Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Brief Tribute to William Gaines

One hairy paw holds a severed head aloft, its lips dripping thick strands of drool. The other clutches an axe caked with black muck. The body lies on the floor, a short skirt hiked up to provide a teasing glimpse of slender legs.

Senator Kefauver: Do you think that is in good taste?

Mr. Gaines: Yes, sir; I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little farther so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.
William Gaines was a smart guy, so it’s tough to believe he actually did think this infamous Crime SuspenStories cover was “in good taste.” It’s lurid comingling of sex and violence is as “tasteful” as your average ‘80s slasher flick. And since when has anyone expected horror to be in good taste? Was the Frankenstein Monster’s drowning of a little girl in good taste? Was Mr. Hyde’s serial rape of a woman in good taste? But how else was he supposed to respond, standing before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency accusing him and other comic book mongers of corrupting kids with such images?

Nearly ’60 years down the road, the fact that comic books of any sort were deemed a serious enough threat to warrant a congressional investigation is just as absurd as Gaines’s insistence his comics were tasteful. They weren’t. Even dicey horror films like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde didn’t dare to unveil the graphic grotesqueries of Crime SuspenStories, Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear, with their axe-murdering Santa Clauses, cannibalistic deli owners, and homicidal baseball teams. But considering there were no tales of actual “juvenile delinquents” gutting their classmates and using their entrails as a makeshift baseball diamond, the effects of these stories were relatively negligible. So Gaines rightfully believed it was his duty to stand before the senate to defend his wares. No other comic owner had the guts to stand beside him, leaving Gaines as the face of the horror comics "problem." E.C. comics were out of business by 1955, just months after he testified before the senate, unable to recover from the media backlash that painted him as a corrupt, craven creep who preyed on youth to fill his coffers.
Of course, William Gaines bounced back almost immediately when he switched from gore to guffaws and made a fortune with MAD magazine. Horror comics never made as dramatic a comeback, but the influence of Gaines’ work may have had the most profound effect on horror since 18th century Gothic scribes Shelley, Stevenson, and Stoker. George Romero, John Carpenter, Joe Dante, and R.L. Stine are just a few of the horror purveyors who grew up on E.C. Horror Comics, and its influence is instantly recognizable in these filmmakers and writers’ work, not just in the gore, but the social conscience, wry satire, and demented playfulness. The Crypt Keeper’s macabre punning is the clearest precedent for the horror hosts— Zacherley, Vampira, Ghoulardi—integral in helping the genre make a comeback in the ‘60s after a poor showing in the prim and prudish ‘50s, the same decade that saw E.C. Comics flicker out nearly as soon as it caught fire.

Those who were influenced and effected by E.C. Comics never forgot Gaines’s contributions to the horror genre even as they were overshadowed by MAD for decades until Tales from the Crypt came back in vogue in 1989 when HBO’s long-running series debuted.

William Gaines would have been 90 years old today. Since he has yet to he pull himself from the grave to make a suitably ghastly return (how's that for "good taste," Senator Kefauver?), we’ll have to settle for this brief tribute from a 1994 Horror Hall of Fame television program:

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