Smash Pages Q&A | ‘Boris Karloff’s Gold Key Mysteries’

Zane Barrow, Michael Conrad, Craig Hurd-McKenney and Jok discuss their work on the first title from the revived Gold Key Comics.

Gold Key Comics first began publishing comics in the 1960s, focusing heavily on licensed material from Disney, Warner Bros., King Features and Star Trek, among others. They also published some original material, including Solar, Turok and Magnus Robot Fighter. Their titles showcased a broad range of genres, from children’s titles to science fiction to superheroes to horror, through the 1970s and early 1980s.

It’s been almost 40 years since Gold Key was active, but one of 2023’s pleasant surprises has been the revival of the company. Entrepreneurs and comics fans Lance Linderman, Adam Brooks, Mike Dynes and Arnold Guerrero have not only relaunched the company, but also have revived one of its biggest titles from back in the day featuring iconic horror actor Boris Karloff.

The Kickstarter campaign for Boris Karloff Gold Key Mysteries, a new anthology title featuring new stories by Michael Conrad, Craig Hurd-McKenney, Jok, Steve Orlando, Kelly Williams and more, surpassed its funding goal very quickly. With three days to go, it’s just south of $40,000, so you still have time to get in on the ground floor.

I caught up with Hurd-McKenney, Jok, Conrad and editor Zane Barrow about the project, the draw of working on a Boris Karloff comic in 2023, their contributions to the anthology and more.

I thought I’d start with your secret origins — how did you first discover comics? And what made you want to create them?

Michael: I grew up in a pretty poor family, in an area, during a time, when access was an issue. There was this greeting card spot in town with a spinner rack, but I never had the money to buy anything there. I would run in while my mom shopped for groceries and try to read as much as I could. One very special day, when I was maybe 7 years old, my brother did someone’s homework for a stack of old comics. When he finished reading them, I took them over, cherished them, and carried them with me everywhere I went in a cardboard briefcase.

I started making punk zines in middle school, and there was always a comic element in every issue. While punk had taught me that creating music was something anyone could do, at the time I hadn’t quite realized that to be true of comics. Making a “real” comic seemed like something only a select group of people could do, it took a few years, and some exposure to truly independent comics and publishers for me to see that I was already doing it. I had been making “real” comics all along.

Craig: Similarly to Michael, my family was not affluent, but unlike Michael, I had access to comics in multiple ways…usually free ones. My first comic was likely a 7-11 Slurpee comic, one of those little minis they used to give away with purchase. My first real comic was UNCANNY X-MEN 178, snagged from the spinner at the convenience store next to my brother’s middle school (thank God my mom “needed” cigarettes), or the free “X-Men at the State Fair of Texas” comic given away through the Dallas Morning News. 178 has always stuck with me…Claremont plays some narrative tricks there that have lived rent free in my mind for years. Where comics really grabbed hold of me, though, was NEW MUTANTS 26 (given to me by a comics shop owner who was visiting our Scout troop). Again, a Claremont book, but joined by Bill Sienkiewicz. It was a book about real world issues, about trauma and about friendship. I was, and still am, hooked on the way this medium in particular continues to reinvent itself, the way it provides new and interesting ways to tell stories.

Jok: I used to read Mexican comic books starring Casper, Richie Rich, Disney characters and Looney Tunes with my (slightly older) sister.  To be more accurate, I was only about five, so she had to do most of the job by reading to me out loud and pointing at each dialogue balloon (such was my annoying request… sorry sis!). Those editions were quite popular at that time and my voracious appetite allowed me to start reading earlier than other kids thanks to those comics. I was already doing my own comics at that time, so narrative and art were always part of my expressive arsenal.

I’m not sure many people would have had “A Boris Karloff comic revival, published by Gold Key” on their bingo card for 2023. What drew you to the project, and did you have much knowledge about Gold Key comics beforehand?

Zane: This was a project I couldn’t say no to. I was involved in creating a comics publisher at the beginning of 2020, but the pandemic brought that plan to a screeching halt. Two years later when Michael asked me if I’d be interested in coming in to edit a Boris Karloff book under the Gold Key name, I felt like I had a second chance to realize that dream that died before it could get off the ground. The timing couldn’t have been any more perfect. I had just finished school, left my job in comics retail after 6+ years, and moved to a new city with the idea of starting over and finding a way to be further involved in comics. Not only was I looking for a new journey, I was even in the process of rewatching all of the Universal Monster movies too.

