Violence in Art and Life
I saw a picture of you at the age of 25 on a motorcycle. It looks like a big Harley, and youāre really built up. It looks like you spent a lot of time in the gym.
No, I didnāt. I wasnāt that built up. I was wiry and muscular. I did climb millions of trees, though. [Laughs.]
Is that right?
Yes, I didnāt weight lift in those days. I broke records in high school in climbing the ropes. I did 10 one hand chin-ups. One hand. From completely extended.
Which is almost impossible.
Well, in all those years, I never knew a guy who could do one. Not one. I used to leap to high places and just get my fingertips over the edge, yank my body right up over the top like it was nothing. There were places in the schoolyard where Iād climb up, and nobody could get up this thing. Iām talking about hundreds of guys over the years. Not one guy would make the jump and pull himself up, and I did it routinely, quickly and easily.
And all of that is in your work.
It is. Thatās why Iām so proud of the physical side, because I did a lot of stuff that I know many guys couldnāt do. What I did wasnāt so much my bodily construction as much as my mind. I know it was my mind. Iām now 66 years old and my sons know it. I can still generate more power than them, and theyāre in their prime. They just look at me and say, āHow the hell do you do it?!ā Theyāre working out, theyāre built. My mind does it. I always had the ability to sort of psych myself out when I had to. I did it with my art, too. Iād do those paintings overnight ā you think I didnāt āwind up the machineā and let it go? Itās an amazing thing. Those Conans even, most of them were done in a night. I had to work that fast for it to be spontaneous. If I had sat and pondered them for weeks at a time, they wouldnāt have looked like they do.
When you were a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I understand you got into a lot of fightsā that you lived in a tough neighborhood.
Yeah, in my teens.
But whatās interesting is that you went on to became an artist, that the violence didnāt really brutalize you.
No, I was always the good guy, you know! [Laughs.] The funny part is, even though it sounds like I must have been some pain in the ass, the fact of the matter is I used to walk the street and I used to eyeball all the tough-looking guys ā you know, bullies, shitheads, you know the type, the guys who needed gangs behind them. I used to be a loner. I used to walk through the neighborhoods and defy them. I was crazy. I had such confidence in myself; all I had to do was take on the leader, and suddenly, I had a reputation all over Brooklyn. But I thought that was real cool!
[Laughs.] The difference between us is that Iād always get the shit kicked out of me.
Well, youāve got to be able to back it up or youād better split. But I used to think ācatā when I got involved. I had a thing for cats, leopards in particular, and I used to watch them. God, they could move so quickly the eye could not follow them. I could mentally understand it, and make myself do it, up to a point. If you could do that, if you could be like a cat, then nobody could beat you. I donāt care how big they were. If they were much bigger and stronger, I could spin and swirl, and get out of anything, just because I was thinking ācat.ā You know what Iām saying?
I think I do.
You ever see a little leopard with a big cat like a lion attacking it? The lion is far larger, far stronger, but he canāt get that leopard! [Laughs.] That leopard will spin around under him and around him, leaping all over the place, and the lion canāt get him, just because of sheer speed. And thatās the way I used to think. I was still drawing all during this time; it was really odd, drawing cute, funny little things.
The funny animal stuff?
Yeah! Everybody used to look at me and scratch their heads: āHow could you do that, and then do this?ā I donāt know. Because basically I loved the nicer things in life. I didnāt want to be a physical type. I walked around with a black sweater and acted tough, but it was more like a defense mechanism. I just found that you had no choice in that neighborhood. It was either that or just get the hell out of there. So when I made my first shot at fighting back, and I won so easily, I got so cocky that I began to enjoy it.
Did you actually enjoy getting into a fight?
I did. There was a time when I would walk the streets actually looking for someone to provoke me. And the one who would provoke me was actually what I would consider a lower element, a jerk. I wasnāt a nasty guy. I never accosted anybody I liked or who was a nice guy.
Yeah, you donāt strike me as a bully-type.
Never a bully. It was always some guy bigger than me, a real jerk, a gang member, guys like that. I thought I was the hero, you know?
