Fantasy’s Michelangelo: An Appreciation

Posted by on May 14th, 2010 at 2:47 PM

Only a spotty few ECs made it through the medieval system of distribution into Texas in the early ’50s. Such issues as got past the right-wing distributors were apparently scarfed up by fans even more obsessive than I was. The ECs I found were maddeningly enticing, intelligent stories cast in luscious art. Bu it was not these I most eagerly haunted the spinner-racks for.

No, it was those damnable Famous Funnies with their superbly dramatized science-fantasy covers. Scarred moons, gadgeted bulkheads, explosions that froze rock-splitting violence in a perfect microsecond—and the human figure in its grace and grotesquery caught again and again in epiphanies of poetic splendor and rich color: powerfully posed bodies that spoke of the energy of life, organized out of nuanced subcurves, torqued arms and hands, stressed torsos, ankles, knees, faces—not as the generic imaginations of most comics artists so prosaicly represented them, and not even as the varied stylistics of the EC talents rendered them. Rather, it was anatomy deftly grasped, with a boisterous Zen that reached rightly through the ink and paper into a dreamworld. What was going on in comics? What had I been missing all those years?

Frazetta was going on, a stylistic genius sui generis and delirious with the juices of life. His very signature bore the scent of an exotic quality of style and imagination. We all know what it stand for now. But then it was an enigma and a marvel, an utter anomaly. I found more of his work in Shock SupsenStories, Weird Science-Fantasy and Witzend. As I came to correspond in the late ’60s with Wood, Rich Hauser of Spa Fon, Jerry Weist of Squa Tront, Rich Garrison of Heritage, and many other fanzine publishers, I found more and more of Frazetta’s fragmentary work circulating that that subculture. When Caz advertised his Opar Press portfolio of the fabulous illustrations Frazetta had done for Canaveral Press there could be no doubt of the unique energy and subtlety in this Pellucidar and Tarzan work: anatomical finesse, gestural potency, omi­nous staging, textural and rhythmic intrigue, and the very rendering itself—bold yet delicate brushwork—all burst the frame of what comics had so far made possible for science-fantasy. Line-work did not have to be meaning­lessly or mechanically related to the form it defined or shaded—it could accent the singularity of bone and stress of muscle; it could trace the grain of rock or the wrinkles of a leathery wing-sheath.

Those Canaveral illustrations consisted of free-flow­ing, organically self-enclosing scenes, defined and bal­anced by shadows and natural frames: no borders, no geometric limits. Jet-black shadows on a reptile’s bladed back, swirls of black blood wandering across watery pools, the black hollows under knife-like pteranodon wings, masses of wild hair, the arch of a raging lion’s belly—the accent of black mass-area was carried by any number of ingenious devices, but never as meaningless fill. Every stroke of the brush, from a splay of grass or arc of tail or crevice of rocks or wandering shadows of trees, was right and decisive and necessary. Every element played its just role in the subtly orchestrated and energetic visual economy of the piece of art. Virtually every plate in the portfolio was a tour de force. From those days on, aficionados came to expect more of fantasy art than stiff and stagy poses and perfunctory renderings of nondescript figures. A tiger was loose in the streets.

In junior high (1958-1960) I had discovered the old masters; in senior high the pulp fantasists, Cartier, Bok and Finlay; in college the ECs outstanding from my collec­tion; and in graduate school the grand masters of American and British illustration from decades past: Parrish, Coll, Flint, Lindsay, Rackham, Dulac, etc. Frazetta’s work never dimmed in my estimation as I discovered more and more about the wider world of art, illustration and fantasy. His early ventures into watercolor and oils on the Ace Burroughs series were striking and quite without peer, but they gave no foretaste of the ways Frazetta’s imagination would roam and flourish in the years to come: shortly afterward came horror masterpieces for Warren’s Creepy and Eerie, the classically imagined Conan covers for Lancer, the numerous paperback covers for Dell and other publishers, all seeming to sing in my mind. They were wild operas of the unearthly, waking dreams and nightmares that sucked your mind into their vortices.

