Frazetta, the Conan quirks, self-image and psychology…
Art Chantry ( firstname.lastname@example.org)
Frank Frazetta died recently. There were so many tributes to the man that I got a little burned out reading about him. Honestly, I have to say I didn’t read a single obit or tribute to him that did much more than comment on the surface of his work or really dig into it’s impact on popular culture much more than talking about conan/arnold and obsessions with big tits.
Frazetta was a classic post war hot rod and body building macho man. There are early photos of him with cuffed chinos and white tshirt (cigarettes rolled up in his tshirt sleeve) sporting a greased back DA and leaning on his deuce coupe. He looked like a stalkier, muscle-bound Clint Eastwood.
His earliest work as a freelancer began to pop up in ‘men’s magazines’ (i assume his primary reading material outside of robert e. howard fantasies). his early ‘gag panel’ cartoons were full of oversexed stupid vixens making unintentional passes at dorky men – the usual fare in those magazines. His drawing style was already a case of skilled overkill.
He made better money being the inker for Al Capp’s “li’l abner” cartoon strip. Capp would pencil out the strip and Frazetta drew them in in ink (the standard practice event today). It’s fun to think that all the buxom amazon warriors of later Frazetta fame were all variations on the basic ‘daisy may’ overbuilt oversexed character.
I personally first encountered his work when I was at a local five-and-dime (for real) buying my latest copies of Marvel Comic books and famous monster of Filmland magazine. The first time I saw Frazetta was a copy of creepy #4 (1964) – the cover of a werewolf looming over a poor innocent victim. I was ten years old. I immediately bought it and was hooked on horror comics (and stories) ever since.
the Warren Publications (published by james warren) were a godsend to my artistic education. Whatever you may want to say about the personality of James Warren (he was peculiar), you can’t deny that he knew how to spot and exploit amazing talent.
Warren and his staff were maybe the first to see the potential of Frank Frazetta and began to hire him to do painting/illustrations for their covers of their experimental comics magazines (creepy, eerie, blazing combat, vampirella, etc.) It was one of those serendipitous marriages of convenience. They both used each other to create eccentric cultural empires.
There are famous tales of Frazetta’s work habits. one great story has Frazetta walking into the Warren production offices (i believe into harry chester’s design studio) on deadline. It’s a common habit for hungry illustrators to show on on magazine deadlines to pick up fast immediate emergency illustration work (usually to fill holes or replace the work of others who miss the deadlines).
Frazetta happen to show up at exactly the moment that the staff realized the cover assigned for the issue of eerie (due out the door in a couple of hours) had totally bombed out. Frazetta said, “what’s the basic idea? What supplies you got? Where can I work?” He then disappeared into a back room for a couple of hours only to re-emerged with his classic image of neanderthal cavemen in full frontal attack. It was used on that deadline issue as the cover and became one of his most famous images. It’s all done in browns and sepias because those were the only colors laying around the office.
Frank Frazetta is primarily known for his imagining of Conan the Barbarian. His illustrations for the mid-sixties paperback covers are his most iconic work. The fact that many of those famous images were originally used on the covers of Warren comics publications (primarily creepy and eerie) seems to have been lost to researchers.
Frazetta’s lifelong obsession with the human form, his body building hobby, his love of sports (at one time he almost became a major league baseball player.) made him the perfect illustrator to render the Conan character. The massive musculature (self-modeled in mirrors), the over developed curves of the women he drew (mostly modeled on his wife) were his signature quirks and became the very definition of the sword-and-sorcery fantasy genre of contemporary fiction. In fact, I often wonder whether the genre wouldn’t have simply faded away without his illustrations to give voice to the written narratives.
By the time of his death, he had reached a pop cult stature rarely given to illustrators (norman rockwell and peter max are among the very few i can think of with an equal popular cultural impact). His family built an actual museum dedicated to his paintings that still exist. He tended to continue painting over his old canvasses in an effort to ‘perfect’ his visions. Many of his most famous images only still exist in reproduction because he literally painted over the original to improve it. That speaks to several interesting traits of Frazetta, not the least of which was his enormous ego.
This cover I reproduce here is cover of the August, 1973, issue of National Lampoon. It’s not often known that Frank Frazetta often did other sorts of interesting projects – including humor. Although, the actual “joke” of this image sort of escapes me, he did several covers for this magazine. He also did public service (non-smoking ads) and even classic movie posters (clint eastwood’s “the gauntlet” and even a ‘star wars’ film poster or two.)
But, I think the legacy of Frank Frazetta’s imagination will far outlive the familiarity of his illustrations. Without him, entire genres of story telling would not have have become part of the very fabric of our self-definition. Who among us hasn’t at times dreamed of themselves as the ‘lone gunman’ warrior, Conan – or the amazonian Red Sonya? It’s part of the American self-image and psychology. And for that, we can directly thank the peculiar visions of Frank Frazetta.
for better or for worse…