Remembering William M. Gaines -- The founder of ''Mad'' magazine, who left a legacy of profound silliness, died at the age of 70

Wizard of Ecch William M. Gaines, who died June 3 at age 70, was the hairy forefather of several generations of gleefully disgusted cynics. From genial Jay Leno to fanged P.J. O’Rourke, there isn’t a comedian, a cartoonist, or a satirical pundit alive who doesn’t owe something to Mad magazine, which Gaines founded in 1952. Saturday Night Live would be unthinkable without Mad; so would Home Alone and Tim Burton. Even such diverse and serious types as Gloria Steinem and Art Spiegelman acknowledge the stunning impact of Mad on their life and work. Gaines’ little comic book has quite possibly been the most subversive magazine of modern times, simply because it taught readers-kid readers-to giggle at the pomposities and contradictions of mainstream culture. Mad exposed the lighter side of everything young people were taught was heavy. Starting out in a decade fanatically devoted to the status quo and worshipful of grown-ups, Gaines dared to muse, ”I think that 13 just may be the age of reason.” From today’s vantage point, in an age awash with irony, it’s hard to grasp how astounding the first Mads must have seemed when America was liking Ike and loving Lucy. Yet the most popular modern pastimes-the twisted celebration of the distasteful, the obsessive satirical reshuffling of the pop-culture deck- derive from that willfully juvenile revolution. Gaines got his empire from his father, publisher Max C. Gaines, who died in a motorboat crash in 1947, when Bill was a 25-year-old NYU education student. Having inherited his dad’s nearly bankrupt company, Educational Comics, Inc., the legatee renamed it Entertaining Comics, and switched from publishing his father’s favorite title, Picture Stories From the Bible, to such corpse-strewn pulp as ”Ooze in the Cellar,” Crypt of Terror, and Vault of Horror. According to the recent book Completely Mad, he dreamed up his stories by staying up all night on diet pills his doctors prescribed to counter his compulsive eating, while gorging on sci-fi and Grand Guignol fiction. Despite the medication, Gaines stayed large; he contained multitudes-slob and nabob, hedonist and workaholic, and iron-fisted dictator of budgets figured according to what he called the ”Boogerian Constant,” a law he declined ever to define. He paid contributors faster and better than anybody in the comics business-but strong-armed them to sign over all rights to their work. When Mad cartoonist Sergio Aragones reportedly provoked a 1960s Paris street mob to rock Gaines’ limo, shrieking, ”Feelthy fat capitalist!” there was something underlying the joke. Yet, Gaines was paying for the trip, just as he frequently flew the Mad staff on revels all over the globe at company expense. Could he be Santa? Or Stalin with a sense of humor? Gaines sold Mad for millions to Premier Industries in 1961, retaining the reins of power. When Mad wound up with current owner Time Warner, Gaines refused to budge from his disheveled digs on MADison Avenue. ”His theory was that ‘a grown child doesn’t move in with his parents,”’ says editor Lou Silverstone, who spent 27 years in Gaines’ employ before defecting to the competition, Cracked. Over the course of his 45-year career, Gaines discovered the likes of cartoonists Don Martin, Jack Davis, and Mort Drucker-hired because the Brooklyn Dodgers happened to win the ball game Gaines was watching during Drucker’s job interview-and then heedlessly drove away some of his top talents. ”Bill wasn’t a nice guy,” says artist/editor Harvey Kurtzman, the creative genius who invented Mad, ”and he wasn’t a bad guy. He was bold, but he’d sit there with a slide rule every day very preoccupied with how to distribute his money.” Gaines sold the magazine partly for pure profit, but also out of a nagging dread that ”sooner or later, there’s gotta be an end to it.” To paraphrase his ubiquitous cover boy, Alfred E. Neuman, he needn’t have worried.