I knew Gold Key from my work in retail and my never-ending need to dig through back issues. When you’re going through box after box of comics, there are a lot of things you flip past without a second glance, but I always took some time to stop for a moment when I would see the Gold Key logo. There was always something worth checking out in a Gold Key comic, plus they had painted covers. I’m a sucker for a cool painted cover. As soon as I talked to the new Gold Key team I felt confident that they loved the same things I loved about the brand and they wanted to honor that legacy while doing something new and exciting.

Michael: The draw to Karloff is strong for many reasons, not the least of which being that I get to work with friends. Along with this we had a place to tell a variety of stories, and incorporate one of the most iconic figures in the mystery/horror/thriller genre.

Craig: I’ve known Michael for about 5 years now, and we’ve had the opportunity to become great friends. So when Michael calls, I’ll always answer that call. I knew, all too well, the Gold Key legacy. To be involved with its return, and to be forever connected to the Karloff legacy, was an invitation that couldn’t have been refused (not that I even wanted to…it was an immediate yes). I am tangibly aware of the responsibility of both the Karloff and the Gold Key legacies, but also just wanting to honor my friend Michael with a really solid story. I’m humbled by the opportunity, all the way around.

Jok: Craig summoned me to the project, as yet another of his uncountable votes of confidence towards myself and my studio mates (in about 20 years, wow!). I didn´t know much about Gold Key myself, but I´ve always been a huge fan of horror anthologies. I used to read many horror anthologies in my days as a kid/teenager, always amazed at the discovery of new creators and subgenres. The genre-oriented anthology is quite a noble format, and very attractive for new readers, I think.

What can you tell me about the story you’re working on for the anthology?

Michael: I write the framing story, with art by Kelly Williams. Together we create a foundation for the series, and an ongoing narrative to live in the pages of the anthology. Our story functions as the hidden connective tissue of the tales contained within. As for the story itself, we will explore where Karloff has been, and what he’s been doing. While many believe Karloff passed in 1969, he’s been hard at work in a place between places ever since. We’ll share what that means.

Craig: Michael has done a beautiful job of setting us up for success with the frame story. I won’t say more than that, as there should be some surprise as to what is in store for our readers in what Michael & Kelly are doing.

The story Jok & I have done is a tale of the way we see ourselves, and how we believe we can change the way people see us through superficial means. Growth…real change…requires so much more of us though, and the people around us. So that’s what you’ll get in “My Twin No More” when that growth and real change come knocking at the door to have a chat about authenticity.

Jok: Watch out! You won´t see it coming, pals! Craig created something unique by appealing to a very deep, unexplored subject but using a super weird (and agile) approach at the same time. I was equally surprised, shocked and amused after the first read, but I really can´t say more than that… my life is already in danger just by disclosing these details (shush! don´t tell Craig!!)!

Craig: I am reading this…and you are now being watched, Jok.

Boris Karloff is a larger than life, almost mythic presence nowadays, in terms of his influence and impact on horror films and films in general. What is it that makes him so iconic and still beloved enough that a comic with his name on it can triple its Kickstarter goal?

Jok: Response to the KS campaign has been overwhelming. I guess it exceeded all expectations. I was blown away to know it got fully funded in hours (and breaking more and more stretch goals as we speak).

Craig: People are just eager for really good books, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a household name like Karloff to support that audience desire. The Gold Key guys have come up with a fantastic book, and then also a lot of additional stretch goals and add ons that are incredibly well designed. It’s a smart, and smart-looking endeavor because we all want to do Karloff right.

Zane: Karloff had so much charisma. Even under all the layers of cotton and collodion that Jack Pierce applied to make the Frankenstein makeup, audiences empathize with Karloff as the monster. He played a lot of monsters on screen, but in real life he was a very kind and gentle man. I think that often shines through in his characters. That’s why we believe when The Grinch’s heart grows three sizes. That’s why we all listen to Monster Mash every Halloween. Karloff is so good at playing a monster or creating a spooky atmosphere, but his big heart shines through and draws us in, no matter how creepy things get.

