William Gaines; Founded Mad Magazine


William M. Gaines, the iconoclastic founder and publisher of the 40-year-old satirical magazine Mad, died Wednesday. He was 70.

Gaines died in his sleep at his Manhattan home, magazine co-editors John Ficarra and Nick Meglin announced. They did not state a cause of death.

Begun as a comic book spoofing other comic books, Mad set the tone for the modern satire popularized on television’s “Saturday Night Live” and in films such as “Airplane” and “Naked Gun.”

Free of advertising, Mad faithfully adhered to Gaines’ irreverent edict: “Don’t believe in ads. Don’t believe in government. Watch yourself--everybody is trying to screw you!”

The magazine, which survives on paid subscriptions and newsstand sales, has a circulation of about 800,000. It peaked 1973 at 2.3 million. It is now part of Time Warner publications.


Mad is perhaps best known for its make-believe mascot, the gap-toothed Alfred E. Neuman, whose philosophy is simply, “What--me worry?” The goofy-faced, red-haired caricature, which frequently graces Mad’s cover, was appropriated from a figure that had been a staple on ads and post cards since 1895.

Mad named the character Neuman, gave him the motto and ran him as a write-in presidential candidate in 1956, drew him as the fifth carving on Mt. Rushmore and portrayed him over the years as a flower child, Alfred the Hun and other topical characters. Although Gaines did authorize a Mad board game, he refused to commercialize the moronic character.

“There’s no Alfred E. Neuman beach towel, no hamburger, no candy bar,” he once said. “You’ll never see any of that junk. Maybe a watch if it ran backward.”

The corpulent Gaines relished jokes about his 240-pound size and his Santa Claus-like hair and beard.

Born in New York and graduated from New York University, Gaines took over his father Max’s publishing firm, EC, in 1947.

Prodded by its failing fortunes, he made the company a successful pioneer in the horror comic genre, publishing such strips as “The Vault of Horror” and “Tales From the Crypt.” Less controversial series included “Saddle Justice” and “Moon Girl.”

In 1952 Gaines launched Mad as a 10-cent comic book titled “Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD.”

Although he staunchly denied that horror comics had any connection to juvenile crime, Gaines was the object of congressional scrutiny in 1955, testifying at widely publicized U.S. Senate hearings.

Gaines abandoned the horror strips and changed Mad to a magazine format in order to circumvent the Comic Codes Authority, which grew out of the hearings. The codes banned disrespect for established authority--Mad’s stock in trade.

Gaines enabled Mad to turn down all advertising partially by maintaining a very low overhead. The magazine’s crowded, toy-strewn Manhattan office included such decor as a year-round Christmas tree. His regular staff rarely numbered more than nine or 10, and he relied on free-lance cartoonists and writers accepting small pay in order to be showcased in Mad.

Best known of his comedy writers over the years were Ernie Kovacs and Jean Shepherd, and the man considered “Mad’s maddest artist” was long-time mainstream cartoonist Don Martin.

Gaines may have been the last publisher to computerize, still keeping his circulation figures in hand-penciled ledgers well into the 1980s. Like other publishers, he frequently lashed out at a national decline in reading.

Reluctantly, Gaines agreed to produce a videodisc as the magazine’s “commemorative issue” on its 30th anniversary in 1982.

“Those people who don’t read, we’ll give ‘em TV,” Gaines groused.

Gaines is survived by his wife, Annie, and three children, Cathy Missud, Wendy Bucci and Chris Gaines.