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Rock Superheroes


The first KISS comic book hit the newsstands on June 28, 1977. The comic won accolades for its publisher Marvel Comics, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies to the supergroup's fans. However, it was not the first appearance of the band in comic-book form (that came with a guest shot in Marvel's Howard the Duck #12 earlier that year), nor was it to be the band's last. And though KISS's success in comics is perhaps the most well known (and oft-cited), it is not a unique phenomenon for rock musicians, who have often guest-starred in both real-life and superheroic form.

Pre-KISS rock phenomena to appear in comics include Elvis Presley in I Love You, Featuring Elvis (Charlton Comics, 1966) and the Beatles, who appeared in several one-shots over the years, including The Beatles: Complete Life Stories (Dell, 1964) and Girls' Romances (DC Comics, 1965). Riding on the Fab Four's guitar strings were the Monkees, whose 1967–1969 Dell series lasted seventeen issues. The Monkees series was the first to feature a band in superhero form—as the Monkeemen—though not in every issue. The supergroup premise came from the successful Monkees TV show, where in several episodes the Monkees leaped into a phone booth to become the Monkeemen, four superheroes in identical costumes who possessed superstrength and the ability to defy the laws of nature. DC must have been watching the show—and the comic's sales figures—before it brought out Maniaks, a short-lived series about a fictional mod-rock quartet that dabbles in superhuman stunts and campy adventures (Showcase #68, #69, and #71, 1967).

During the 1970s, publishers like Marvel tried their hand at adapting the rock and roll genre to comics, with mixed success. In addition to its best-selling KISS comic, Marvel published an unauthorized Beatles Story biography in Marvel Comics Super Special #4 (1978), a second KISS appearance in Marvel Super Special #5 (1978), and Alice Cooper's debut in Marvel Premiere #50 (1979). Shortly thereafter, Marvel introduced original rock-music-based superheroes with its Dazzler series (March 1981), about a roller-skating rock-disco singer whose mutant ability to turn sound into brilliant light comes from her singing voice; and then with its Nightcat series in early 1991, based on an album released through RCA Records featuring singer Jacqueline Tavarez, about a rock singer who gains catlike powers after being injected by a secret cat serum at the hands of an evil scientist. (In the almost-super category, for years Marvel's longtime supporting-cast member Rick Jones picked up a guitar and toured folk clubs in between stints as the company's number one superhero sidekick, while late 1970s followers of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu could often count on the hero puzzling over Fleetwood Mac lyrics or meditating to blasting Rolling Stones albums in between bouts of martial-arts mayhem.)

Other publishers to emerge with their own rock and roll heroes include the short-lived Skywald Publishing, whose superhero Butterfly was a soul singer in her alter ego of Marian Michaels (Hell-Rider #1, 1971). In 1987 Eclipse Comics published a one-shot Captain EO comic, the official 3-D comic-book adaptation of the George Lucas 3-D movie/rock video directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Only available for viewing at Disney theme parks, the seventeen-minute-long short and the comic starred Michael Jackson as a futuristic space hero. Practically every rock star from the 1950s onward cameoed in Mike Allred's Red Rocket 7 (Dark Horse Comics, 1997–1998), the saga of a prophetic extraterrestrial rocker.

Amongst these blips on the screen emerged and endured KISS, whose larger-than-life stage personae make for perfect comic-book characters. With the 1977 KISS comic, Marvel mixed band members' blood with the red ink that was used to print the first run. Never ones to pass up a marketing opportunity, band members complied with the promotional ploy invented to ignite sales of the first edition, even showing up at the printing plant to donate blood. In 1997 Todd McFarlane Productions published KISS: Psycho Circus. Influenced by the vision of Spawn creator and Image Comics co-owner Todd McFarlane, this series was born with a decidedly darker edge to it, according to KISS frontman Gene Simmons. Dark Horse Comics launched its own KISS comic (KISS #1) in July 2002, written by X-Men's Joe Casey, with art by Mel Rubi (of Joss Whedon's Angel), and covers by J. Scott Campbell (Danger Girl) and Leinil Francis Yu (X-Men, High Roads). A superteam aesthetic drives this new series, with lots of fun, over-the-top villains, according to Simmons, who also calls the series the Fantastic Four of the twenty-first century in a Dark Horse press release.

Overseen by Simmons, Dark Horse's KISS series turns these rock-and-roll icons into the ultimate superhero team. Years after the split-up of these four superpowered warriors, each member has followed his own path. The Demon (Gene Simmons) is a bounty hunter; the Starchild (Paul Stanley) is an artist who lives with a race of women warriors in South America; the Spaceman (Ace Frehley) is an intergalactic loner adrift in the solar system; and the Catman (Peter Criss) is almost all beast, with very little humanity left in him. The heroes band together in an effort to save their bestial brother from his destructive rampages, and a new comic book is born.

Besides KISS, a long list of rock groups—from Led Zeppelin to Aerosmith—have appeared in Revolutionary Comics' Rock 'n' Roll line. Even Billy Ray Cyrus appeared in a Wild West comic-book adventure in 1995 from Marvel's short-lived Marvel Music line, launched in 1994 with licensed titles that featured musicians such as KISS (again), Alice Cooper, AC/DC, KRS-One, and Bob Marley. Many of the comics tied in with album releases and videos or were packaged with CDs, cassettes, and other merchandise. Malibu Comics graphic-novelized the careers of bands like Black Sabbath in the company's early 1990s Rock-It line, and in the 2000s shock-rocker Rob Zombie masterminded the hit Rob Zombie's Spookshow International comic from MVCreations. In the world of manga, rock and movie star Courtney Love is the inspiration for TOKYOPOP's Princess Ai, a 2004 series featuring an outspoken young heroine who disguises herself as a nightclub performer modeled after Love.

And to discuss another outlet for superheroic antics, several well-known rock music videos feature superhero takes: Prince's 1989 Batman features Prince as a half-Batman/half-Joker, with Batmen and Jokers performing as background dancers; Eminem's 2002 video Without Me, presented in classic Batman comic-book style, showcases the hip-hop artist impersonating Batman's sidekick Robin; and Shania Twain displays superheroic action in her semi-animated I'm Gonna Getcha Good video from 2003.

These aren't the only examples of the rock-to-comics crossover reversing from comics into rock—the nucleus of David Bowie's legendary Spiders from Mars band was an early 1970s outfit called Hype in which Bowie and his bandmates dressed as superheroes onstage; Todd McFarlane has illustrated album covers for KORN and others; myriad alternative-rock favorites convened in 1999 for a soundtrack album to the Witchblade comic; and a number of bands of all genres have taken their names from superhero secret identities, from Peter Parker to David Banner. —GM

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