|Country of origin||United States|
|Headquarters location||Poughkeepsie, New York|
|Publication types||Comic books|
Gold Key Comics was created in 1962, when its parent company Western Publishing switched to in-house publishing rather than packaging content for branding and distribution by its business partner, Dell Comics. Hoping to make their comics more like traditional children's books, they initially eliminated panel line-borders, using just the panel, with its ink and artwork evenly edged but not bordered by a "container" line. Within a year they had reverted to using inked panel borders and oval balloons. They experimented with new formats, including Whitman Comic Book, a black-and-white 136 page hardcover series consisting of reprints, and Golden Picture Story Book, a tabloid-sized 52-page hardcover containing new material. In 1967, Gold Key reprinted a number of selected issues of their comics under the title Top Comics. They were packaged in plastic bags containing five comics each and were sold at gas stations and various eateries. Like Dell, Gold Key was one of the few major American comic book publishers never to display the Comics Code Authority seal on its covers.
Gold Key featured a number of licensed properties and several original titles, including a number of publications that spun off from Dell's Four Color series, or were published as stand alone titles. Gold Key maintained decent sales numbers throughout the 1960s, thanks to its offering of many titles based upon popular TV series of the day, as well as numerous titles based upon both Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros. animated properties. It was also the first company to publish comic books based upon the NBC series Star Trek. While some titles, such as Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, were published for many years, many other licensed titles were characterized by short runs, sometimes publishing no more than one or two issues. Gold Key considered suing over the similarly themed television series Lost in Space for its resemblance to the preexisting Space Family Robinson, but decided their business relationship with CBS and Irwin Allen was more important than any monetary reward resulting from such a suit; as a result, the Gold Key series adopted the branding Space Family Robinson Lost in Space with issue #15 (Jan. 1966), even though its narrative had no connection to the TV series.
Editor Chase Craig stated that Gold Key would launch titles with Hanna-Barbera characters with direct adaptations of episodes of the program because "[t]he studio had approval rights and the people there could get pointlessly picky about the material ... but they rarely bothered looking at any issue after the first few. Therefore, it simplified the procedure to do the first and maybe the second issue as an adaptation. They couldn't very well complain that a plot taken from the show was inappropriate".
Over the years, it lost several properties, including the King Features Syndicate characters (Popeye, Flash Gordon, The Phantom, etc.), to Charlton Comics in 1966, numerous, but not all, Hanna-Barbera characters also to Charlton Comics in 1970, and Star Trek to Marvel Comics in 1979.
The stable of writers and artists built up by Western Publishing during the Dell Comics era mostly continued into the Gold Key era. In the mid-1960s, a number of artists were recruited by the newly formed Disney Studio Program and thereafter divided their output between the Disney Program and Western. Writer/artist Russ Manning and editor Chase Craig launched the Magnus, Robot Fighter science fiction series in 1963.Jack Sparling co-created the superhero Tiger Girl with Jerry Siegel in 1968, drew the toyline tie-in Microbots one-shot, and illustrated comic book adaptations of the television series Family Affair, The Outer Limits, and Adam-12.Dan Spiegle worked on Space Family Robinson,The Green Hornet, The Invaders, Korak, Son of Tarzan, Brothers of the Spear, and many of Gold Key's mystery/occult titles. Among the other creators at Gold Key were writers Donald F. Glut, Len Wein, Bob Ogle, John David Warner, Steve Skeates, and Mark Evanier; and artists Cliff Voorhees, Joe Messerli,Carol Lay, Jesse Santos, and Mike Royer. Glut created and wrote several series including The Occult Files of Dr. Spektor,Dagar the Invincible, and Tragg and the Sky Gods. Also in the 1970s, writer Bob Gregory started drawing stories, mostly for Daisy and Donald. Artist/writer Frank Miller had his first published comic book artwork in The Twilight Zone for Gold Key in 1978.
Diana Gabaldon began her career writing for Gold Key, initially sending a query that stated "I've been reading your comics for the last 25 years, and they've been getting worse and worse. I'm not sure if I could do better myself, but I'd like to try." Editor Del Connell provided a script sample and bought her second submission.