Now as when it first appeared on Eerie, The Egyptian Princess has a dreamy overcast of antiquity throughout the scene—marble, flesh, drapery, pewter, pelt, all read with the immediacy and cogency of a nightworld we have plummeted into. The Witches’ Tide shows us roiling breakers and serpentine coils: coral rupturing like fissured bone through the crashing waves, and a commanding figure like an albino bat orchestrating the turbulence. Unmistakably, these are the themes of fantasy refracted through high-art standards of quality. Conan the Avenger took its eerie powder-blue cast from the poisonous fumes off a spilled goblet beside the sacrificial altar: Conan’s subtly tinted body erupts out of that mist as a force more lively than life, a flame against darkening magic in which the victim’s life is ebbing away. Conan of Cimmeria depicts Conan slashing the necks of orange-bearded frost giants in a land of shadowed snow: a sublimely highlighted and tinted peak in the remote background evokes the chill thin air, itself keen as a blood-tasting blade. I have run across these images mounted on the walls of pizzerias, airbrushed on the sides of vans, reprinted on record jack­ets, on and on. Like Crumb’s work, Frazetta’s also has become an icon declaring something archetypal for a generation: a graphic essence, a concentrated symbol—of what?

At the time I first saw his work outside of comics pages and covers, I had no idea Frazetta had been ghosting Li’l Abner for most of a decade. I wondered from what dimen­sion this florid talent was erupting, to intersect so sporadi­cally with the mundane world of comics and SF. His style in comics often had a craggy carven quality to it, as if arms and legs and profiles had been revealed by geological cleavage and erosion: his rendering belonged not so much alongside Maurice Whitman (of Planet and Jungle fame) as in a family of sorts with Angelo Torres, Sid Check and Lou Fine, who all seemed to see the human world of flesh and bone from some alien angle, graceful but permutated, a sense of style cooked in rare flavors of the imagination’s chemistry. In the next generation of talents Frazetta’s distinctive sense of form and visual idiom would impress itself on Wrightson, Jeff Jones, Ken Kelly, Vallejo and Stout, and in the generation after that, Dave Stevens, Suydam, Mark Schultz, Simon Bisley and many, many others. Frazetta reigned. But why did his work carry that kind of conviction and authority, over the public, over other artists?

Beginning in 1975 the Peacock/Ballantine art books for the first time brought state-of-the-art gravure repro­duction to his lovingly finished dreamworlds: five brilliant and intoxicating volumes took us into perhaps the most intensively realized fantastic imagination of the modern world. But even in those volumes many of Frazetta’s most astonishing and atypical works were not included: the cover for The Godmakers, for instance, with its orgiastic serpent of writhing figures, in cold shadow against surreal glowing colors; or The Reign of Wizardry published in rough suggestive form but later reworked as fluent anatomy, also a superb erotic piece. These, like Downward to the Earth and Atlantis Rising, show an experimental bril­liance and audacity that too often find no place in the more formulaic market. Unfortunately, the last couple of Peacock volumes seem rather padded—some uncertain sketches, photos of paperbacks, unfinished paintings, etc. thin out the quality of work. But few who respect Frazetta’s work would have resisted buying the books for any of that. What is the power in such work?

It has often astonished me over the years—consider­ing the vigor of Frazetta’s colors—how much drama and depth of emotion he can pack into a nearly monochromatic palette. (One has to allow too for some photo-mechanical infidelity or manipulation in the printed balance of colors: inevitably Frazetta’s originals show nuances and disso­nance that did not survive the reproductive process.) Some of his most sinuous and magnetizing work has been done with minimal range of color. The Witch of the Dark Gate, for instance, presents an African priestess encoiled like a meaty Caduceus’ rod, making a precise indication to an arising great Djinn—all in tones of mud and copper patina. The Black Star, like Conan the Avenger, evokes a realm of cyclopean caverns and arches out of tones of gunmetal blue and crankcase oils. Out of fleshlike siennas and mossy greens, At the Earth’s Core composes a subter­ranean amphitheater of tiered stone and cascading liquid like tongues of steam. The Book of Paradox likewise extrudes flesh and lapping water out of the color of sandstone and dirt.

Conan the Buccaneer—the last published and most sublime in Frazetta’s series—like Flashing Swords #1 reveals the ingenuity with which Frazetta can milk latent or implicit color out of something essentially nondescript: ribs, tendons, and metal on Flashing Swords glow with an icy green hue—cold, bitter, and shadowy colors set the mood for the grim business of killing. From more recent work for the Death Dealer series, Prisoner of the Horned Helmet and Tooth and Claw especially display superbly nuanced atmospherics—in quintessential executioners’ poses, armor and ax show biting detail and pent-up en­ergy. The saurian and tree on the latter cover gleam with a jewel-like definition and smoky, otherworldly life. Even where effects may be an artifact of the printing, one has to be struck by the remarkable plasticity in Frazetta’s work: his art shows its strengths in spite of imbalanced printing, just as his forms do regardless of the scale at which they are reproduced.

