Gold Key Comics was created in 1962, when Western 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 borders (using strips of color instead) and had word and thought balloons that were rectangular rather than oval. Within a year they had reverted to using inked panel borders and oval balloons. They also experimented with new formats, including black and white 136 page hardcovers containing reprints (Whitman Comic Books) and tabloid sized 52 page hardcovers containing new material (Golden Picture Story Book). These evidently were aimed at the book trade and department stores, in the manner of their popular Little Golden Books. In 1967 they reprinted a number of selected issues of their comics under the title Top Comics which were sold in plastic bags of 5 at gas stations and various eateries; some locations removed them from the bags and sold them individually with price stickers attached to the covers.
A striking difference between Gold Key and other publishers (which had been done by Dell as well) was to publish most of their mystery, jungle, science-fiction, adventure and similar series with full color painted covers rather than the standard line-artwork.
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). It maintained decent sales numbers throughout the 1960s, thanks to its offering 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 Star Trek.
Over the years it did lose several properties, including the King Features Syndicate characters (Popeye, Flash Gordon, The Phantom, etc) in 1966, the Hanna Barbera characters (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-60s a number of artists left to work for the newly formed Disney Studio Program. Among the few new creators at Gold Key were writers Don Glut, Len Wein and Mark Evanier and artist Mike Royer. Also in the 70s writer Bob Gregory started drawing stories, mostly for Daisy and Donald. Acclaimed artist/writer Frank Miller had his first published comic book artwork in The Twilight Zone for Gold Key in 1978.
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), while writing for leading TV sitcoms like The Dick Van Dyke Show, also did scripts for Gold Key. Among the comics he wrote for were The Flintstones, Uncle Scrooge, Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, The Three Stooges and Woody Woodpecker.
In the 1970s, when the comics industry experienced a downswing, Gold Key was among the hardest hit. Its editorial policies had not kept pace with changing times and suffered erosion of its base of sales among children who could now instead watch cartoons and other entertainment on free television. By 1977, all of the company's original series had been canceled (most had been dropped circa 1973-1974), and its licensed series were virtually all reprint-only, although Gold Key was still able to obtain the rights to publish a comic book series based upon Buck Rogers in the 25th Century between 1979 and 1981.
In this period Gold Key experimented with digests which had some success. In a similar vein to explore new markets they produced in the mid-1970s 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 a four issue series adapting classic science fiction stories by authors such as Issac Asimov and John W. Campbell (Starstream). Golden Press released trade paperback reprint collections (Walt Disney Christmas Parade, Bugs Bunny Comics-Go-Round, Star Trek Enterprise Logs). And while still distributing comic books on spinners and racks at drug stores, super markets and such under the Gold Key label simultaneously distributing the same comics — usually in plastic bags of three — to toy and department stores plus newsstands at airports and bus/train stations "as well as other outlets that weren't conducive to conventional comic racks" under the Whitman logo which it also used for such products as coloring books. Western at one point also distributed bagged comics from its rivals DC Comics and Marvel Comics under the Whitman logo. President of DC Comics Paul Levitz has stated "The Western program was enormous — even well into the '70s they were taking very large numbers of DC titles for distribution (I recall 50,000 copies offhand)." Continued declining sales forced Western in 1981 to cease newsstand distribution and thereafter release all its comics solely in bags as " Whitman Comics". The "Gold Key" logo was discontinued. Eventually arrangements were made to distribute these releases to the nascent national network of comic book stores as part of the Whitman alternate methods of distribution. All these efforts proved ultimately unsuccessful, and by 1984 Western was out of the comic book business.
Many of their characters have been revived over the decades by companies ranging from Valiant to Dark Horse who recently revived and published some of their more memorable characters.
Some of the stable of characters that were originally published were:
Magnus (Valiant, Dark Horse, Dynamite)
Dr. Solar (Valiant, Dark Horse, Dynamite)
Turok (Valiant, Dark Horse, Dynamite)
Mighty Samson (This version is paid homage to in Project Superpowers) (Gold Key, Dark Horse)
Terra (Gold Key, Dark Horse)
Tiger Girl (Gold Key version)
Dr. Spektor (Dark Horse, Dynamite)
Captain Johner (Gold Key, Valiant)
Tanek Nuro (Gold Key, Dark Horse)
Captain Venture (Fawcett, Gold Key)
Leeja (Gold Key, Valiant, Dark Horse)
Doc Savage (Gold Key, Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Dynamite)
Flash Gordon (King Syndicate, Toby, Eastern Color, Dell, Gold Key, Charlton, Marvel, DC, Dynamite)
Ming the Merciless (Gold Key, DC, Dynamite)
The Phantom (King syndicate, Gold Key, Marvel, DC, Moonstone, Dynamite)
The Lone Ranger (Dell, Gold Key, Dynamite)
Tarzan (Dell, Gold Key, DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Dynamite)
John Carter Carter, Warlord of Mars 9Dell, Gold Key, Marvel, Dynamite)
Carson Napier (Gold Key, DC, Dark Horse) Burroughs creation
Korak (Gold Key, DC, Dark Horse) Burroughs creation
La of Opar (Gold Key, Marvel, Dark Horse)
Commander Zarz (Valiant)
The Owl (Dell, Gold Key, Dynamite)
Owl Girl (Dell, Gold Key, Dynamite)
The Scarecrow (seen in DC's League of Extrodinary Gentlemen)
1-A (Valiant, Dark Horse)
Mekman (Valiant, Gold Key)
Hutek (Dell, Gold Key)
The Bionic Man novel by Martin Caidin (Gold Key, Charlton, Dynamite)
M'Rees (Gold Key, Valiant)
G-8 (Popular, Gold Key, Moonstone)
Purple Zombie (Eastern Color, Gold Key)
Dr. Zen Abron
Honey West novel This Girl for Hire Gloria Fickling (Gold Key, Moonstone)
Many of these characters have separate pages while others do not.