According to former Western Publishing writer Mark Evanier, during the mid-1960s comedy writer Jerry Belson, whose writing partner at the time was Garry Marshall, also did scripts for Gold Key while writing for leading TV sitcoms like The Dick Van Dyke Show. Among the comics he wrote for were The Flintstones, Uncle Scrooge, Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, The Three Stooges, and Woody Woodpecker.
Leo Dorfman, creator of Ghosts for DC Comics, also produced supernatural stories for Gold Key's similarly themed Twilight Zone, Ripley's Believe it or Not, Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery, and Grimm's Ghost Stories. One of Gold Key's editors at the time told Mark Evanier, "Leo writes stories and then he decides whether he's going to sell them to DC [for Ghosts] or to us. He tells us that if they come out good, they go to us and if they don't, they go to DC. I assume he tells DC the opposite."
The comics industry experienced a downswing in the 1970s and Gold Key was among the hardest hit. Its editorial policies had not kept pace with the changing times and suffered an erosion of its base of sales among children, who could now watch cartoons and other entertainment on television for free instead. It is also alleged by Carmine Infantino that in the mid-to-late 1960s DC Comics attempted to pressure Gold Key from the comics business through sheer weight of output. Among the original titles launched by Gold Key in the 1970s were Baby Snoots and Wacky Witch. By 1977 many of the company's series had been cancelled and the surviving titles featured more reprinted material, although Gold Key was able to obtain the rights to publish a comic book series based upon Buck Rogers in the 25th Century between 1979 and 1981. It also lost the rights to publish Star Trek-based comic books to Marvel Comics just prior to the revival of the franchise via Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with the final Gold Key-published Star Trek title being issued in March 1979.
In this period, Gold Key experimented with digests with some success. In a similar manner, to explore new markets, in the mid-1970s it produced a four-volume series, with somewhat better production values and printing aimed at the emerging collector market, containing classic stories of the Disney characters by Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson (Best of Walt Disney's Comics). In the late 1970s came somewhat higher grade reprints of various licensed characters also aimed at new venues (Dynabrites), plus Starstream, a four-issue series adapting classic science fiction stories by authors such as Isaac Asimov and John W. Campbell. Golden Press released trade paperback reprint collections such as Walt Disney Christmas Parade,Bugs Bunny Comics-Go-Round, and Star Trek: The Enterprise Logs.
In the late 1970s, the distribution of comic books on spinners and racks at newsstands, drug stores and supermarkets continued, but Western also sold packs of three comics in a plastic bag to toy and department stores, airports, and bus/train stations, "as well as other outlets that weren't conducive to conventional comic racks". The newsstand comics were returnable -- the dealer could return unsold copies to the distributor for a refund -- but the bagged comics were not. To discourage unscrupulous dealers from opening the plastic bags and returning the non-returnable issues, Western published the newsstand versions under the Gold Key Comics label, and put the Whitman Comics logo on the bagged versions, although otherwise the issues were identical.
Western, at one point, also distributed bagged comics from its rival DC Comics under the Whitman logo. Former DC Comics Executive Paul Levitz stated that the "Western program was enormous -- even well into the 1970s they were taking very large numbers of DC titles for distribution (I recall 50,000+ copies offhand)."
In 1979, Western ceased to be an independent company when Mattel Inc. purchased the company. The new management stopped selling returnable comics at newsstands, preferring the non-returnable bagged comics sold at toy stores.
In a 1993 interview, Del Connell, the managing editor at Western's West Coast office in the late 1970s, recalled,
To cut a long story short, the Western comics line was killed by distribution. Perhaps you know that by early 1980 our comics were only being distributed in bagged sets of three. The Whitman label replaced the Gold Key imprint at that time as the comics could no longer be found on the newsstands, but in department, variety, and grocery stores. Our new management assumed that comics could be treated like coloring books or puzzles. That proved an ill-fated decision. The following years were characterized by delays and erratic distribution.
Eventually arrangements were made to distribute these releases to the nascent national network of comic book stores. Western also prepared a prospectus in the early 1980s for a deluxe Carl Barks reprint project aimed at the collector market that was never published.
