I met Frank Frazetta in the summer of ā71 when he and his wife Ellie drove to a convention I organized in Washington, DC, to exhibit his paintings. This was something of a coup at the time, since Frazetta rarely appeared publicly and even more rarely exhibited his original paintings; no one to this day, including myself, quite knows how I pulled it off. I only remember having the chutzpah to call him up and invite him, and that he accepted on the spot. I remember him and Ellie being as gracious as two people who just drove 250 miles could possibly be. Frazetta set up his paintings in a small, closely guarded meeting room off the main dealer’s room, hung out, and chatted amiably with fans. It was very relaxed, with the paintings on easels around the room. Fans could practically put their noses on the paintings and study them.
The word legendary is bandied about all too often in our hype-saturated world, but in Frazettaās case, itās apt. As an artist, he was by every account truly a prodigy; his drawing skill was breathtaking at an unspeakably young age. He could draw anything, including funny animals, but he excelled at sex and violence, which in his hands was an authentic expression of who he was, and not just a parroting or attempt at one-upmanship of media clichĆ©s, which the trope has since come to correctly and pejoratively imply. By saying that depicting sensuality and violence was an expression of who he was, I’m not saying Frazetta was violent -I don’t think he was, particularlyā but he was a connoisseur of physicality, of athleticism, of the human body in extremis. He was extremely athletic himself in his youth and, I think, loved it at least as much as he loved drawing and painting. That’s what i mean by his drawing being an authentic āand unpretentiousā expression of who he is; Frazetta is the real thing, as I hope this interview proves, whatever you may think of what that thing is.
This is not quite the interview Iād planned. The first interview session did not record, thanks to a malfunctioning phone-recording device. This was two hours spent methodically covering his career from boyhood art lessons through his early career in comics. Frazetta is not the kind of person to sit still and reiterate his career twice in a month, so the next three recording sessions that he graciously granted me were less structured and more improvisatory. I tried to sneak in some questions that weād previously covered, but we talked more generally about his career, his influences, his upbringing, his love of drawing, and his eight-year bout with a misdiagnosed thyroid condition that damn near killed him.
I think it accurately reflects the kind of man and artist he is.
The interviews were conducted in November and December 1994. ā Gary Groth
Feel No Pain
FRANK FRAZETTA: Didnāt 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 Iāve got here, pal? Youāve got to speed it up.
Hell, I think youāre good for a long time.
You and Burne Hogarth.
Yeah, well, that guy can talk!
[Laughs.] Heās sort of to talking what you are to painting.
Oh. I like that ā heās a masterful talker. Where does he get the energy?
I donāt know. I talk to him once every couple of months and he never slows down. Itās like heās constantly on speed or something.
Did you ever ask him why?
I never got up the courage! [Laughs.] You seem to me like an inordinately satisfied guy.
Iāve got my share of frustrations ā sometimes more than most. But I donāt show it. Iām delighted with my art and my talent, sure; it has always come relatively easily and itās had such an impact, of course I love that. You gotta like it. That doesnāt mean I havenāt suffered physically or psychologically at times. I get hurt, and it seems prolonged. I really believe the old clichĆ©: artists are meant to suffer sometimes. A lot of people feel, because of my talent, I just float around on cloud nine and feel no pain.
They do think that: the grass is always greener on the other side.
You seem to be the sort of artist who has never suffered a single doubt in his life.
That appears so, and a lot of people envy me. But I probably suffer the most. Probably stemming from my ultra-sensitivity.
[Laughs.] Yeah, right.
No, Iām serious. It seems like Iām a macho guy and all that, but Iām super-sensitive. Thatās the reason for the art being what it is, but that means I overreact to things. When everythingās up, Iām on top of the world, but when itās downā¦Jesus. Unfortunately, thatās the way it works.
Can you elaborate a little on how you would define that sensitivity? How are you sensitive?
Itās a physical thing. You would think, āWell, itās all psychological.ā But it isnāt. Itās your brain ā itās like a machine, really. I used to feel like there was some kind of magic, but God gave me this little computer that works beautifully in some areas, and sucks royally in others. Know what I mean?
Yeah, I think I do.
When I got sick I found all that out. I told you about the illness. The thyroid disease affected my art. Part of that computer was damaged.
Had you ever experienced anything like that on a smaller scale?
Never. Oh, Iād experienced anxiety and all that. But this was something else. My hormones were all screwed up. All right, you figure, your hormones are screwed up, you take medicine, you get well. I suffered from acute anxiety, a lot of physical symptoms and unbeknownst to me, it had affected that portion of the brain that sees and feels and is creative. But I didnāt know that! How could I? I just chalked it up to old age and just losing it. And even though I was miserable in other ways, I didnāt think that should effect me because Iāve gone through periods where I was really upset, even physically ill, and it had no effect at all on my art. But this time, because it was a hormonal disorder, it did. Just amazing.
This lasted seven years, right?
Can you tell me what the first symptoms were, when you realized something was wrong?
The first symptoms happened about 1986. I know I was burning the midnight oil: I was doing three jobs at once, and coincidentally I had bought some really inexpensive turpentine, real junk. The fumes from this stuff were so terrible that it probably screwed my thyroid up. Nobodyās quite sure what makes a thyroid malfunction or quit or go hyperactive. But they certainly know itās affected by toxins and radiation. Chemicals of some kind. Itās interesting that I was working for about two weeks with this turpentine that just permeated the room, and I just kept going like a fool. My son and my wife wouldnāt come into that room for two weeks. It was that brutal. Good olā Frank kept plugging away, saying, āAh, it wonāt affect me.ā So that went on, and at the very end of that, I delivered some jobs to New York and I suddenly got this eerie, insidious taste in my mouth. It was something I couldnāt describe; it was almost as if Death had entered. I wondered about it, and it was scary. I thought it was something I ateā¦it was like Death. Weāve all eaten bad food and had lousy tastes in our mouths. But with this, I felt the hair on my neck stand up, because it was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and it just scared me. It was only a taste, but what a taste.
