You drew your last comic for Warren, right?
Yeah, I guess so.
Did you ever have the desire to go back and do a comic?
No. Not at all. I love it, but, come on, Iām not going to sit there doing a continuity strip. Itās silly. In the time it takes to do that, I could do 10 paintings, for Christās sake. Itās silly. Fans have been bugging me for years: āWhy donāt you do your own comic book?ā Easy for them to say! Itās a lot of work. I know guys like Gray Morrow; he just loves that. Heād rather do that than anything.
Is it because you find more satisfaction with painting?
Well, sure, and itās the response. First of all, I like to compose a whole picture, and thereās no way you can do that if youāve got an ongoing strip. Youāve got to find short cuts. Itās fun; sure, itās a lot of fun ā for those who buy them and read them. But from my point of view, itās ridiculous. I want to do a whole picture and make it as perfectly composed as I can do it. And you canāt do that with comics or youād be there forever. Unless youāre trying to prove a point. But the whole idea is just silly. Itās not very rewarding. It certainly doesnāt pay very much. If I could do a full-color comic book, and make every panel like I do my paintings, it would just blow the world right off its axis. But it would only take me 20 years! [Groth Laughs.] To hell with that!
Speaking of not doing a comic, can you tell me how you got involved in the Death Dealer comic?
[Glenn] Danzig approached me.
The heavy-metal rocker.
Heās been a fan for years and years and he came to the museum and Ellie let him come to the house. He bought some original art from time to time and started to woo me into doing this thing. He convinced me that it could be a big moneymaker, so thatās why I got involved. But Iām not going to do any of the interiors.
So youāre basically allowing him to print your paintings on the cover.
Thatās it. And they got Bisley doing the interior. I was just on the phone with him last night, in fact. He called me from England. He asked me if Iād seen any of the pages and I told him, āKnock off that Goddamn distortion!ā [Groth laughs.] And it shook him: āOh, really? Is it really?ā I said, āOf course it is, for Christās sake! Look. This is not a super merry Marvel hero. This is a death dealer. Heās wonderful and heās mysterious; he is muscular, but for Christās sake! Take it easy!ā So I got him all shook up and I said, āI want you to think in terms of cutting down those arms to about 50 percent.ā He said, āFifty percent?!ā I said, āWell, yeah, knowing you, if I say 50 percent, you might cut it down 10 percent or 20 percent and that would be great.ā Heās done some great stuff, but heās really getting carried away with it.
Had you seen Bisleyās work previous to this?
I had; Iād seen a lot of what I thought was great stuff, then sometimes it took me aback. I donāt know if he was smoking something, I donāt knowā¦ [Groth laughs.] It was very strange. A certain amount of inconsistency that I wonder about.
Well, heās fast.
Yeah, he is. Maybe too fast.
Do you know whoās writing the strip?
Yeah, Glenn is. I really donāt concern myself too much. He claims that Bisley is the hottest thing in comics. You combine that with my covers, I figure itās a canāt-miss deal. But weāll see. Glennās already got plans for a movie, blah blah blah. Isnāt that great?
It could be.
Yeah, a real serious movie I could supervise. Iāll tell him how to look and how to move and so on. Iām talking live, not animated. Who knows? But usually youāve got to have a successful comic book first, it seems.
Do you keep up with whatās going on in comics?
No. The only thing I ever see is what they send me through the mail. And I donāt understand it. I donāt know what the hellās going on. Youāve got these panels that are running all over the placeā¦I donāt know. Theyāre being a little too smart for their own good.
Have you seen anything that youāve liked?
Yeah, I canāt remember their names, but a couple of Italian guys, Spanish artists, who really draw beautifully.
Thereās a great Italian named Franco Saudelli.
What does he draw? These beautiful women?
With great asses? [Laughs.]
Oh yeah, that might be the guy I like! [Laughs.] Well, thatās one of them. Whenever I get that through the mail, I really savor it.
