Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Top Comics: What the heck are these?

Put on your detective caps and get out your meerschaum pipes, folks, because I've got a mystery I need help solving and I need the assistance of you good folks who might know a little more comics history than I do.

Recently I excavated a lot of my old comics from the Bully Longbox Storage Vault, including a lot of comics I wanna regale you good people with my stories of how they're my favorite comics. (Is What If? #11 the greatest comic about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, ever? You make the call!) But among the superhero stuff I found my old treasure of Gold Key and Dell comics...dozens and dozens of battered and worn funny animal and cartoon tie-in books that I just loved so much I read 'em to shreds. Among these, however, were what I have always thought of as the weird backwoods country cousins of the Gold Keys: Top Comics.

What the heck are these? Top Comics baffled me when I was just a wee tiny stuffed calf and they still are bit of a mystery to me now. There was only one place I was able to get them at: the long defunct-chain of Savarin Restaurants and Rest Stops dotted along the New York State Thruway, during those never-ending car trips from Syracuse to Oneonta or Schenectady to visit relatives. There was always a spinner rack with plenty of Top Comics, and I was allowed to get two or three. But I never saw 'em anywhere else in my life. For that matter, minor mystery B: what the heck ever happened to the Savarin chain? I wasn't sad to see 'em go...their brand of unenthusiastic diner food was kind of dismaying even to me at that age, and I was excited to eat out anyway. Good riddance to bad rubbish and I was pleased when they were eventually replaced by Burger Kings and McDonald's. But why'd they go out of business? Whoa, whoops, I think I just answered my own question. Well, that solves the Mystery of the Disappearing Crappy Roadside Restaurant Chain!

Top Comics were, it's very clear, reprints of Gold Key Comics, and the indicia in each lists the publisher as K. K. Publications on North Road in Poughkeepsie, New York, which is another imprint of the octopus-like Western Publishing in Poughkeepsie, which published and distributed Dell and later Gold Key Comics. I'm simplifying that explanation tremendously for my purposes here. It's unpacked in a little more detail in Wikipedia's Western Publishing entry, but for my shiny dime nobody does a better job of clarifying the clear-as-mud Western story as Mister Mark Evanier, whose explanation here should be required reading for anybody interested in Dell and Gold Key. Come to think of it, maybe only Mark knows the true story behind Top Comics, but he don't mention 'em in his article. (Fill us in if'n you know, Mark!)

Top Comics: Bugs Bunny #1Anyway, these are clearly Gold Key comics under a different name. All the ones I have featured Disney and Warner cartoon properties, but from what very little I've been able to find on the web on Top Comics, they also produced issues of other Gold Key comics: The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Lassie, The Three Stooges, Tarzan, Flipper, and probably many more. (Those additional titles are courtesy of a sales page on the Mile High Comics site.) In addition, every comic has extra "Gold Key Club Comics" activity, cartoon, and text pages clearly branding them as Gold Key comics. (More about some of these feature pages a little further down.)

That sales page, however, is just about all I can find about Top Comics on the web...there doesn't seem to be anything else major that I can find and certainly no real explanation for what the heck these things are in the first place. Googling "Top Comics" returns a bajillion results, almost all of them referring to either the series Tip-Top Comics (home of Nancy and Peanuts) or various "top comics" lists. Last time I checked Overstreet, which was admittedly a few years back, there was no listing for the Top Comics either.

So what do I know about these? Well, all of mine seem to carry a 1967 copyright date. They are all unpriced on the comics themselves: several of them have a somewhat generic sticker that says "15¢" affixed to the cover, but they don't all have 'em...and none of the covers shown on that Mile High page show these stickers, so I'm guessing the stickers might have been placed on there by the Savarin gift shop operator rather than the publishing company. That leads me to make this wild, unfounded guess: were these comics that were published for overseas, or maybe for military bases?

About half of the comics in my possession have no ads. The inside front and back covers are filled with black and white one-page gag strip reprints, and the back cover is a repeat of the front cover art minus the logo but marked "Pin-Up":

On the other hand, the other half of 'em do have ads, mostly of the "send away for this cool cheap crap" variety (click on the photo to expand to a much larger and legible size):

...which doesn't seem likely for overseas comics to feature American send-in ads, so I'm stiff baffled. So, comics blogosphere and four-color scholars, help me out here: what were Top Comics? Why were they labeled and branded as such? Why could I only find them in a roadside gift shop? Why weren't they simply selling the usual Gold Key comics in those venues? Huh? Huh? Huh?

