A Perfect MAD Man

William Gaines' splendidly zany magazine taught irreverence to a generation

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"I was a behavior problem," Gaines told Maria Reidelbach, author of Completely Mad, "a nonconformist, a difficult child." What a surprise. Yet Gaines was born and raised (in New York City, of course) to be precisely who he became. His father had been a comic-book publisher in the '30s, and when young Bill took over the company after the war, he turned to lurid fun, producing a line of successful gore-and-monster comics that 1) subsidized less profitable publications in his stable, 2) inspired and influenced future horrauteurs from Stephen King to Wes Craven and George Romero, and 3) were the subject of a 1954 Senate subcommittee investigation into the causes of juvenile delinquency.

Gaines soon stopped publishing the spook stuff and staked his fortune on Mad. Circulation peaked at 2.4 million in 1973, when the last of the baby boomers were in grade school, but today, with versions of the Mad world view available elsewhere, it is only a third of that.

Gaines sold Mad in 1961 but stayed as publisher and paterfamilias through a succession of corporate overseers (including its current owner, Time Warner Inc.). Gaines, says editor Nick Meglin, who started at Mad in 1956, was "a very, very casual person -- which is a euphemism for being a slob. He became uncomfortable if people started to wear shirts and ties and pinstripe suits, because he figured they were looking to become corporate creeps, as he would call them." The money saved on wardrobe went to subsidize Gaines' various follies, including restaurant feasts, his collection of small-scale Statues of Liberty (including one of Bartholdi's original models, which he bought for $104,000) and his annual junkets abroad for Mad's editors and contributors.

Gaines didn't really invent the magazine, didn't toss in ideas, didn't recruit new editors or writers or artists. Rather, he carefully oversaw the details of the business and by the (mainly) happy force of his personality helped whip up the wiseacre clubhouse chaos from which Mad emerged. "He always said, 'You're going to have to carry me out of here,' " Meglin remembers, "because he didn't have many interests. Mad was his life's work, his hobby, his social life."

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