From 1975 to 1979 you couldn’t look anywhere without seeing the rock band KISS, except for Saturday morning cartoons. A KISS cartoon seems like something that should have existed, just as The Beatles had a cartoon. Just as The Jackson 5, or The Osmonds. Heck, KISS even had a Marvel comic book. You would think they would have at least made an appearance in The New Scooby-Doo Movies, but that show had ended before the band started.
With such an impact on pop culture it’s reasonable for someone to believe a cartoon had been made, but how close did they actually come to making one? It seems there were multiple attempts, so let’s take a look at what might have been, as well as the animated projects KISS actually did appear in later on in their career.
In the late 1970s, Hanna-Barbera entered a deal to produce a live-action feature film starring KISS. They were at the height of their popularity, with their merchandise selling out everywhere alongside Star Wars and Evel Knievel. KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park aired only once on NBC in October 1978, then disappeared completely until it would be released on home video in the 80s. An alternate version was prepared for international audiences and it became a hit worldwide, but the campy Scooby-Doo-like nature of the film would come to embarrass the band in the years that followed.
The film’s production was the result of a series of meetings between KISS and Hanna-Barbera with the goal of eventually doing an animated KISS project. Andy Heyward of Filmation was trying to get the rights to make a KISS cartoon from the band’s manager, Bill Aucoin, in early 1978. Heyward introduced Aucoin to his father, Louis M. “Deke” Heyward, who was working for Hanna-Barbera as their Executive in Charge of Production. Realizing the strength of the band’s then-current success, both Heywards met with Aucoin to negotiate for the rights to make KISS-related productions.
At the time Hanna-Barbera was trying to branch out into live-action films, and “Deke” Heyward’s job as Executive in Charge of Production was to find projects that would fall in line with the Hanna-Barbera brand. They had made a deal with NBC to produce several TV movies for them, which was presented to KISS as a possibility during their meetings. Aucoin believed that a deal for a live-action movie that could lead to a cartoon at Hanna-Barbera was more appealing than just doing a cartoon at Filmation, so he went with Hanna-Barbera.Joe Barbera, one of the co-founders of Hanna-Barbera, wasn’t familiar with KISS. He only knew that kids loved them and their records were selling like hotcakes. Once the deals had been made, Barbera would learn more about this strange, makeup-clad rock group. They scared him! He was genuinely afraid of them, the way one would be afraid of clowns.
On one occasion, the band would come down to the Hanna-Barbera studio to discuss the film, and they had arrived in their full makeup and costumes to take photos for the press. Barbera had seen them get out of their car from his office window, and he immediately locked his door. He then turned on the red light that let everyone know that he was not to be disturbed. He refused to come out of his office until KISS had left the property, completely stunned at how they could dare show up to his office in makeup and costumes. Heyward had to remind him that Hanna-Barbera had costumed characters at their press events, this wasn’t much different. To be fair, Barbera didn’t expect to be doing business with the men in the costumes.
During filming, Barbera had seen some footage and thought one of the members of the band was sick because his tongue was hanging out of his mouth. Heyward again explained to him how Gene Simmons uses his freakishly-long tongue as part of his act. Barbera nearly lost it. He had a team of editors ready to figure out how to put Gene’s tongue back into his mouth, which could have been the most expensive special effect in the film. Eventually, Barbera relented, and they agreed to no more than four instances of the “tongue thing” throughout the film. Compared to KISS concerts, TV appearances, and the reality series Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels, there is a noticeable lack of tongue-wagging in KISS Meets The Phantom of The Park.
The film was finished and aired only once on US television as KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park in 1978, then it was re-edited and released to theaters internationally as Attack of the Phantoms in 1979. The movie was a blockbuster hit around the world, but it languished in the US. KISS and Hanna-Barbera wouldn’t continue their working relationship any further, for better or worse. Though a month after Phantom of the Park aired, ABC would air an episode of The Scooby-Doo Show called The Diabolical Disc Demon featuring the character Ace Decade, a musician who dresses up as a KISS-like phantom. The name Ace Decade is clearly a reference to Ace Frehley, as is the character’s costume, while the makeup was inspired by Gene Simmons.
As mentioned earlier, Andy Heyward, who would later found the animation studio DiC, worked for Filmation. Using Heyward’s connection with Aucoin, around 1980 Lou Scheimer was allegedly shopping a KISS cartoon around to different networks. The American economy wasn’t doing too great at the time, but the band’s popularity was growing in Europe, Australia, and South America. An animated series timed to coincide with the band’s international success would be an unstoppable hit, just as the movie was. It was decided to seek an international co-producer to help finance the series.
