KISS has had many incarnations. Their faces have graced everything from T-shirts to coffins, even Hello Kitty dolls. One thing they’ve been no stranger to is comics. Besides having their own Marvel series in the ’70s, the band appeared in the ’90s reboot (and accompanying album book) Psycho Circus, published by Todd McFarlane Productions, and, most recently, the wholesome panels of Riverdale in Archie, written by Alex Segura and drawn by Dan Parent. Over the holidays, we caught up with KISS mainstay Gene Simmons for an in-depth conversation on the comic book industry, marriage, and why the band Chicago has a leg up on The Ramones.
You’ve always been a pretty huge comics fan, right?
I actually lived it and breathed it. You know, when I first came to America, I was eight and a half years old, and I remember one of the first books was The Brave And The Bold, and that was introducing the new Flash, the Silver Age Flash. You have to remember names like Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino. I just devoured it. And, of course, the Atlas Group, the Kirby era monsters, and the Ditko off-world things. I bought the Harvey books…there are lines of comic books that I collected all the way from A to Z, from Charlton publications all the way to Dell and Gold Key. I mean, I had thousands and thousands.
And when I was… oh I don’t know, about 12 or 13 years old, I actually printed up one-page handouts, leaflets…”Buying comic books, a dollar a pound.” And everybody had attics full of comic books. And I used to go there, because I knew what the Golden Age comics were worth. At the beginning of the model, comics weren’t worth anything. I was looking for the original Human Torch and Sub-Mariner things, and actually found some. So, a buck here, a buck there, and every once in a while, I’d get an Action Comics #38 or #40. I made a small fortune.
So, you were a pretty business-minded gentleman from the very beginning?
Yes, I’m Jewish. Above and beyond all the other guys that talk, I have actually been and continue to be a superhero myself. From the late ’70s, in the KISS books that Marvel put out, Gene Simmons actually fought Doctor Doom with The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man.
What’s it like being in an Archie comic? Is it a different experience from being in the traditional superhero comic?
It’s not different. It just goes to our mandate, which is self-imposed, which is to rule this planet, to make it Planet KISS, the world where we own the trademark. But it started off with myself picking up the phone and calling Jon Goldwater, who heads up the Archie guys. I was a fan of the early books of the Bob Montana days. You know, for over half a century, thousands and thousands of stories, and the characters still stayed vibrant and still remain an essence, living in that small town with the big ideas that affect everybody.
And Archie, other than just being a kids’ book for the younger audiences, actually dealt with some very big-game issues: homosexuality, and being outcasts, and different, and what that means. Just some really cool stuff in the same way that the Denny O’Neil Green Arrow and Green Lantern books dealt with drug addiction… those groundbreaking stories. This may be before your time. Do you know what I’m talking about?
A little bit. I’m a huge comics fans myself, but I don’t have as many of the older issues from DC.
Well, it’s the classic stuff. It’s the stuff that today… those books wouldn’t be possible without it today. You know, Batman, and Superman, and all the rest of them started off as sort of heroic ideas. And it wasn’t until the ’60s when there was so much social upheaval—Vietnam and so forth—that comic books actually started dealing with human ideas. The Marvel comic books in particular dealt with an outcast teenager. The cops didn’t like him and the bad guys didn’t like him. The Hulk continues to be an outcast, neither hero, neither villain. And of course, DC picked up the gauntlet a little bit and started dealing with, you know, being outsiders, and drug addiction, and the Vietnam War, and all. Without the ’60s and those books, today’s comics wouldn’t be possible. It’d be the same-old, same-old.
Do you read a lot of modern titles?
As much as I can, but what’s happened with the berth of all the independent publishers is that there are literally a thousand books a month that come out. None of them sell very much, and I don’t know how you could read all of it. I wish I didn’t actually have to go to work, so I could be a kid again, and stay home and devour it all.
I actually stopped buying new issues every week because it proved too costly. And to understand this X-Men title, you had to buy that X-Men title. It just got a little ridiculous, so I pretty much stick to graphic novels now.
Well, I think it happens as a consequence of business, which is that it’s such a competitive business, and the numbers are so small. The reason that Marvel or anyone else puts out four, five, six titles or variations of it is that you want to be able to control the visuals. So, when somebody comes by the store, instead of printing, for argument’s sake, 100,000 X-Men comics, you can put out four or five different X-Men titles, and only put out four or five thousand a piece, if you see what I mean, so you have a chance of selling 100,000.
That makes sense. It’s pretty interesting how the comic book industry has evolved over the years. With the KISS Archie comics, do they refer to you guys by your real names or your aliases?
Yeah, The Demon, and so on. We come about due to a magic event that happens, and you’ll have to read the books to find out what the event is, and where it came from.
Aside from the comics front, what’s the status of the band’s upcoming album, Monster? When’s it getting released?
We’re holding up releasing it, because there’s a tour that starts next summer. It’s going to be a worldwide tour that will last… oh, I don’t know, a year-and-a-half or so. We’re holding out and releasing it later to coincide with the tour, along with a ten-hour DVD, as well as a four-foot high book. It’s literally four feet high.
Sonic Boom was this great, old-school KISS record, some of the best work you guys have ever done. Is Monster in that same kind of classic rock vein?
Even more so. I don’t think we can be anything else. Everyone wanders, but it’s always good to come home.
