Frank Frazetta, 1928-2010 May10

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Frank Frazetta, 1928-2010

Badmouth is saddened to learn that Frank Frazetta, iconic fantasy illustrator, died on Monday. He’d suffered a series of strokes in recent years, and on Monday died of one in a hospital near his Pennsylvania home. The Beat provided a quick obituary, as did The Associated Press. The New York Times came along a few hours later with a deeper appreciation.

Cribbing from Wikipedia, with all the caveats that requires, the artist was born in Brooklyn and studied at the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts before starting a career at 16 as a comic book artist. In the mid-’60s, Frazetta moved toward illustrating fantasy and science fiction book covers. From Wikipedia:

Frazetta also produced paintings for paperback editions of adventure books. His interpretations of Conan visually redefined the genre of sword and sorcery, and had an enormous influence on succeeding generations of artists. …. His cover art only coincidentally matched the storylines inside the books, as Frazetta once explained: “I didn’t read any of it… I drew him my way. It was really rugged. And it caught on. I didn’t care about what people thought. People who bought the books never complained about it. They probably didn’t read them.”

The early obituaries don’t give much detail about the man, and that’s fitting. Frank Frazetta wasn’t about words, he was about powerful images that transcended this world. He was about singular imagination. It’s fitting that Frazetta’s work is so closely associated with Conan the Barbarian. Robert E. Howard is credited with inventing the sword-and-sorcery genre with the creation of that legendary character, and Frazetta utterly defined the field visually through his work. Barechested barbarians bearing broadswords, half-naked princesses and great beasts, from tigers to monstrous serpents, were hallmarks of the genre that Frazetta brought to life as never before. His work is frightening, sexy, inspiring, and always epic in scale.

His work commonly conveys an ominous mood, portraying dark fantasy worlds in which death seems moments away, and plenty of the images in this post testify to that. But while the mighty warriors were often the heroic focus of his paintings, it was the women, a close second, who always caught my eye. We live now in a world full of Xenas and Slave Leias and such, but before any of them, Frazetta was giving us these lusty, sensual women, with muscle, with sensuous curves, with goddamned hips … These women were often with the warrior hero in that torchlit cavern or dark, ruined temple, but it was with his women that Frazetta would also lighten up and get a little playful. Here are two images I particularly like. To the upper left, a piece set squarely in his fantasy worlds but with a bit of the bright fun of “Good Girl” art, and at right, a piece that abandons his usual detailed, hyperreal oil style for something looser and more energetic. (With all these images, for the love of Crom, click for enlargement.)

And for all the power of his action imagery, the swords raised and the monsters snarling, he did wonderful work with stillness. This Egyptian princess gazes at us from an opportune pool of light, perhaps a shaft of moonglow, and seems designed to intrigue, to draw us into her sensual world. But the jungle cat prowling in the shadow at the bottom of the picture, and a flash of steel to the right warn us of the dangers to come. And look at John Carter of Mars, sword raised in a moment of victory. Fantastic monsters, a gorgeous princess, beasts slain, the landscape of a new world, and a hero calm and powerful at the center of it all. These were boys’ adventure stories, and what boy could look at this cover and not want to enter that world?

The pulps were well and truly dead by the time Frazetta began this stage of his career, but he evoked their energy and passion, embodied it, and elevated it without condescending. He wasn’t anything more than a pulp cover artist, but he was the consummate pulp cover artist. He leaves behind a wonderful legacy, and a world that’s more fantastic than when he entered it, but a little less fantastic since he’s left.

All images may be found (and purchased) at the Frank Frazetta Museum site and are (c) the Frank Frazetta estate.