What was the relationship between Dell Comics and Gold Key Comics?
In order to understand all this, you have to accept a slightly different concept of a publisher's function than the norm.
Ordinarily, there are three aspects to what a comic book publisher must deal with...
FINANCE: The decision of what to publish and the financial arrangements and investment to do so.
EDITORIAL: The creation and/or purchase of the material to be printed in those comics. This often involves buying the
rights to characters owned by others.
PRINTING: The physical mass-reproduction of the comic books.
(There's actually another step — DISTRIBUTION — but it can only confuse this explanation to drag that into it.)
An outfit like DC, Marvel or Dark Horse does #1 and #2, then they hire some outside company to do #3. In the case of the Dell
Comics from 1938 through 1962, it was different: The Dell company did #1 and a firm called Western Printing and Lithography did #2 and #3.
All of the writers and artists who did those comics worked for Western, not for Dell. A lot of folks see Carl Barks' work
appearing all those years in comics that say "Dell" in the upper left hand corner and they think, "Oh, Barks worked for Dell." He did not,
ever. He worked for Western, a completely separate company.
And a lot of people see that all those Disney comics were printed with "Dell" in the upper left and they think, "Dell had the comic
book rights to the Disney characters." Again, not so. Western had those rights...and the rights to the Warner Brothers characters (Bugs
Bunny, Daffy Duck) and the Walter Lantz characters and so many others.
Western was a printing company with the editorial capability to create the content of the comic books. Dell was a publishing
company that did many kinds of magazines and books. They bought their comic book line from Western.
Once or twice a year, Western's reps would go to the Dell people with mock-ups and samples for new, proposed comics. Someone at
Dell — usually their President, Helen Meyer — would "order" more comics from Western. She might say, "Okay, let's do another twelve
issues of Looney Tunes next year, six of Andy Panda...let's try two issues of that new Rocky and His Friends thing you brought
in..." And so on.
Western's folks would scurry back to their offices (in New York and Los Angeles) and get writers and artists busy on creating the
insides of those books. Later, they would print them. Dell would pay all the costs, including printing and a profit for Western, and
handle distribution and financing of the books. In the meantime, other divisions of Western would be using the same licenses to do projects in
which Dell had no involvement — coloring books of Donald Duck, Little Golden Books of Woody Woodpecker, jigsaw puzzles of Huckleberry Hound and
so on. Comics were just a small part of what Western did.
Dell was not Western's only client for comic books; Dell had an exclusive deal for conventional newsstand-type comics but there were
other markets. For example, Western produced a comic book called March of Comics that was one of the most widely-circulated comic books
in the history of mankind. It was a giveaway premium item — I used to get it when I was a tyke and my folks bought me shoes — and
some issues reportedly were issued in quantities of five million and up. But try and find 'em today. Western produced these comics
— usually using the characters they'd licensed from Disney, Warners and others — and sold them directly to chain stores and other
clients. They also produced educational comics like Donald Duck Teaches Kite Safety. Dell was not involved with any of these
In 1962, following a dispute about money, Dell and Western parted company. Dell hired editors, writers and artists,
and started a comic book division from scratch. Western kept what was essentially the same comic book line going, financing it themselves,
putting a "Gold Key Comics" logo on covers...and making the changes they thought wise, since Dell was no longer telling them what to publish.
A lot of comic fans make the mistake of trying to view the 40+ years of comics with the Dell logo as one continuous
company. From the standpoint of financing and distribution, it was. But if one cares more about continuity of creative staff and
characters, it makes more sense to view all the Western Publishing product (Dell up until '62, Gold Key thereafter) as one company...and the post-'62
Dell Comics as a brand-new, separate line.
The combine of Dell and Western made for what was, in its time, a much more successful comic book publisher than most fans today
realize. At a time when there was absolutely no speculator market — no one buying more than one of a comic, no one buying for investment
purposes — they had many titles selling routinely in the millions. Comic books were more popular then and Dell's distribution was easily
the most efficient in comic book history.
(One title — which through a series of complicated maneuvers was created and printed by Western, distributed by Dell but
"published" by a company called K.K. Publications — was a sales monster. Walt Disney's Comics and Stories often sold over two
million, sometimes three million per month. There are successful comic book companies today that do not sell three million copies a month of
all they publish, combined.)
In the early seventies, both Dell and Western were experiencing great problems in getting their comics distributed. Dell gave up
in '73 but Western persisted for a time, largely by distributing their comics — usually in plastic bags of three — in toy and department
stores. For a year or so, most of their comics were printed in two editions...some with the Gold Key logo for the declining conventional
newsstand distribution, some with a Whitman logo for the retail shops. The editions were otherwise identical. Eventually, they gave up on
the newsstand market and, when demand for the Whitman editions subsequently collapsed, they ceased publishing comics altogether. 'Twas a sad
end for what had once been the most successful comic book company of all time.
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