Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Business of Western Publishing's Disneyland Comic Books—Part II: Post-Disneyland, Inc. & Walt Disney World

Cover Art for Gold Key's Walt Disney Comics Digest #32
(October 1971)
© Disney

In the previous post on Western Publishing’s Disneyland-themed comic books, we concluded with Walt Disney Productions buying back Western’s share of the theme park from the Disneyland, Inc. venture. But the story doesn’t quite end in 1960—Western continued their license to publish Walt Disney comic books until 1984. Many changes took place in those intervening years of 1960 to 1984: not long after the era of the Dell Giants faded away, so too did the Four Color series, as Western chose a new direction with their comic book licenses. With that, their efforts took a noticeable shift in design and content. But Western wasn't quite done with theme park-centric comics...

Western's Family of Licenses Were Pulled From Dell Publishing to
Establish the In-House Gold Key Comics Imprint

The changes that took place were certainly motivated in part by the influx of cash to Western from the Disneyland, Inc. buyout at the start of the 1960s. Another factor was the huge profits pouring in as a result of gaining the publishing rights to the popular and wide variety of properties from the new television animation studio Hanna-Barbera. These parallel circumstances provided Western with both financial and bargaining clout during contract re-negotiations with Dell Publishing. The specific details of the split are unknown, as business records of their negotiations have been lost to time, but Western's leverage powered a decision to make a bold maneuver. Western would terminate their decades-old financing and distribution agreement with Dell at the end of the current contract. By the summer of 1962, Western pulled the majority of both their licensed and original material comic book lines from Dell and transitioned the titles to a new, in-house comics imprint: Gold Key comics.

The Conversion of Comic Titles From Dell to Gold Key
Made For a Strikingly Different Design Aesthetic
Cover Art © Disney

The sudden switch-over of well-known titles from Dell compelled Western to make Gold Key comics stand out on the racks for consumers—which they certainly did. Editors and artists percolated some wild design experiments with post-modern graphic and title treatments (sometimes within the comic stories themselves), plus more painted covers for standard titles, as well as testing other formats of comics. One format that found their way back into the mix were 80 page specials, including the popular annual holiday title Walt Disney's Christmas Parade.

Gold Key's Inaugural Issues Broke From Standard Design Conventions,
Introducing Vivid Colors, Outline-Free Borders and Angular Captions
From Hanna-Barbera Band-Wagon #1, Art by John Carey
© Hanna-Barbera, Image Courtesy of Saved From the Paper Drive

By 1960, Disneyland was a globally recognized name, and any comic book promoting the park was extra frosting on an already exquisite cake. Since Western no longer had a financial stake in Disneyland, there wasn't a huge priority to put together a new comic book that promoted the park. Nor was it deemed necessary to pull from their resources of artists and writers working on comic adaptions promoting Walt Disney's newest animated fare such as Professor Ludwig Von Drake or characters from features like The Sword in the Stone.

Western did continue providing promotional material and simpler-to-produce items for Disneyland through their Whitman line, especially games, puzzles and coloring/activity books.

Western Publishing's Whitman Division Produced a Commemorative
Coloring Book Celebrating Disneyland's 10th Anniversary in 1965
Cover Art © Disney, Image Courtesy of Disney History Institute

That's not to say Gold Key didn't pay the park any respect on its 10th Anniversary...

Front Cover to Gold Key's
Disneyland Special: Walt Disney's Vacation in Disneyland
84 Page Giant Comic (March/May 1965)
© Disney, Image Courtesy of  Comic Connect

The cover art shown above may look familiar to readers of the previous post. To the collector or purist, the interior contents and back cover will look familiar, too. This 80 page Gold Key special was a throwback to the Dell Giant format, but composed as something of a "Frankenstein's Monster"—the front cover reproduces the cover of Dell Giant Walt Disney's Vacation in Disneyland #1 (1958), the back cover is a reproduction of the back cover of Dell Giant Walt Disney's Donald Duck in Disneyland #1 (1955) and the book interior reprints the contents of Dell Giant #30: Walt Disney's Disneyland U.S.A. (1960).

