Friday, March 08, 2013

KISS-oterica: KISS In The Comics

But enough with Anabaptist esoterica, and its tightly constrained, faintly occult pleasures. If Mennonites make for vexatious company when they're alive, devoting further time to them after they've been dead a few centuries only ups the irritation factor. There remains more pleasurable esoterica to be explored, starting with the shared texts inspired by KISS.

One of Allan Bloom's frequent gripes — or laments, if you prefer — was that the Rock 'n' Roll generation had sacrificed preceding generations' depth of insight and character for the immediate, relatively trifling purview of sexual gratification. In aid of his argument Bloom would reach for lyrics from popular songs, and dryly recite them from the podium. By Bloom's reckoning, the orgasmic juddering of “Louie, Louie” was a very distant, inbred cousin to, say, Cole Porter's subtle wordplay (to say nothing of the bard responsible for The Song of Solomon), and Boomers were the worse for it.

Reducing rock's appeal solely to its copulatory evocations is easy, and (if what remains of radio is any indication) getting easier by the year. But it clumsily sidesteps the appeal of a band like KISS. If all we had to go by was their collected lyrics, and the various band members' accounts of bacchanalian excess, then, sure, it's all about the juddering. But as Gene Simmons, the band's self-designated spokesman has repeatedly made plain, KISS is a Brand before it is a band.

“KISS as Brand” is 21st Century marketing ontology being applied to what essentially remains a Carter-era super-phenom, but as retrospective analysis it works quite well. For a band with such plain-spoken lyrics and blunt musical delivery, KISS inspired within the collective imagination of its fans — and detractors — a nearly limitless volume of speculation.

Buying and listening to an album was just the smallest tip of the iceberg. There was the album art, a distant but stunningly potent evocation of the concert experience. Then there was the concert experience. What was with the pyrotechnics, the flying, the blood-spitting, the fire-breathing — the makeup? Fifteen-year-olds and their parents might wonder what it all meant (Knights In Satan's Service? Kings?!?), and 21-year-olds might dismiss the entire carnival out of hand for its lack of signifiers. But 12-year-olds didn't wonder — they wanted more.

Enter MARVEL comics: Stan Lee took note of (or, more likely, had it pointed out to him) the insatiable fans who, despite the predictable rotation of stock photos, bought every pulp magazine churned out in devotion to the band's never-ending concert circuit. All this ardour needed, perhaps, was a quick application of the “Stan Lee” template to the four figures papering the bedrooms of adolescent America, and ka-ching!

Et voila:

Here we have a ploy typical of 70s comic book covers: a fantastical illustration that bears only a metaphorical relation to the story within. The narrative mechanics are stock-and-trade “Stan Lee”: take your average 12-year-old wisenheimer out of the classroom, give him the power of the gods, and then pit him against a smarmy, entitled goon who needs to be put in his place. Multiply it by four, make them trade quips with the Avengers . . .

. . . and, for marketing purposes, go out on a limb and do something slightly creepy but not altogether out of sync with the Brand mystique — like adding the band's blood to the ink.

It's this stunt, duly photographed by some hack with a 35mm camera and flash, which almost undoes the conceit. Here we have four performers in costume, submitting backstage to the arena sawbones whose usual job is to administer ice-packs to concussed rodeo wrestlers. If it weren't for “Lee's” celebrated “pandemonious puffery” the effect of the pictures alone would be rather deflating. The figures are recognizably human, having their blood drawn by a side-burned schmuck in a smock. Revealing the band's humanity was a card eventually played to buy the band a few fleeting minutes' reprieve from diminishing public interest, but at this point in KISS-story it's best the KISS Army not associate these figures with mortality.

"No, no, nooooo ... !"

What the pancake makeup projects is imminently more interesting than the flesh that wears it — something Todd McFarlane adroitly recognized when he signed the Brand to his upstart Image Comics. By the time McFarlane got to them in the late-90s, both the band and the Brand were flagging. Utilizing the McFarlane hyper-articulate Manga aesthetic, the four kabuki characters received a massive and reverent facelift. More pertinently, writer Brian Holguin took the standing comic book trope of “Humans-Endowed-With-Godlike-Powers” and put it on its head. Gone are all traces of “Gene” “Ace” “Peter” and “Paul” and their lewd, crude, charming/off-putting antics. Now we had four pagan deities, in thrall of a travelling carnival, who begrudgingly restore cosmic balance in concert with the affairs of humanity. KISS's mojo was back.

Holguin's deity characterizations can be faintly Jungian, or stock D&D Handbook, depending on the issue you pick up. Either way, Holguin's demiurges are never boring. While some episodes are hobbled by the missteps that inevitably occur in serial storytelling, the series as a whole is astonishingly strong. In the span of 31 issues, the series launches from an episode-by-episode Outer Limits platform into a massive Competing Realities story-arc that, in its complexity, approaches near-Dickian heights.

The Image years show the Brand at its zenith, comic book wise. This was not an altitude the Brand (nor Image Comics, for that matter) could maintain: when KISS changed houses to Dark Horse Comics, the characterization and story-lines returned to the stock-and-trade model, albeit with greater sobriety and discipline than was demonstrated in the MARVEL years.

All three iterations (plus some lamentable “for the fans” one-offs) can be found in this volume, which, if you purchase it on-line, is probably much larger than you imagine. It's ungainly, but affordable, and contains Holguin's Image arc in its entirety.

These days, as entertainment industries scramble to retain the smallest scrap of their once dominant hold on the public imagination, it all makes for a curiously poignant read. The era when four hungry youths could put on costumes, pick up instruments and mesmerize a nation seems to be over. However, the era of carnivals and other expressions of pagan exuberance — and conflict — is anything but.

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