In regard to embodying his own dynamic artistic sensibilities, perhaps the only pop culture artist who could give Frank Frazetta a run for his money was Jack Kirby. These two poets of force and motion so intuitively understood the fantasies they were drawing that each established the style that would forever define their respective genres: the superhero in action for Kirby, the barbarian in action for Frazetta.
Frazetta, who passed away yesterday at age 82, was a much revered figure for those who came of age from the ’60s to the ’80s — his paperback covers for Conan and various Edgar Rice Burroughs properties hit the racks bursting with a lurid dreaminess that left those who viewed them slack-jawed. A later series of cover paintings for various heavy metal bands cemented Frazetta as the salon artist for a lifestyle of listening to loud music while driving around in vans the way Art Deco and Italian bronzes signified earlier bourgeois lifestyles.
Frazetta the man was handsome, athletic (a career as a pro baseball player was contemplated) and testosterone fueled. Smashing with every brushstroke the stereotype of the wimpy artist (or Rockwell,, pipe clenched firmly between teeth), Frazetta was the man of action in deed and thought. Accordingly his imagery was violent, shocking, brutal, even brutish. Men stabbing giant snakes; women with their gleaming, globular butts turned to the camera as they were kidnapped by bestial man-like figures; bodies piled up in battle being chopped to stew-sized chunks by bloody swords. This wasn’t subtle stuff.
But Frazetta’s artistry was. In the hands of a lesser creator these scenes would merely have been vulgar (and often are.) But Frazetta applied the palette and brush control of a Renoir to his primitive vision. LIke Kirby’s, Frazetta’s skill was completely instinctual, a fluid line combined with flawless, endlessly fascinating composition, and dynamic anatomy. Frazetta’s artistic idol was Hal Foster , the most refined and classical of cartoonist/illustrators; the influence came out as a commitment to the craft of painting, to the nuance of a hand position, the detail of a piece of armor, perhaps only hinted in a chiaroscuro shadow, but vital to the whole nonetheless.
Another influence on Frazetta was the other great Burroughs illustrator, Roy G. Krenkel who, it is said, taught Frazetta to paint. Next to Frazetta’s buffed out gang bangers, Krenkel’s warriors and maidens were ethereal fairies, but his line and subject matter was an obvious influence. The difference between the two can easily be seen in their respective versions of the cover of The Moon Maid:
While Krenkel’s moon centaur is weird looking, Frazetta’s actually looks savage. The newer version also adds major ass interest — always a Frazetta staple. While Krenkel uses the horizon line to extend the action and emphasize the forward motion of the scene, Frazetta used his typical pyramid composition to set off the figures which, though only a 2D drawing, seem about to tear right off the cover with their swirling hair and cloaks, rearing fetlocks and roiling, mysterious background.
Of course, Frazetta did a later and even more famous version of the Moon Maid, but to my mind this one is a lot more obvious, although the appeal is evident — the moon centaur with all four hooves off the ground, the girl even more more directly sensual. Plus it’s got giant vultures circling an orange moon. I do not think Frank Frazetta invented the giant vultures circling the moon thing, but he certainly perfected it.
A few more from my personal Frazetta gallery:
I’m not sure if my mother, a painter and artist who pored daily over the work of Botticelli and Rembrandt, actually understood why I liked all these trashy, pulpy boy books, but I remember her seeing one with this cover, looking at it for a while and sighing. “That’s a really good painting,” she said, simply, impressing me forever. I think is my favorite Frazetta painting, because it is impossible not to love a barbarian warrior in a snow-sledge drawn by fighting polar bears. This image uses the pyramid construction, an extremely limited palette and a white cloud behind the main figure’s shadowed face to contrast it even more. There is nothing in this picture that isn’t perfectly painted — the textures are precise — the delicate filigree of the metal work, the smooth coats of the bears, the frigid icy snow spray — you can touch each and every one in your mind. All technical skill aside, Frazetta’s images fired your imagination — captured your senses, pulled you right on top of the moon centaur, put you smack in the middle of the steam and blood of the battle. The Cave Girl is obviously the mate to The Silver Warrior. It’s an earlier work and one of the few Frazetta girls who is in charge and not about to be ravished — on other artists’ versions of the cover, she’s a lot more passive. Even with her goofy, Krenkel-inspired updo, she’s probably going to rough you up a little bit and not have a hair out of place afterwards. Her saber-tooth companions are again masterful examples of texture, motion and making the fantastic tangible and real. And scary.