Itās sensuous stuff. Do you know who Frank Thorne is?
Yeah. He did that blonde chick character.
Heās been doing some fantastic erotica for us.
He does nice women, too.
Heās drawing the best stuff of his career. Iāll send you some. It might take you aback because Frank is actually doing some hardcore stuff.
Iād love to see it.
[Laughs.] Itās amazing! It might inspire you!
Considering that you were a conservative, what did you think of the underground comics that came out of the ā60s and ā70s, cartoonists like R. Crumb?
Really? Because they were really shaking up comics.
No, Iām kind of a purist; Iām not impressed by that silly crap. Iām capable of blowing them all out of the water with that kind of material if I want.
Robert Crumb was probably the most notable of that whole generation of artists. Did you appreciate his drawing?
This was the hippie generation, the druggies.ā¦That wasnāt me. I mean, I played ball, you know what I mean? I got married, had kids, did my thing, was kind of Mr. Macho. Then these guys came along with long hair and they were stoned out of their minds ā a whole different breed. They sat around talking and smoking and talking and smokingā¦.That wasnāt me. Iām sure they thought I was very square. [Groth laughs.] But Iām not really! I just have a different set of values than them. But Iām not square, I promise you.
Sex and Conservatism
Do you feel like your kind of sensuality has been supplanted by more explicit ā?
Oh God, yes, but who cares? Women are awfully sexy as it is. I donāt think you have to be explicit. The name of the game is fantasy and if I can excite you just by looking at one of my women without anything explicit, whatās wrong with that? And it has an element of class to it, itās enduring; you can hang it in a museum, you know? Call me old-fashioned. [Groth laughs.] But Iād certainly like to look at that other stuff. But I wonāt do it myself.
Do you think that over the years youāve grown more conservative?
I guess I have. Because Iāve seen what happens with kids. You give them the ball and they just keep running with it. Maybe Iām a little out of touch, I donāt know. The key word is ātaste.ā And taste makes for beauty. When you start doing pornography, there aināt no way it can be in good taste. And for the most part, it isnāt beautiful. I want to see the guy who can do it and make it beautiful.
Thereās a difference between sexuality and pornography. Pornography is just plain dirty. Sex can be beautiful. You can suggest it and you can do it so itās not explicit, and yet itās sensuous as hell. You can get great joy out of it and youād probably be more stimulated by that than some trashy stuff.
How strict were your parents?
They werenāt strict at all.
Were you raised Catholic?
Well, I guess so, not that I follow it very much. [Laughter.] I didnāt go to Catholic school or anything, but I went to the church like all the kids do, until I got older. Very typical.
Were you aware of your parents imposing moral values on you?
In their own, simple way, sure. Iām pretty much of a free spirit. I donāt think that my work shows that Iām a prude. To me, nudity can be beautiful, or it can be offensive. Even violence can be a thing of beauty, instead of being repugnant, and you look at it and say, āIt just offends me. I think itās gory and itās awful and it has no redeeming value. You just look at it and feel offended and insulted.ā Here Iāve painted some of the most apparently violent scenes, and none of them are offensive, really. I make a battle scene, but somehow thereās a rhythm to it and a fascinating beauty, in spite of whatās going on. Of course if you were there, Iām sure it wouldnāt be quite like that. It would be pretty brutal and terrible, but I kind of leave that out. It works in the movies, but I donāt think it works in art. It works in comics, perhaps, butā¦I donāt want people to be repelled by my paintings. If you look at any of the Conans, my God, heās beating heads all over the place. You feel the strength and power and all that, but you donāt say, āYuck! Boy, look at those heads rolling down the hill.ā
I think thatās because thereās more than violence to your work. I think the best art creates a certain amount of distance between the person who sees it and the work, so he can step back and see it as both artifice and art. In your case, thereās an aesthetic element that creates enough distance between the violence and the observer so that the content isnāt accepted literally and unreflectively.
