Frazetta in Retrospect by Greg Cwiklik

Posted by on May 28th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

In 1964, publisher James Warren decided to resurrect the horror book, but in magazine form, to avoid the strictures of the Comics Code Authority, which effectively banned such material in standard comics. In the premiere issue of Warren’s Creepy, there appeared a beautifully illustrated tale of an African werewolf: The artist was Frank Frazetta. In following issues, he would draw a couple of one-page “loathsome lore” strips (and even an anti-smoking ad), but his main contribution to Creepy and its companion magazine Eerie would be a series of vivid painted covers that injected new vitality into tired horror tropes.

©2009 New Comic Company

Only a short time before, Frazetta had attracted the attention of fans of the fantasy genre for the cover artwork he’d begun doing for Ace Books’ revival of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ long out-of-print science-fiction fantasies. The artist’s work created quite a sensation (in later accounts from the fan press, terms like “thunderbolt” are bandied about); his impact was all the greater as he had seemingly come from out of nowhere. The latter was not exactly true, of course. The very young Frazetta had been active in comic books, in the late ’40s and early ’50s, and he was well-regarded by small groups of collectors for his cover illustrations for Ghost Rider and Buck Rogers, amongst other things, but he had spent most of the intervening decade working as an anonymous assistant, working on the newspaper strip Li’l Abner, until he had a falling out with irascible creator Al Capp. The first Frazetta illustration I recall seeing was the first cover for Tarzan at the Earths’ Core, which both startled and mesmerized me, because his wild, primeval Tarzan was so unlike the bland movie version. His work for Ace and Warren led to commissions for numerous other publishers. Some of his finest work was his series of paintings for Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. I recall the thrill I felt every time I discovered a new Frazetta cover on the racks of my local drug store or candy shop, and how, as a teenager, I studied his work and attempted to copy it.

Frank Frazetta was one of those lucky individuals born with such a surfeit of natural talent, as to make those less gifted gnash their teeth at the cosmic unfairness of it all. Nor was he overly modest regarding his abilities. Frazetta was possessed of a virtuosic style of rendering: Be it with pen and ink or oil paint or watercolor, it was quite unlike anyone else’s. It exuded a sensual allure that was irresistible. This imagery dripped with atmosphere, whether he was portraying a primordial forest or gothic ruins. His depiction of anatomy had a lush yet realistic quality.  In short, he appeared to be drawing from a different visual playbook than his contemporaries. Oh, the influences are there if one looks. Harold Foster, certainly, is one, and the long, tangled mane and sinewy build of his Tarzan, owes much to that great Burroughs illustrator of the ’20s and ’30s, J. Allen St. John. But like all good artists, Frazetta took possession of his sources.

I have heard Frazetta dismissed as one-dimensional. A friend of mine dismissed it with the following quote: ”He’s OK if you like buxom amazons.” While there is some truth to this assertion — his forte was definitely the realm of heroic fantasy — it also does the artist an injustice, I think. There is certainly a luscious weightiness to the flesh of his female figures, no matter if they are wearing bits of animal skins or a tight dress. But if you look at his portrayal of the high priestess of Opar, for example, you will find that the artist has included a wealth of exotic detail. Her headdress is in the form of delicate long-necked water bird. The slender knife thrust into a jeweled belt, and the ornaments that adorn her limbs are finely wrought and subtly colored.  These sorts of evocative touches convey the flavor of some lost, bygone world. They set his best work apart from mundane genre work.  Likewise, Conan’s ornate weaponry and accouterments display a used and weathered authenticity and the figure that stares out at the viewer as the scarred, muscular, wolfish look of a barbarian, and not some oiled body builder from the gym posing stiffly with studio props. Such praise may seem odd coming from one such as myself, who has been critical of Frazetta’s work in the past, but my disappointment has stemmed mainly from the work he has been turning out from the 1970s. This work seems to me to lack the imagination and pure technical finesse of the earlier period. Compare for example the second series of Burroughs covers he painted for Ace with the original ones. Some of the art from the later decades look almost like a caricature of his earlier, more sophisticated work, sad to say.

Left: ’60s cover. Right: ’70s cover.  Both © their respective copyright holders.

