Ken Kelly, the acclaimed painter who is perhaps best known for his iconic Kiss album covers, but who also contributed over 100 painted comic book covers for Warren Publishing and also all box artwork for toys Micronauts of Mego, died at the age of 76.
Although the cause of death has yet to be determined, Kelly’s passing has been confirmed by multiple sources, including his friend Danny Stanton, the founder of Coallier Entertainment. “RIP KEN KELLY,” Standon wrote in a June 3 Facebook Publish. “You will always be a legend in the world of KISS. Awesome guy, artist, friend.”
Kelly began drawing at an early age, but it wasn’t until he completed a four-year stint in the United States Marine Corps in 1968 (having traveled the world during his military career) that began to pursue art full time. Kelly’s uncle was legendary painter Frank Frazetta. The two didn’t really discuss art until Kelly’s father (brother of Eleanor Frazetta, married to Frank for 52 years) tragically died shortly after Kelly’s time in the Marines ended. . Kelly later recalled that Frazetta, “recognized me as an adult and asked me to show her what I could do artistically. And that’s what started it all.”
After studying with Frazetta, Kelly got her first painted cover assignment for Warren Publishing from James Warren. Frazetta had previously done some iconic early cover work for Warren, including the cover of vampire #1 and many legendary early covers for Claim and Claim. Frazetta actually redid the woman’s face on Kelly’s first cover, which was vampire #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 design the cover for Kiss’ upcoming album, Destructive. The band had initially tried to hire Frazetta, but when that didn’t work out, drummer Peter Criss recommended Kelly, whose work he had seen on some Warren covers.
“I always thought it was Gene Simmons, but Criss’ wife said he was the one reading Claim and Claim while Gene and Paul Stanley read Marvel comics,” Kelly said in a 2018 profile for Printed magazine. “So I would say Peter Criss was basically responsible for me ending up being the cover guy.”
Kelly’s signature painting for the 1976s Destructive changed his career forever. He quickly became a much sought after painter of music albums. He painted the album cover for Kiss’ sixth studio album, gun of lovein 1977 and later did six album covers for heavy metal band, Manowar.
Kelly is also well known for the backing cards he made for Mego’s Micronauts line of toys. In a 2004 interview shared on his websiteKelly recalls, “I got a call from a guy named John McNet, who I’m assuming was the marketing manager at the time. They were getting ready to launch this new project, and he had seen some of my work , loved it and wanted me to – the way he said it – “We have a 4 inch tall product, and we want you to make it look like it’s 30 feet tall.” And that was basically my mission. To make this 4″ piece of plastic look like a living respiratory threat. And I said, that’s cool. I can do that.
Kelly continued to do book and album covers for the rest of her 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 opened up about her career in a 2017 interview with Mercury of Knoxville. “What I want to do is paint things that people like to look at,” he said. “Any subject – fantasy, non-fantasy, toys, commercial products, whatever, I’ll try to make it really beautiful.”