The history of comics can be divided into two basic eras — pre-1950s and post-1950s. Many companies’ fortunes were tied to the outcome of the situation that took place during that period. So what did happen in the 1950s and how did it change everything? The answer is best explained through a look at EC Comics.
EC Comics deserves a special place in the pantheon of comic-book publishers who helped build the industry into what it is today. But the company is also inexorably tied to a debate that arose over the role of comics in juvenile delinquency and the establishment of a governing body, the Comics Code Authority, too. So much so that its many accomplishments are given short shrift in comparison to the controversy that arose.
A Tale Calculated to Drive You… Mad
“Children are impressionable, can easily be corrupted and need to be protected.”
That’s what many authority figures have long thought, and the advent of such accessible pop-culture elements as radio, television and, of course, comic books only exacerbated that thinking.
Comic books confounded the establishment from the start. Contrary to the older reader base that buys comics today, the buyers in the 1930s and ‘40s were primarily pre-teens. And they numbered over a million strong at the time. That sort of impressive sales figure was a particular source of consternation for many adults, especially teachers and librarians, who hated the idea of comics taking the attention of kids away from more scholarly pursuits like reading books. Dime novels and the pulps that came before were bad enough, but now comic books were enticing young readers with their colorful characters and fantastic tales of wonder, too. Obviously, they reasoned, something had to be done.
That something was eventually an investigation into the possible corrupting influence of comic books by a Senate Subcommittee and the institution of the damaging Comics Code Authority. And it led to the demise of one of the most creative and influential comic book companies in the industry’s history, EC Comics. All of which would have come as quite a surprise to company founder M.C. Gaines, who launched EC as Educational Comics in the 1940s.
The Lighter Side
When FAMOUS FUNNIES became one of the first bound-up, magazine-sized newspaper-strip collections to be distributed through newsstands, the idea came from Maxwell Charles (“M.C.”) Gaines, a paper salesman.
Gaines, born in 1896, was truly a comic-book visionary, perhaps the most important figure in all of American comics, and certainly one of those responsible for launching the industry in the 1930s.
Even the accepted format of comics (folded, saddle-stitched newsprint pages) originated with Gaines, who was at the time worked for the Eastern Color Printing Company. Eastern Color printed many of the Sunday comic-strip supplements for newspapers. Gaines helped pioneer the idea of folding the supplements in half, doubling the page count and producing a magazine-sized publication of comic strips. He soon found that offering comic-book reprints of this nature as a premium for companies like Proctor and Gamble was a profitable affair. And if it worked for companies, Gaines assumed, the public would likely be willing to spend a dime for a magazine of this nature on the newsstands, too.
Gaines was responsible for other groundbreaking contributions to comics, too — his name is one the public rarely hears in connection with the creation of Superman, but he was largely responsible for the strip getting picked up by National Comics. He left Eastern Color to work for a comic-strip syndicate, which had just turned down a new creation by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. National Comics’ publisher, Harry Donenfeld, asked Gaines if he had any suitable material for a new comic he was launching in 1938, ACTION COMICS. Gaines wasn’t crazy about Siegel and Shuster’s character Superman, but his assistant, Sheldon Mayer, was. Mayer persuaded Gaines to show the strip to Donenfeld, who immediately saw the character’s potential with his audience of young readers, and history was made.
A year later, Gaines was hired by National Comics to create a new publishing house, All-American Publications, working alongside Donenfeld’s partner, Jack Leibowitz. The company’s first publication, ALL-AMERICAN COMICS launched some of the world’s most successful superhero characters under Gaines — Green Lantern, the Flash, Hawkman, the Atom and Wonder Woman among them.
But despite these successes, Gaines and Leibowitz argued constantly until 1944, when Gaines was bought out.
It’s fortunate for the industry that he was. In 1945, the socially conscious Gaines started up Educational Comics. He recognized the power of the medium to reach children, so he continued to publish comics based on history and on the Bible, something he’d begun at All-American.
But Educational Comics (EC Comics for short) would also go on to publish humor strips and even attempt to duplicate Gaines’ earlier success with superheroes, with limited success. Low sales began to afflict many of EC’s sales, and by 1947, the company was near bankruptcy.
Gaines’ pioneering spirit had always allowed him to go on to bigger and better things in comics, and it’s possible he could have done so again here. However, fate played a different hand, as Gaines exited the world in a manner worthy of the many characters he helped create—in 1947, he died heroically in a tragic boating accident in Lake Placid. A speedboat rammed the craft that held Gaines, a friend and the friend’s son. Gaines managed to save the young boy’s life at the cost of his own.
In the tumultuous time following his death, EC Comics was turned over to Gaines’s 25-year-old son, William “Bill” Gaines. Which is where EC’s story truly begins…