with the Joneses, Somebody's Stenog and Hairbreadth Harry.
In 1938, Gaines and Jack Liebowitz began publishing comics with original material under the name All-American Publications. At the time, Liebowitz was the co-owner with Harry Donenfeld of National Allied Publications, the precursor company to DC Comics, and Donenfeld financed Gaines' creation of All-American. All-American published several superhero/adventure anthologies such as All-American Comics and Flash Comics, as well as other titles. For a time, All-American and National shared marketing and promotional efforts as well as characters. Several of National's characters (Starman, Doctor Fate, The Spectre) appeared alongside All-American's Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and Hawkman in that company's successful All Star Comics.
Gaines' relationship with Donenfeld and National waxed and waned over the years. By the early 1940s, the All-American titles were branded separately and no longer featured National-owned characters. In 1944, Donenfeld bought out Gaines and merged National and All-American into a single company.
Gaines used the proceeds from the sale of All-American to establish another comics line, Educational Comics. EC Comics continued All-American's Picture Stories from the Bible and added new titles such as Picture Stories from American History. Gaines soon expanded the line with humor and funny animal books such as Land of the Lost, Animal Fables and Ed Wheelan's Fat and Slat. Some of these books carried a slightly revised publisher logo which changed the "Educational" in EC to display the Entertaining Comics insignia.
Death and legacy
Tragedy struck at Lake Placid, New York during the summer of 1947 when Gaines, his friend Sam Irwin and Irwin's son were struck by a speedboat. Gaines died in the accident, but saved Irwin's son by throwing him into the back of the boat at the last second. The operator of the speedboat was not prosecuted. Max Gaines' 25-year-old son, William Gaines, inherited EC and changed the direction of the company.
Although it continued to advertise and sell back issues of the Educational titles, Bill Gaines concentrated on adding new titles to the Entertaining Comics line. He replaced the juvenile humor books with titles pitched to an older audience and strongly influenced by his own love of popular culture. These spanned several genres as he made a transition from romance (Modern Love) and Westerns (Gunslingers) to science fiction (Weird Science), horror (Tales from the Crypt) and satire (Harvey Kurtzman's Mad).
In 1985, Max Gaines was posthumously named as one of the honorees by DC Comics in the company's 50th anniversary publication Fifty Who Made DC Great.
- American comic book
- Hadju, David. The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (Picador, 2009)
- Jacobs, Frank. The Mad World of William M. Gaines (Bantam Books, 1973)
- Stolz, Jan. The Men Who Made the Comics (publisher and date unknown).
- Monday Morning Memo: "Gift of a Jew" (March 1, 2004)
- Alter Ego vol. 3, #4 (Spring 2000) Sheldon Moldoff interview