Today is a sad anniversary. Sixteen years ago today MAD founder and longtime publisher William M. Gaines passed away at the age of 70.
Working for MAD is great. The people and staff there really respect the tradition and history of the magazine. However I will always feel that I missed out on something special in that I never met or knew Bill Gaines. I started for MAD about 9 years after Bill’s passing. While MAD has of course continued since his death a chapter of it’s history closed on June 3rd, 1992. In his time as publisher I’ve heard that nearly every page of original art for the magazine passed over Bill’s desk, usually eliciting chuckles and guffaws from him to the delight of the creators. Bill never saw a single drawing of mine, and there are many artists now at MAD that he never knew or saw the work of. I know times change, things move on and people pass… but Bill Gaines was such a big part of the heart and soul of MAD that I feel I missed out on something very important. I wish I’d had the chance to see Bill laugh at something I had drawn for his magazine. I’d like to think he would have.
Even though I never met him, I’ve heard so many stories, both in print and in person from those that knew him best, that I feel almost like I had. Throughout all the tales, the important things about him seem consistent… he cared deeply about the magazine and especially the artists, writers and staff who created it. That’s why I think he would have accepted the advertising that has allowed the magazine to stay viable and move into the 21st century with color and an appeal to a new generation… he’d have wanted his “Usual Gang of Idiots” to keep creating as opposed to clinging to some format for nostalgia’s sake and see it slowly fade away. Maybe I’m totally off base, but that’s I believe based on all I’ve heard of the man. I think those who say he would be “spinning in his grave” over the advertising in MAD didn’t understand him… and they also don’t realize that he can’t spin in his grave as he was cremated.
I’m not going to write a mini-bio on him here, as many people have done this far better than I ever could. The definitive Gaines bio is “The MAD World of William M. Gaines” by long-time MAD scribe Frank Jacobs, an excellent read that follows Gaines’s life from a child, the son of Max Gaines who is considered by some the founder of the modern American comic book, on through the senate hearings on comic books and their supposed subversive effects on children, and up to 1972. That’s missing the last 20 years of his life but the earlier parts are well covered.
Perhaps the better read to get a sense of Bill Gaines the MAD publisher is “Good Days and MAD” by another longtime MAD scribe and a very close friend of Gaines, Dick DeBartolo. Dick’s book is funny and full of wonderful stories of the crazy stuff that Bill used to do and that was done to him. Some of my favorites in the book are the story of how Bill filled the watercooler at MAD with white wine and sat back laughing while the staff got plastered… or the one when he played a gag on a young MAD mail room staffer, having other staff members convince him that Bill had an evil twin brother who came around now and again and to stay out of his way. Bill would come in some days as himself and be very nice to this young man. Then he would come in with a fake scar and mustache as part of his disguise as the twin brother and terrorize the kid. He kept it up for months. Probably my all time favorite is the time Dick pulled some strings and took Bill, a huge Statue of Liberty buff, up into the statue after hours with access to the closed off torch observation deck. Unfortunately for Bill, he was too fat to squeeze through the tiny opening through the statue’s elbow to get to the torch, so he never got to get up there! Talk about irony. Pick up the book if you can find it. What Dick writes about Bill’s death will break your heart.
And then there were the MAD trips. Gaines famously took contributors on these lavish vacations to exotic locales every once and awhile, and when you get into the company of one of these longtime MAD guys it’s easy to get them talking about these incredible trips they took. Once The Lovely Anna and I took a trip to Paris and spent an evening with MAD artist Rick Tulka and his wife Brenda at their flat in the city. He took out a video tape he had of the last MAD trip that he was just a new artist during… a cruise. On that tape was a joke they played on Gaines, who was at the time in poor health and spent most of the trip in his large cabin. The joke started with Duck Edwing and his wife “dropping in” to visit him in his cabin. Then about every ten seconds or so another person would just “drop by” and come on in. Pretty soon there were over 150 people in the cabin, and it was packed wall to wall with MAD people, ship staff, maids vacuuming, maintenance workers, towel delivery and other random passengers. Gaines was laughing so hard on the tape I was surprised he could breath. Rick couldn’t stop grinning as it played.
I think that was the very definition of Bill Gaines… laughing at life and enjoying it to the fullest. I think everybody wishes that at the end of their days they could look back and say they did the same. I know I hope to.