Ken Kelly, the acclaimed painter who is perhaps best known for his iconic Kiss album covers, but who also contributed to over 100 comic book painted covers for Warren Publishing and also all the box art for Mego’s Micronauts toys, has passed away at the age of 76.
While a cause of death has not yet been determined, Kelly’s passing was confirmed by multiple sources, including his friend Danny Stanton, the founder of Coallier Entertainment. “RIP KEN KELLY,” Standon wrote in a June 3 Facebook post. “You will always be a legend in the KISS world. Such a great guy, artist, friend.”
Kelly began drawing at an early age, but it wasn’t until he finished a four-year stint in the United States Marine Corps in 1968 (after having traveled the world in his military career) that he began to pursue art full-time. Kelly’s uncle was the legendary painter, Frank Frazetta. The two did not really discuss art until Kelly’s father (the bother of Eleanor Frazetta, who was married to Frank for 52 years) tragically passed away soon after Kelly’s time in the Marines came to a close. Kelly later recalled that Frazetta, “acknowledged me as an adult and asked me to show him what I could do art wise. And that’s what started it all.”
After studying with Frazetta, Kelly got his first painted cover assignment for James Warren’s Warren Publishing. Frazetta had previously done some iconic early cover work for Warren, including the cover for Vampirella #1 and many legendary early covers for Eerie and Creepy. Frazetta actually redid the face of the woman on Kelly’s first cover, which was Vampirella #6.
Kelly became a regular cover artist for Warren Publishing, doing dozens of covers for the publisher over the next few years and drawing more covers for Warren than any other artist. Kelly’s career took a major turn in 1975 when he was approached to draw the cover for Kiss’ then-upcoming album, Destroyer. The band had initially tried to hire Frazetta, but when that didn’t work, drummer Peter Criss recommended Kelly, whose work he had seen on some Warren covers.
“I had always thought it was Gene Simmons, but Criss’s wife said it was he who was reading Eerie and Creepy While Gene and Paul Stanley were reading Marvel comics,” Kelly said in a 2018 profile for Print Magazine. “So I would say Peter Criss was fundamentally responsible for me ending up being the cover guy.”
Kelly’s iconic painting for 1976’s Destroyer change his career forever. He soon became an in-demand music album painter. He painted the album cover for Kiss’ sixth studio album, Love Gunin 1977 and later did six album covers for the heavy metal band, Manowar.
Kelly is also well known for the backing cards he did for Mego’s Micronauts toy line. In a 2004 interview shared on his website, Kelly recalled, “I got a call from a guy named John McNet, who was I guess the marketing director at the time. They were preparing to launch this new project, and he had seen some of my work, liked it, and wanted me to — the way he stated it was — ‘We have a 4-inch high product, and we want you to make it look like it’s 30 feet tall.’ And that was basically my assignment. To make this 4-inch piece of plastic look like it’s a living breathing menace. And I said, that’s cool. I can do that.”
Kelly continued to do covers for books and albums for the rest of his long and storied career. He even returned to comics in the late 1990s for a run as the cover artist on Dark Horse’s Star Wars series. Kelly reflected on his career in a 2017 interview with Knoxville Mercury. “What I want to do is paint stuff that people like to look at,” he said. “Any subject — fantasy, not-fantasy, toys, business products, whatever the hell it is, I’m going to try to make it look real good.”