Friday, July 20, 2012

Happy 50th Anniversary to Gold Key Comics!

By sheer quirk of coincidence, many notables turn 50 this year. 

The Rolling Stones.

The New York Mets.

The Jetsons.

McHale’s Navy. (Hey, I LIKE it!  So what!)

Three of my closest friends… though, I won’t reveal who. 

…And, on some now-impossible-to-recall date in the month of July… Gold Key Comics! 
Since I’ll never know that actual date, TODAY is as good as any for the celebration. 

In decades prior, Dell Comics (produced and packaged by the venerable Western Publishing Company) ruled the roost in terms of licensed animated characters, other properties from the movies and later television, and even a fair number of original creations.  Under its own banner, Dell successfully distributed these comics for many years – and is said to have had the highest circulation comic book of all time, with WALT DISNEY’S COMICS AND STORIES in the early 1950s. 

Then, one day in the early 1960s, the unthinkable happened.  When most newsstand comic books sold for 10 or maybe 12 cents, Dell Comics raised their cover price to an apocalyptical FIFTEEN CENTS!

Those pennies ADD UP!
THREE CENTS more than the competition!  Hard to believe, but that was a BIG deal in those days! 
As a result, sales plummeted.  Western Publishing ended its distribution arrangement with Dell – and Gold Key Comics, a new imprint of Western Pub., was born. 

In July of 1962, with no fanfare whatsoever, familiar comic books (with equally familiar title characters) began to appear on newsstands with a strange and curious “Gold Key” Logo supplanting that of “Dell”.  I’d imagine the brand name “Gold Key” was somehow derived from Western’s phenomenally successful line of children’s “Golden Books”.  

THIS was the first one I ever saw! 

THIS was the second. 

And, very likely but no longer certain, THIS was the third. 

I also may have had THIS ONE, because it looks and feels so familiar, but I no longer have it in my collection to verify. 

The earliest of the Gold Key titles – including the FIRST THREE ABOVE – were clearly constructed from leftover Dell inventory material.  They were IDENTICAL to their Dell predecessors in every way - save two.  The Gold Key Logo, of course, and that the advertisement or “back cover gag” was eliminated in favor of a PIN-UP! 
Did someone say...


No, not the kind of pin-up involving curves, legs, or dare I suggest even breasts!  This particular brand of pin-up was a reproduction of the FRONT COVER ART – sans logo, any cover captioning, list price, etc.  It was the ART in pure unadulterated form – kinda like a modern TV image might be without “logo bugs” and pop-ups!  …However, it WOULD tell you that it was part of a series – and which number WITHIN that series it was.  The Flintstones Pin-Up # 1”, it would say.  This would also act as an accurate indicator of which was the FIRST Gold Key issue of a series, the SECOND, THIRD, and so on. 

Thankfully, for future generations of collectors, few (if any) kids of the Silver Age ripped these pin-ups off the back of their comics and hung them on their bedroom walls!  Even THEN, I could never actually bring myself to do so!  (SHUDDER!) 

A Potamus Pin-Up!

These initial changes served as a mere “opening shot” in Gold Key’s aesthetic demarcation from Dell.  The “innovations” would hardly end here. 

In short order, said “innovations” would come SO fast and furious that, by the autumn of 1962, these comic books would literally NO LONGER RESEMBLE their earlier numbers from the preceding spring!
Even Wile E. can't keep up with all the changes!
The “new look” Gold Key Comics adopted a peculiar, almost UPA-influenced graphic style!  This is characterized by reduced background detail, panel backgrounds (and often the incidental objects within) covered over in ONE FLAT COLOR, square dialogue balloons, and wider gutters.  Panels were often “borderless”, or alternatively surrounded by thick borders of PASTEL COLORS!

The work of better artists like Carl Barks, Harvey Eisenberg, and Paul Murry particularly suffered under this system.   The lone example of Carl Barks straining against his publisher’s imposition can be seen in UNCLE SCROOGE # 40 (above).  After that, Barks’ visuals would return to normal, though the coloring quirks, outside of Barks’ control, would remain for a short time longer. 

Like Real Gone Gags, Man!