How did you deal with the pain of being struck?
Oh, I could take it. Iāve been hit by sucker punches you wouldnāt believe ā blind-sided. One was from a truck driver, a guy who delivered ice (way back in those days), and this guy was strong. And he hit me with his Sunday punch, his best shot. And I just turned and looked at him and grinned and he looked so startled, he couldnāt believe it had no effect on me.
No glass jaw then.
No. Iāve had guys pound me in the stomachā¦
[Laughs.] No permanent damage, though.
None. I donāt thinkā¦.My stomachās fine. When I was going through all that agony, I thought perhaps all those blows I took to the stomach had done that to me. But it wasnāt so.
So how active are you now?
For a guy my age, extremely active. I still have a stickball court here; I still play golf. But I donāt work out. Iām very lazy. Iād like to work out just so I look good. But you ought to see me hit a golf ball. I play with young guys, and when I hit the ball they say, āHoly shit, I donāt believe it!ā These are guys you meet on the golf course and ask if they could join you. Then Iād hit one 300 yards and theyād say, āBoy I used to hit āem like that when I was your age.ā And Iād look at them with a wry expression and ask, āHow old are you?ā And theyād say. āOh, Iām 50.ā And Iām in my 60s. [Laughter.] āYouāre not my age yet!ā I can just summon it up from somewhere.
You must have had a natural facility for athletics, just as you do for art.
I donāt know. I think I worked at it pretty hard when I was a kid. I ran, I climbedā¦I donāt know if I had anything to prove; I was just like a wild Indian. I loved to run, I loved to climb, I loved doing everything in the extreme. I probably had the most powerful arm there ever was when throwing a ball or a rock. Because I threw a baseball over 450 feet, and I donāt know if itās ever been done. That was measured. In fact all the guys who knew me ā Italian guys are funny, you know, they love to bet, and theyād look all over Brooklyn and find someone whoās famous for his powerful throwing arm, then theyād match them against me. Thereād be all kinds of bets flying around. This happened three or four times when I was in my late teens. Thereād be about 50 guys there watching, and we were going to throw our three best throws. Now, mind you, they found the best arm that they knew of and I never, never, won by less than 100 feet. So it wasnāt even close. All I had to do was throw oneā¦and these guys would just drop their arm and say, āThatās it.ā Now that is freakish, but the reason is because I also had this habit of throwing rocks every two steps I took. I donāt know why, I loved to throw rocks. And I would throw rocks over and over. I just couldnāt help it. Brooklyn was not that populated and that dense in those days, so there were many open areas you could just let them fly. And thatās all I did! I loved doing that! I developed some kind of a freakish arm.
What was the team that offered you a spot?
The New York Giants, a baseball team.
And you didnāt take them up on it.
Well, I thought about it, but first of all I was a professional artist, and in those days nobody offered you big money. You got a max of maybe three grand to sign, then you were shipped off to some farm system God-knows-where, New Mexico or something. And the routine was that you would spend the next three or four years ā and some guys would spend 10 years ā in the minor leagues. I thought, āI donāt know if I could stand even one year away from home!ā So I said, āLet me think about it.ā So the next year came and he offered it to me again and I said, āI donāt knowā¦ā I just couldnāt make myself do it. My friends tell me later, when they got older, āYou would have been up in about two years!ā But to me, I had never been away from home, and I just couldnāt imagine being stuck on some farm team away from home for years at a time. As much as I loved the game, I couldnāt do it. But I would have made it, no problem. I think about it often because I love the sport so much. If theyād have come to me in high school and given me a big bonus ā in those days 50 grand would have been enormous ā then that would have been more of an incentive. But it was just the timing, you know? And a lot of people said, āThank God you didnāt go! Then you wouldnāt have been the artist you are!ā I didnāt even start painting until I was in my 30s, anyhow. I played ball all those years without getting paid. So whatās the difference?
Well, you may very well have had more fun doing that.
