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A Gaine-ful Idea

November 12, 2009

By the time the Great Depression hit America in 1929, comic books had been around for decades. With a population of about a third of what we have now, titles like Bringing Up Father had sold millions of copies. But when the economy faltered, so did comic book sales. Mainly comprised of reprints of popular comic strips, they were had been aimed at adults, with 50 cover prices being very common.

When people started tightening their financial belts, comic sales plummeted. Seemingly stuck with paper contracts that would eventually pull them under, publishers struggled to find something that would work.

Just a few years later, what we today recognize as the modern comic book industry got its start -- or perhaps we should say its revival -- from M.C. Gaines, who must be acknowledged as one of the pioneers of the comic book industry in the US.

Gaines took a batch of Famous Funnies giveaway comics that he had produced for a cereal company, stuck "10" stickers on them, and took them to a local newsstand in New York to see if they would sell.

Sure enough, they did. Gaines then went on to form the All-American comic book publishing house, in partnership with Harry Donnenfeld at DC Comics, and published superhero titles such as Wonder Woman and The Flash.

But did you know he also published a pioneering effort called Picture Stories from the Bible? Gaines was a firm believer in the power of the medium of comics to teach children about science, history, and religion, and Picture Stories from the Bible was eventually joined by Picture Stories from World History, Picture Stories from Science, and Picture Stories from American History.

M.C. Gaines had the opportunity to publish the first Superman comics, but he decided instead to recommend this feature to his friends at DC comics. After World War II, he decided to sell his All-American line to DC, he formed EC comics (for "Educational Comics") and continued publishing the Picture Stories series as well as funny animal comics like Tiny Tot, Animal Fables, and Land of the Lost. Even though there was more money to be made in publishing superhero comics, Gaines cast his lot with his educational comics because he believed they were powerful teaching tools.

Then, tragically, a few years after he had sold his superhero line to DC, M.C. Gaines was killed by a speedboat as he attempted to rescue a drowning swimmer at Lake Placid. This was in 1947, and his son Bill was in college, studying to be a chemistry teacher. The tragedy thrust Bill into the publisher's seat for EC comics, which he quickly renamed "Entertaining Comics," and eventually launched Tales from the Crypt and all the other legendary EC titles.

The astute reader will notice, however, that in most of the EC comics from the New Trend era, 1950-56, Bill Gaines continued to advertise the Picture Stories from the Bible comics as house ads in EC's horror and science fiction titles. As a reader of those comics, it seemed strange that the publisher of our favorite horror comics also was selling Bible stories . . .but in reality, Bill was left with a huge inventory of the Picture Stories comics and he was selling them to make room for his new titles.

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