"...the secrets of the universe
on three-by-five cards!"

'nothing in the universe is permanent, Curly...'

February 12 2008: I report, with deep sadness, the death of Steve Gerber: who I loved, and if you read on you'll see why.
All of KISSNATION should pause and remember him for the wonderful and inspiring work he did with the Four Who Are One.
Contributions to The Hero Initiative, an organization that raises funds to support comic book creators in their later years or times of trouble, would be a nice way to memorialize him.
Read much more about Steve, including tributes and memories, here.

Of course, we should start by pointing out that they didn't get their own feature right away. Steve Gerber, who would soon write that feature, introduced KISS to the Marvel Universe by giving them two cameo appearances in the book he was then writing full-time for Marvel, Howard the Duck. HTD would eventually (and unfortunately) spawn a hugely unsuccessful movie and become a laughing-stock; but back then it was a major hit and the talk of fandom, and it's not hard to see why. A wild combination of comedy, philosophy, surrealism and a dash of interspecies sex, dished out by one of comics' most brilliant headcases, Howard was one of a kind. Probably no other book in Marvel's stable at the time could have contained the following sequence from HTD #12 & 13 - set in the corridors of a mental hospital, no less! - with which Gerber threw KISS explosively into Marvel continuity...

KISS meet Howard

...(Peter advises a dazed Howard: "When you meet reality head-on - kiss it, smack in the face!
That's the word! Pass it on!")

But that was only a sample. The first Marvel Comics Super Special was the real deal.

MARVEL COMICS SUPER SPECIAL: KISS, 1977. Written and produced by Steve Gerber. Artists: Alan Weiss, John and Sal Buscema, Rich Buckler.
Inks: Al Milgrom. Colors: Marie Severin.

Seventh Avenue, NYC: Our story opens with a teenage Gene and Paul heatedly discussing the horrors of accountancy and stodgy adulthood en route to the Playland Arcade. "Even you think I'm too old to read comic books! Deny it!" cries Gene. But any chance for a life of mundanity is about to go right out the window, as they're abruptly presented by blind street singer Dizzy the Hun (obviously modeled on NYC legend Moondog) with a magickal reliquary containing four talismans of great power - the Box of Khyscz (pronounced, of course,"kiss"). Dizzy has to pitch the box over the heads of a pack of muggers, so there's not much time to read the kids the instruction manual, but he does his best: "Hither cometh thy destiny! For within yon box reside thine own selves - thy love and thy rage, thy grace and thy power -! The truth and the mystery of mind and body, intellect and emotion, time and space--!" (A magnificent passage which still gives me chills! Wow!)

(And why, you ask, was Dizzy being mugged? Because the muggers were in the employ of none other than Marvel's greatest villain, Dr. Victor von Doom. The Box of Khyscz, it seems, was to have been his inheritance upon the death of his gypsy sorceress mother. But her tribe wisely distrusted the idea of handing such powerful magicks to the ambitious Doom, and instead sent the Box to far-off America in the care of a tribal mystic - Dizzy, of course - to remain in his safekeeping until the coming of those the gypsies considered its rightful inheritors.)

Ace, of course, has his own idea of what it contains: "I know what's in it--! A pearl of great value--maybe several--no, on second thought... Maybe the secrets of the universe on three-by-five cards!" Despite having a pack of ticked-off thugs in hot pursuit, he can't resist. He opens the Box of Khyscz, and as the kids grasp their individual talismans a thunderous transformation takes place: each one instantly acquires a snazzy black-and-silver outfit, thirty pounds of superheroic muscle, and an appropriate metahuman ability to boot. Gene has super-strength, can breathe fire and fly; Peter has the skill and agility of a gold-medal gymnast; Paul can project from his right eye a violet beam that gives him total control over the emotions of anyone it touches; and Ace hits the jackpot, gaining the ability not only to emit powerful vibratory waves and control his own vibrational rate a' la The Flash, but to teleport himself and anyone else instantly to anywhere in spacetime.

The transformed four make short work of Doom's goons, then, courtesy of Ace's newfound powers, book the joint and try to figure out what the heck happened...

KISS and Lady LibertyGene sez, 'if you read comics, you'd know!'

The resulting story is action-packed and colorful, taking the four from a Marvel-esque Heaven and Hell to an outer-space disco and a final showdown in the snowy mountains of Latveria versus Doctor Doom himself. With Dizzy's help, they triumph even over the monarch of Latveria (by an unorthodox tactic - appealing to his memories of his childhood) and force him to admit his grudging respect for the costumed kids' nerve even as he swears they haven't seen the last of him....

This comic so far exceeded my hopes for it that I remember to this moment the thrill of that first reading. I still believe it's Marvel's best effort at creating a comic with the kickass energy and optimism of the best rock'n'roll.
-- As much fun as it is to read, though, what gives it its lasting resonance is Gerber's own enthusiasm for the KISS ideal and his conviction that it can apply in daily life. He's careful to maintain believable character balance between the teenaged New Yorkers we first meet and the superhumans they become, even making a point of showing them replacing the talismans in the Box and returning to their ordinary forms at the end of the story. As exotic as their new appearances are, they continue to call each other by their first names throughout the story, their persona names occurring only in captions. [Indeed, the hero personas are just magnified and exaggerated versions of the four kids' own personalities. Gene, intelligent, dramatic, aggressive and ambitious, becomes a literal fire-breathing dragon. Ace - surrealist sense of humor, cerebral, calm and dreamy - becomes a science-fiction creature with a power that's technical and "cool", essentially passive. Paul, sympathetic, romantic, ethical and compassionate, gains power over the feelings of others but takes great care to use it responsibly. And Peter, low-key, funny and down-to-earth, the one least impressed by it all, gains the least assuming and flashy power - acrobatic skill - and always lands on his feet. =)]

Gerber's point is plain: these are still people, just kids; they may have become superheroes but so could you, if you want to. "The Box of Khyscz will make you kings of the nighttime world - but you must live your days, as well, with the same courage to explore!" Dizzy tells the foursome. It's obviously the Everykid's hope and optimism that KISS embody - the conviction that anyone's capacity for heroism is as great as his/her own dreams and determination, no magical talismen required - that grabs Gerber, and his response to it here is a little glowing dynamo of positive energy, as strong now as it was then.
And then they announced a second one...!

--Want to read more about KISS's history in comics? Click and read on.

Rather skip the backstory and just read about PSYCHO CIRCUS?
Here's my exploration of the magickal symbolism of the Four-Who-Are-One.

...go back to Area 77.
...go ALL the way back to The Archive.