I think so. But donāt tell Ellie I said that. [Laughter.] But I really donāt think it wouldāve had an effect on my art career at all. I played every day all through my 20s, and even through my 30s anyhow. I had to play. So what would have been the difference? I would have had all winters off [Laughs.], and I would have painted and drawn anyhow. My career really didnāt get going until I was in my middle 30s ā
and by then I was just about ready to retire.
Donāt say that.
I mean from baseball. Not from drawing.
It certainly sounds to me that you probably couldnāt choose between the two, athletics and art. They were both absolute requirements of your life.
Yeah. I think I was probably a better athlete than I am an artist. Because I never heard anybody criticize my athleticism, ever. But Iāve seen a lot of nasty things written about my art.
Well, art is a little more subjective than athletics.
Yeah, but thatās the only thing I can base it on. People just marveled at my athleticism, whereas with my art, over the years Iāve had all kinds of picky criticisms thrown at me. So I feel I was probably better at sports.
The last time I talked to you, you quoted a great line from Joe DiMaggio.
He said, āYou have to have a great imagination to be a great athlete.ā A bell went off in my head when he said that. So I realized thatās what made me a superb athlete. I could imagine myself running a certain way, doing a certain thingā¦.But I had never heard anybody say it, and Iād never thought about it myself.
And it seems to come full circle, because your athleticism is very much a part of your art.
Exactly. I guess it all boils down to my imagination. Period. And where that comes from, I will never know.
How important is your Sicilian-Italian heritage?
I donāt know. Thereās something about Sicilian people that is really kind of strange. There is a tremendous sense of loyalty, all combined with a certain type of vengefulness, you know? Theyāll give you the world, but if you mistreat them, theyāll just kill you! [Laughs.]
Does that describe you?
If I could get away with it, yes! [Laughter.] The point is, they try to be up front ā weāre not talking about the mob, theyāre a greedy bunch of assholes. Iām talking about regular Sicilian people, who will bend over backwards to treat you well. But if you suddenly turn around and laugh behind their back, they just cannot get over it. They donāt understand that kind of behavior. Theyāre not the type of people where things just roll of their back. You know what Iām sayinā? And thatās the way I am. Nothing, but nothing rolls off my back. Thatās a tough way to live. It really is. But by the same token, thatās what makes me so sensitive to everything. I see everything good and I see everything bad, and I probably overreact.
One of the things I think youāre saying is that thereās an integrity to living your life like that.
Definitely. People ask me to teach art, and I canāt teach them to think like me! Everything I set out to do, I try to do it in the extreme, and sometimes a person is criticized for that. Theyāll say, āNo, slow down.ā Sinatra, for example. You can see the type of guy he is: hyper-sensitive, at least the young Sinatra. There was such a magic about his voice, and it was only because he was so sensitive. What happened in his case is he went to Hollywood and he let it affect him. It really went to his head; his ego took over. I never really let my ego take over and screw me up. Iām confident, but donāt get that confused with having a huge ego. Iām confident only because of the results; I find that I do things that are sometimes even beyond my understanding. Iāve done some art that I look at it and think, āHow did I do that?ā I donāt understand it ā it just came out magically. Sometimes I remember that little book somebody did, The Magic of Frazetta. They could be right, because I canāt explain it. I visualize the images, but itās like my hand goes right on without me, and itās just incredible. Talk about a high.
When youāre painting or drawing, you donāt sound like itās very calculated, like you know exactly what youāre going to do, where every line is going to go.
The overall design and composition is what Iām after. Then I fit the drawing into those shapes, unlike some artists who may sit there and just draw the figure, then try to build around the figure. I design the overall background, foreground shapes, interesting shapes, patterns, and I do it very quickly. And when I like the shapes, I just squeeze the character in. Because if you donāt do it that way, you may end up with some very nice drawing, but itās static and dull and thereās nothing going on. I try to get rhythm, like music. I marvel at the great writers who write wonderful music, classical or whatever. They must hear the sounds in their head and put it together ā itās beautiful. I work kind of like that.
You said you only started painting in your 30s?