Dark Horse Comics (and later, Dynamite Entertainment) have published reprints, including several in hardcover collections, of such original Gold Key titles as Magnus, Robot Fighter; Doctor Solar; Mighty Samson; M.A.R.S. Patrol; Turok: Son of Stone; The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor; Dagar the Invincible; Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery; Space Family Robinson; Flash Gordon; the Jesse Marsh drawn Tarzan; and some of the Russ Manning-produced Tarzan series. They started several revivals of characters under Jim Shooter, including Doctor Solar, Magnus, Turok, and Mighty Samson. The Checker Book Publishing Group, in conjunction with Paramount Pictures, began reprinting the Gold Key Star Trek series in 2004. Hermes Press reprinted the three series based on Irwin Allen's science-fiction TV series, as well as Gold Key's Dark Shadows,My Favorite Martian, and the Phantom.
Bongo Comics published a parody of Gold Key in Radioactive Man #106 (volume 2 #6, Nov. 2002) with script/layout by Batton Lash and finished art by Mike DeCarlo that Tony Isabella dubbed "a nigh-flawless facsimile of the Gold Key comics published by Western in the early 1960s...from the painting with tasteful come-on copy on the front cover to the same painting, sans logo or other type, presented as a "pin-up" on the back cover".
In June 2001, DIC Entertainment announced they would purchase Golden Books Family Entertainment for $170 Million and send them out of bankruptcy. However, DIC would pass off the purchase due to high costs and instead Golden Books Family Entertainment was eventually acquired jointly by Classic Media, owner of the catalog of United Productions of America (UPA) and book publisher Random House in a bankruptcy auction for the lower $84.4 million on August 16, 2001. In turn, Classic Media gained ownership of Golden Books' entertainment catalog (including the family entertainment catalog of Broadway Video which includes the pre-1974 library of Rankin/Bass Productions and the library of Total Television) as well as production, licensing and merchandising rights for Golden Books' characters and the Gold Key Comics catalogs, while Random House gained Golden Books' book publishing properties. Random House had previously acquired Dell Publishing though a series of mergers since 1976 effectivly reuniting the remnants Gold Key Comics and Dell Comics.
On July 23, 2012, Classic Media was acquired by DreamWorks Animation for $155 million and renamed DreamWorks Classics. On July 1, 2013, Random House merged with the Penguin Group, forming a new company called Penguin Random House. In April 2016, the acquisition of DreamWorks Animation (owner of DreamWorks Classics) by NBCUniversal was announced.
Gold Key didn't sue, because it had some very lucrative licensing deals going with various TV producers and didn't want to upset any apple carts.
After abandoning licensing for a decade or so, Charlton re-entered that field in 1967, by picking up the titles of King Comics -- Flash Gordon, Popeye, The Phantom, Blondie, Jungle Jim, and Beetle Bailey...In 1970, most of the Hanna-Barbera characters, including Yogi Bear and The Flintstones, went from Gold Key to Charlton.
Russ Manning also created...Magnus, Robot Fighter (1963-68) for the Gold Key comic books. Especially Magnus, stood out for its excellent artwork.
Tiger Girl's comic was drawn by Jack Sparling...The writer was no less a personage than Jerry Siegel, who co-created Superman himself.
He also did fillers and issues of Space Family Robinson, Magnus Robot Fighter, Maverick, Tarzan, Brothers of the Spear, Flipper, and Lassie. When Russ Manning left Dell in 1967, Spiegle took over the Korak title.
He began an association with Western Publications in 1970...and illustrated Gold Key titles like Brothers of the Spear, Dagar, Dr. Spektor, and Tragg.
Dr. Adam Spektor, a researcher of the supernatural, was introduced in Mystery Comics Digest #5 (July, 1972)...The story was written by Don Glut...and drawn by Dan Spiegle.
Dagar started as a non-series character, the hero of a story that writer Don Glut...wrote for Gold Key's Mystery Comics Digest.
Writer Don Glut...and artist Jesse Santos...supplied the comic, in which aliens from interstellar space had a profound effect on a tribe of Stone Age people.
Baby Snoots, a Gold Key original launched with an August, 1970 cover date, was a young elephant...Snoots lasted a respectable 22 issues.
Wacky ran 21 issues, ending with a December, 1975 cover date.