When you say everyone wanders, KISS has dabbled, over the years, in all sorts of… I don’t want to say genres, but phases: Music From The Elder and your non-makeup years and what not. Looking back, is there anything that artistically you… “regret” isn’t the right word, but…
No, I understand, and it’s a very fair question. The truth is that when you’re busy doing something, you’re blinded by it, and you think it’s the best thing since sliced bread. And afterwards, you look back and say, “What the hell was I thinking?” It’s the same way you look back at photos of your hairstyle 10 years ago and you don’t want anybody to see it. But it’s part of life, it’s part of growing up, and it’s part of the experience. Would I change anything? No. The KISS golf course opens up in Las Vegas this month. The KISS Hello Kitty deal just launched in 90 countries. If you go down Times Square, there’s a 30-foot high Motorola poster. The tongue is out– it’s 10 feet long. I’m the face of Motorola this month. There’s KISS coffee houses all over the place. This has gone beyond what anyone thought a band could ever do. Yes, you have to have the music, and yes, you’ve got to deliver it live. But if that’s all there was, I wouldn’t be satisfied.
This is sort of a morbid question, but when the current lineup, as well as the rest of the original members have all, God forbid, departed…
The four original members never reached the success of this present lineup. People only remember it as a pivotal moment in media, and media doesn’t report what’s actually big. I’m going to give you a few facts that will blow your mind.
Okay. The Ramones. The Ramones have one gold record to their name. Do you know that Chicago has 22 platinum albums? Did you know that?
I did not know that.
So, one of them gets all the respect in the world: The Ramones. But they meant nothing. They never succeeded, failed, in fact. Lived in their moms’ basements. Now, whether some people like it or not is an interesting question, because where were the people? Where were the records sold? Where were the concerts? They kept playing clubs. In other words, the people didn’t rally behind it. There are lots of groups that get all the respect in the world that never sold. And there are lots of bands that get no respect and have sold loads. So, what’s the criteria? A magazine article? Critics liking it? Or the people? The people decide everything. If the people do, then we’re paying attention to the wrong banners.
So, this current lineup with Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer is literally 10 times the size of the original KISS lineup. And, by the way, it’s not unique. AC/DC is bigger by 10 times than with the original lead singer. And whether you like it or not, Van Halen with Sammy Hagar was actually twice as big than with Roth. And you’re talking to the guy that discovered Van Halen. So, “You can’t change lead singers, you can’t change original members.” Actually, if you take a look at the statistics, it’d be better to change the original members. Because you get bigger. The original Beatles were not with Ringo [Starr]. As soon as they got rid of Pete Best, they ruled the world. The Rolling Stones now has less original members. They’re touring again soon. It will probably become the biggest tour of all time, much bigger with the new members than they every were with the old members, the original members.
Do you think money trumps respect?
I don’t care. Let somebody else figure that out. It’s just all opinions. Hot air comes out of our mouth when we talk. Hot air comes out of our ass when we fart. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean a lot. Opinions are like assholes, if you don’t mind me saying so. Everybody’s got one. Talk is talk. You like this comic book, I like that comic book. I want to know which one sells the most.
Whenever the current lineup of KISS can’t do it anymore or passes away, do you hope that someone else takes up the mantle, similar to a superhero?
Already planning that. Because there are no new bands, I’m talking about 10 years or younger, who can play stadiums. When you take a look at who’s playing the stadiums, it’s Paul McCartney, it’s U2, it’s The Rolling Stones. These are old guys. How old is Mick Jagger?
I don’t know. I want to say he’s in his 70s. He might not be that old. Let me check.
He may be 66 or 65.
I know Bruce Springsteen is 62.
The answer to Paul McCartney’s “Will you still love me when I’m 64?” is yes. Paul McCartney is multiple times bigger than The Beatles ever were.
Mick Jagger is 68.
You got married pretty recently, right?
I got married when I turned 62.
It probably hasn’t changed too much since you and Shannon Tweed have been together for a while, but do you find that there are any differences between now and when you guys were just living together?
Yes. The arrogance of the male consciousness when we’re not married is in full force. “Nobody’s going to tell me what to do, I can go wherever I want to go,” which is why I urge all guys to never get married until they’re really old. Because we’re not mature. We don’t mature until we’re much older.
Was that what prompted it for you?
Well, I do actually care for her. So either we’re together or she’s going to leave.
Was it an ultimatum or something you came to realize by yourself?
No, nothing like that, but women always have that as an inferred difference. In either case, this is a far-reaching interview. Very interesting.
Is it okay that we’re talking about these kinds of questions?
When you say there are no new bands…
I don’t mean that. I mean, there’s Green Day, and they’re doing very well. In some markets, they do very well. And Foo Fighters are a very big band. But on the level of stadium bands around the world, there are very few. And they tend to be old.
Are there any younger bands you listen to?
Oh yeah, I think they’re terrific. Green Day is terrific. Foo Fighters is one of the best bands out there.
Our site actually just named them Band of the Year.
That’s great. And they deserve it. I think it’s legitimate, strong songwriting and everything’s really solid. But you know, once upon a time, when the British invasion was going on, you had a thousand bands, a thousand. The Kinks, The Hollies, and The Stones, and The Beatles, and on and on and on. A thousand. And then when it got heavier, you had Led Zeppelin, and Humble Pie, and Mott The Hoople. You had a thousand. And in the ’70s, you had Aerosmith, and KISS, and ZZ Top. You had a thousand. Today, you can say Green Day and Hello Kitty. [laughs] There are very few bands that have the power to get up there. And that’s because the world right now is ruled by karaoke singers. You know, the girls come out… and good luck to them. You know, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, even Madonna.
With the Hello Kitty thing, is it Hello Kitty with KISS makeup?
That’s exactly right.
So it’s like a cat with the Demon makeup on?
You got it. We just launched it in 90 countries. You’ll see it on the store shelves all over the place.
That’s pretty awesome.
It’s more than awesome. Nobody can do that. You can’t do U2 Hello Kitty because there’s no face. It’s just a generic face.
I guess you could do Bono’s purple glasses, but that’s about it.
No, because there’s no one particular pair that says Bono.