Even during the mind-blowing ’60s and ’70s, Ameri­can fantasy art seldom rose to the more sophisticated and classical sensibility of European imaginations such as Moebius, Maroto, Woodroffe, or others. Frazetta has been our boldest ambassador of the inner world to the rest of the globe: his work substantially created genres for itself, not just Sword and Sorcery hut indeed free-form fantasy that eschewed most of the clichés by which SF and fantasy materials used to announce themselves in the market. From the very awakening of modern fantasy—after the strains that had flourished so briefly during the Golden Age of Illustration at the turn of the century, after Segrelles, Booth and Pogany, and later, Burian and others that Roy Krenkel sought to impress Frazetta with—Frazetta’s dynamism was an insistent force that demanded a field be created for it. Like a Gulliver towing an entire armada into port, Frazetta drew behind him the eddying freedoms of artists whose imaginations wanted to reach unprecedented possibilities.

None of that is to say that Frazetta had no burden of clichés of his own—indeed, anthologies of fantasy art both domestic and foreign have been at times choked with ersatz-Frazettas, and it is, as always, the less subtle stuff that enraptures the more obtuse or immature imaginations. It may well be that without the matter that has such adoles­cent or machismo appeal the voluptuous sex kittens, the popping veins and knotted muscles, the glinting bloody hardware—Frazetta would never have commanded the compulsory or addictive grip he has had on his fandom. A hypo­thetical Frazettta who consisted just of Frazetta’s reaches into fine art and high imagination might never have had the clout to set his own fee struc­ture and im­pose his own subject mat­ter on the paperback market.

Innovative quality and subtlety notoriously do not rule the mass market on this planet. In interview after interview and in personal conversa­tions as well, Frazetta’s in­candescent imagination can be seen to owe much to earthy ethnic roots—perfectly individuated, he is even more a canny heir to a culture with a markedly Dionysian philosophy of life and a colorful connoisseurship in forms that ranges across centuries. It took a cosmo­politan journalist like Luigi Baizini over 350 pages to offer up his judicious portrait of The Italians— I won’t pretend I can add anything substantial to it.

Italy… is one of the last countries in the Western world where the great god Pan is not dead, where life is still gloriously pagan, where Christianity has not deeply disturbed the happy traditions and customs of ancient Greece and Rome, and where the Renaissance has not spent itself (p. 47)

There is a tense, dramatic quality, a shameless directness, about the Italians which is refreshing to foreigners accustomed to nordic self-control, to feigned or real frigidity. (p. 49)

Such endearing people exist in many countries, everywhere, in fact, where an ancient and refined civilization has decayed without yet giving birth to a local version of modern industrialized society. (p. 57)

Capturing the essential life, the vital strategy of how a people see the world, is daunting. I certainly believe the flatness of most American comics and fantasy art ex­presses something about our culture and conscience no less than Frazetta’s vigor and originality say something about his.

Let me try to express something of the principles I believe his work has manifested: (1) Most vitally, the anatomical intelligence in his work is utterly digested or in­ternalized. There is no possible distinction between the facts of anatomy and how Frazetta has stylized anatomy. He has made anatomical forms as much his own as his signa­ture is, as Hogarth and only a few other anatomists have done. What Frazetta produces, even when he may make use of visual references, is con­structive or interpretive anatomy—assimilated into his sensibility, his idiomatic sense of curvature and fore­shortening, his dramatic cli­mate and emotional music. Frazetta’s anatomy is neither slavishly descriptivist (that is, literal), nor wantonly plastic so that it yields a formless mass—that is, it certainly does not subjectively distort just for its own rhetorical sake. An idealizing sense of how humans ought to be—Frazetta’s visionary sense of grace, allure, appetite, cour­age, boldness, and expressive­ness—is insinuated through­out his grasp of realistic pro­portion and structure.