Michael: Karloff persists because he brought something to the table no one but him could. I have to believe each individual contains within them a specific oneness that contributes to the greater conversation, a Jungian interconnectivity. Karloff found and shared a thing that many of us spend lifetimes seeking. In his self-actualization, Karloff captured our imaginations in his portrayals of complex and dynamic figures that signaled that we would no longer tolerate one note portrayals of monsters. Such a revolution in story approach has rightfully secured Boris a place in today’s ongoing conversation about morality and perspective.

Craig: I would add that part of the magic goes beyond Mr. Karloff himself. His daughter, Sara Karloff, is very involved in the project. Ms. Sara has kept her dad’s spirit and image alive through projects like this one. Without her sheer force of will, we might not have been having this conversation, all these years later, outside of die-hard horror circles. So I’m very grateful to her continued representation of her father’s legacy.

What’s it been like trying to capture that in the voice of your stories?

Craig: Michael has the heavy lifting on this one, since Karloff functions a little differently in this version of the book than he functioned in the original run. I think he should answer this one.

Michael: Karloff was deeply human. He took a stage name to spare his family the shame of being related to him. Karloff was a founding charter member of SAG and wanted to leave a positive impact on the industry he participated in. The humility and altruism proved to be a perfect motivation for him in the series.

Craig: And I think similarly, we all share that humility and altruism between all of us.

You’ve already passed your stated goal for the campaign, but what does additional support mean for the project, both in terms of stretch goals and also what you’re hoping to do creatively?

Michael: Additional money doesn’t mean anyone is getting rich, to the contrary, we’ll just go DEEPER! Having additional funding means we will be able to invest further into the series, and ensure that each issue is filled with top talent, presented in ways that best suit the stories we wish to tell. Gold Key has a commitment to operate in a way that isn’t beholden to imagined limitations, with the reduction of financial barriers, we will have room to dream.

Zane: I can’t say too much about what else Gold Key has planned, but I will say that Boris Karloff Presents: Gold Key Mysteries is just the beginning. The more successful this campaign is the more we are able to use that momentum to move other projects forward. There will be a lot more Karloff to come, of course, but there is a lot more that the Gold Key team would like to do.

We’re really appreciative of everyone who has supported the book and backed the project. We definitely want to reward the backers and give them as much value as we can with this special edition. After that, everything we raise is going to help fund more cool projects. We aren’t taking the money to the bank, we’re putting it where it should go and that’s making more Gold Key Comics.

Jok: As a creator, this means a strong vote of confidence. I really hope backers` response allows Craig, other creators, and hopefully myself to tell new stories, to try different approaches to horror subgenres.

Craig: As well as other genres, too! Gold Key is going to give you a good dose of horror, but Gold Key has always been supportive of a diverse genre approach to comics, like sci fi, romance, true crime, and more. With the new owners, there will be a very similar embrace of genre. So watch this space. There’s more to come, like REDACTED. And we can’t wait to have you on the journey with us.

What else are you working on, comics or otherwise?

Michael: I currently co-write several things for DC Comics, and will continue work at DC as a solo writer as we wrap up our run on Wonder Woman and Batgirls (more info on that later). Over at Valiant, we’ll continue to write X-O Manowar. In the fall Becky Cloonan and I have a story in Betwixt, a horror anthology from Viz, curated by Junji Ito. In addition to this I have several unannounced projects that I’m quite excited about.

Jok: I´m currently working on an Image series with the awesome John Layman, In Hell We Fight, to be released in June. It´s a charming story about a gang of kids in hell. I´m also starting a new (very dark) project with super talented Zac Thompson, but not sure if I can disclose too much about it right now (only that I´m absolutely thrilled to be working on it). Also, I´m about to finish an Original Graphic Novel with my dear pal Craig called The Lodger, about inner demons, tricky possessions, haunting pasts and profuse subconscious scenery.

Craig: As Jok said, he & I have a full-length book we’ve done together called The Lodger, and I’ll add to his amazing tease that it is set in the 1950s post-war horror of readjusting to daily life after a horribly traumatic shared experience.

I have some other irons in the fire I can’t quite talk about yet. But I can tell you I have the third issue of my queer Victorian horror book, Some Strange Disturbances, with art by Jok’s studio mates, Gervasio & Carlos Aon. Finally, I have a sci fi horror book with artist Noah Bailey, Station Grand, coming by summer. And you are welcome to check for updates at my website,

Find out more about Boris Karloff Gold Key Mysteries on their Kickstarter campaign page.

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