It's 1967 and you're a kid, with a taste for four-color antics in a world of word balloons. Or maybe it's 1972. And yeah, you might swing along with Spidey or fight deformed crooks in a Gotham City of your mind. Or perhaps you prefer the lighter touch, Archie Andrews' tiny teen world of Riverdale.
But those aren't the only options. They may not even be the first to come to mind.
Thursday afternoon there's ice on the window. Your fever's finally broke and your friends are sitting stupefied through last lesson of the day, but you're lying in bed catching up on the Saturday morning cartoons, in print form. Or late night during a hot summer in a wooden cottage room, you seek one more campfire story, one more hit of fear, so by flashlight you peruse Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery, your eyes wide.
It's raining and nothing's on, but you can find out what The Banana Splits do between TV episodes because you've got the comic book. And during the long vacation drive, highway bingo grown stale with too much searching for red volkswagons and an unspotted cow, mom throws back a plastic bag. You don't put the comic book in; you rip the plastic and take them out. Three of them. Korak, Son of Tarzan. Magnus Robot Fighter. Turok, Son of Stone.
From 1938-1962, Western Publishing contracted with Dell to produce their comics, the majority of which were licensed properties. Among their most successful efforts were those involving Walt Disney characters; the great Carl Barks' stories about Scrooge McDuck originally carried Dell's imprint. In 1962, that contract ended. Western realized their comics division would be more profitable if they owned the company outright, and they created Gold Key.*
Gold Key's publications were remarkably diverse: Walt Disney Comics and Stories, Warner Brothers Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera characters.... Pretty much any Saturday Morning Cartoon of any note received at least two issues from Gold Key. They also created their own humour characters, such as Baby Snoots and the Addams Family-inspired Little Monsters. TV series which kids watched, from The Partridge Family to Dark Shadows received the Gold Key treatment, as did any number of movies. Disney's studios produced low-budget family films regularly throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and quite a few of these became one-shot comic titles. Tarzan had one of his longest runs in a Gold Key comic. They produced a few superhero/action titles of their own, including Turok, Son of Stone, Magnus, Robot Fighter, Daggar the Invincible (a Conan swipe), Tono and Kono, the Jungle Twins and Dan-El and Natongo, Brothers of the Spear (Tarzan clones), Many of these did quite well and have since been revived by other publishers. Gold Key also created Space Family Robinson: Lost in Space which inspired the (significantly altered) TV series.
Most of Gold Key's TV series were short-lived, but both Star Trek and Dark Shadows lasted until 1979 and 1976, respectively. The Key's take on the crew of the Enterprise is not universally admired as a stellar effort by Trekkies, while Dark Shadows turns the oddball gothic soap opera into a horror-filled adventure series. Vampire Barnabas Collins, Angel-like, fights evil to make amends for his past crimes. Both outlasted the series which inspired them.
Even their horror comics, ostensibly original, were usually tied in with an existing concept. They had The Twilight Zone, hosted by Rod Serling, The Outer Limits, Ripley's Believe it or Not! True Ghost Stories, and Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery, with the veteran actor in the Crypt-Keeper role. One of their few originals in this genre-- at least from a legal standpoint-- was Grimm's Fearie Tales, hosted by a dead ringer for The Haunt of Fear's Old Witch.
Gold Key would try any concept they thought would sell. One odd entry, fairly successful in the 1970s, was UFO Flying Saucers, which featured both imaginative recreations of reported extraterrestrial encounters and UFO stories of suspect origin. They also took the basic premise of Chariots of the Gods and produced Tragg and the Sky Gods, with dinosaurs, cave-dwellers, and aliens. Both Cro-Magnon heroes and the female aliens wore relatively little in the way of clothing.
Gold Key had a number of publishing strategies. They produced digests of reprinted material, a la Archie comics and, beginning in the early 1970s, sold three-packs of comics in grocery stores.
Funny Animal and other cartoon characters had covers illustrated in the source material's particular style. Film and TV adaptations usually had photo covers. Noteworthy exceptions were Dark Shadows and Star Trek which (after the initial issues) boasted the same style covers as Gold Key's adventure, action, and horror comics: painted, pulp fictionesque, and unlike anything else in comicdom.
The quality of Gold Key's product varied wildly. Walt Disney's Comics and Stories had Carl Barks work and inspiration going for them, while Magnus Robot Fighter actually outsold Superman for a brief stretch. The company had a kind of assembly line mentality, however. Writers and artists, generally uncredited, churned out issues and, along with some work of reasonable quality, came badly plotted comics in which characters' appearances varied from panel to panel. Among some of my childhood memories of Gold Key: inexplicably empty word balloons, Mr. Spock laughing at a joke, Lt. Uhura coloured as a Caucasian, and Foghorn Leghorn turning yellow for part of a story.
They weren't always good, but they were, for many readers, what funny books were about. Over time, however, superheroes, integrated shared worlds, and a kind of sophistication came to dominate the genre, and Gold Key (despite late efforts like Tragg) never quite caught on.
In 1981, Gold Key effectively ceased to exist. Western continued to publish some of their comics as Whitman, but sales lagged. Collecting revenue from licensed products was not an option, since most of their comics were licensed products, and their few original adventurers lacked the following of DC Comics or Marvel Comics superheroes.
Gold Key has not been forgotten. Their comics, so often connected with characters with significant fan bases, often fetch high prices. And Michael Chabon, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, has tipped his hat in their direction. His protagonists' superhero, the Escapist, wears upon his chest the emblem of a Gold Key. Several Gold Key comics have been anthologized in hardcover, and other publishers have taken a go at their original properties, such as Turok and Dr. Specktor.
*Dell continued to struggle throughout the 1960s. While they scooped Gold Key on a few new projects-- such as TV's Bewitched, their sales, without Disney, Warner Brothers, and the other licensed products which Western took with them, were dismal. Dell folded in 1973.
Gold Key History. Stoogeworld. http://www.stoogeworld.com/_Comic%20Books/HTML/Gold%20Key%20History.htm
Craig Hamrick. "Collectibles." Dark Shadows Online. http://www.darkshadowsonline.com/comics.html
Don Markstein. "Gold Key Comics." Toonopedia. http://www.toonopedia.com/goldkey.htm
Scott Shaw. Oddball Comics. Comic Book Resources. http://www.comicbookresources.com/columns/oddball/