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An Exclusive Interview with Ken Kelly Painter of the Micronauts Card Art
12 Mar 2004

 

"With art, if you look hard enough there's a lot of answers right there in front of you." 

Part 1 








 

 


Terraphant oil on canvas 30" x 40"

 








 

 
Ken Kelly really needs no introduction. His amazing body of work speaks for itself, most notably as a fantasy art painter who's work has graced album covers, magazine covers and even toy packaging. If you are not familiar with his work...you may have never listened to the KISS Destroyer album, picked up an Eerie or Creepy magazine...never bought a He-Man toy? With over 30 years in the business, Ken Kelly is still going strong today. But back in 1978 when his career mostly consisted of hanging with barbarians and rock stars, a big toy company came knocking to commission some work for a new line of 3 3/4" figures they were selling. The company was MEGO, and the toy line was The Micronauts. Toy packaging would never be the same...At the time of the interview, I actually caught Ken Kelly in the middle of working on a painting. He likes to work and talk at the same time, so we began discussing the work at hand and how he is usually juggling more than one thing at a time…
 









 

 

ISO : I really appreciate you taking some time out to do this.


Ken Kelly : "Oh, no problem. I'm paintin' while I talk to you. I haven't stopped painting…(laughter)…I have over 100 (paintings) up stairs, and I'm constantly working on private commissions. I have 7 big boards right here in front of me, and I'm trying to get a book out."


ISO : What are you working on?


KK : "This is one for the book, it's called 'Bird's Nest', a lovely topless honey with a gorgeous set of kazams, and she's kneeling in front of this really prehistoric bird, and it's a goodie. It's a hottie."


ISO : So you're working on trying to publish a second book? What's the title? How far along are you?


KK : "It's called 'Ken Kelly, ESCAPE'. We're almost there. I think I'm about 3 or 4 months there. I have 46 new pen and inks (13 to go) 8 or 9 original new paintings (2 to go) and text I have 9 to go out of 50, so it's been a long couple of years for me, I tell ya."

 








 

 

ISO : Will the old Micronauts paintings be in there?


KK "No, they will not be in this one. Simply because when I arranged the book I have everything spaced out, and there wasn't room allotted to it. But should everything work and I get the permissions, I'll put them in the next one. We're trying to come up with some unique concepts and new stuff. A lot of guys just came out with books, and they all used their old stuff, and I thought 'here's an opportunity to give the fans something brand new if you can'."


ISO : How many hours a day do you spend actually painting?


KK "About 5, about 5 doing the business, 5 doing the pen and inks…they're hard to do. I'm a painter, I'm not generally a pen and ink man, but I'm getting' pretty good at it with all this practice." (laughter) 8pm is my key time, I'm up till about 3 in the morning? 4 in the morning? So I get up at about 10 or 11 am, got all the day business stuff to take care of. The mailings, pick this up, go to the printer, go to the photographer, and go all over the different towns, stuff like that. By the time I'm done all that stuff it's 4 o'clock or so, I'm back home, put everything away. See what e-mails there are, and stop everything. Shut off the computer, and start working."

 








 


 







 


Membros oil on canvas 30" x 34"

Repto oil on canvas 30" x 34"








 

 

ISO : So how long were you 'professionally' painting before you did the Micronauts paintings?


KK : "…(counting slowly to himself) about 7 years, about 69 is when I started. I got out of the Marine Corp., and you realize you can't kill people for a living, so you say, 'hey I gotta learn something else.' Luckily I had someone in the field who guided me…"


ISO : So is he (Frank Frazetta) you're Uncle?


KK : "His wife is my Father's Brothers Daughter…so what is that? His wife's a relative…"


ISO : So would you go visit Frank and watch him paint?


KK : "I never watched him paint anything, he would never let me. He is very…"


ISO : Secretive?


KK : "…yeah, you know, he has a right. I'm someone who's gonna come in and compete with him basically, so there's a lot of things I asked him about and he said I'm not gonna tell you. But he basically opened the hood of the car and says 'here's the engine, this is the carburetor, this is that and this is that and you do the rest.' That's pretty much the way it was. And that's fine."


ISO : Well that's a good person to have at hand to pick his brain, huh?