Yeah, thatās what I do. I compose these wonderful shapes, and Iām more concerned with those than whether or not the ax is sharp and whether itās severing a head or not. I donāt care about that. Thereās a suggestion that thereās a mayhem going on, but itās a thing of beauty, nothing less. And that can be handled completely wrong if youāre not careful. I really am very careful of that. I can, if I wanted to, make something so brutal and violent that people would throw up. [Groth laughs.] But I realize, what happens is, you look at the painting, and you vomit ā I donāt need that.
I want them to look at it and say, āItās beautiful!ā and they absolutely forget whatās happening. They look at it for the sheer beauty and symmetry and the wonderful shapes and color and rhythm, and thatās all they see. They donāt think about the fact that itās a battle scene. Thatās what I try to do: shift their focus from anything like that.
You mentioned youāve gotten more conservative, and you said something that surprised me about Nixon.
Oh, yeah. Yeah, I think Nixon was a great president. And I donāt think Iām alone in that. Unfortunately, you hear a lot of stuff by a lot of bleeding heart liberals in this country, and youāve got to be careful. [Groth laughs.] What did you not like about Nixon, for example?
I didnāt like the fact that he tried to undermine the U.S. Constitution through Watergate.
Oh, big whoop. Clintonās OK, though?
Wellā¦no. [Laughter.] Iām not fond of Clinton, either.
[Laughs.] Draft dodger! Heās a scumbag if there ever was one.
What did you like about Nixon?
Well I liked his politics! He was really a world leader! He got stuff happening, and he did it in a very positive way. He was also a conservative, which I like. He doesnāt punish people who work hard and make money. And for Christās sake, what incentive do we have if you take that away? Like these Goddamn Democrats! I work hard and have a conscience and raise a family, and do everything the hard way ā I earn everything I get. And you take my money. The more I make, the more you take and give it to these bums who, for the most part, donāt even want to work. Period. I know that sounds simplistic, but thatās simply how I feel ā the way any conservative feels. I feel like Rush! [Laughs.]
And you watch Rush Limbaugh?
Youāre Goddamn right! [Groth laughs.] And if you think Iām the only one, think again. You can see how he single-handedly turned everything around, because people finally got to another viewpoint. All they did was watch lopsided television where everybody was really biased: it was so damn obvious after a while. At first I never paid attention, but then I began to see it: The more money I made, the more they punished me. I thought, āSomethingās wrong here!ā All that shit thatās on television. You could see it: the freedom of expressionā¦it got so that there are no morals, no respect for law and order, no respect for church or God ā God is dead! I mean, what the hell is going on? Itās all very cool, but it doesnāt work.
Did you find Vietnam to beā¦
Well yeah, that was a crummy war. Stupid. You canāt blame Nixon for that one. He sure didnāt start it. I donāt think Nixon liked war, particularly. Heās the guy that broke the barriers and went to China.
Well, he did extend Vietnam by illegally bombing Cambodia and then lying to Congress about it.
Yeah, I know. Listen: politicians donāt lie, right. Ha-ha-ha-ha. Give me a break. At least he was good at it! [Laughs.] I mean the Goddamn guy weāve got now [Clinton] is a joke! He lies every other word; heās ridiculous. Nobodyās perfect, but looking at Nixon overallā¦itāll come out in the wash some day. Theyāll see he actually accomplished a lot and was a good president, really cared about the country. Thatās all that matters to me.
What did you think in the ā60s and the early ā70s when the country was going through that vary volatile period with the campus riots and protests? What were your feelings?
I think the war was a no-no. That was politics. I mean, who got us there? Itās all to keep the economy going, I guess. But apparently thereās no other wayā¦I donāt know. Got to get guys in the army, got to get some guys killed, got to create jobsā¦I donāt know.
I Just Sit Here and I Paint
You donāt use models, do you?
