May 05, 2010
By Brett Weiss

The self-proclaimed "hottest band in the land," KISS is indeed one of the most popular rock groups of all time, having sold more than 80 million albums during its almost 40-year reign. And, along with that other fabulous foursome, the Beatles, is one of the few bands in which each member has a distinct image and is readily identifiable by the general public. In fact, co-founder Gene Simmons has more than once called his beloved band "the heavy metal Beatles."

The original KISS lineup consisted of Gene "the Demon" Simmons (bass, vocals), Paul "Star Child" Stanley (rhythm guitar, vocals), Ace "the Space Man" Frehley (lead guitar, vocals), and Peter "Cat Man" Criss (drummer, vocals), each of whom lived up to his nickname by donning outlandish costumes (platform heels, spiky boots, shiny armor, black leather, and the like) and kabuki-style makeup.

The black-and-white face paint not only lent to the comic-bookish look of the band, it gave the members a shroud of mystery as, remarkably enough, few fans ever saw KISS without their makeup, at least until the airing of MTV's 1983 television special, KISS Unmasking, which featured naked-faced Gene, Paul, and, less interestingly, replacement members Vinnie Vincent and Eric Carr.

In addition to the makeup and costumes, KISS distinguished itself with its over-the-top live performances, with their explosions, columns of flame, flashing lights (including a giant KISS logo backing the band), clouds of smoke (including smoke pouring out of Ace's Les Paul guitar), Criss's elevating and sparking drum riser, Paul's preening and strutting, and Gene spitting "blood," breathing fire, and wagging his preternaturally long tongue.

The gimmicky nature of KISS lent itself extremely well to merchandising. One of the more highly sought-after vintage KISS collectibles is the line of Mego dolls from 1978. In near mint condition, a boxed Ace, Gene, Paul, or Peter sells for around $250-$300, while nicely preserved loose figures routinely change hands for anywhere between $50 and $125.

Other vintage KISS collectibles of note include: a toy guitar ($250 loose, $1,000 boxed); an assortment of belt buckles (most ranging from $35-$125); Destroyer and Love Gun jigsaw puzzles ($25 each); a Tiger record player ($500 loose, $2,500 boxed); a Colorforms play set ($175); View-Master reels ($30); a View-Master Show Beam cartridge ($350); a KISS On Tour board game ($100); an AMT Custom Van model kit ($125-$150); a radio control van ($300 loose, $2,500 boxed); and a pair of mass market paperbacks: KISS ($40) by Robert Duncan and Headliners: KISS ($20) by John Swenson. (Pricing is for complete, near mint condition items).

In 1978, Donruss released a set of KISS bubble gum cards. Series one contained cards 1-66 ($40-$65 for a set) while the somewhat harder to find series two contained cards 67-132 ($65 to $85 for a set). According to The Sport Americana Price Guide to the Non-Sports Cards (Edgewater Book Company, 1988), Donruss reprinted series one with 21 new photos on front and a new puzzle on back. The book mistakenly claims that this was due to the death of Peter Criss, but in reality Criss had simply left the band and was replaced by Eric Carr, who also replaced Peter on the cards. The 1980 set is scarce and easily fetches upward of $150 for a complete set.

One of the most famous of all KISS collectibles is Marvel Comics Super Special no. 1 ($175 in near mint), which is better known as the first all-KISS comic book. Produced in magazine-sized format, the issue was written by the great Steve Gerber and drawn by graphic literature luminaries Alan Weiss, John Buscema, Rich Buckler, and Sal Buscema. In addition to the story, which features KISS, as super-heroes, battling Mephisto and Doctor Doom, the issue includes photos of Ace, Gene, Paul, and Peter giving blood. The blood was not for the Red Cross. Rather, it was mixed in with the ink used in producing the comic book - an infamous stunt that helped tremendously in promoting the issue, which sold more than 400,000 copies.

For Jim Johnson, who writes reviews for The Comics Buyer's Guide, that comic book was of particular importance.

"After I joined the KISS Army Fan Club," Johnson said, "one of the newsletters touted that KISS was going to be featured in an upcoming comic book from Marvel. I had not been a comic book collector at that point, but that comic, actually a magazine, turned me into a fan of something other than KISS: the comic book industry, whose products I have been reading for over 30 years and writing about for nearly 10. This hobby has spawned working relationships and lasting friendships. It's a good bet that had I not been exposed to KISS, my life would be nothing like it is today."

Johnson doesn't really collect KISS merchandise, but the few items he has owned over the years do have meaning: "I never had enough money and/or space to buy enough memorabilia to consider myself a collector. However, I proudly wore that reflective KISS logo belt buckle back in the '70s, and I absolutely treasure the first volume of Kisstory (1995, $125), the humongous and definitive hardcover of the band's history that's signed by all four original members. And those Paul Stanley guitar picks I grabbed at a show during his solo tour in 1989."

When asked how he became a KISS fan, Johnson said: "I first noticed KISS the same way a lot of people did, by hearing Rock And Roll All Nite on the radio. I was 12. But I didn't know anything about their makeup and theatrics until my older sister showed me Dressed to Kill. I listened to that album repeatedly and every single song rocked, and the sight of these four guys in three-piece suits and face paint on the album cover instilled an insatiable sense of curiosity that sent me seeking out whatever articles or tidbits I could find. As I learned about their costumes and stage theatrics, I discovered that they were not only the hottest band in the world, but also the coolest. I was hooked."

Johnson further extolled the virtues of the impact KISS had on his life: "As a kid just trying to blend in and be one of the gang, I envied the audacity of these guys who dared to be themselves and do what they wanted to do, regardless of what anyone thought of them. From KISS, I eventually learned that individuality was something to be embraced, instead of hidden, and once I did, I was happier than I ever had been in my life."

KISS was founded by Gene Simmons, who was born Chaim Witz in Haifa, Israel, and Paul Stanley, who was born Stanley Eisen in Queens, New York. They belonged to a band called Wicked Lester, which met with little success. In late 1972, the duo hired Peter Criss (born Peter Criscuola in Brooklyn, N.Y.), who had placed an ad in Rolling Stone, for a new incarnation of Wicked Lester. In early 1973, Ace Frehley (born Paul Frehley in the Bronx, N.Y.) answered an ad in The Village Voice and auditioned for the band, showing up wearing one red and one orange sneaker. Despite his wardrobe malfunction, Ace was hired, and the band was renamed KISS shortly thereafter.