All that said, the baffling mystery that even at the time vaguely nagged at the back of my stuffed brains never kept me from enjoying the rich comicy goodness of Top Comics. This is classic and primal 1950s and '60s cartoon comics material here, folks, and it was through these as well as my beloved Golden and Disney Comics Digests that I mostly developed my sheer love of the consecutive art medium. Plus, rabbits dropping anvils on top of ducks! You can't go wrong with that.

Among these sixteen or so Top Comics is absolutely one of my favorite comics of all time. My love for the story inside probably is reflected by its well-worn condition: Top Comics: Uncle Scrooge #3...

Top Comics: Uncle Scrooge #3

...which features in its loose and curling pages (one even had a huge chunk accidentally torn out of the corner), quite possibly...no, make that absolutely positively, my favorite Uncle Scrooge comic story, ever: "The Great Steamboat Race":

The Great Steamboat Race

I love this story: Scrooge finds out about an ancestor's never-finished steamboat race against a rival pig, and the pig's descendant and Scrooge decide to finish the race. There's one catch: both steamboats are sunk at the bottom of the muddy Mississippi. Well, there's another catch: the pig's got a professional salvage company to raise his boat. Scrooge has Donald and the nephews. There's a brilliant science gag in here where Scrooge's boat is raised using inflated inner tubes (not as clever as ping pong balls, but I wasn't aware of the genius of that story at the time). I've read this story hundreds of times and even when I eventually "traded up" for a cleaner and sharper copy in that big-ass Gladstone reprinting of the complete Uncle Scrooge, I still cherish and hold dear to my heart this tattered and battered issue.

Why? Because it is, as far as I can remember, my first introduction to the fantabulous work of Carl Barks. Take a gander (tee hee) at the splash page up above. Do you see any writer or artist credits? Nope, you do not. But like millions of other fans of Unca Carl, I instantly recognized quality and brilliance in his work, and I recognized that not all comics, or even all Uncle Scrooge comics, were created equal. The other shoe dropped in my head at that very young age: that people actually created comic books, and some of them were better than others. It was like a lightbulb flash going on over my head, but it started an entire lifetime of collecting, reading, and loving comics, and my search for the Good Ones, like those done by "The Good Duck Artist." Even before I knew his name I could tell that that Scrooge saga reprinted in tiny size in Walt Disney's Comics Digest where Scrooge unrolled his ball of string across Africa against Flintheart Glomgold was the work of that same guy who did the steamboat story. And the one where the Beagle Boys had a robotic submarine that fired diamond-sharpened bluejay missiles. And the one where Magica da Spell turned herself into a duplicate of Scrooge to steal his Number One Dime and was foiled by the nephews when she was rude to them. The best comics in the world...then or now.

So in the end, the mystery of Top Comics still makes me scratch my little stuffed head. But the magic will never stop.

Special bonus interior peeks!: all the Top Comics featured the usual-for-the-time Gold Key text, puzzle, and comics filler pages that were often a bit of a disappointment (they weren't truly comics, they were jus' takin' up space.) Mighty Mike Sterling over at Progressive Ruin recently posted a Gold Key quirky feature page of reader-submitted monster drawings, which reminded me just how much that particular page used to freak my little brains out as a kid:

Another regular feature was the aptly named "Can You Complete The Comic?," or, as I like to call it, "Western Publications Refuses to Pay Its Gag Men and Makes Kids Pay for the Privilege":

Can You Complete the Comic?

This feature mighta been more appealing to me if another Top Comic I remember buying at the same time hadn't featured the exact same gags, completed. I guess that Gold Key gag man finally overcame his writer's block with the help of some Savarin pancakes and a shot of rotgut whiskey, huh?:

Quick Takes

Too young to vote? To heck with the establishment, man! While your 'rents are busy campaigning and ringing doorbells for Richard "Mister Clean Government" Nixon, and your crazy bohemian uncle keeps talking about how there's absolutely no way Bobby Kennedy won't be the next Prez, you can poo-poo those old squares and instead vote on something important: your favorite Top Gold Key Comics!:
Comic Book Election
Sadly, voter fraud in Ohio and Florida led to a manual recount, and after eighty-three days of scandal-ridden gerrymandering, the Supreme Court of Comics judged that dark horse Mighty Samson was the winner. Walt Disney's Comics and Stories was outraged! And of course, today Tarzan has a lucrative career on the lecture circuit with his multimedia PowerPoint presentation "A Tropical Truth: Saving the Rainforest (Do It for Tantor)".

