Celebrated by fans as the hottest band in the land, the iconic rock group KISS has enjoyed tremendous success (and enduring some troubled periods) in its over four decades of existence. For nearly as long, they’ve also experienced similar highs and lows in the world of comic books, having been the subjects of over a dozen different publishing efforts by several different publishers. It’s always seemed to be a natural partnership, as the foursome’s trademark kabuki facial makeup, superhero-like stage outfits and larger-than-life personas have readily lent themselves to the comic book treatment.
The quality of these stories has varied greatly, as have their intent. Like their musical releases, some of these comics have stood up better than others over the years. Comprising nearly 40 years of publishing history, here’s a rundown of those efforts, starting with those that should be pawned off at a garage sale, right up to the treasured stories that should be bagged, boarded, and most importantly, reread.
18. Honorable Mention (A): Mars Attacks KISS #1: Flaming Youths (IDW)
IDW Publishing had many KISS comics during its reign, including a 2013 one-shot by Chris Ryall and Alan Robinson, which crossed over with the Mars Attacks franchise. Four invading Martians come across the ancient Box of Khyscz, and are each granted new and vastly different powers. Of course, they try and use this power to their advantage in their attempted conquest of Earth.
If the first part of that premise sounds familiar, that’s because it is: the issue was essentially a parody of the original “Marvel Super Special” #1 (stay tuned!), answering a question no one ever asked: “What If KISS Were Martians?” The answer to that preposterous question was fun enough, but it read more like a parody you might find in “MAD” or “Cracked,” rather than an original effort. Feeling like more of a “Mars Attacks” story, this comic doesn’t really come to mind with thinking about the Kisstory of comics, but it does deserve a mention.
17. Honorable Mention (B): KISStory (KISStory Ltd.)
This massive 440-page, 15-inch tall hardcover was by no means a comic book, but the 1994 signed and limited edition volume was published by KISS to commemorate their first 20 years. The book contained a 30-page comic story, though, by Spike Steffenhagen and Scott Pentzer, featuring Simmons and Stanley reminiscing about their past two decades. The entry contained several newly revealed anecdotes from the band’s past, tempered with a bit of a nostalgic reflection, and was the first such comic story to be printed in full color.
Because of the book’s steep $150 price tag that was only available through mail order, few comic fans ever saw the story, but it was one that would have been little interest to anyone outside of the KISS Army anyway. The story fit comfortably alongside all the stories and photos shared in this handsome volume, though, making it a truly eclectic offering for KISS fans that helped justify its price. The comic and the entirety of the book were heavy in remembrances, and weighing in at over eight pounds, it was also just plain heavy.
16. Honorable Mention (C): Unmasked: KISS’ Eighth Studio Album
One of the very first stories of KISS told in sequential art was right on one of their own album covers. Artist Victor Stabin illustrated a 12-panel story that featured the band evading fans and photographers who try to spy them without their makeup. The band finally consents to unmasking in front of a crowd, but when they do, they remove masks adorned with their trademark likeness only to reveal their faces have the same imagery underneath.
The cover to 1980’s “Unmasked” album wasn’t all that amusing, and fans weren’t amused at the softer, pop-sounding songs on the album, either. Many were also dismayed at the deceptive title, expecting to see images of the bandmembers sans makeup, but finding nothing of the kind inside. “Unmasked” was most definitely not a KISS comic, and many fans didn’t consider it to be much of a KISS album, either.
15. KISSNation #1 (Marvel)
Despite being published by Marvel Comics and having the same dimensions as a standard comic book, this magazine, released in conjunction with the band’s 1996 reunion tour, wasn’t technically a comic. Interspersed throughout the articles and photos about the band and their then-current tour, though, was a three part, 45-page “KISS Meets The X-Men” comic story, written by Stan Lee; his first and only time writing a KISS story. The convoluted, multidimensional mashup featured both KISS as superheroes and their real-life counterparts, in addition to the X-Men Although the story was clearly written before the original band reunited, it nonetheless filled a large part of this special.
Marvel’s first crack at the band in nearly 20 years was a decidedly underwhelming event; the story was far too tongue-in-cheek to even try and take seriously, and the various artists seemed more interested in making the real-life characters look real than making the super ones look super. It was a thinly-veiled and poorly-executed attempt at cross-pollinating two different audiences; and judging by the number of subsequent KISS / X-Men crossovers that were published — that is to say, zero — it didn’t succeed. This was one magazine that was worth reading just for the articles.
