Friday, December 08, 2006

Gold Key/Whitman

When I was a kid there were three companies that made comics. There was DC, which I knew as the company that published the characters from the Superfriends. There was Marvel, who became the apple of my geeky eye upon publication of the original Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. And then there was Gold Key, later known as Whitman.

Gold Key's heyday was in the 60's, but you could still get easily lay your hands on their books in the 70's and early 80's. They held a ton of licenses, from Walt Disney stuff to popular live action TV shows. But it was there original characters that interested me the most as a kid.

Doc, you can walk through walls.  Why are you letting this jerk beat you with steel girder?Valiant Comics, that staple of the 90's comic boom, launched itself on the back of Gold Key's three most successful original characters: Magnus Robot Fighter, atomic-powered Doctor Solar, and dinosaur hunting Indian brave Turok, Son of Stone. Magnus was a guy who punched evil robots, 24/7/365. In the future. Usually while his girlfriend watched. Turok was basically Jay Silverheels rolling around the Land of the Lost shooting dinosaurs with his bow. Doc Solar was a scientist who was made out of nuclear energy. And he came out long before Ronnie Raymond ruined that concept. To this day you won't find more solid character concepts than Magnus or Turok.

Gold Key had some other great characters as well. Dagar was your basic Conan type. Every issue he threw down with a necromancer or a demon or something like that. The Mighty Samson sounded like a Bible comic, but it was actually the story of a big strong guy who roamed around the post-apocalyptic remains of America, beating up mutants that were menacing humanity. Keep in mind this comic preceded the Thundarr the Barbarian cartoon and the role-playing game Gamma World.
Wolfman versus Frankenstein!  Who will be the Monsterweight Champion of the World?
My favorite Gold Key character was Doctor Spektor. In many ways he was a low-rent Doctor Strange, always getting into spooky occult adventures with mummies and cultists and such. What made Doc Spektor adventures so exciting was that he wasn't the Sorcerer Supreme. His mode of operation was much more down-to-earth. You could easily run Doctor Spektor as a Call of Cthulhu PC. Instead of throwing hexbolts, he'd just punch the bad guy. He dressed in dark suits rather than outrageous dayglo silks. Instead of knowing a dozen general purpose spells and magic items, ol' Doctor Spector would research the one amulet or spell that would work against the creature of the month.

Two things made Gold Key really stand out from the competition. First of all, most issues had awesome painted covers that were much more photo-realistic than anything I saw from DC or Marvel in those days. The other thing that strikes me as different is that Doctor Solar was Gold Key's only standard superhero title, where a guy had a secret identity and funny pajamas and fought crime. The rest of the Gold Key comics fell into various genres, but the one with original characters were all basically adventure stories of one type or another. Well, except for Grimm's Ghost Stories. Those were ghost stories. Duh.

Either way, my basic point remains. The Gold Key characters were extraordinary peoples in extraordinary situations, but (except for Doctor Solar) they were regular people in a way that superheros sometimes aren't.