Top Comics! They may remain a mystery, but the delight lingers on!


Michael Jones said...

I love being the first to comment (helps when you're 12 hours away in Japan.) Sorry no insight available but kudos on the write-up. How about a Top 10 Top Comics?

Bill D. said...

They kinda remind of the March of Comics I used to get whenever my mom took me to the shoe store as a kid. I think those were all Dell/Gold Key reprints, too, but they were smaller.

rob! said...

i don't have much to add other than there are about two dozen of them currently on sale on ebay, all for around $5.00 or so, so anyone looking to get some after reading this post (i think i do!) can get 'em pretty cheap!

David C said...

I think Bill D. is on the right track. Sounds like March of Comics might have been an "upscale" variant of the smaller giveaway March of Comics? Designed for shoe stores that wanted to splurge on full-size freebies? Or crappy roadside restaurants that wanted to slap price stickers on them and resell them? (And perhaps they weren't supposed to, but were that cheap, seeing as how they were being driven out of business?)

David C said...

Correction to the above: I meant to say Top Comics would have been the "upscale" giveaways under my theory, compared to the small, obvious "freebie" looking March of Comics.

FoldedSoup said...

I saw that "complete the joke" thing, Bully.. and I couldn't resist using my crappy photoshop skills to make a quick joke.

(Don't tell Kevin, I'll have to cough up some dough. He knows people. Hairy people.)

SallyP said...

Well, I'm baffled. I've never even heard of these. All I can think of is that they were reprinted specifically for sale in those crappy roadside diners or something.

I do remember all those Carl Barks's and Dells and others at the Dentist and Doctor's offices when I was a kid though. The best ones were the Asterix's!

Anonymous said...

They tried the ping pong balls thing to raise a boat on Mythbusters, and it worked. It was really cool. They had to use a ridiculous amount of them, though.

Anonymous said...

As the Evanier article that Bully links mentions, "March of Comics" was indeed a free give-away reprint label, specifically for shoe stores. (He calls it "one of the most widely-circulated comic books in the history of mankind.")

As for Top Comics, they were sold either in multiple-comic "Fun-Paks", or with the stickered prices, as Bully got them. The COA INDUCKS database of Disney comics gives a run-down of some of them.

The Toonopedia entry for Gold Key says: "In the late '70s, they experimented with pulling their comics off of newsstands and distributing them through toy stores and other non-traditional outlets, in bags of three comics each; but this was a dismal failure."

I believe this refers to the Top Comics brand. I suppose they weren't priced individually since they were mainly intended to be sold in the bags of 3 or more, but outlets like the restaurant chain could always sell them individually using the stickers.

Clearly, they were not a complete "dismal failure," as Bully got one of his favorite comics ever this way!

Bully said...

Beautiful, Martin--I never saw that page before and it's an interesting hint.

I'm not certain the Gold Key 3-bags you mention were necessary the same as the Top Comics--these were very much in the late 60s rather than 70s, and I remember the Gold Key 3-bags, which eventually became Whitman bags.

What's interesting is that page only lists 23 of 'em (although it misses out a few on the Mile High page I reference in my post). That means I have the majority of Top Comics in my possession, after years of wondering how long the series ran. (For instance, I do have all three of the Uncle Scrooge issues that are mentioned).

Thanks Martin!

Anonymous said...

The Top Comics 3-Paks do indeed exist as I have 6 unopened sets.
Here's a scan....


Anonymous said...

Ooops....Make that 5-Paks.

Bully said...

Awesome, Anon! Great scan, and thanks for posting.

Boy, I betcha Disney never signed off on the packaging for these...no way would they allow "Walt Disney" to be abbreviated as "W. D." on an item for public sale!

Do you know around what time these were sold? Did you pick them up when they originally came out or later as an after-market item? And are there any comics in the packs that aren't listed on the link Martin Allen had above?