The year was 1954. Hundreds of schoolchildren swarmed a small cemetery, shouting and waving pocketknives, looking for a "bloodthirsty vampire with iron teeth." Rumor in the school had it the little sucker killed two of their friends. Local police, who said the kids appeared to be "deadly serious," blamed horror comics on the riot.
"It's hard to believe what was going on then," William Gaines said. "It was like a witch hunt. The federal government was trying to tie comic books to juvenile delinquency. Comics in general were the target, but I was the bull's-eye." Gaines is the impish man who made creepy comics a staple in 1950, when he unleashed his E.C. Comic horror series-Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear. He reluctantly laid his horror yarns to rest in peace in 1955, however, over public outcry. "It was very painful to close down the magazines," Gaines recalled. "I loved all my titles. But I figured that was the end of them."
The feisty publisher is delighted-and financially rewarded-that film producer Joel Silver exhumed his comics for HBO's "Tales From the Crypt." Gaines was unhappy with two earlier British films based on "Crypt." Warner Bros. optioned his comics for $250,000, but nothing ever came of it.
Gaines, 68, lives in Manhattan and works on another of his irreverent creations, MAD magazine, originally an E.C. Comic. He shakes his head thinking back to those ghoul old days, when his comics were accused of encouraging crime and spreading communist propaganda: "We got angry letters from religious people who thought we were devils from hell. I just fluffed them off.
"I just didn't believe comics are bad for children. I still don't. They were roller coaster rides with a big thrill at the end. I don't think anybody ever mistook them as a serious pattern for life."
Gaines never planned on a comic-book life. His father created the '30s comics Tiny Tot, Animal Fables and Moon Girl. They were published under the E.C. banner, which stood for Educational Comics. At the time, Gaines was studying to be a chemistry teacher.
In 1947 his father died and Gaines took over. "I had no interest in children's comics," he said. "So I decided to publish comics along the lines of the stuff I loved as a kid, which were pulp magazines."
Gaines and his editor, Al Feldstein, cranked out horror, crime, suspense, and sci-fi stories. With titles like Weird Science and Crime Suspenstories, and the horror comics, E.C. was renamed from Educational to Entertaining Comics.
"Our stories always had a surprise ending, we called them snap endings," he said. "For example, a girl falls in love with an alien, and they get married. She finds out he's really a creature that looks like an octopus, but he has clouded her mind into thinking that he's a human being. Then, the snap ending. She says, 'My God, I'm pregnant.' "
Artists were graciously paid $25 to $40 a page (compared to $650 a page today at MAD magazine). Gaines had a stable of the industry's finest artists.
E.C. Comics disappeared for about 20 years before Russ Cochran, a former professor in West Plaines, Mo., started reprinting them in 1975. He has rereleased the entire line in hard-bound editions and recently brought back the series in comic-book form to cash in on the popularity of HBO's "Crypt."
In addition to the HBO series, Silver is adapting the E.C. Comic "Two Fisted Tales" into a series for Fox . Like a proud father surveying his grown children, Gaines sits back in his offices and, sometimes, longs for the days when his comic creations were still infants.
"Those were the good days for me," he said. "Here at MAD IUm just a businessman. I have a whole editorial staff 100 times funnier than I am, so IUm reduced to being a businessman. But in those days, I was right in the thick of it.