14. KISS #1 – #8 (IDW)
IDW Publishing’s first KISS venture launched in 2012, and was a decent, if uneven, homage to the band; it had a heavier reliance on many KISS concepts, song titles and lyrics than past attempts. The stories written by Chris Ryall and Tom Waltz were drenched in KISS, even when the lead characters weren’t present, and offered up an eclectic array of backdrops, from 1920’s gangster-ruled Chicago to the distant, primitive past. This variety made for arguably the most diverse attempt at adapting the notion of KISS into the comic art medium, but it also led to noticeable quality inconsistencies between the different story arcs. This wasn’t helped by the usage of half a dozen artists over the series’ eight issues.
The references, in fact, tended to get a little too heavy at times, almost to the point of distraction. Readers could often get lost in spotting all the allusions to the band’s ideas at the expense of the stories. Most of the issues were either attractively drawn or decently written; few were both. The series was seemingly done in by its boldness; in its attempt to cast its net wide, it never went very deep, and fans entertained by its faithfulness to the franchise never really got much out of it.
13. KISS 4K: Legends Never Die #1 – #6 (Platinum Studios)
Launched in 2007, this series was probably the most ambitious. Writer Ricky Sprague’s concept involved acknowledging past continuity from previous comic series and making it part of an even bigger story. While Kevin Crossley and Daniel Campos’ art was impressive — imposingly showcased in the first issue, which was also released in a massively enlarged edition standing 30 inches tall — the story often seemed a little too overreaching, sometimes seeming more pretentious than fun.
That gigantic edition of the first issue also sported a cover price of $50, so the gimmick and hefty price tag screamed louder than the quality of the story. The series lasted in print for only six issues, although another four were later published as webcomics, singlehandedly written, drawn, colored and lettered by Adam Black. The final two print issues in particular are notable for stories written by an up-and-coming Fred Van Lente.
12. KISS #1 (Personality Comics)
Autobiographical comics became a thing at the tail end of the black-and-white independent comics speculation boom, but the craze had largely hit rock bottom by the time Personality Comics released this issue in 1992, and was therefore missed by many. KISS had comfortably settled into the music scene as a hair metal band by that time, and with a new fan base, there was newfound interest in their origins. This comic was a flavorless but straightforward and factual narrative account of the band’s history up to that point, and filled a void for those younger fans hungering for that kind of background in the pre-Wikipedia days.
Mark Stanislowski’s script largely read like it was written for a textbook, while Juan Pineda and Kelly McQuain’s art often appeared to be traced from existing photo references, but this inoffensive issue was harmless enough to be enjoyed by fans. Personality Comics managed to publish two additional, even scarcer issues of the series, but there wasn’t much left to say about the band after encapsulating the basics in the first one.
11. Hard Rock Comics #5 (Revolutionary Comics)
KISS founders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley cooperated with the publisher on this autobiographical effort, also from 1992, telling various stories of the band’s escapades on the road during their many concert tours. Spike Steffenhagen’s script is rudimentary, chronicling the group’s excursions with straightforward narration and simple dialogue, eschewing any kind of style in favor of communicating the story. Scott Pentzer’s layouts are downright awful at times, but he compensates with the occasional stylish tribute to the band, even if they are based on existing references.
No one bought this comic because of its storytelling excellence, though. KISS fans picked it up to learn about some pivotal, surprising and often funny moments experienced by the band in their then-nearly 20 years of existence. This black and white comic efficiently, and entertainingly, delivered the kind of insight fans were looking for. Fans wanted the dirt, and they got it; as much as Simmons and Stanley were willing to dish, anyway.
10. Marvel Super Special #5 (Marvel)
By the time Marvel Comics published the band’s second full-length comic in 1978, the momentum of the KISS popularity train had begun to slow, and this fun but loopy and meandering sequel sort of mirrored that. Hoping that heavy metal lightning would strike again after all the attention its predecessor drew the summer before, Ralph Macchio’s story didn’t immerse itself in the mainstream Marvel Universe like the original did. As a result, the idea that KISS could carry a story by themselves as rock ‘n roll’s Fantastic Four, without a Doctor Doom-type villain, was greatly weakened.
With this second attempt, Marvel tried to recapitalize on a hot trend, but it missed out this time. The comic also lacked the draw driven by the gimmick of the band mixing samples of their blood with the printer’s ink, which gave a novelty to the first comic that this one couldn’t match; that is, unless Marvel had somehow persuaded KISS to donate some other bodily fluids. The story felt like reading old news back in the day, but nostalgia has treated it kindly, if only as a guilty pleasure from another era. It also stands out as one of the earliest works from superstar artist John Romita Jr., who illustrated the comic along with veteran artist Tony DeZuniga.