The Back Cover Illustration of the 1965 Gold Key Disneyland Special
Was a Direct Reproduction of the Back Cover of the 1955 Dell Giant
Walt Disney's Donald Duck in Disneyland
© Disney, Image Courtesy of 2719 Hyperion

Therefore, no original artwork or stories were created for this special. Something not often considered during this era is the most unfortunate aspect of the topic at hand: the absence (and endless potential) of any new Disneyland-themed comic stories and art related to all the attractions added to the park during Walt Disney's creative explosion of the 1960s.*

The 1965 special was the last dedicated, stand-alone Disneyland-theme comic book Western produced. By the close of the decade, the comic book industry began to deal with a series of blows, the largest of which came by way of distribution: drugstores and newsstands were ordering less titles and/or lower quantities of comics. Since retailers received much higher profits from selling magazines with a cover price of 50¢–$2 than 12¢–15¢ comic books, simple business math dictated more money per month if magazines occupied valuable display space on their racks instead of comics books.

By the Mid-1960s, Drugstores and Newsstands Began to Reduce Space for
Comic Books to Accommodate Profitable, Higher-Priced Magazines
Image Courtesy of

This trend did not go unnoticed nor ignored by the major comic book companies. Marvel, DC, Archie, and Gold Key quickly reacted by:
  • raising cover prices on their standard comic books, and
  • introducing alternative formats in which to present and reprint their stories to make up the profits lost due to a shrinking marketplace.
In addition, Western condensed and cut back their regular titles. They had already been shrinking the page count of their Giant size specials incrementally through the 1960s, by the last few issues of the Gold Key iteration of Walt Disney's Christmas Parade, the annual lost it's heavy card stock covers and had dwindled to a standard 36-page count. The days of 100-page Giant comics with original material were over—but as a result of the alternative formats experiments mentioned earlier, new and classic content found a new life, with the introduction of Walt Disney Comics Digest in May of 1968.

Cover Art for Gold Key's Walt Disney Comics Digest # 1
(May 1968)
© Disney

With a price point of 50¢ and the first few issues clocking in at a whopping 196 pages, the digest format proved a mighty solution to the problems of stocking and distribution: retailers wouldn't have as much of a problem ordering several copies of a 50¢ digest that earned higher returns and took less space to display. It also provided the perfect forum to recycle Western's nearly 30-year library of Walt Disney comic art, with a selection of newer 2-tier stories that took less time to produce. Even the contents of the Dell Giants found their way into the books in their entirety, including occasional reprints of the Disneyland specials.

The Generous Page Count of Walt Disney Comics Digest Enabled Western to
Reprint The Contents of the Earlier Dell Giants in Their Entirety
© Disney

Of course, by the close of the 1960s, Walt Disney Productions had experienced some significant achievements: The Wonderful World of Color garnered excellent ratings on NBC, Mary Poppins became their biggest hit of all-time in 1964, their involvement in the 1964-65 New York World's Fair was lauded for technical entertainment innovations and Disneyland was going strong, adding some of the most memorable attractions in the park's history. Walt Disney was fortunate enough to witness all of this before he passed away in December of 1966. Before he left this world, Walt left behind the infrastructure to begin a new enterprise on the east coast, which became the Walt Disney World Resort in central Florida: formally named so and brought to fruition by his older brother, Roy O. Disney (the business half of Walt Disney Productions.)

Walt and Roy Disney Flank Governor Haydon Burns at the Famous
November 15, 1965 Press Conference Announcing Walt's "Florida Project"
Image Courtesy of Florida Memory

The scale and construction of the east coast resort was a bigger affair than the original shareholders of Disneyland, Inc. could fund, but by the time the first phase was open in October of 1971, Western Publishing did their part in providing the usual selection of Golden Books, sticker/coloring books, puzzles and activity kits that promoted the brand-new Walt Disney World Resort.

Western Publishing Prepared New Promotional Merchandise for the Launch of
Walt Disney World in 1971, Just as They Had for Disneyland in 1955
Cover Art © Disney

This time around, there was no giant comic book to commemorate the opening of the enormous theme park and hotel complex. But if you've made it this far, you can probably guess there was a logical comic book showcase for Western to promote Walt Disney World that autumn...

Table of Contents for Walt Disney Comics Digest #32
Cover Art © Disney

The layout and attraction line-up of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom were similar to Disneyland's, with the differences existing between facades and icons (e.g. Florida's towering Cinderella's Castle and Liberty Square area) and a handful of new attractions such as The Country Bear Jamboree. Western picked up on both aspects and again "Frankensteined" a portion of the special issue using several earlier Dell Disneyland stories for the identically themed areas such as Fantasyland, Aventureland and Tomorrowland. The framing device also took it's cue from the Disneyland-themed Dell Giants, with a framework of introductory panels showing Walt Disney characters arriving to visit the new park.