KK : "And he wouldn't let me. But the biggest thing Frank Frazetta let me do was to look at the art. He had original artwork sitting around stuffed in the corner, being kicked this and that- this is the stuff that's going for like $2-300,000 now- at the time it was kicking around in the corners, 'here…you wanna go look at it? Go look at it.' So I would sit there for an hour at a time just staring at a painting. Picking it apart…'what made him do it this way? How did he get this? Why is there so much white paint in this area?' You know, all the things we would do… if it was a carburetor we'd strip it apart and say what the hell makes it work? So it's the same thing. With art, if you look hard enough there's a lot of answers right there in front of you."

 








 


 

ISO : When a toy company approaches you to do a painting, like LJN, Mattel, or in this case Mego, do they just straight up commission a painting from you and then purchase it?


KK : "No, they don't purchase the painting. They purchase the rights, that's negotiated even before you lift a paint brush or a pencil, what it's going to be and you make the best possible deal you can. Like LJN, they owned everything they got. With Mego…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."


ISO : So about what year was this? You mentioned before that you did 2 separate sets of paintings for them…


KK : "I know that the Hornetroid and the Antron were among the first. The Antron…it was the first. It was kind of a gamble on what they wanted to do, and so I did Antron and brought in and they said 'Bingo'."


ISO : So that was the first one that you produced for them that sealed the deal, huh?


KK : "And Marty (Abrams) actually didn't buy, he took. But I agreed to it, and I'm sure he's still got it. That's Marty, you know. I met the guy a couple of times and spoke with him, he was a tremendous businessman. Tremendously smart and all, and he liked the painting and he thought the product was going to go, and he just said 'I'm gonna take this, Ken.' And because I wanted a lot more, I said 'OK.' (laughter) Normally I don't…"








 

 

ISO : So how long did this first one take, from start to finish?


KK : "2 to 3 weeks. Maybe a month for the Hornetroid, that one was the most complicated. That shine effect, that shiny plastic look…that was…whew!"


ISO : So to lay out a painting like this, they sent you some reference, like of the toys, right?


KK : "Right. They had prototypes at the time. They didn't actually have product, it was still in the development stage. Maybe just past the development stage? Around '78? It was after KISS, and it just stretched on and on…there were 2 groups of toys. The first group of toys, which was early (Repto, Membros and Antron), and then there was a little delay, a little while that I didn't hear from them, and then all of a sudden they said hey! And the second batch was like- and you could almost see it in the paintings- they were like 'Ken, we need six of them, now.' (Hornetroid, Terraphant, Kronos, Lobros and Centaurus) Like an assembly line thing, and that's not the way you want to do this stuff, but hey. That's what the call was, and I stepped up. Those all happened…I don't think it was a week apart. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang…"


ISO : You painted each one of those in a week?


KK : "Yeah. They needed them, and part of the game was 'NOW'."


ISO : So would you set up the toy in front of you? Would you take photographs? Would you angle it, light it?


KK : "No photographs. You just- the prototype, most of the time I believe it was gray, cuz that's the plastic they work in- you just hold it in your hand and look up at it, and dead eye it. Bang it. There's no time for all that stuff, no time for 'let me see what this is, and how this angle works', nah. There's no time. You just put it up in front of you, look at the board and paint that sucker."


ISO : Would you sketch it out on the canvas first?


KK : "With the brush."


ISO : You wouldn't do any thumbnail or anything first?

 

 

 

KK : "Nah. You're wasting you're creative juices. If you do all that, what you want to do- a pen and ink, another pencil sketch, too much of that- you're wasting you're creative juices. When you've got it with a paint brush, you can bang it right in there, you can just develop it right there, work up from that."


ISO : So they didn't need any kind of rough or anything like that for approval?


KK : "Ahhh…God, did they? They might have. And that would be an oil thing, a really really basic oil thing. They were the first company to give me a color chart. They had a gazillion colors, and they would pick, they would identify a color… 'This guy's head is this, this guy's arms are this'. In their reference material they would give me, it would usually be a Xerox piece of paper with the picture of the thing on it, and little markings saying 'this is red, this is orange, this is yellow', and they'd have a corresponding number telling you exactly what color it is on this color chart they handed me. So I would refer to this color chart and try the best I could to get close to that color." 