Once again, ass-interest dominates this Flashman cover, but how can you resist the bravura depiction of the horse? Far from a masterpiece but just so damned stupid you have to admire it.
I’d never seen this western before, and came across it while looking for images for this piece, but it’s a doozy. The composition of the bodies in motion is so extreme and yet so adeptly realized. Frazetta was obviously a student of anatomy and he had earned his PhD.
This Conan cover reminds me a bit of one of Harry Clarke’s illustrations for The Murder in the Rue Morgue, but maybe just because both feature a murderous ape, and both based their drawings on the same ape anatomy.
Clarke’s is more gruesome and deeply disturbing, but Frazetta’s is more violent, more urgent, more immediate. Like so much of his best, most astonishing work, it’s bravura and showing off its skill but in a way that is admirable and not condescending — for Frazetta to be so good and not show off at all times would have been a crime against his talent.
The Flesh Eaters is a fairly representative example of Frazetta’s art after he knew he was Frazetta — by now the misty, oil painted backgrounds — descended from Impressionist basics but presiding over landscapes of mayhem and brutality instead of water lilies — muscular torsos, furry loincloths, heaps of bodies, skulls on sticks — by the time this was painted, these were all tropes and there is a bit of the carnival barker about this painting. And yet is there anyone else who ever lived who could have produced anything so savage and diverting?
As the above makes clear, I’m no Frazetta scholar — but there are plenty of those on the net. Some links I came across while writing this and for further study:
Vaneta Rogers gets appreciations from various artists for Newsarama.
In published interviews and in countless private discussions, Frazetta has meticulously admitted and explained these early influences. Frank looked at the early Tarzan novels before he could even read; he loved the pictures by St. John. He also marveled at the newspaper strip art of Hal Foster. When he got the TARZAN SINGLE SERIES #20 comic book, he said it was like the Encyclopedia Britannica. The young Frazetta absorbed everything and was affected by everything. He loved the early Walt Disney cartoons, especially FANTASIA and SNOW WHITE. He loved early toys and their exquisite colorings. There was a time when Milton Caniff was Frazetta’s main influence. Frank has several early sketchbooks filled with thick-lined drawings heavily influenced by Caniff. Frank also thoroughly enjoyed the cartoons of Carl Anderson’s HENRY; he was impressed by their complete simplicity and economy of line. POPEYE by Segar was another top favorite; Frank loved the manic energy and loony characters. And, of course, he loved the panel-bursting art of Jack Kirby that was everywhere. If you know where to look, one can clearly see all these influences mysteriously mixed and transformed in the art of Frazetta.
Geoff Boucher’s fine obituary.
At The Comics Journal, Gary Groth reprints his Frank Frazetta Interview
FRANK FRAZETTA: Didn’t you interview me as much as you wanted to a week ago?
GARY GROTH: Well, I met you over 20 years ago, so I think every 20 years we should do it.
How much longer do you think I’ve got here, pal? You’ve got to speed it up.
Hell, I think you’re good for a long time.
You and Burne Hogarth.
Yeah, well, that guy can talk!
Finally, the trailer for the Frazetta documentary, “Frazetta: Painting with Fire.”
Frazetta’s death is sure to inspire a torrent of reexaminations of his art and his peculiar cultural place. Seeing as the guy practically invented a whole genre of fantasy art that isn’t going anywhere — the debt AVATAR owed to Frazetta is obvious and no secret — and his artwork is just now coming onto the market, I expect he’s going to stay just as famous in death as he was in life. And his name joins the pantheon of the very few visionaries so singular that they have become adjectives in their own right: Disney. Kirby. Frazetta.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.