Kiss Alive! (1975) brought the glitter-rock band widespread recognition and popularity, and they followed up that album with possibly their best studio effort, 1976's Destroyer. At that point, the kabuki theater-like make-up and cartoon antics still seemed fresh enough that a broad spectrum of fans took notice. The single "Beth" attracted listeners who might otherwise have dismissed them, while things like bizarre in-character "notes" in Alive! and a song about sadomasochism on Destroyer ("Sweet Pain") kept them seeming "edgy." Soon thereafter, the gimmickry would earn them the reputation as a kids' band, and Kiss (or, at least, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley) would play to that audience, selling posable dolls and making the disastrous TV movie, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park. But at the start of their popular phase, their fan base included more than just 12-year-olds. From 1975-1977, Kiss formed a widely-recognized part of the popgeist.
Even the initial fantasy marketing wasn't too bad, at least if you weren't too old. It started, perhaps inevitably, with comic books which presented the band as the superheroes they more-or-less played on stage. In 1977 and 1978, Marvel Comics published Kiss's first comic appearances. The first represents a fun attempt at marketing the boys. It became Marvel's best-selling comic-- a record it would hold for fifteen years-- and it even contained genuine Kiss blood, in keeping with the band's sightly crazed image. The second proved a sad portent of things to come, a part of Kiss's dissolution.
These comics received a prologue; the band appeared briefly in Howard the Duck #12 and 13. Steve Gerber, who had Howard, Elf with a Gun, the Headsmen, and the strangest reputation in mainstream comix to his credit, would then write Kiss's comic-book origin.
Kiss #1 (aka Marvel Super Special #1)
Writer: Steve Gerber
Artists: Alan Weiss, Alan Milgrom, Sal Buscema
Colorist: Marie Severin
The story begins with two teenagers, Gene and Paul, complaining about the burdens of impending adulthood. Quite unexpectedly, they come upon "Dizzy the Hun," an odd street mage, based on experimental musician/street character, Moondog. In any case, a gang of goons is attacking the old mystic, and the boys don't feel equipped to help, even though they want to do the right thing. Dizzy, however, recognizes the two "flaming youth." He throws them the "Box of Khyscz," declaring, in the mock-Shakespeare popularized by Marvel's Thor, "hither cometh thy destiny!"
Since the thugs sought the box, they're now after the boys, who run to the nearby arcade where Ace and Peter play pinball. The group hide in a photobooth. Despite dire threats from the gang, who have discovered them, Ace opens the box. They find four talismens: statues of Ace Frehley, Peter Criss, and Gene Simmons in their Destroyer outfits, and a star, like the one painted on Paul Stanley's face. The thugs, meanwhile, in an odd display of villain etiquette, count to ten. After that, boy, they're coming in after the four lads with weapons drawn.
On ten, the "photobooth explodes in a paroxysm of thunder and lightning!! And the four youths emerge-- bizarrely transformed!
Looking like the Kiss fans know and with character-appropriate superpowers, the Starchild (Paul), the Demon (Gene Simmons), the Cat (Peter) and the Space-Ace (Ace) dispatch the gang. All four members of Kiss seem to have enhanced strength. Cat has agility, Gene can fly and breath fire, Paul can control people's emotions, and Ace can project force-fields and teleport by making the hitch-hiking gesture. After Kiss defeats the ruffians, Ace uses his ability to escape the growing crowds. Soon thereafter, they meet with the gang's boss: Dr. Doom, the Marvel Universe's scientist and sorcerer, who seeks the box. Since the boys have been transformed by it, he now seeks them. Another fight ensues; Ace throws both thumbs out, and the four find themselves thrown into interdimensional space.
The next few pages advertise Marvel, as Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, and the rest of the company's mainstream characters react to the news reports of these four white-faced characters. Soon we catch up with them. Gene and Paul have landed, apparently, in heaven. Appearances, of course, prove deceiving, and not long after, Paul finds himself in a squeamish situation while Gene gets offered a deal from Mephisto. Ace and Peter, meanwhile, find themselves in a discotheque on a space station, where they run into trouble with animal-like extraterrestrials.
Eventually, Dr. Doom locates them, and brings them and Dizzy to his country, Latveria. More conflict follows before the story reaches a conclusion. The youths never do learn what "Khyscz" means, but they've grown with their adventures, and decide that, when they choose to use their newfound powers again, they will call themselves-- Kiss.