Anyway, it started that way. It went away, and then came back maybe a week later, just for a moment. I kept thinking to myself, āWhat the hell could be doing that?!ā Iām breathing on people and nobody could detect any odor at all. Time went on and it just kept happening, and finally I started to lose my appetite, physical problems, and started feeling really crappy. And this taste was coming on more and more. Something in my brain was affected ā I could feel it. So I went to the doctor, and nobody knew what the hell was going on. And from there, it was steadily downhill; I wound up in a hospital. I was getting weird dizzy spells, pains, aches ā
you name the symptom and I had it.
I started going to every doctor I could find. I started taking tests because I was sure something was terribly wrong, and nobody knew exactly what. So we tested and tested. Now I was losing weight, I was really getting concerned. Combine that with that eerie taste and I knew something was terribly wrong. I was thinking of the big C. In the hospital, I proceeded to just about die. They took every test known to mankind and my results were always normal. They tested the thyroid and it was normal. But it isnāt normal. It doesnāt belong in the same range as other peopleās. Not that Iām the only one, Iām sure. But to their knowledge, my thyroid was not as normal as everybody elseās. Meanwhile, they were giving me electrocardiograms, checking my brain functions, and I remember the neurologist saying something to the effect that āYour brain is extremely sensitive. Itās the most sensitive brain Iāve ever testedā ā whatever that means. So he was attributing my illness to something psychological. But it wasnāt. But since I was so hyper-hyper-sensitive, he decided I must be cracking up.
Finally, after I was practically dead ā I went from 180 pounds to 128 pounds ā finally they tested the thyroid again because there was nothing else to test. Now, finally it showed itself. It had gone sky-high and they couldnāt quite understand it. I went through the usual treatment after that, got well, and I came back to the normal range. But it happened all over again, and I went through all that trouble of trying to convince them that I donāt belong in the normal range; nobody would listen. I went on from there to the Mayo Clinic, eight years of that crap. Finally, after eight years, some doctor finally decided to experiment and drop the dose down. And Iām normal again. It was the difference between 100 micrograms and 75. Idiotic! I was suicidal; it almost destroyed my family, my life, everythingā¦just because of a pill! Twenty-five micrograms!
Thick-headed, stubborn sons of bitches, all the way up to the great Mayo Clinic. They refused to even give it a shot!
And it took them eight years to find that out?
Right. A lot of things were happening during my illness. I would read articles about hormones. When I first got ill, we supposedly had 25 hormones that did their job, and somewhere down the line, there was a big article that said they discovered we have āat least 300 hormones, and going up fast!ā
And prior to the time you had that terrible taste in your mouth, you were perfectly healthy.
Absolutely. You know what caused the taste? It was my brain telling me something was wrong. But could you interpret it? Nobody else could, and I certainly couldnāt.
Didnāt a doctor even advise you to go to psychological counseling?
All the time. They all did! You see, theyāre checking me out, canāt find anything physically wrong, my thyroid, according to them, is perfectly normal. But as it turns out, it wasnāt normal for me. I was hyperactive again. So I put two and two together and said to them, āLook. Canāt you just lower the dose for me? Letās just see what happens.ā But they wouldnāt do it. They got in my face, thought I needed a psychiatrist, just because I was using logic. But finally, eight years later, a doctor with an open mind said, āLetās drop it.ā And I was well overnight.
So I went through some freakinā hell unnecessarily.
That must have scared the hell out of you.
You canāt imagine. I could have lost an arm or a leg and adjusted to that in months. But this was real horrorā¦.Youāve seen people with deep depression. You tell people about it, they tell you to āsnap out of it.ā But itās not that easy.
How did that affect your ability to draw?
I suddenly had no more of those wonderful images running through my head. And even though I could sit there and sort of work out a composition and a design, the actual application was gone. I noticed when I used the brush, nothing happened. Everything was flat. There was none of that spontaneity, none of that courage to sit there and ride it out and let things happen. It was very static, and Iād look at it and think, āWhy is it so damn flat? What have I lost? Oh well, I guess thatās the way it goes. Other great artists lose it.ā Eventually. But it happened so suddenly. The compositions werenāt bad: the design was interesting, even the concepts were pretty good ā
But it lacked that aliveness?
I tried everything: pen and ink, pencils, paintings, they were all awful. I used to look at my old work and ask myself, āHow did I do that? I guess thatās just what happens when you get old.ā Obviously, I realized it was something in my brain that wasnāt functioning right. Itās just that I didnāt attribute it to the thyroid. But the most wonderful and incredible thing is, the minute they got this thing adjusted, bang! It all came back in an instant. Thatās crazy. That shows you the brain is like a computer and it needed a little soldering. It is that delicate.
Did you sense a feeling of exhilaration, of rebirth?
I couldnāt believe it; I was so excited! I was laboring a lot harder during that period because nothing was happening. And I knew everybody out there was talking ā I knew they were saying, āWell, Frazettaās peak years are gone, heās over the hill, blah, blah, blah.ā I knew it. You didnāt have to be a genius to know that. I could tell just by looking at my own work. I just said, āOh well, Iāll just have to live on my laurels now.ā I never imagined it would suddenly come back as good as ever!