 

 

 


Hornetroid oil on canvas 30" x 40"

 


 

 




Hornetroid rough courtesy of Gordon Smuder

 

ISO : Well that kind of answers a question for some of us, probably minor to you, but interesting to us, that the Aliens you painted all had different colored brains, and the first set of produced figures had them for a short time. Later on, they were all released with glow-in-the-dark green brains, so it looks like your paintings (especially with the second series of Aliens) represented Mego's intended idea with the brain colors.


KK : "You know, I never saw actual product. I never saw the completed finished product until I went to a toy store and saw it."


ISO : They didn't comp you any samples?


KK : "The one I did have a sample on…let me see, it's coming back to me…I did see the Terraphant when the whole thing was done, I think a couple of the colors were changed regarding like the legs or something. But I did see a finished product, don't think I took it home…"


ISO : Did they show you maybe a Hornetroid that was colored orange or yellow, and they changed it to black?


KK : "No…I saw the black. I don't recall any other…I was intimidated by that black. I had not worked in that specific color before, and with everything shining and reflecting off into the next item, I was just like damn! This was a complicated piece of painting here! I remember them saying 'you know, you can do it.' And I say, 'ok fine!' You think I can do it, I'll go home and do it…"


 

 

ISO : So you kind of learned on that…


KK : "Learned as I went on that. You gotta understand I was just 6, 7, 8 years outta the Marine Corp., no professional training at all, so I was learning all the time. Everything I got…on KISS, I was learning. I had 3 or 4 years at Warren which was the Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella stuff, and that was tremendously challenging cuz it was a bi-weekly magazine and they had deadlines left, right and the other way. So you learned to paint fast. I had to, it was learn or die, and I had a family to feed so I says 'hey, I'm gonna learn!' I've been doing it 35 years and love it. You got to, or you're dead. At Warren I was mainly a Famous Monsters guy, I think I've done 95 of those things. I did a lot of that, and it just exploded. They needed the work and bang!…then KISS and Conan happened at about the same time I think. I remember walking back to the Conan office with the KISS gold album under my arm, and not really realizing that it was a nice award? I had no clue. 'Hey Ken, you won this here.' 'Oh good, fine, great, what the hell was it…a record, what am I gonna do with this?' (laughter)"

 


 

 

ISO : I can't put it on my turntable, it's made-a gold!


KK : " 'Why is it all cased up like this?' (laughter) I had no clue. I had no experience with the record biz, I had no idea that these guys just had sold over a hundred million records or whatever, who knew."


ISO : Yeah…who knew these guys in their silly disco costumes would do that, right? So what other bands have you worked with other than KISS?

 



 




 

 

KK : "Manowar…and a lot of little ones that didn't work. A lot of guys jumped on the bandwagon, like 'you're the KISS guy, so do me', and their music didn't hit so that was it…"


ISO : So they were expecting your cover to sell their album.


KK : "Yeah…"


ISO : Does Joey (DeMaio- bass player for Manowar) buy all the paintings?


KK : "Joey does, yeah. He pays a stiff fee for the Manowar paintings..."


ISO : Wow…do you remember what you were paid back then for the Micronauts paintings?


KK : "It was a good price…I think it was about four grand? That's why I stayed on…it was a healthy price at the time. You have to understand, you're a new artist, you're working for Warren and you're getting a $175 per painting, then you move on to another company and they give you 2 to 3 grand you know, it's a world you're just…wha? 2 to 3 grand…sure! I'll do whatever you want! What am I gonna do?" (laughter)


ISO : So it was a good payday…

 


 


 


 


Kronos oil on canvas 30" x 34"

Centaurus oil on canvas 30" x 34"


 

 

KK : "And the good thing with the toy industry was, it's usually times two or three. With the toy business, they have these products that have more than one. So you always jump at the toys, because they want to keep the product looking consistent."


ISO : And with these Micronauts, I think it could have been one of the first times an American toy company used an actual real painting, some real artistic intent behind the packaging to help sell the toys. Using a great science fiction illustration to help sell, and I think that made a huge difference.