(2) Quite contrary to the ruinous intellectualism with which color-theory is taught in our art curricula, Frazetta’s harmonics and discords are intuitive and evocative. Color is subordinate to the orchestrated moods and emotions of the specific piece: there is for him no theory in abstracto, or in advance, of how colors “ought” to be coordinated. Colors mean something in concreto, just like musical notes they carry an iridescent emotional charge, and that is a specific and visceral language that has to be learned in context. Color reproduces the felt and tasted emotional key in which we experience something. The right and judicious use of color has to be gained not as something intellectually taught but as part of the mastery of the metabolism of living. So much coloration in fantasy art is as artificial and confectionery as a candy shop, nauseat­ingly pretty but at the same time broadcasting for all the world to see the utter gutlessness of the colorist, the disconnectedness of that imagination from life. To color work in this way is to make an arbitrary choice, a meaning­less hypothesis that could be cast this way or that. The coming era of cyber-coloration threatens to intensify this narcosis of inauthenticity or alienation from life, an artificialism that has already been epidemic in Ameri­can culture for generations. As with Frazetta’s integrated or intensively appropriated sense of anatomy, so also his sense of color respects the authority of natural coloration but only as this has been digested into his own imaginative life of meanings and symbolisms.

(3) The imagery and imaginative settings in Frazetta’s work erupt out of a largely spontaneous dreamlife. As in any artist’s work, this is not inevitably or invariably so: Frazetta too has his contrived or deliberate work which seems not to have the fire of the artist’s own enthusiasm about it. But for too many artists, or more exactly illustrators, that conscious or deliberate mode of production is sadly all that they have access to. They do art out of mechanical self-inspiration; they plan, they tell themselves explicitly what to do. There is no sense of fatedness in the art that they do, no Tao leading them from one subject or way of seeing to the next, no satori at the revelation of the utterly unexpected. Nothing in the pro­cess of art is permitted to take its own course for them, to happen just as it will; no degree of risk, no trust in the paraconscious instincts, is tolerable. Everything is willful and without a sense of gravity or direction. The results of such a cultural regimen of excessive self-consciousness or self-dictation is to be seen in the wasteland of literalist photo-realism that today has triumphed over most forms of fantasy art. Printing technology has given that work more visual punch than mass-consumption art has ever had before, but the work itself is desperately sterile, overprecise, overfocused, overcontrolled and underorganized, replicating over and over what there has already been enough of.

The tragic fallacy of relying only on conscious ego for one’s inspiration is easy to describe: conscious or deliber­ate work gives back nothing more and nothing less than what is put into it, by either the creator or the viewer. It is what it is and is nothing more than what it was made to be. But the creative unconscious by contrast amplifies and envelopes, it augments and complicates, heals or com­pletes, and organizes; it yields up bold myth and meta­phor, pregnant and complex because they are inevitably more than what they merely seem to be. By delving into that well creators have for millennia wrought better than they consciously or explicitly meant: their work resonates subliminally up and down an unseen scale. Nothing to speak of in the current crop of fantasy illustrators has the evocative or mythopoeic sense of work from 25 years ago: instead, glitz and pomposity—contrived and shallow sensationalism, meaningless and unmotivated dynamism rule the culture. Frazetta’s energies certainly made his artwork a kind of contact sport for the viewer no less than for him; but it never involved raw, intemperate, nihilistic violence any more than it dealt in screaming pure chroma or sex devoid of romance (without which even the most blatant sexuality is truly anerotic). Ironically the culture of fantasy today is far more licentious but less open, less free-form, less expressive than it was a generation ago. Our compulsions as a culture—especially our enslavement by market-forces and technology—have foreclosed on the frontiers of our imaginations.

For everything overt in our Machiavellian culture has become a manipulable ploy devoid of authentic intrinsic meaning: the product is there to exploit cravings, to goose impulse-sales by “collectors” who may never look at their acquisitions again. Our eyes no longer seem to connect with deeper values or human resonance. Perfunctory excitement offers a seeming technological fix for a condi­tion it can really only aggravate, a hyperstimulation for lives of hypovitality. A culture of monstrosities results, fetishism with no sense of form, bull-like masses of muscles and deliriously erogenous creatures—Nazoid culture of hyperbolic violence, hatred pumped up to surreal fury, and unabashed sexual sadism, in which the very subtle and meaning-rich shape of the human order has long ago been lost. Whether in our Puritanisms or in our lasciviousness, we show our pathetically lost sense of our lived-in body, our enslavement by appetites we have no values to help us master. In its narcotic radicalization of appetites, our fantasy-culture raced past the Frazetta moment perhaps a decade ago. It is now distinctly not at all doing the same kind of thing Frazetta was doing, and certainly not doing it “better.”