Oh, I painted in art school when I was 11. But working professionally? Yes, thatās true. But it wasnāt new to me; I knew how to paint. Iāve got some paintings around the house that I did long before I got involved in paperbacks. It wasnāt like I didnāt know how to paint. Itās just that I was polishing it up and developing a different lookā¦And my love for sports kind of kept getting in the way. The stuff I did in the ā60s I probably could have been doing in the early ā50s.
Yeah, but it seems to me like you absolutely needed the sports, too. You wouldnāt be the person you are if you didnāt participate in the sports.
I did need them. I keep telling myself thatā¦[Laughs.] I donāt know if itās true, but I use that as an excuse.
Itās probably healthy to believe that, anyway.
Yeah, and it may be true, for all I know.
Well, I think it probably is. Thereās a sense that you had to do what you had to do, and since sports was such an integral and important part of your life, that you couldnāt be whole without it.
Yeah, I was expressing myself in a different way ā the physical side, the animal side of me. I loved that; I reveled in it. I had to move, I had to compete, I had to leap and run and show the other guys that I was faster, or tougher, or smarter, and quicker, more agile ā and for some reason! [Laughter.] I had a brain in there, but the heck with it for now. Iāll use it when the time comes.
Right ā use it later.
[Laughs.] Thatās so right.
Iām not sure thatās so foolish.
I donāt know if you needed one to make the other work. It could very well be. There are guys who would agree with you on that. The point is, Iām still alive and well, and Iāve accomplished things, havenāt I?
What more could I do?
My wife, Ellie, feels very strongly about all the time Iāve wasted. Iāve knocked people on their ass! And any artist who can make a statement like thatā¦If you look at my art, the quality is there, even if the quantity may not be.
Well, quality is far more important than quantity.
Thatās the way I look at it.
But you have a fair amount of quantity, too.
Yeah, not bad if you put it all together.
Today, comics are much more explicitly violent than your work ever has beenā¦
They donāt know what they want; they have no direction.
In the book called Frank Frazetta, the Living Legend, someone wrote: āFights were an everyday occurrence. Frank more than held his own against any and all challengers. He soon gained a reputation to be reckoned with.ā
Thatās true enough. But that was only for a short period of time, for Christās sake. Youāre talking between the ages of 16 and 19? IfĀ anybodyās going to be tough, thatās the period. Youāre sort of a confused kid, youāre between adolescence and adulthood, and you act like a jerk. But I felt good, I didnāt give a shit. I wanted people to fear me, I thought that was great. I realize now how stupid it was.
I wonder if that didnāt give you a certain respect for violence that a lot of comic artists donāt have.
Sure. Unless theyāve done it, they donāt have a feel for it.
Thatās why I do as well as I do. Sure, I was good at what I did and it just lends itself to my art. But itās more than that I was a very good athlete. I really understood it. I played ball better than everybody in the neighborhood, I ran faster, I jumped higher, I threw the ball harder and all that stuff. I prided myself on that, oh boy, that was it, that was the way to be. Then Iād go home and draw these pretty little pictures ā it was really weird! An enigma.
It was almost like your secret life.
Yeah, but I donāt want to make a big deal out of it. I think it was because I was so imaginative, you know? Even during that period, I had such an imagination, that I even fantasized about being a tough guy, like a lot of guys have. It depends on your environment. If I had been brought up in say, here, Pennsylvania, it never would have happened. Maybe I would have taken up hunting and fishing, and it would have been a whole different experience. But it was the mean streets of Brooklyn. If you want to meet guys like me, you talk to [Ralph] Bakshi. Bakshi had the same kind of lifestyle. You walk the streets with a chip on your shoulder, guys are eyeballing youā¦itās an everyday thing. Stupid, when I think about it. You had to watch which street you walked down and so on. It got to a point where I was beginning to get a little bit older, a little more muscular and a little tougher. I found that the only way is to beat up somebody! [Laughs.] You beat them up and geez, you get a rep!
And theyād leave you alone.
They really would, I gotta tell you. And that was good. It was really a defense mechanism.
A matter of survival, I guess.
I guess so. At least they didnāt shoot you in those days.