I donāt use anything. I just sit here and I paint. And I told you how I refer to myself: when Iām in a bind, and I canāt solve a problem with the anatomy or perhaps the lighting. Itās kind of rare. I could walk you around and look at a hundred paintings and pick out two or three where I actually had to pose for it, or had Ellie pose for it. And itās generally when thereās something that presents a problem, usually a difficult lighting effect that I want. Ordinarily, no. Itās 99 percent all made up, everything you see. From lizards to hero figures to the backgrounds to the foregrounds, just make it up. I can draw well. Thatās the key.
And you have the imagination, too.
Yeah. Well, that doesnāt hurt. The imagination, that comes so easy itās ridiculous. The drawing for the most part comes easily; it depends on the subject. If itās primitive men or women, I do that easily. I do creatures, you name the animal, I do it easily. The most difficult thing would be women: believe it or not.
Thatās a shocker.
I know. Well, they generally come easily, but itās when I want them to be right. Realistic. Believable.
Do you actually enjoy the act of drawing and painting when youāre doing it?
I used to a lot. I do enjoy drawing. Painting is a bit of a drag. I like the early stages of a painting, when youāve got nothing on the board, and you just start whacking stuff in and in a matter of hours the painting is practically there. And I tend to start polishing it up, and getting the details, and then you kind of slow down, and itās not as much fun.
It sounds like that becomes labor.
It really does. But if you see me just hacking right in from scratch, you can see that Iām having fun because Iām seeing this thing really materialize very quickly. And itās great. I say, āOh boy, this isnāt going to take long.ā And Iām going along, and itās getting there: itās like maybe 85 percent done. Then it begins to slow down. Now youāve got to polish it up, now you got to get the finish. Youāve got to get the edges and pull it together.
The detail work.
If there is any. Of course, if there isnāt any, itās a lot quicker.
Someone told me that the Conan paintings that you did in the ā60s were returned to you and you actually worked them over again.
I did. āThe Avenger,ā the very first one. I thought it was pretty good. When I got it back, I realized, āWellā¦ He looks a little distorted here and there. His proportions are a little off and then this and that.ā If you get the very first release on that, and compare it with what you saw later, in my books or whatever, youāll see heās far better. His proportions are better. His head is better. Everythingās better.
Do you do that often?
Iām not going to say often. But Iāve done it any number of times. If it works out great the first shot, I donāt bother with it. Certainly, Cat Girl was revised. The originalā¦I thought it had potential, but it was done for Warren. She had blonde hair and leopard skinā¦but it was an interesting composition. As a matter of fact, I realized, āHey, you know, I could make this into something really important!ā
Who were your influences in painting? I would guess Howard Pyleā¦
Jeez, any of them. Any one of that school: Wyeth and so on ā anybody Iāve ever seen, William R. Lee, any of the old masters. Gee, thereās just too many. Thereās no one big influence. And there shouldnāt be. They all did something a little different. Some had a crazy brush technique, others had better color, some drew better, some had a moody approachā¦.And I just absorbed all of it. And when you get down to the nitty-gritty, I decided that I should visualize the moment. Just be there. Sort of a āmethodā approach. I simply pretend Iām on the scene and I just let my imagination really focus in. And I see it pretty vividly. I donāt have other artists in mind. Thatās a mistake. Itās good to do that when youāre a novice. If youāre just learning, sure, youāve got to. You have no choice. It depends on the level of your talent. If you have my imagination, and you have learned to draw and so on, and you know enough about light and shadow, at that point, then you just sit here and let it fly!
Certainly good taste doesnāt hurt. Knowing what works, what doesnāt. A good sense of design and composition, and certainly a wonderful sense of action doesnāt hurt. Thatās a whole other story ā my understanding of action.
By āgood taste,ā do you mean subject matter, or do you mean the elements of the workā¦?