A West German TV station had been in talks to co-produce the series with Filmation, but the German executives pulled back after the initial pitch meeting. They had been offended by the sight of the KISS logo, which features two prominent lightning bolts as S’s. For Germans, this looked too similar to the symbol used for the SS during the days of Nazi Germany. KISS actually made a logo specifically for the German market, but this logo wasn’t part of the pitch given during that meeting. The Germans kicked the Filmation representatives out of their office, and Filmation’s last chance at a KISS cartoon fell apart.
Back in January, Cartoon Researcher Jim Korkis published an article about Jack Kirby’s time at Ruby-Spears from 1980 to 1986, and he made a passing reference to an unproduced KISS project. In 2020, the website Anthony’s Comic Book Art listed a piece of artwork by Jack Kirby for sale: Kirby’s personal xeroxed copy of the concept art for an animated KISS project called KISS vs. Dracula. The artwork features the band fighting Dracula’s army of killer robots, which again, was the style at the time. Gene Simmons confirmed this project in a tweet, but he claims that the project would’ve been produced by Hanna-Barbera. It’s likely he actually meant Ruby-Spears since that was where Kirby was working at the time. Strangely, the artwork features the band in their 1976 Destroyer costumes, rather than the 1979/1980 Dynasty/Unmasked costumes. A minor nitpick for KISS nerds, but it’s an important detail for understanding that these were all separate projects, rather than one pitch that was shopped around for several years.
Back to Hanna-Barbera
Let’s circle back to Hanna-Barbera, maybe Gene meant something else when he claimed that the Jack Kirby art was from a Hanna-Barbera project? Well, it seems there may have been something going on in the brief time after Phantom of the Park. In October 2020, KISS expert (or KISStorian) Bob Nash went on the 80’s Glam Metalcast and spoke about the plans for a possible KISS animated series or animated special. He claims to have spoken to Gene Simmons about it, who told him that it was going to be produced by Hanna-Barbera and that it would have featured the band in their 1979 Dynasty costumes.
This distinction is important, as it separates this project from the 1980 Jack Kirby project. Simmons also mentioned that there was artwork produced, and that he personally owned everything related to the project.
This is backed up by an internal memo from Aucoin Management that mentions an “animated special” in 1979. Supposedly, the project was canceled by the band’s management because they didn’t want to risk overexposure. Since Simmons owned the artwork produced, it’s assumed that this art was used for one piece of KISS merchandise: the KISS Rub n’ Play toy set. There’s no concrete proof, but this is the only product to feature illustrations of the band in their Dynasty costumes.
So, let’s answer that question. Why wasn’t there a KISS cartoon?
There are two obvious answers, the first is that the band suffered overexposure by 1979 as predicted. The album Dynasty was advertised as The Return of KISS after the band took a year off from touring to do the movie, but the album didn’t land with fans. An infamous interview on The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder revealed that the band was having issues that drove two of the original members out. Any KISS cartoon produced in 1980 would have to pull a Coy and Vance and replace two of the members by the second season, which yet again, was the style at the time. The band’s popularity in the US fizzled out by the time a cartoon could be produced, and internal problems with the band ensured that one definitely wouldn’t be produced.
It wouldn’t be until 1998 that KISS would finally appear in animation, just as the original line-up had reunited at the height of the 70s nostalgia craze. Nickelodeon’s stop-motion series Action League Now! featured the band in the episode Rock-A-Big-Baby. This led to appearances in other shows such as Family Guy, What’s New Scooby-Doo, and The Fairly Oddparents in the 2000s. Finally, in 2015 the fine folks at Warner Bros. Animation produced Scooby-Doo and KISS Rock and Roll Mystery, a direct-to-video film that works as a spiritual successor to KISS Meets The Phantom of The Park, without having any direct connection to it. While technically a Scooby-Doo film, the film focuses primarily on KISS and their story.What do you think? Should there have been a KISS cartoon in the late 70s to solidify their place in pop culture alongside The Harlem Globetrotters and The Robonic Stooges? Would it echo the earlier Beatles cartoon, or would it be more like Super Friends? Did you work for any of these studios at the time and have any juicy information? Let me know. I’m fully expecting at least 200 comments saying “KISS sucks” as if that’s an argument anyone’s still having in 2023.
Most of the information here comes from the book Conversations with Phantoms by Ron Albanese, a series of interviews with people directly involved with the production of KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. The story about Filmation’s KISS project comes from a Q&A session Albanese made recently in Huntington, New York where he told stories and explained details he learned during the making of his book. He backed up his claims with e-mails from a producer at Filmation. The Jack Kirby artwork comes from Anthony’s Comic Book Art, who acquired it directly from the Kirby family.