April 30, 2013
Gene Simmons and KISS: Channeling One’s Inner Superhero

by Russ Maheras

In 1958, an estranged Hungarian Jew and Holocaust survivor named Flóra “Florence” Klein brought her eight-year-old son, Chaim Witz, to New York City from Israel to seek out a new and better life. Chaim Witz’s name was soon Americanized to Gene Klein, and would eventually become the infinitely more famous double-alter ego Gene Simmons.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

After a year in an Orthodox Jewish school, the young Klein made his transition to America complete by entering the New York City public school system. Unable to speak or write English at first, Klein quickly turned to the new and fascinating world of American popular culture to learn his adopted language. While other kids were outside playing baseball or kick-the-can, Klein immersed himself in almost all of the mass entertainment arts: movies, television, science fiction, cartoons, pulps, and especially comic books. Reflecting later about those early years, he said once he saw Superman and Batman, “he was hooked.”

Then, in 1964, at the age of 14, he saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, and a new world opened up for him: pop music. As he said decades later in his book Kiss and Make-Up, “My first thoughts about pop music were born that night, and they were simple thoughts: If I go and start a band, maybe the girls will scream for me.”

Klein’s first band was Lynx, announced incorrectly as The Missing Links – the name which ended up sticking – and it consisted of Klein, Danny Haber and Seth Dogramajian. Like Klein, both band-mates were obsessed with comic books. Klein elaborated about their four-color passion: “Seth and I used to publish amateur fanzines about comic books and science fiction. We would write articles, review movies, and talk about characters from television shows. His fanzine was called Exile; mine was called Cosmos. But after the Beatles, it became clear to us that, as much as we loved science fiction, it wasn’t going to get us where we wanted to go with the girls.”

But even as Klein began actively forging ahead on his nascent music career, his entrance into the world of science fiction, comic book, and film fandom exploded.

To say that Klein was an active fan of the popular arts would be a gross understatement. He not only read and collected comic books, monster magazines, film magazines, pulps and related science fiction and fantasy books; he also published his own fanzines and contributed material to scores – perhaps even hundreds – of other fan publications.

From 1965 to 1970 – through the remainder of high school and beyond – Klein’s fanzine-related output was prodigious. Here’s just a partial list of fanzines with which he had involvement: Adventure, Arioch, Asmodeus, Asterisk, Beabohema, Bombshell, Chamber of Horrors, Cooper’s Hero Hobby, Cosign, Cosmos, Cosmostiletto, Crabapple Gazette, Critique, Double: Bill, Dynatron, Ecco, Exile, Famous Fiends of Filmdom, Fantasy Crossroads, Fantasy Film Journal, Fantasy News, Faun, Giallar, Gore Creatures, Harpies, Id, Iscariot, Mantis, Martian Journal (MJ), Men of Mystery, Monstrosities, One Step Beyond, Orpheus, OSFan, Osfic, Proper Boskonian, Pulp Era, Quark, Ragnarok, Ray Gun, Sanctum, Satyr, Sci-Fi Showcase, Screen Monsters, Sirruish, Solarite, Space and Time, Spectre, Splash Page, Starling, Super Spy, Terror, Tinderbox, Trumpet, Web Spinner, Weirdom, and Wonderment.

Klein’s contributions were as varied as his popular culture interests. He drew artwork; wrote opinion columns; reviewed films, TV shows, comic books, pulps, books, fanzines and newspaper comic strips; and wrote countless letters of comment.

His signature writing style could be summed up in one word: blunt. Klein rarely pulled his punches. If he thought a fan publication had bad art or a poorly written article, he would not hesitate to say so. Despite this, many editors apparently didn’t mind the abuse, because his letters kept on getting published. So did his sometimes acerbic articles.

For example, in the fanzine Web Spinner #2, published in August 1965, Klein summarily raked Marvel editor Stan “The Man” Lee over the coals in an essay titled “The M.M.M.S.? You Can Keep It!” Klein felt that the $1 membership fee Lee was charging for the new club was exorbitant for what members received in return: a record, a certificate, some Thing stickers, and a coming events news sheet. Klein then went on to discuss some of Marvel’s other merchandising products being concurrently advertised, such as $1 Marvel stationery pads and $1.50 t-shirts. And while he admitted they were nice to look at, he complained, “who has so many dollars to contribute to Lee’s ever-growing pockets?”

However, just about 10 years later, there would be some industrial-strength irony in those words when Klein, as Gene Simmons, would help mastermind a long-running and innovative KISS merchandising machine that would eventually generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue – a marketing juggernaut that made Lee’s modest mid-1960s operation look positively quaint by comparison.

Klein’s soon-to-be-considerable entrepreneurial skills started in those halcyon fan days when he started buying and selling comics to finance his hobbies and fledgling music career. He utilized the same mimeograph he used to publish his fanzines to print up flyers and other ads offering to buy old comics for a dollar a pound. He’d then sift through the stacks of purchased comics, re-selling the most collectible ones to other fans at a tremendous mark-up.

As the 1960s came to a close, Klein went off to college and his music career began growing. Something had to give, so Klein’s fan activities began tapering off. But even as late as 1969, Klein and his band-mates were still doing a significant amount of work for fanzines. For example, in the fifth issue of Gordon Linzner’s science fiction fanzine Space and Time, published in the spring of 1969, three of the four contributors providing artwork for the issue were current or former members of a Klein band: Klein, Dogramajian and Steve Coronel.

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