KK : "That very well could be. A lot of work came out of the Mego thing; LJN and all kinds of different companies, and it all came after Mego. They introduced me to the toy world. I picked up with an agency, and they kept throwing work at me…and then when Mego went out of business, and all accounting was taken over by a different entity (I don't know who it was) Mego still owed me for some of the paintings. And I don't think it was their responsibility to pay me, but I went into their offices and there was a gentleman who was there, and when I mentioned it to him that I wasn't paid for a few things, he just wrote me a check. Very nice, didn't question me at all, and that was very good considering the circumstances they were going through at the time. You know, it was Marty's company, and I don't know what happened, but they were gigantic at the time I worked for them, gigantic. I felt so bad that one of their products didn't work and it had such ramifications…because they were good. I don't have a bad word to say about Mego…they were straight up and right up there, boy. They were right up there in front."

 


 

 

 


ISO : After those initial paintings that you did…did they ever have you work on any other proposed products for a future line? Did you do any kind of sketching for that?


KK : "I did sketches for a dinosaur product that I had introduced and Neal Kublin had approved, and that's just before they went under…so it was a very sad day in the Kelly household…I came up with this product that was a small piece of another line that they were trying to introduce, a toy that starts off as one thing and ends up as another. A transforming thing. So I tried it myself, like you know, I think I could do this. I did like 40 or 50, and Neal liked a few of them. And it was just about that stage where he would take them in and see what would happen, but then all that stuff happened, and I'm like, damn. As usual, the Kelly timing."


 

 


 



 


ISO : Well Ken, thanks you very much for your time…I don't want to waste anymore of it with old toy talk…


KK :"No problem it wasn't a waste at all. I finished the rocks! While we were talking, I finished the rocks on the painting, I've been painting the whole time!"


Inner Space Online would like to thank the great Ken Kelly for taking time out of his busy schedule to do this interview...but the story doesn't end here. Ken mentioned that Marty Abrams still owns the original Antron painting, but who has the rest of the Micronauts paintings from the series? Enter collector Rumel Tomiampos...



 

 


Lobros oil on canvas 30" x 34"

 

"The individuals (other than Ken Kelly and Marty Abrams) who actually made this possible are Michael Jaecks and Christi Cole. Years ago Michael e-mailed me and said that someone had the original Membros card art for sale. I think it was either on Ron Pringle's Micronaut site or The Big Red Toy Box. It was selling for around $1,850 and it hadn't sold. I contacted the seller and asked if it was still available. The seller e-mailed me back and told me that she already had an offer for it and that it was basically sold. I then told her that if the deal fell through that I would be willing to purchase it for $1,850. The seller e-mailed me back and told me that if I was willing to pay the full price that she would let me have it.


This when I met Christi Cole and we began to exchange e-mails. As it turns out, she's an art dealer and she works for someone who used to represent Ken Kelly. This person had purchased the paintings from Ken Kelly when he was still an upcoming artist. The only painting he didn't purchase was Antron, so this is the one that Marty Abrams (Mego's president) ended up with. This person then sold the paintings to his assistant Christi Cole. Now let me say that Christi Cole is a terrific lady. After she agreed to sell me the Membros, I asked her if she owned any of the other Micronaut Paintings... she informed me that she owned 7 of the original 8 Ken Kelly pieces, but really didn't want to sell anymore of them (Terraphant is her favorite).


She then e-mailed me back and said that she would sell me a few more. I told her that I would buy as many as she would sell, but only if she was okay with it. She knew how much I wanted them, so she agreed to sell me the entire collection. I don't think she really wanted to sell all of them, but she did me a favor and sold me the entire collection... she even sold them to me for less than what she paid for them! Christi is a true art lover, and I consider her a friend... she didn't offer them to anyone else, only me. She easily could have gone on ebay and sold them for a much higher price, but it was more important for her to keep the set together and wanted to make sure that they went to a good home. Now this was a person who had gave me a great deal on them because she wanted me to have them.


 

 
Out of respect for Christi, if I ever sell them, I would only sell them as a set. I would also ensure that they went to a good home. I've had an offer as high as $70,000 for the set, but don't want to sell them. If the Smithsonian or the Museum of Art (in D.C) wanted them, I would consider donating them so that everyone could enjoy them. It's kind of a shame that no one else gets to see them... they're probably some of Ken Kelly's best work. Anyway, that's the short version of how I came to acquire them."
 

 

Many thanks to Ken Kelly and Rumel Tomiampos for sharing these beautiful images with us!

Don't forget to visit Ken Kelly's website for more details on his new book "Ken Kelly, ESCAPE".

All images copyright © their individual owners

 

 

 

 

Dave Waugh (Inner Space Online)

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