Like so many others of my generation, I admired and envied Frank Frazetta. Although the cultural landscape of 1950s America could be pretty bleak, he seems to have enjoyed himself. Not only was he gifted artistically, but he was good-looking and athletic. He had an attractive wife, Ellie, who was a fierce defender of his interests, and he palled around with other interesting artist friends. There are old photos of Frank on his motorcycle, or playing ball. In one volume, there is a photo of Ellie enthusiastically pounding away at some bongo drums. Later on, when his work became enormously popular, celebrities like Clint Eastwood paid him court. I respected his determined fight to retain the rights to his artwork. Mainly, I envied him his easy ability to translate what was in his head onto canvas or paper. He worked in brief energetic bursts, and from all I’ve read, he only rarely had to work and rework a painting to get it right.  Most of his best paintings were done in several days or less. One anecdote that I recall has him staying late at the studio one evening, because a Buck Rogers cover was due. So he sits down in front of a blank sheet of Bristol board, and the next morning, his studio mates find this gorgeous, highly detailed piece of artwork finished. I envied him the feeling of deep satisfaction I imagine he felt when he completed a particularly good piece.

Although I know the artist has suffered several strokes in the past, I was still jolted and saddened to hear of his passing. The Frazetta I chose to remember is the artist whose exquisite pen and brushwork graced his ’50s comics illustrations. Indeed, his collaboration with his friend Al Williamson on the cover of Weird Science #21 produced one of the finest examples of the art. But mainly, I think back to the body of work he created in the ’60s: So fresh! So exciting! All those Burroughs illustrations and his paintings for Howard’s heroic fantasies done at the height of the artist’s powers. That is the Frank Frazetta I remember.

© their respective copyright holders.

I never knew Frazetta personally. I did know that my critical essay on the artist was not popular with the readers, if he’d ever read it.  Apparently he did. In some Frazetta monograph, he is quoted dismissing the remarks of some unnamed Journal writer (me) who had the temerity to suggest that certain conservative comic-book editors in the early ’60s might have had some grounds for fearing that Frazetta’s (old-fashioned) rendering style and the brazen sexiness of his female figures might not have been that appropriate for the sort of material they were then publishing. (“How the hell could he know what I was capable of??” was his rejoinder.) Well, OK, perhaps an artist of his gifts could have mimicked whatever style was in vogue. But in all honesty, it is very hard to see how an artist of his temperament would have enjoyed sitting at his drawing board 8+ hours a day, day after day, for years, cranking out superhero comics like, for example, Jack Kirby did. To whatever extent they helped push him out of comics, those publishers did him a great favor.

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2 Responses to “Frazetta in Retrospect by Greg Cwiklik”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ambitious outsider and ambitious outsider, ambitious outsider. ambitious outsider said: Retropestive de Frazetta by Greg Cwiklik: […]

  2. One correction: the Weird Science #21 cover you refer to, was actually Weird Fantasy #21. Those interested in seeing it can click here.

    As for Frazetta not getting work from comic-book publishers in the early 1960s, his style and subjects were certainly a barrier, which he acknowledged in his interview with Gary Groth. However, I think the main issue was that they just weren’t hiring. Comics were in a bear period then, and editors, particularly those in high-volume/tight-deadline publishing environments like newsstand comic books, are not likely to displace a reliable freelancer in order to take a chance on someone who just walked in the door, no matter how good his or her portfolio might be.

    Frazetta’s policy of keeping his original art, which would have likely come up during an interview, would have also been a problem at the companies. That wasn’t how they worked back then.

    Frazetta’a appearance and manner probably didn’t do him any favors, either. He was a macho, athletic guy who looked like Tony Curtis. Most comic-book and s-f people were nerds who got bullied a lot when they were kids. I can’t imagine they’d be inclined to hire a guy who reminded them of the jerks who picked on them while growing up. One infers from Frazetta’s interview that this was the case with the editor he dealt with at Ace. He only got the assignments there because they needed a warm body to handle the workload. I can only imagine the reaction of Robert Kanigher, the editor he probably interviewed with at DC, to Frazetta. Kanigher was notorious for bullying artists, and he was interviewing a guy who probably would have responded by breaking his arm in a few places.

    I can’t say I agree with your view about the drop-off in quality with the 1970s work. It generally looks about the same, albeit somewhat more polished. I have to admit, though, that his paintings generally aren’t my cup of tea. I was always partial to his romance comics myself.