WALT DISNEY’S COMICS AND STORIES would abandon its “Donald Duck Cover Gag” format – in place since 1940 – for segmented covers illustrating some of the different stories contained therein.  Strangely, it made for some interesting covers, combining art from Carl Barks, Paul Murry, Tony Strobl, and, with the addition of Zorro, even Alex Toth!  You might occasionally find a photo of Guy Williams!

Covers illustrating a Gold Key issue’s “main adventure story” would return for the first time since the early-mid 1950s. 

New graphic designs were experimented with – and quickly discarded – such as THIS ONE that more resembles a RECORD ALBUM COVER than a comic book!  Look at the SIZE of that LOGO vs. the illustration!

Many titles were converted to 80 page “giants”, which featured a “Primary Character” and laced with additional stories of the ancillary characters from the same licensed studio as the Primary Character.  Among the titles to bulk-up were: BUGS BUNNY, HUCKLEBERRY HOUND, YOGI BEAR, QUICK DRAW McGRAW, WOODY WOODPECKER, TOM AND JERRY, ROCKY AND HIS FRIENDS, LITTLE LULU, and POPEYE.   As an example of the "Primary/Ancillary Pairings", note Wally Gator being associated with Huckleberry Hound! 

Has anyone seen Hokey Wolf?
Hail, hail, the Lantz ancillary gang's all here!

Bugs "goes up"!
This was accompanied by a corresponding LOSS of ancillary titles, as the other characters were folded into the giants.  Titles departing at this time were ALL of the other Warner Bros. titles (save DAFFY DUCK). 

Bugs "comes down"!
Within a few months, or a few issues, all of these “Giant” titles reverted to standard size.  …But, in many cases, the “other titles” were not reinstated.  Eventually, though, the Warner titles would return slowly and pretty much “be back” by 1965 and many Hanna-Barbera one-shots, limited series, and ongoing series would be released.
We're b-b-b-back!

Don't call us "limited", Dah-ling!

Oddly, no DISNEY titles were subject to this radical redirecting though, as noted, ZORRO lost his title and was folded-into WDC&S. 

Zorro and Pete: Symmetry in Disembodied Floating Heads!
Finally, the oddest quirk of all…

DONALD DUCK and THE FLINTSTONES – and I believe ONLY those titles – for a duration of about a year – began their featured stories ON THE FRONT COVER… and continued them on Page One of the issue.  See below for this most unusual editorial innovation.  I suppose it was a way of hooking you, and getting you to open the book – and buy it.  But, I can’t say I’d ever seen this attempted before or since.  …And why ONLY DONALD DUCK and THE FLINTSTONES? 

This situation persisted for DONALD DUCK # 87-91 and THE FLINTSTONES # 10-15. 

In addition to animated properties Gold Key also licensed prime time TV series such as BONANZA, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, BORIS KARLOFF PRESENTS THRILLER (…which would become BORIS KARLOFF TALES OF MYSTERY once the show expired), and even THE LUCY SHOW. 

Over the decade the roll of network TV series to appear under the Gold Key banner would include such sixties favorites as GUNSMOKE, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., THE WILD WILD WEST, STAR TREK, I SPY, THE TIME TUNNEL, LAND OF THE GIANTS, and more – mirroring (to not so coincidental a degree) my present-day DVD collection.  

The results varied, in terms of accuracy and fidelity to the series in question, but at least the Gold Key Comics version of your favorite TV show was always there to extend the experience, once that show was over and done for another seven days.  Photo covers for most of these series eased the pain of weekly separation - and marked the first time that many kids saw their '60s video heroes in color!

Original properties also proliferated like SPACE FAMILY ROBINSON (which would form the basis for the beloved ‘60s TV series LOST IN SPACE), DOCTOR SOLAR MAN OF THE ATOM, and MAGNUS ROBOT FIGHTER – all of which became popular in their own right.  These were marked by outstanding painted covers. The Gold Key Adventure Comics style was parodied to a “T” in Bongo Comics’ RADIOACTIVE MAN # 6 (October, 2002).

Note the words "LOST IN SPACE" in the cover caption!
Note the words "GOLDEN KEY" in the cover caption!
But I thought WE were "lost in space"!

In an example of inspired creativity (…or blatant plot recycling – you decide) Yellow Beak the parrot from the early classic “Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold” ships-out with Woody Woodpecker in 1963!  Decades later, I make an oblique reference ( read about it HERE) to this event in my 2011 Donald comic book script: “Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold ...Again”! 