It covers a lot of areas. Good taste means if something is offensive, you know enough to either modify it or leave it out. When I say, āgood taste,ā that means everything. It means interesting shapes, how to direct focus in certain areas, and what to focus on. Some people place more importance on all the wrong areas. Know what I mean? They may focus on the foreground, and draw a lot of unnecessary crap in the foreground. They just love doing that and they donāt realize what it does overall is become a distraction. As much as Iād love to sit there and render a lot of detail in the foreground, I know it will affect the viewer. So my good taste says, āNo. Keep it out of there.ā Be very, very strong about your conviction here. Make sure that you donāt lose your sense of direction. I want the eye of the viewer to go right here. And then I want it to move around in a certain way. Sort of like music, you know? I want to lead you into the picture. I want you to go directly to a certain point. And then I want you to go on from there and find all these neat little things that Iāve done.
Other artists, who maybe draw well, maybe even paint well, maybe even compose well, confuse the hell out of you. They just donāt know where theyāre going, and why. A lot of new artists today, you can see, they put an awful lot of crap in the painting. And what theyāre doing is being egotistical; theyāre simply showing off. And OK, thatās all very nice. And somebody looks at it and thinks, āBoy, this guy can do it all.ā But what happens is you look at the painting and you know something is missing. You just didnāt get that wonderful feelingā¦that sense of mystery and wonder that you can get when you know what to leave out, or where to tuck it in the background. Very, very complex, really. I try to do all those things, and itās all very deliberate and what happens in the final analysis is that the original looks very simple. But it really isnāt. The simplicity part is very, very difficult. Itās very easy to just cram pack every inch of a painting with anything. And itās sort of a cover-up for mistakes. Itās a cover-up for not knowing whatās important. But, because I know whatās important, I know just how far to go with backgrounds or foreground and so on. I know what a certain shape does, how it lends itself to the design and composition. If by natureā¦letās say that the character has to be carrying a certain kind of armament, and if I know that itās a distraction, I will somehow force that shape away from your eyes so it doesnāt distract, even if it means throwing a shadow over it. I will force the thing to work somehow. Other artists have looked at my work, and said, āHow come you knew just where to put that?ā Well, I didnāt. I knew that it didnāt work, you know? I knew that it didnāt work in that form. And I just forced it to work somewhere else. Itās more what I leave out than what I put in.
And that has to be instinctive.
Obviously. Nobody taught me. I think itās because nature works that way; you see it in life. God is a wonderful creator. If you look around at nature, and the way trees are shaped, and the way light and shadow works, itās just always right. For the most part. You can learn from that. You look at somebodyās artwork thatās just forced and crammed with a lot of crap. You just donāt see that in nature. Iām sure youāve walked through a nice, shady forest. And you notice how when you walk along thereās a certain mood, a certain mysterious quality that it has. Youāve got to do that with art. You just donāt show everything. Your eye only sees one thing at a time, anyway. When I do a painting, I want you to get that same feeling. I want you to feel like youāre there. Sometimes I labor over it. Other times it comes easily. But I always want the thing to look like it came easily.
Do you ever start one and not finish it because itās not coming out the way you want it to?
No. Not really. Iāve belabored some of them to death: Iāll say that. When Iām up against something like that, what happens is I get all hung up on it, and I go crazy, but Iām such a battler, you know; Iāve got to solve the problem. If it takes forever.
You wrestle it to the ground, and continue painting it.
I just wonāt quit. People have come along, and said, āWhy donāt you just put it aside?ā But I canāt. Itās a challenge. So many have come so easily, at least apparently easily, but I get very frustrated when one does not.
Can you tell me about a painting with which you really had to wrestle to get it done?