9. KISS Solo #1 – #4 (IDW)
The four standalone stories — one for each band member, of course — that comprise this 2013 miniseries have a kind of parallel to the four solo albums released by each member of the group 35 years earlier. There was some degree of anticipation, but they ultimately didn’t leave much of a mark. Like those records, though, the individual issues stand up well enough. Each character is given a sci-fi / fantasy interpretation of their persona and the spotlight format gave Chris Ryall and Tom Waltz a rare opportunity for character examination, something that often got glossed over in stories featuring the entire group. Each issue showcased beautiful art from artists such as Angel Medina and Tone Rodriguez.
Not every character had a story that necessarily needed an entire issue to tell, though, and the script sometimes got a little too serious for its own good. Also, like the solo albums, the series read like a run of fill-in issues, biding time until the team reunites again. Alas, though, they never did, at least under the banner of IDW Publishing.
8. Rock N Roll Comics #9 (Revolutionary Comics)
This 1990 comic had the distinction of being the first autobiographical comic about the band, as well as the first to be produced without their consent. Other rock bands had already taken legal action against Revolutionary Comics, notorious for their “Unauthorized and proud of it!” motto, but Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley later chose instead to work with the publisher on future comics based on KISS’ history. This was also the first comic to feature the group in over a decade.
Robert Conte and Greg Fox’s story was blemished with factual inaccuracies, crude art and lifeless dialogue, choosing to be largely an undemanding, no-frills, high-level overview of the band’s history. It’s notable for its place in comic history, as it got the notice of a new generation of KISS fans, and was successful enough to inspire further, and better executed, stories about the band. It also drew the attention of Simmons, a lifelong comics fan, whose love of the medium likely played a part in the band eventually working alongside the publisher, instead of suing them like other groups had.
7. Archie Meets KISS (Archie Comics)
Nearly all the previous comic book adaptations of the band centered around a serious-minded concept, or at least one that was supposed to be serious. Archie Comics, looking to shake up their titles and recognizing that the nature of KISS also lent itself to a more lighthearted treatment, had nothing to lose. The publisher thus decided that a crossover between the two franchises was in order. This 2012 four-issue storyline by Alex Segura, Dan Parent and Rich Koslowski was indeed fun, as well as funny, as KISS teamed with the gang from Riverdale to fight off — what else — a potential zombie invasion.
Archie, Jughead and company had long been timeless pop culture icons, and by 2012, so was KISS. Both were still in business, and both were still coming out with new product, but relatively few were reading, listening or caring about any of their newer efforts. Ultimately, this storyline did little to change that. Archie Comics has since reimagined their entire line of characters, and KISS is still touring like it’s 1979. At least the timeless nature of this crossover was enough to make readers of all ages feel like kids again, even if it didn’t serve to expand either franchise’s audiences.
6. KISS Kids #1 – #4 (IDW)
An Archie-fied version of KISS was plenty of fun, but Chris Ryall, Tom Waltz and Jose Holder’s “Tiny Titans” treatment was an absolute delight. After over three decades of comics trying to make the band into something larger than life, IDW went the other way in 2013 and breathed new life into the quartet by making them into a group of pint-sized tykes. The result was one of the most unusual yet enjoyable incarnations, and probably the only one accessible enough for non-fans to enjoy.
There was also a refreshing sense of self-deprecating parody in this series, something not commonly associated with a band which has always openly, and honestly, touted their own success. Far fewer references are made to the band’s music than in most past comic adaptations, and those that are made are done so in a self-parodying manner. If there were ever a KISS comic made for an audience who hates KISS, this would probably be it.
5. KISS Pre-History #1 – #3 (Revolutionary Comics)
In the year following their “Tales From The Tours” story in “Hard Rock Comics” #5, Spike Steffenhagen and Scott Pentzer had notably improved their storytelling skills, and put those skills to good use in this 1993 mini-series. Starting with Simmons and Stanley’s childhood and covering the band’s history through 1980, the series candidly explored both the successes and inner turmoil within the group as it rose, and fell, in popularity. Many of the various anecdotes had been revealed piecemeal over the years in other media, but this series put it all together in a single and well-compiled package that made the history of the band a fun story to read.