(4) The shock that the world of comics and fantasy art found in Frazetta’s work—the secret ingredient that has evaporated from our assembly-line, mechanical processes of producing stories and art—lay in being exposed to something that was created out of passion. Modern culture kills passion; it anesthetizes passion as it educates us and as it trains us for our economic functions and mundane duties. “The purpose of all higher education,” wrote Nietzsche, “is that the student must learn to become bored.” For passion moves us to action: passion induces us to demand more of life than our pathetic circumstances have to give. Passion cannot be trained and contained and bent to others’ purposes the way stupid appetites can be. Passion properly cultivated drives individuals to a strong sense of form, to autonomous expectations about how life should go for them. “Nothing great,” said Hegel, “is ever accomplished without passion.” Overwhelmingly, mod­ern culture is an interaction of calculative intellects that are ultimately pathetic because they are apathetic: it is this that made the modern economy—with its radically hyperdeveloped fiscal/financial sector, its pathologically distanced mentality that looks on human appetites and needs as if they were expressions of the behavior of white rats—such a soullessly manipulative world. It is this detachment that makes the modern educational system so mechanical and meaningless, devoid of any sense of con­crete creativity or values. It is this abstracted mentality that everywhere symptomizes the control-fetishism of left-brained mentality which is the archetype of scientific, academic and economic rationality.

Critics of our culture from Marx to Kierkegaard, to Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and Yeats, observed this steriliza­tion and tried to conceptualize it, to little avail. To the modern pathologically mechanical and methodological ways of thinking—sociopathically impoverished in pro­found feelings, contemptuous of culture and the humani­ties as of everything that is “subjective” and evokes life, concern and energy from us—art is just another pandering means in the repertory of economic lures that entice customers to give up their money in exchange for something they are conditioned to desire. Trying to explain authentic passion, a driving ultimate concern, to those who lack it is like trying to explain conscience to a serial killer or love to an erotomaniac. Frazetta’s work has not been created as an exercise in con­scious experiments; it has not been produced to be a high-demand commodity. It has been created, for the most part, out of a much more profound involvement, the chthonic bond between an artist and his imagination. Frazetta is a splendid specimen of what the love for living can do, rightly sock­eted behind an artist’s imagination: but for most artists in our society, art is instead a pathetic palliative, an analgesic against life, or a tool for making money or gaining fame—some­thing with merely ex­trinsic or instrumen­tal value. Art is therefore something most merely want to do, want to be, with their conscious minds, but it is for them not a movement of the soul and visceral will. Moderns have become too artificial, too superficial, even to recognize what life might be like at that level.

Frazetta is a glorious dinosaur, an energetic Titan who proved impervious to the kinds of forces that everywhere make art and imagi­nation something disenchanted, impotent and void of authority. The worlds he begot are worlds he wholeheart­edly believed in, and their people were energized by something the modern Flatworld “graphics” mentality does not have—the surgeon’s sense of utmost concentra­tion, infinite decisiveness before the seriousness of life. Frazetta’s work rings with awe and mystery, with sublime forces that overwhelm our banal egos: it can hardly be ignored what fire and command he invests into those feline sphinxes throughout his work. The big cats show the undiminished energy of life and instinct. They are Frazetta’s totems, his familiars.

all images © their respective owners

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2 Responses to “Fantasy’s Michelangelo: An Appreciation”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by DaveRoel. DaveRoel said: Fantasy’s Michelangelo: An Appreciation: […]

  2. Steve Minton says:

    Or as I wrote recently on Facebook:

    Frazetta had more talent in his pinky than most of the pseudo-intellectual halfwits in the fine art world put together. If some of his work now seems a bit garish and kitschy, fuck that ’cause nobody could match his passion, sinewy eroticism, dream-like intensity and uncanny ability for capturing the moment of greatest danger between an implacable foe and a fearless protagonist (whether male or female).

    He was by far the greatest fantasy illustrator who ever lived, and while Kirby, Eisner and Steranko were better storytellers, and Harvey Kurtzman, Crumb and Jaime Hernandez had more to say — nobody in comics history (not even Burne Hogarth or Kenneth Smith!) was a better draftsman, period.