Ken Kelly, Frank Frazetta’s nephew, jumpstarted a career in art with a little help from Gene Simmons in 1975 and then became a household name
By Priya Panda
Never judge a book by its cover. Long Island-based artist Ken Kelly is happy that old adage was thrown out the window the day in 1975 when Dennis Woloch, art director for KISS, was sent by manager Bill Aucoin to the corner newsstand to collect horror magazines and comics with striking covers. The magazines were needed for an important band meeting. The topic of discussion? What the front of KISS’s Destroyer album should look like.
During the meeting, Gene Simmons, the band’s fiery, opinionated bassist, pointed to a magazine whose cover art featured a sad, emotional robot destroying a room. Simmons was adamant that the artist of that magazine cover create the art for Destroyer, an album that would go on to achieve double platinum sales. The artist was Ken Kelly, and his life has never been the same.
“It’s mind-blowing the series of events that got me here,” Kelly says.
If fate had twisted gently or tugged firmly in another direction, Kelly may not have ended up becoming one of the most prolific dark fantasy artists of all time. However, starting with the covers of those old horror magazines, he eventually influenced the aesthetic of rock & roll, toys, comics and more. “What we’re trying to do is take people and give them a break from reality,” says Kelly. “We’re showing them something they don’t see every day.”
Born in 1946 on a naval base in New London, Connecticut, Kelly and his family moved to Brooklyn, and, finally, to Long Island, where he spent his adolescence. He’d always had a knack for art. In fact, when he was in high school, he was already earning money using his talent. “My art teacher, Mrs. Valerius got work for me,” he says. “She was trying to make me see that you could make a living with art.”
But, like his father—a lieutenant commander in the Merchant Marines—Kelly was hellbent on the military.
“I was in a different place mentally,” he said. “I had to first get myself together before I could even dream of that. Art had to be put on the shelf for a while. Getting into the military was a personal thing. A lot of kids get into trouble. I felt I needed to take some time off and get my brains together. I thought I needed the discipline.”
Kelly says he was right, but it wasn’t a smooth ride.
“You walk into the military and think you’re going to have this nice, easy road,” he recalls. “Then they hand you a rifle and send you off to some place, it’s horrible! But hey, I did grow up.”
After four years, Kelly was discharged, and at age 21 he had no idea what to do with his future. He had a few military skills, a knack for art and a wife to support. “If you are going from a military background and you stop that and go back to civilian life, nobody talks about the tremendous change and hardships you’ve endured,” he says. “When you leave the military, you have absolutely nothing. I have no regrets, but it’s strange.”
Calling upon his talent, he decided to investigate what a career in art would entail.
Although few artists now rival Kelly in fantasy pop culture influence, what are the odds that one of them would happen to be his biggest inspiration and mentor? His uncle, through marriage, was Frank Frazetta, a prolific fantasy and sci-fi artist who is now a legend in the field. Frazetta also got his early recognition from comic books but eventually went on to do books, album covers and more.
“I was a lucky young man,” says Kelly. “I had access to seeing a lot of beautiful art.”
But he also saw his uncle struggle. “Financially, it’s a bitch for young artists. Frazetta was no exception, even with his massive talent,” he says. “I was with him during those rough years.” Kelly saw Frazetta go through the period he calls “schooling” that he describes as “twenty years of absolute hell.” It’s the seemingly endless period when an artist struggles to find recognition and gain success.
If it weren’t for the death of his father, right before he got out of the service, Kelly might not have become so close to Frazetta. His aunt and uncle came to his father’s funeral and a wake at his mother’s house. “It may seem a strange time to do so, but he asked me if I had any art to bring it over and he’d take a look at it.”
The next time Kelly got leave from the Army, he brought over some work and received the guidance that set him on the path that ultimately became more than a career: it became his life’s work. Frazetta’s advice to first train as an artist was not taken lightly. “He didn’t teach me,” recalls Kelly. “He told me what I needed: learn to draw, paint and combine those skills with anatomy.”
Kelly and his wife sold everything and moved to Cannes, France. They stayed with his wife’s family while Kelly “beat my brains trying to figure out what the hell this oil painting business is all about.” He may have studied art intensively for a year in a picturesque setting, but he certainly wasn’t on vacation. “You’re broke. You’re in this beautiful place, but you don’t have a dime. I sat in a room for a year watching the beautiful people walk by,” he said, with a laugh.