New Artwork Framed Stories in the Special Issue,
Titled The Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World
From Walt Disney Comics Digest #32, © Disney

This time around, however, Western took the initiative to create some new content focusing on the unique architecture in the splash pages framing the stories centering on the new icons of the Resort:

Main Street U.S.A. Introduction Page
From Walt Disney Comics Digest #32, © Disney

 Adventureland Introduction Page
From Walt Disney Comics Digest #32, © Disney

Frontierland Introduction Page
From Walt Disney Comics Digest #32, © Disney

 Liberty Square Introduction Page
From Walt Disney Comics Digest #32, © Disney

Fantasyland Introduction Page
From Walt Disney Comics Digest #32, © Disney

 Tomorrowland Introduction Page
From Walt Disney Comics Digest #32, © Disney

It should be noted that the character art and the landscapes on these introduction splash panels are by the hands of at least two separate artists. Tony Strobl provided most of the pencil drawings (and possibly inks) for the character art, but the the surrounding settings were likely drafted by a Western/Gold Key artist adept to adventure or live-action based comics, perhaps Dan Spiegle or Alberto Giolitti. There were also several new and reprinted full-page games and puzzles, including this word game featuring Br'er Rabbit and the Florida-specific Haunted Mansion:

 Haunted Mansion Spookeroo Puzzle
From Walt Disney Comics Digest #32, © Disney

The framing panels aside, there were also two ORIGINAL stories for two of the themed lands in the new Magic Kingdom. A brand new, 11-page Main Street U.S.A. tale by Pete Alvarado in which Scrooge McDuck expresses a desire to travel back to the actual turn of the century (where prices are more acceptable)his wish is helped along by a gadget from Ludwig Von Drake.

The other new tale is a 19-page Frontierland story, also by Pete Alvarado. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck head to Grizzly Hall to view a performance of the new Country Bear Jamboree: Henry, Big Al, Trixie and the cast of the new audio-animatronic show make their first (and ONLY) comic book appearance.

The Frontierland/Country Bears Story Explodes the
Myth of Melvin the Mounted Moose!

Art by Pete Alvarado 
From Walt Disney Comics Digest #32, © Disney

Mouse and Duck assist in an Old West-style chase with some nods to Mike Fink and Davy Crockett. The Bears are well-depicted in character, as guests know them from the original show. But you can see for yourself: the text below is a link to a downloadable PDF of the entire Country Bears/Frontierland story. I don't believe this story has been reprinted anywhere since 1971! The file is about 12MB, so make sure you have a steady connection.

There's actually more to come on this subject beyond the 1970s... stay tuned! In the meantime, this series has a slight detour in the timeline between Parts 1 and 2. Click the link below to read Part 1.5, to gain some more insight on the initial impact of theme parks in the mid-20th Century, early days at Disneyland, and how it all looked through the lens of The Duck Man himself:

* The last two Disneyland comic books to hit the stands were Dell Four Color #1025: Walt Disney's Vacation in Disneyland (August/October 1959) and Dell Giant #30: Walt Disney's Disneyland U.S.A. (April/June 1960), both of which featured stories and cover art that prominently highlighted the first significant additions to Disneyland at the time of their debut: the Disneyland/Alweg Monorail, the Matterhorn Bobsleds and the Submarine Voyage Through Liquid Space. Had Walt Disney Productions repurchased the shares from Western a few years later, it is very likely comic readers of the 1960s would have enjoyed comic book tales of the Enchanted Tiki Room, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Adventure Through Inner Space written and drawn by some of the great comic artists of the time.


disney mouse said...

Great information, I really enjoyed reading about it.
You truly are such a wonderful person taking the time to write about all this awesome history!.

Thank you, Carlene Thie
(Disney website)

scarecrow33 said...

This is a really great post. I appreciate the background information that went into it.

