Who the heck is M.C. Gaines, and why is he so important to comics? Gaines’s name is affiliated with almost every major event in early comic history. He launched the first comic book, and was influential in the birth of Superman, Green Lantern, Hawkman and Wonder Woman, shaping the entire superhero genre. Additionally, he created Education Comics, which later became the controversial and innovative EC comics that spawned Mad Magazine.
Maxwell Charles “Charlie” Gaines, AKA M.C. Gaines, was born Max Ginsberg in 1894. He was a nice Jewish boy from NYC. Like many individuals involved in the early comic industry, he never wanted to work in comics. He was a school teacher, but he lost his job in the 1920s and ended up in a period of life suckitude (I just made that word up!) Down and out, he had trouble supporting his wife, Jesse, and two kiddos, Elaine and William. Gaines was a smart cat, but a pissed off one who limped because of a childhood injury that left him in constant pain in his leg and lower back. He tried all kinds of crazy get-rich-quick schemes, but none worked out. He even ended up selling painted neckties with anti-prohibition statements such as “We Want Beer” written on them. Now do you understand what life suckitude means?
His condition grew worse and worse until he hit bottom. Broke as heck and close to 40 years old, he moved his family into his mother’s house in the Bronx. Around this time, Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany, America was deep into the Great Depression, and the world was darker than ever. In order to escape his dark reality, Gaines retreated into his momma’s attic to read the Sunday funnies. Finding joy in comics, Gaines realized others might yearn for the same escapism. Being a savvy businessman, he also realized the marketing potential of comics.
While Gaines did not technically invent the “comic book,” his format and marketing created the comic industry. The phrase “comic book” was first used in 1917, and by the late 1920s reprint collections were common for popular strips such as Little Nemo and The Yellow Kid. Companies such as Eastern Color Printing and Humor Publishing had attempted to market various periodicals featuring comic reprints in different formats, but none succeeded. Gaines was the man who struck gold by figuring out the format to make big business out of comics.
Gaines’s comic featured 32 pages of reprinted newspaper strips, printed half the size of normal mags, and stapled into a pamphlet. He pitched his idea to his friend Harry L. Wildenberg, the sales manager at Eastern Color Printing. They put together a sales promotional giveaway for Proctor and Gamble called Funnies on Parade featuring reprints of Mutt and Jeff, Joe Palooka and other popular strips. It was a huge hit; Proctor and Gamble ordered 10,000 copies. Other companies such as Kinney Shoes and Canada Dry also signed similar deals for comic giveaways. Eastern Color and Gaines sold 100,000 copies of their second comic Famous Funnies. After their massive success with the promotions, Gaines and Eastern Color started selling comics directly to newsstands. Famous Funnies #1, Series 1 was released in February 1934. It was 64 pages long and cost a dime. The issue sold out in less than two weeks baby! Gaines went from a broke former teacher to the man who created the comic industry!
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were two Jewish, sci-fi fanboys who were also determined to succeed in comics. They tried to sell their creation, Superman, to everyone and their momma. They were also rejected by everyone and their momma. M.C. Gaines first got his hands on Superman in 1933, although no one is sure exactly how he got the strip- whether it was directly from the creators or another source. Every now and then, Gaines would attempt to talk companies into using Superman, but the character would be rejected each time.
In 1937, the comic industry was about to change forever. Detective Comics, Incorporated (DC) had been trying to flood the comic industry by releasing as many comics as they could. According to legend, DC was desperate for any new material, and editor Vin Sulivan turned to his friend Sheldon Mayer. Mayer was a former editor at DC who now worked full time with Gaines. Mayer looked through Gaines’s material to see if he had any unused strips lying around and came across the hero that would define the genre-Superman! The rest, as they say, is what happened (ok, I was going to write history, but that is such a lame saying).
Superman became the prototype comic hero, leading to the massive superhero boom. Four years after the comic industry began, there were 30 comic book publishers that produced over 150 different titles each month. Fast forward to 1939 when Gaines received a loan from Harry Donavan (another member of the tribe), the CEO of DC and National Allied Publications, to start his own company All-American Comics. Harry agreed to the loan as long as Gaines partnered with Jack Liebowitz, the former Socialist Yid who was also Harry’s right hand man. From there, All-American introduced Flash, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Hawkman and many others.
Although Gaines, never returned to teaching, his last years of his life were spent using comics to educate youth. He sold his portion of All American Comics to Jack Liebowitz, who merged it with DC. Gaines then launched a new company, Educational Comics (later Entertaining Comics and EC comics).
M.C. Gaines died in a speed-boat accident at Lake Placid, NY. While vacationing with friends, another boat hit Gaines’s boat from the side. Gaines and his friend Sam Irwin died, but his friend’s young son survived. Tales of this day often portray Gaines as the hero who sacrificed himself, taking the brunt of the impact and saving his friend’s son.
Gaines left an incredible legacy, but his influence did not end when he died. Gaines ended up redefining the genre again, this time through his troublemaking son Bill Gaines. The younger Gaines pissed off the entire United States when he shaped EC comics to become the lead horror comic manufacturer. He also created a new genre of parody comics by launching the iconic MAD Magazine!
So who is M.C. Gaines? Gaines is one of the most influential men in comics. He was a down and out salesman who birthed an entire industry and then later redefined it. The dude is freakin’ Superman!
______________________________________________________________________________________Jay Deitcher, LMSW(
@mrdeitcher) is an educator on comic history and runs successful Free Comic Book Day events yearly. You can see a listing of his incredible articles at JayDeitcher.com.