He recalls his breakthrough as an artist: “It took me a year. I was doing a nothing painting as an exercise, painting another steel helmet.” It was a gladiator in a coliseum with a bare chest. When he got the shine on the helmet just right, he knew something had clicked.
When Kelly and his wife moved back to New York, he remembers, “I came back with a painting I was relatively sure would sell and so I took it in. Not only did they pay me for my first cover but assigned me twelve more to do.” He stayed with Warren Publications for five years doing horror covers. His task was to make simple, scary monster covers that were meant to entice young people into picking them up. He was making $130 per painting. Getting people to judge books by their covers had become a part-time job.
Besides the freelance artwork, he had a day job and would take the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan to deliver his work and pick up another task. He’d be late for his job, but they knew about his side hustle and let it slide. He’d finish work at 5 pm and start on his art. He also had a part-time night job at Corvette’s, a toy store. He was about to find out that hard work puts you where good luck finds you.
By the time Kelly’s work was found on newsstands by KISS’s people, he’d already been working steadily, painting magazine covers since he was 21 years old. “It was one of those horror covers that KISS saw,” said Kelly. “I was working for years and was instantly discovered one day by KISS, and from then I’ve been painting as hard as I can.”
The original idea for Destroyer was a building on fire right behind the band with KISS running right toward the viewer. Kelly put a rough together and everyone in the band loved it. But the parent company, Casablanca Records, rejected it because they didn’t want the public thinking KISS was a violent group.
Though Kelly thought his career was over at that point, the company gave him thirty days to resubmit a final illustration, this time moving the band further away from the building. He aimed, for the Destroyer cover, to make the members of KISS appear larger than life—real people but with a touch of the comic.
“When they said ‘we’re gonna do it again’, I got paid twice,” he recalls, “That’s how I got my house.” With the money from Destroyer, he was able to buy the Long Island home in which he has resided with his wife of 50 years. It’s the house that KISS helped build.
Forty years later, Kelly’s Destroyer artwork is still his best seller.
“It’s what you want as an artist to have the world recognize something you did as something that’s beautiful,” he says. “That’s all you want to hear in life.” Stories he’s heard ever since about the album causing such a ripple in households that it was thrown out by parents or kids were only allowed to listen to it on certain days of the week was helping to solidify the impact Destroyer had on pop culture. “KISS had it all together. They had the concept. They took it to an extreme and added merchandising,” he explained. “They just needed a fantasy cover to help them launch and that’s what I did.”
He worked with KISS again on their Love Gun album on which he was the body model for the band members and his wife the model for all of the ladies in waiting, worshipping at their feet. It’s no surprise, then, that Ken Kelly has spent the last 20 years guesting at KISS conventions, sharing his story and his art with thousands of fans. He and Gene Simmons have this in common.
“It takes an enormous amount of work if you want to be successful as an artist or a musician. Hard work is 80% of it,” he said.
His other well-known work with musicians includes Rainbow’s 1976 album Rising. “I did that one right after KISS and that went double platinum, too. That’s the only album Rainbow had that went platinum, so I’m going to take some credit for that.” He has also depicted the band Manowar since 1989 on “95% of their covers over the last 30 years and we’re still working together!” Add more recent releases by Coheed and Cambria and Ace Frehley to that list and it’s true that Kelly’s still in demand.
But his reach outside of the music world is possibly where he’s made the most quiet noise.
He gained a massive following after he became the artist for Conan the Barbarian. Young men had jumped on the bandwagon since the character’s creation in the 1930’s by Robert E. Howard. Things came full circle when Kelly inherited the character from Frank Frazetta, who had been depicting Conan since the 1960s. Now, it was his turn to try his hand at the manly savage Conan.
In the 1990’s, Kelly picked up a 23-cover assignment from Lucas Industries for Dark Horse magazine. “George [Lucas] himself bought 18 of the originals which made my wife very happy.”
Kelly has also done the artwork on boxes and covers for more than 200 toys and toy-lines like Dungeons and Dragons, Hasbro and Micronauts. “There’s just as big an audience for music as there is for toys,” he said.
These days he’s still happiest in front of the easel where he works more now than ever painting covers, characters and mythical fantasy creatures. “I’m a happy productive artist,” he said. “I’m just a happy camper.”
Priya Panda is a Toronto-bred singer, writer and record collector. She’s toured the planet playing rock n’ roll with her projects Diemonds and She Demons and is currently residing in Los Angeles with her two cats writing a new album.