A planned follow-up was never published due to Revolutionary Comics folding the following year, making this series the final and most comprehensive telling of the group’s early years in comic form. Steffenhagen, a self-professed KISS fan, didn’t let his affinity for the band color his story; he told both the good and the bad, and the basic elements of his story have held up as truthful in the two decades since. This series showed that, for KISS fans at least, the story behind the band could be as engaging as their stage presence.
4. Howard the Duck #12 – #13 (Marvel)
Their appearance was incidental to the main story and lasted for only four pages, but the cliffhanger ending to “Howard the Duck” #12 was the official four color debut of KISS to comic book readers, and remains one of the most memorable and surprising cliffhangers in comic history. Within the context of the story, their appearance was some manner of physical manifestation created by Howard’s fellow asylum inmate, Winda Wester. Their words were mysterious and cryptic, and they vanished as unexpectedly as they appeared; but hey, it was KISS, and Steve Gerber, Gene Colan and Steve Leialoha’s story left comic fans with their jaws agape and KISS fans scouring newsstands looking for the issues.
It was rare for real-life characters to make an appearance in comics, but in a comic that had already featured whacked-out characters like The Kidney Lady and The Space Turnip, Gerber had to come up with something especially surprising after a dozen issues. The move was likely a stunt to drum up interest in Marvel’s then-upcoming “Marvel Super Special” featuring KISS, also written by Gerber. Although it was a mere cameo and the least KISS-like comic on this list, these are fondly remembered treasures for longtime fans.
3. KISS #1 – #13 (Dark Horse)
In 2002, writer Joe Casey was largely a writer of superheroes, so when he was brought onboard for this series, he did what he did best: turn KISS into bonafide superheroes. Originally planned as a three-issue mini-series, Casey did his job so well that the title was made into an ongoing series, although he left after the sixth issue. Scott Lobdell and later Mike Baron came on to finish it off, while artist Mel Rubi stuck around for the duration of the series. For a little over a year, this was, believe it or not, one of the best superhero comics published at the time.
The traditional superhero approach opened up possibilities for this incarnation. There was no expectation or attempt to necessarily treat all four characters the same, for example. Some were given more page time when necessary, some less. Some carried an air of mystery, while others were shown in civilian guises. Instead of trying to imagine KISS as superheroes, the writers imagined superheroes who were KISS, making it one of the better and more inventive takes on the band in their comic book history.
2. Marvel Super Special #1 (Marvel)
After their mind-altering cameo in “Howard the Duck,” the men of KISS made their comic book debut in earnest, even though “Marvel Super Special” #1 was technically a magazine. Heavily promoted by both the band and Marvel Comics, the issue gained notoriety largely for its “printed in real KISS blood” publicity stunt, serving as the first, and probably only comic to have the living DNA of its featured characters embedded in its ink. This single issue, written by Steve Gerber and drawn by Alan Weiss, John Buscema, and Rich Buckler, brought comics and KISS fans together; and in many cases, it turned fans of one into lifelong fans of both.
Successfully reaching both diehard comic fans and rock aficionados with a single product was, and is, a rare feat, so neither side missed their opportunity to try and cash in. In addition to Doctor Doom, Marvel threw in cameos of The Fantastic Four and The Avengers to introduce KISS listeners to as much of their universe as possible, while incorporating articles on the band that conveniently listed the complete KISS discography for the benefit curious superhero fans. It succeeded, as many fans of one rock and rolled over to the side of the other. It was a pretty fun and memorable comic book story, to boot.
1. KISS: Psycho Circus #1 – #31 (Image)
More than a year before KISS released its 1998 “Psycho Circus” album, Image Comics launched its KISS era with a comic of the same name. The series ran for nearly three years, and was by far the longest of any comic series bearing the band’s logo, for good reason. The series made the most of the bandmembers’ personas, establishing a dark fantasy vibe that set itself up for a wide array of stories. It wasn’t straight up action or superheroics; more like KISS getting the Vertigo treatment. And it worked wonderfully.
There was never any sense of sameness, or predictability; Brian Holguin created a rich tapestry of characters and situations that were seemingly endless, and took advantage of the flexibility that an ongoing series provided. There was no need to pack all the obligatory KISS references into a handful of issues, with an open road of future issues lying ahead. Artists Angel Medina and Clayton Crain both managed to give the series whatever look it required; gritty, majestic and everything in between. This comic was akin to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, only with a hard rock soundtrack. If only it could have lasted as long…
Did we get them all, or is there a lingering KISS book you loved that isn’t mentioned? Let us know your favorites in the comments!
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