Puff-Pant!  And that was just HALF of 1962 and into 1963!  …WOW! 

Taking a more accelerated pace for the remainder of the timeline, we move to:
1964-1966:  Gold Key Comics were almost untouchable in terms of quality, abandoning the “early look” and, simultaneously, doing some of the best stories – in a variety of genres, from funny stuff with DAFFY DUCK and THE FLINTSTONES to adventures with UNCLE SCROOGE and VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA.

All this was supplemented by judiciously selected reprints from the Dell era.  The reprints were the best-of-the best.  This is where I was introduced to Bill Wright’s Mickey Mouse (including Wright’s adaptation of Floyd Gottfredson’s “Sky Island” epic), some great Bugs Bunny, and earlier Sagendorf Popeye, etc. 

Was the original Dell issue an “ANT-ecedent”?  

 The period also saw the coming of titles for The Phantom Blot, Beagle Boys, Junior Woodchucks, and Super Goof, the “Super Secret Agent” experiment for Mickey Mouse, and lots of great Hanna-Barbera stuff, including some amazing work from Harvey Eisenberg.

A burst of quality in both creativity and editorial direction that Western Publishing would NEVER SEE AGAIN!  My high opinion of Gold Key as a publisher is admittedly forever colored by this period. 

And, of course, there was THIS COMIC! 


When The Great Gazoo dropped in on Gold Key Comics, they were wise enough to SEND HIM BACK at story's end!

Lastly, let us not forget the unlikely Hanna-Barbera / Universal Studios crossover...

Some sounds are TOO MUCH, even for a monster!

1967-1968: A downward trend begins with the introduction of the Gold Key Comics Club taking 6 pages out of every book for the nonsense of reader-submitted jokes, riddles, and (Shudder!) DRAWINGS (…Were these COMIC BOOKS – or the family refrigerator!) and forcing the books into a rigid format. 

The joke's on US, all right!

 But, Carl Barks was still there – though 1967 would mark the last combination of his writing and drawing. 
Bye-Bye, Barks?

Decidedly on the upside was Gold Key’s introduction of STAR TREK to comics!  The title would continue through 1979!
WALT DISNEY COMICS DIGEST was introduced in spring ’68, and featured some prime Barks UNCLE SCROOGE reprints for the first time.  Paul Murry and Tony Strobl remained mainstays of the Disney titles.   

We were introduced to MOBY DUCK!  Yay!  (No sarcasm – I LIKED Moby!) 

January, 1967: Meet Moby!  ...AND the first issue in which I discovered (Shudder!) the Gold Key Comics Club!

And, we did get the unexpected last original appearance of Sniffles and Mary Jane in this issue! 
Ain't I a...Sprinkler!

1969-1972: inferior artists begin to take over as, apparently (though undocumented), was also the case with writers.  Disney, itself, is somewhat responsible – luring some of the better talents with their higher-paying “Studio Program” to produce original comics for overseas markets.  (One former Western artist actually TOLD ME that was the case!)  Others simply retired, after long careers.  Some, like Harvey Eisenberg in 1965, even passed-on. 
Um, What happened to the ART?
No, REALLY... What happened?!

Oddly, Jack Manning's stint on MICKEY MOUSE was unexpectedly interesting, with his figures looking somewhat like later period Floyd Gottfredson!

Adding insult to injury, the Hanna-Barbera “classic character” titles (FLINTSTONES, YOGI BEAR, etc.) were lost to the HORRORS of (*ahem*) “lesser” publisher Charlton Comics in the summer of 1970!  The times were undeniably changing. 

…Doesn’t this comparison make you want to CRY?

Thankfully, Carl Barks comes to the rescue, returning to WRITE, but not draw, for the JUNIOR WOODCHUCKS title – and two scripts for DONALD DUCK.  Barks lifted the overall Gold Key line in another unintended way, as his reprints would dominate the UNCLE SCROOGE title from mid-1969 until well into 1980!