This first comic mixed super-heroics, silliness, histrionic dialogue, oddball art, and sophomoric philosophy. In short, it represents everything many readers seek in a comic. Gerber may not be deep, but he manages to be entertaining, he keeps the thread of a story, and when all else fails, he does "weird" very well. He also manages reasonable characterization of the four heroes.
Kiss #1 also features the notorious article, "Blood on the Plates," Stark Raven's account, accompanied by photographs, of how the band members permitted small amounts of blood to be drawn and added to the ink used in the original printing.
By 1978, Gerber had left Marvel in a much-publicized battle over control of his characters. And by then, Kiss had passed their 70s zenith. Kiss #2 lacked more than just the band's donated blood.
Writer: Ralph Macchio
Artists: John Romita Jr., Tony De Zuniga
We finally learn the origins of "Khyscz." It seems there exists in the Himalayas a badly-drawn "Land of Khyscz," where people "live in a blissful harmony unknown elsewhere" (except perhaps neighboring Shangra-la), dress like the Tin Man, walk on floaty roads, and live in buildings that look like they were drawn by a five-year-old on LSD. Only one man dwells in personal darkness here. An evil sorcerer named Khalis-Wu, also known, in a burst of originality, as the "Dark Lord," lives on Khyscz's outskirts in his Dark Tower thinking Dark Thoughts about how he can gain personal power. He realizes that such power can be drawn from human emotions, and decides that the absolute best place to draw human emotions would be from... rock concerts.
Back in New York City, Dizzy the Wizard learns of the Dark Plot and summons Paul, Gene, Ace, and Peter to stop it. When they open the Box of Khyscz again, they find the talismens have changed to "reflect" their "greater understanding" of their alter egos." Actually, they've changed to reflect the talismens' appearance in Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, and their costumes, once they transform, have changed to resemble those worn on the Love Gun tour.
Ace uses his teleportion powers to take the band of adventurers to the various concerts targeted by the Dark Lord: a generic 1950s hop, Woodstock, and, uh, a disco marathon. Along the way, they fight the Dark Lord's incompetent minions, meet the Elf with a Gun, and team up with an otherworldly reptile detective named "Saurian Holmes." Holmes exists in a world which satirizes, quite bitterly, the zeitgeist of the 1960s. The writer can do this, of course, but it seems wildly out of place in a comic which has thus far presented a "Land of Khyscz" where people live in pure bliss, portrayed Woodstock as a source of positive energy, and glamorized Rock 'n' Roll.
The story never really resolves in an interesting way and, if it has some bright spots, it fails in its too-obvious efforts to capture Gerber's eccentric charm. The writers also give Kiss new powers, for no reason other than these abilities help resolve conflicts easily.
Did I mention the artwork is second-rate?
For 1994/95, Simmons engineered a Kiss comeback which would feature the original line-up, the make-up they'd abandoned in the 1980s, and as much merchandise as the market would bear. Marvel rereleased both comics together as Kiss Classics and promoted their future plans, including a new magazine, KissNation. Save for the first issue of KissNation, Marvel's plans came to naught. KissNation #1 features articles, and a Stan Lee story (written with input from Simmons and Stanley) in which the Marvel version of Kiss meet the "real" version and some X-men. Sales were dismal; Marvel and Kiss stopped working together.
Image Comics, largely founded by artists who had also parted with Marvel, released Kiss's next adventure: somewhat more sophisticated, and slightly surreal. Image rooted the story in Kiss's reunion album, Psycho Circus, and their new Todd McFarlane-designed action figures. It proved more successful than Marvel's last effort, but Kiss switched horses again; in the 1990s and early 2000s, Dark Horse Comics gave Kiss the full superhero treatment.
Gene Simmons has expressed a desire to market Kiss beyond the end of the band. Whether these efforts mean that their comic-book incarnations will survive the originals remains to be seen.
Unbelievably geeky note: So, do the superhero versions or the "real" versions of Kiss exist in Marvel continuity? In their own comix, they appear alongside mainstream Marvel characters. Damien Hellstrom appears in the same Howard the Duck which boasts Kiss's second appearance. No one recognizes them when they first appear; clearly, on Marvel-Earth, no major rock band named Kiss exists.
But, in Marvel Two-in-One #42, Ben Grimm says that Captain America is about "as inconspicuous as Gene Simmons in a monestary." So....