Itās escalated a bit. But most comic artists today are middle-class guys who grew up in suburbia.
I know. Theyāve lived their life. I count my blessings ā the fact that I did do those things is probably what made my art was it is today. Had I not, thereās no telling.
So much of the violence you see in comics is just second-hand media violence.
Yeah, their influence is what they see on television. Although itās pretty good now. When I was a kid, what you saw in the movies was ridiculous. The violence was sort of romantic then. But now itās pretty realistic. A little exaggerated, but more realistic, definitely.
By the way, I studied karate for a few years.
Oh, I didnāt know that. Did you enjoy it?
I was about 35 years old at the time ā
In your prime.
I guess. I was learning all these new moves. I got so damn good at it, that the pro they had for two weeks said, āYou know, I think I can make you a champion.ā [Laughs.] Well, I was an old street fighter from way back anyway, so he was wondering where I learned. He said, āDid you used to box? Where did you learn to throw punches like that?ā I said, āIn the street.ā So I understand the technique of leverage ā how to create power and impact. Karate was so scientific. Basically what it does is teach you how to turn your body to stone and just punch right through a wall. I was learning all these new things and boy, I was exhilarated. My eyes were lighting up and I said, āWhy the hell didnāt I know this stuff when I was in the street?ā It was amazing! I learned all kinds of little tricks. After this school moved on, I used to practice all by myself and developed my own moves that I taught my kids. I could easily have been real good at it. Thatās because first of all, youāve got to be strong, and secondly, you have to know what fighting is, and then you understand what theyāre trying to tell you here: how to get the ultimate from your body. I just understood that. These other guys who were in there learning were just hot dogs because they didnāt know. They were kicking and stomping and leaping, but they just thought that if you give somebody a chop, they die. They didnāt understand the force you have to use behind it, and I did. I began to understand what those sneaky little moves were all about. I began to generate power. Iād wear this gi, and Iād be slithering around, still learning ā I had no high kicks or anything like that ā and weāre having this mock combat, thereās a whole crowd of maybe 30 guys in the gym and Iām sliding around, everybody gets their turn, and the guy in front of me is kicking and stomping, kicking and stomping and Iām just slithering around toward him, and then I let it fly, and my gi would explode. It sounded like a gunshot going off. My fist would stop truly a hairās breadth from his nose. And he just drops his arms in a cold sweat and all 30 guys in there started laughing. It got so I could see I was intimidating even a couple of black belts who were there and a green belt. Theyād look at me with that funny look like, āWho the fuck is this guy?ā They could see I had no polish, but they saw the force I was able to create. The head man there came over to me and said, āFrank, I can make you a champ.ā I said, āGet outta here! What do you mean, āchampā? I donāt want to go around the country ā Iām a married man and Iām 35 years old!ā He said, āSo what? Iām 40!ā He saw that I understood and had the power. All I had to do was learn all the moves and get my black belt. I could have done it easily. As the weeks went on, during every session theyād all gather around me and talk to me and ask me questions ā some were Japanese, too!
Did you master the kicks and the techniques?
I learned on my own. I got to learn a lot of little things that I didnāt know right off. Youāve got to jerk those hips, you know. I was powerful and I had very fast hands, which doesnāt hurt, and I knew how to generate power, but my hips would do it. Iād snap my hips and boy, the fist would go VOOM! My body would still be facing straight at you, and I would just think of going right throughā¦ If the guyās face is a foot away, Iād think about two feet behind his head.
You can teach it all you want, but one still has to have a certain amount of natural power and force. And I had that from day one, and now I was learning these wonderful moves! All the in-fighting techniques: Getting your little thumb and jamming it into his Adamās apple ā [Laughs.] Wonderful stuff! A quick chop to the clavicle. The spinning and kicking came later. I worked and worked on those and got real good at that. I did it for maybe 10 or 15 years. Then I just found no need for it ā except it was still good exercise. I was doing finger push-ups for a while.
Did you say one finger?
One finger. With both hands, of course. But stillā¦
Yeah, thatās not bad.
Your fingerās got to be pretty strong!