Similarly, Barks Donald Duck reprints (supplemented by new Mickey Mouse material by Paul Murry) would dominate WDC&S pretty much for the remainder of its Gold Key and Whitman run.  
Still demonstrating an ability to pick up new licensed animated characters for series, Gold Key begins its PINK PANTHER title in 1971.  There would be 87 issues in all!  Pretty impressive for a “newcomer”!

Hey, that's not The Inspector!

1973-1976:  A noticeable uptick in the quality of the writing occurs, as Mark Evanier becomes a rare “newbie” to enter the fold – and animation legend Michael Maltese, with TV animation no longer worthy of his talents, returns to write comic scripts.  Barks continues on JUNIOR WOODCHUCKS.  However, more often than not, a similar claim of a rise cannot be made of the ART -- which (as our last illustration shows below) generally becomes worse.
A "Godfather" reference in a '70s Gold Key Comic? Looks like an "uptick" to me!
Mark Evanier & Dan Spiegle: A memorable team-up on Scooby-Doo!

Never fear... Mark Evanier is here... Keen Gear!

BAD DOG... I mean ART!

Negative turning point: The parallel “Whitman Bag Issues” begin. 

These were duplicates of the regular Gold Key comic books (plastic-bagged in groups of three, branded with a Whitman logo) and sold in toy and variety stores, rather than the traditional newsstands and candy stores.  In consideration of the irregular distribution schedules of the “Bag System”, the Mickey Mouse serials in WALT DISNEY’S COMICS AND STORIES – run since 1940 – were discontinued.  How sad!

Goofy and I had such great 3-4 Part Adventures!  Sniff! Sniff!
Gold Key! ...Yippee!

Whitman! ...Whoa!

1977-1980:  The decline becomes irreversible, and Gold Key Comics eventually end – giving way to Whitman Bags, and limited direct market distribution. 

"Racing with the Sun...Set?" 

1980-1984:  The best thing that can be said about the titles of this period is that they “were there”, but with all of the creativity and fun drained away.  If anything, the Whitman line might be best remembered for its many bizarre quirks…
Issue # 209

...And AGAIN in # 215?  ...For twenty cents MORE?
Certain issues were reprinted shortly after their release.  (See MICKEY MOUSE # 209 and 215 above!)  A plethora of Whitman titles would be released on a single day – and then there would be nothing for months, until the cycle repeats.  This was likely timed to the release schedule of those damned BAGS.  (The TAIL was now officially wagging the DOG!)

Issues 193 and 194 - Same day Service!
Consecutive issues of UNCLE SCROOGE (193 and 194 – and later 198 and 199) were actually released ON THE SAME DAY!  Certain issue numbers of DAFFY DUCK, POPEYE, and others were SKIPPED, or unpublished. 
Missing Issues: # 132, 133!  Guess that means Daffy's "not all there"!
And, for those readers who became adept at reading the Gold Key “Cover Date Codes” (Anyone who is curious can ask me about that in the Comments Section!), certain issues were released with a 13/1981 Date Code.  (…Yes, there was a THIRTEENTH month in 1981!  Don’t you remember it? It was hot that month… or rainy, or sumpthin’!) 
Yeah... It WAS rainy!
Not all was completely wrong.  Paul Murry continued to produce new Mickey Mouse stories ALL the way to the very end – and there were even a few more left unpublished, including one (still unseen, alas) with The Phantom Blot!  Also some then-rare Carl Barks reprints appeared to excite new collectors and fans.  The books became 32 pages of STORY CONTENT – no ads, in-house or otherwise.  But, they were damned hard to find, unless you looked diligently, and/or hounded your comic shop proprietor, as I did.
Barks reprints heeeer!  Get 'em while they're RARE!

1985-1986:  In Whitman’s wake would come Bruce Hamilton and the wonders that were Gladstone Series One!  Unfortunately the non-Disney properties would be left to the eventual vagaries of other publishers.  The less said about some of those (*COUGH!* ‘90s Harvey! *COUGH!*) the better. 
Good Times and Glad(stone) Tidings ahead for Donald!

But, alas... Poor Woody! Abandoned by Yellow Beak!
Still, despite what might be more overall “bad” than “good” (…and that is quite an admission coming from ME), Gold Key Comics will hold a very special place in history – and in my heart!  As they should for us all! 

Happy 50 Years to you, Gold Key!  You’re still “shining bright and opening doors of wonder” around here!