I collected the entire run of Walt Disney's Comics Digest--which I still have. I was extremely delighted with Issue #32, the Disney World issue. I had an old copy of Donald Duck in Disneyland but didn't know what book it was because the cover and first several pages, plus the last few pages, were missing, so this issue filled in the gaps when I could finally read the stories in their entirety. The George Washington story didn't quite match up with the Liberty Square intro, because there was no connecting link. In the Donald Duck book, Grandma Duck actually told the story of Davy Crockett to the boys. I guess one could assume that the same thing happened when they went to Liberty Square in the WDW version, but it would have been better if there had been a smoother transition from the ducks to the Washington story. I also noted that the African Lion, which had been running as a serial in previous issues, had its conclusion in this one, as part of Adventureland, where it fit very nicely. It's interesting to learn that Tony Strobl provided the splash panel artwork and Pete Alvarado wrote the Main Street and Country Bear stories. There was a real contrast, though, between the splash panels and the reprinted stories that followed them--the Dell artwork was much more detailed and "classic" in design. One more thing I noticed is that the dialogue in the Mickey Mouse Tomorrowland story was altered and some important information was left out in the reprint. Overall, though, I loved this book and still treasure it.

Joe Torcivia said...


Magnificent work! I’ll be linking to this very soon!

I bought the first WALT DISNEY COMICS DIGEST off the stands and had (still have) an unbroken original-purchase streak of the first 33 issues, still missing only 9 over the remainder of the run, and it’s a funny thing about how your perspective can change over time…

When I first saw the Carl Barks Duck story Western called “Secret of Atlantis” in WDCD # 1, in the spring of 1968, I was utterly amazed! Things like this didn’t come along every day back then! The rest was fine, but THIS was special!

I wanted to see more, and WDCD obliged with Barks’ “Island in the Sky” a month later and, over that first year or so, gave us such wonderful Duck stuff as “The Strange Shipwrecks”, “The Twenty-Four Carat Moon” (two particular favorites of mine), “The Prize of Pizarro” (…omitting the word “of” on the front cover’s title billing), “Isle of Golden Geese”, “Lost Beneath the Sea”, “For Old Dime’s Sake”, and much more.

Recall that the Duck titles were still running (pretty good) new stories at the time (“Battle of Marathon” in SCROOGE and “The Flying Phone Booth” in DONALD) – and this was my FIRST reading of ALL of these great Carl Barks reprints. An aside, I wouldn’t know his NAME until 1971, and the pioneering research book “COMIX” by Les Daniels – but I recognized the work of “The Scrooge Guy” (as I called him) every time. And, funny… I was reading his stuff in UNCLE SCROOGE for several years prior, but figured he’d moved on, or sumpthin’.

In fact, when WDCD would later do a “Disneyland issue”, or one for Disney World, I would complain, because the focus of the main story wasn’t “The Scrooge Guy”. Another total aside, with no names and credits, I also called Paul Murry “The Mickey Guy” and Tony Strobl “The Donald Guy”.

Flash forward to the present day. Carl Barks reprints, though STILL GREAT, have become very common – and it is the “Disneyland stuff” that has become more of the rarity! …And now, I’m happy for those issues of WDCD that focused on characters’ adventures in the parks!

…Imagine that!


Dan said...

So many nice comments, lately, thanks to everyone for sharing your thoughts!

Carlene: you're simply a wonderful person yourself, I hope you've gotten past your cold and feeling much better this week.

I invite everyone reading this blog to visit Carlene at for more in-depth Disneyland history (APP is also linked on the sidebar here at the blog)

There you'll see rare photographs by her legendary Grandfather, exclusive material from Disneyland Legends, some special artwork offered, and one-of-a-kind media which will surely interest anyone who hangs around here!

Dan said...

Scarecrow: I admire collectors like you and Joe for owning sets of Gold Key's WDCD: it went away not long after I was born in '74, so I can't lay claim to purchasing one first-hand (would have loved to!)

By the 1970s, the overall "funny animal" style of cartooning had become notoriously simplified due to the "Stockholm Syndrome" of limited TV animation and the much-imitated style of strip cartoonists like Mell Lazarus. I recall Paul Murry said by the end, he was tired of drawing the characters... you can see his stuff lost a lot of energy by the 1960s. Interestingly, at the same time, Walt Kelly had a wild creative and drafting rejuvenation, "Pogo" took a gorgeous turn from '66 til Kelly's death in '73. Visit Thom Haller Buchanan's excellent site for details on this era:

Thanks for passing on the info about the continuation of "The African Lion" serial, not having those prior issues, it's certainly news to me—I'll add that into the post and credit you when I do some text revisions. Something else unique about WDCD #32 is the Liberty Square story you referenced: it was actually a reprinted biography of George Washington from a non-Disney Dell Giant from 1957, "Life Stories of American Presidents" which I suppose Gold Key figured they owned and could appropriately re-purpose, rather than crafting a new story on Colonial America.