Oh, gee. A bunch of them. Sometimes itās the silliest little thing. It might be a head, a little head. Iāll never forget, the Egyptian Queen. I got that whole painting done, in about a day and a half, and I looked at it. It was done as far as I was concerned. Then I looked at her face, and I didnāt like it. āDamn it, I donāt like that face. Iām going to make it better.ā So I started to repaint the face, and I painted the face, and I painted it again, and I painted it again. Well, I was like three days trying to get the right face. And I suddenly got sort of blinded to it. I couldnāt see any more. I just looked at it and didnāt know where I was any more. Itās really weird, and so I finally just settled for any face, and brought it in, and they printed it that way, and then I forgot about it. So, a couple of months later I get it back; now I was fresh again. And I just looked at it and āPow!ā I whacked in the face you see in all the prints. Itās really weird. But what happened is that you just become blinded by it. When I got it back, looked at it fresh, her face was painted in five minutes.
So this does happen.
You prefer oil to anything else, correct?
No, itās not that I prefer oil, but that oil is certainly very durable and you can get a lot of wonderful effects. People seem to respond to oil for some reason more than anything else. But no, I donāt have a preference. I enjoy pencil. I loved pen and ink when I did it.
Hereās an oddball question, but Iām curious: Did you like Norman Rockwell?
Of course! Doesnāt everybody?
Whaddya mean, āWellā¦ā? Who doesnāt like Rockwell? Heās a wonderful artist. He did get a little stiff in his old age, but that happens. It gets so that you lose the inspiration and you pose the people and use the opaque projector and you just simply trace it. Thatās what happened to him; he got into that rut. I canāt make myself do that. If I canāt really feel inspired, I just quit. To hell with it. Of course Rockwell in his prime was incredible. I wouldnāt call him a very creative artist, but certainly an outrageous style and technique, a great sense of humor. He got the peak of whatever he was doing, also. His characters are wonderful, real Americana. Many, many years ago when I was a kid, I saw an exhibit of his work. I think it was the Tom Sawyer series he did. Boy, they were outrageous. He could really paint. Him and a lot of other guys in those days. Many, many artists were really good. They paid their dues. Wonderful techniques, painted beautifully, great sense of color. Nobody very creative, though.
Yeah, a lot of that work was pretty pedestrian.
Yeah, but they didnāt know you could do what Iām doing! [Laughs.] They werenāt even aware of it. I just created a whole new thing, didnāt I?
Yeah. So you were never interested in painting landscapes or apples.
No, not that I havenāt done it. I tuck them in here and there in the background. I certainly paint vegetation and trees and mountains, donāt I? But Iāll be damned if Iām gonna keep the figures out of it. Thereās no point. I could paint landscape easily. But I donāt think it proves anything. Iāve got to have some human interest there. Thereās got to be some drama. Youāve got to be a mood creator and itās got to go beyond just capturing the spirit of that scene. I like to invent things, invent characters and have people look at it and wonder what I was thinking. Far more of a challenge. Of course thatās the one thing that kept my career back in a sense, with the upper set who looked at it and somehow didnāt see the seriousness of it, because of my approach, because of my love for characterization. They just thought, āWell, it canāt be taken seriously.ā They wanted me to leave out that good stuff! [Laughter.] A woman came to my museum a few years ago, she was wandering around, and she was very prudish, and she looked at Sea Witch, then raised both her hands and blocked Sea Witch out from her eyes. I looked at her and asked, āWould you like me to take her out?ā [Groth laughs.] It was so obvious she liked the abstract quality that the waves created, but the Sea Witch ruined it, you know. So I just got real nasty and irritated. It was stupid. Thatās the way they were trained.
Itās true that the subject matter you paint could turn a lot of fine arts people off.
It does, but thatās their problem. Iāve given them more, not less. But they think itās less. They feel itās barbaric for me to do these ridiculous, impulsive things that belong in comic books. I tell them, āGoā¦somewhere else.ā No one has the right to criticize my work if itās that good simply because I added something that might be surreal or a little fantastic. Why does that make it any less, for Christās sake? Theyāre so narrow-minded.
All images Ā©2005 Frank Frazetta