– Dan

Dan said...

Joe: you've got some great stuff happening at your blog too, especially a discussion which I've been having a heap of fun participating in. I encourage everyone interested in comics, TV & film to visit Joe's site, as well:

Like you, Barks' stuff stood out to me long before I knew who he was: those late 70s/early 80s sealed Whitman 3-packs were a gamble, because there was a chance the "Good Artist" wouldn't be featured, with the exception of WDC&S which never failed to reprint a Barks 10-pager as an opener late in it's run. The Whitman U$ reprint of "Only a Poor Old Man" made me feel like I hit some kind of jackpot! As someone who isn't Sci-Fi minded, "The Twenty-Four Carat Moon" is a grand tale, with an intelligent moral just slightly tucked in as only Unca Carl could do (it's practically BEGGING to be animated.)

I imagine the Disneyland merch folks aren't aware these park-themed comics exist, otherwise they'd have put together a commemorative book or set of reprints during the 50th Anniversary in 2005 (I wonder if Gemstone proposed such an idea at that time?) It'd be nice to have them all in one place, under that ubiquitous Frank McSavage painted "Skyway" cover!

– Dan

scarecrow33 said...

It's interesting to learn at last the original source of the George Washington story in the WDW issue of WDCS.

Just in case you don't have access to the two previous issues, "The African Lion" serialization started in #30, and was depicted on the cover. The other featured story on the cover was "The Secret of the Jolly Berries" starring Donald Duck and Pinocchio, which if I recall correctly was originally printed in Mickey Mouse in Fantasyland, one of the books listed in your earlier post. Issue #31 featured "Captain Hook and the Buried Treasure", the Peter Pan-themed re-working of "Donald Duck finds Pirate Gold".

As Joe says, I also was delighted with the WDCD as it originally came out and had my first introduction to many of Barks' stories in that magazine. I have to mention "The Money Champ" in issue 22. Also, issue #5 featured what is usually referred to as Barks' final comic book story before his retirement. It's a Daisy Duck story with large panels to fit the digest-sized format. Of course, at the time, I had no idea of who Barks was, except for liking his stories and art, and certainly no idea that this was his "last" original story (scripted, I believe, by someone else, but the artwork is unmistakably Barks). The WDCD was a grab-bag of reprints and some new material. I liked the way characters were teamed up in unusual pairings--there was a Super Goof meets Mowgli story, Uncle Scrooge and the Seven Dwarfs (a reprint), the aforementioned Donald Duck and Pinocchio teaming, and many more. My favorite were the "themed" issues, mainly consisting of reprints of Dell Giants supplemented with new material, such as the All-Frontier issue #28 or the Disney Ducks issue #34. Sometimes the new material tied in with the overall theme, sometimes it didn't. Another favorite issue was #40, which featured 3 classic stories of Mickey Mouse.

Dan said...

Great addendum to the WDCD, Scarecrow: the Barks story you referenced is indeed his final comic tale drawn for Western. I don't have my library handy at the moment, but I recall it was in the 2-tier "Digest Format" and the artwork was telling of what was to come in Barks's preliminary sketches for the oils—the inking was tight and slightly angular in an attractive way, much like Daniel Branca's later work.

Vol. 1 of Tomart's Disneyana book opined that once the comics shifted from Dell to Gold Key "things were never the same again." I imagine the editorial direction took a similar shift in an attempt to widen the scale of fantastic and implausible elements for new story opportunities. Most purists prefer the Dell material, but there's fun to be had with Gold Key's treatment if you don't count everything as canonical (and shouldn't!) Those "mash ups" were never anything more than playful.

The themed digests were probably a better bargain than the "grab bag" digests. As I mentioned in the post, the benefit of the digests to Western and the readers was the hearty page count during the first half of the run... reprinting a long out-of-print Dell Giant filled out an issue with minimal effort and reached a new generation of kids. Around that same time, Gold Key used a similar treatment or reprinting earlier material rotating different licenses each issue (Warner Bros., Walter Lantz, etc.) in a companion book titled "Golden Comics Digest" - Dan