Frank Frazetta, 1928–2010

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Conan the Adventurer aka The Barbarian (1965).

How to appraise Frank Frazetta? In November last year I wrote about this Conan portrait for an SF Signal Mind Meld feature on favourite book covers:

The covers that launched a thousand imitators. Lancer’s series of Conan books in the 1960s were the first appearance of Howard’s barbarian in paperback and came sporting cover art by Frank Frazetta. A great example of artist and subject being perfectly matched, these are the standard by which all subsequent barbarian art must be judged. Frazetta’s painting of a brooding warrior lord (which he reworked slightly for its poster edition) is for me the definitive portrait of Howard’s hero, battle scarred and proudly malevolent, with a chauvinistic blur of trophy female clinging at his feet. Other artists can do the muscles and monsters but none capture the physical presence and brute animality of Howard’s characters the way Frazetta does.

I found Frazetta’s work through the great series of fantasy art books which Pan/Ballantine published in the 1970s. I hadn’t read any Robert E Howard at the time, I only knew the diluted version of the Conan character in the Marvel comics series but Frazetta’s work was so powerful it was a spur to search out Howard, especially when I read that the writer had been a pen-pal of HP Lovecraft. I was never as interested in Frazetta’s other staple inspiration, Edgar Rice Burroughs, probably because Tarzan was too familiar from films and TV.

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The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta (1975).

Both Howard and Frazetta defined a milieu which combined an intensity of vision with a projection of their own personalities into the worlds they created. (Many of Frazetta’s protagonists resemble their creator.) Both suffered from having that intensity of vision watered-down by ham-fisted imitators or the vulgarisations of films and comics. At their best, Howard’s Conan stories are a blend of heavyweight adventure story with supernatural horror; many of them were first published in Weird Tales magazine alongside other masters of the weird like Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. What impressed me about Frazetta’s paintings was the way he managed to capture a sense of eldritch weirdness as well as the more obvious barbaric adventure in a manner which eluded so many of the sword and sorcery illustrators who followed. What’s even more remarkable when you read interviews is that he seemed to do all this instinctively. He’d learned from looking at earlier artists such as J Allen St John, Howard Pyle, Frank Schoonover and Roy Krenkel, and found the means to apply their painting style to his own internal aesthetics and sense of drama.

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Swords of Mars (1974).

Aesthetics is one of the things I always come back to with Frazetta. I used to pore over these paintings wondering how it was that all the details of weapons and decor seemed absolutely right. Nothing was ever over-worked or too elaborate. Where did this invention come from? The other obvious feature is a raw sexiness which pervades everything. I’ve had people tell me that Frazetta must have been bisexual because of the equal care he lavished on his male and female figures. I’ve always disagreed with this. The point about Frazetta’s world is that everything is sexy: the people, the decor, the architecture, the animals, even the monsters; naturally the men are going to be as sexy as the women. In addition, he wasn’t afraid of giving his men real balls (so to speak) unlike the endless parade of costumed eunuchs filling the comic books. These figures may be dealing death but they’re filled with vigour and life when they’re doing it.

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Bran Mak Morn (1969).

I said everything is sexy; I’ll make an exception for the extraordinary painting of Bran Mak Morn and his tribal horde, a picture of feral nightmarishness that goes beyond mere illustration and makes you feel the artist has shown you an atavistic glimpse of ages past. Robert E Howard would have been thrilled to see his characters brought to life with this kind of visceral intensity. For years Howard’s fiction was dismissed as pulp, now he’s a Penguin Modern Classic. And it’s as a modern classic that I’ll continue to think of Frank Frazetta.

Unofficial gallery site

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Frazetta: Painting with Fire
The monstrous tome
Men with snakes
My pastiches
Fantastic art from Pan Books

Design as virus 11: Burne Hogarth

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Mighty Baby (1969). Illustration by Martin Sharp.

Yet another album cover prompts this post, part of an occasional series. Mighty Baby were a British rock band who formed out of psychedelic group The Action in the late Sixties, and their music is fairly typical of the period, being “heavy” without any of the psych trappings which—for me—often make everything from that time a lot more interesting. This was a journey undertaken by many groups at the end of that lurid decade, a junking of the playful and evocative side of what was now called rock music in favour of a denim-clad earnestness. This album isn’t one I like very much—I’d rather listen to their earlier incarnation—but the cover painting by psych artist Martin Sharp is certainly a startling piece, being a violent mutation of one of the most famous Tarzan drawings by comic artist Burne Hogarth.

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Tarzan by Burne Hogarth (194?).

Hogarth was drawing Tarzan for much of the 1940s and this particular panel showing the Ape-Man attacking Numa the lion dates from the latter part of his run on the series. I wish I could pin this to an actual year but I don’t have a complete set of the comics and that detail eluded me. If anyone knows the date, please leave a comment.

Continue reading “Design as virus 11: Burne Hogarth”

Frazetta: Painting with Fire

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Continuing from yesterday’s post, Berni Wrightson appears in this 2003 documentary about the great fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. (And Frazetta is another artist who acknowledges a debt to Roy G Krenkel.) I saw this when it first appeared on video and it’s essential viewing for anyone interested in Frazetta’s work. Stephanie Bruder wrote this week to inform me that the film is now available through iTunes (US store only, for now; UK release is being arranged).

For the last half century, Frank Frazetta has dominated the fantasy art world with his visceral images of savage warriors, curvaceous princesses, and fantastical creatures set in the most lavish landscapes. In this critically acclaimed documentary, we journey to a place where up until now, only the privileged have been. For the first time on film, the reclusive Frazetta reveals to us details of his astonishing life, including how he learned to draw left handed at the age of 70 after suffering a debilitating stroke. Dozens of other professionals candidly weigh in on Frank’s career, including comic legends Berni Wrightson, Dave Stevens, William Stout, Neal Adams, Al Williamson, Forrest Ackerman and film directors Ralph Bakshi and John Milius.  Also appearing are rocker Glenn Danzig, actress Bo Derek and fantasy artists Brom, Simon Bisley, and Joe Jusko. Mirroring the dramatic nature of his work, this film utilizes visual effects and a breathtaking orchestral score to create astonishing results. Painting With Fire tells of a life, the spark of an artist, and what Frazetta means to future inspirations. Frank Frazetta is not just a pop phenomenon, but a creative artist destined for a serious place in art history.

Frazetta’s official site is here, this unofficial site has a great selection of his paintings and his influence in some of my own work was recounted here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Men with snakes
My pastiches
Fantastic art from Pan Books

Naked sword

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Matthijs Kool, middeleeuws zwaardvechten.

Yes, the web breeds fetishes you weren’t even aware of once…. I blame Frank Frazetta for my interest in naked men with swords. This photo of Matthijs Kool is one of a series by Ewoud Broeksma who specialises in portraits of athletes and sports people.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The men with swords archive

The monstrous tome

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So it arrived at last, yesterday in fact, the colossal volume that is A Lovecraft Retrospective: Artists Inspired by HP Lovecraft from Centipede Press. Calling this a book is like calling the Great Pyramid of Cheops a pile of stones, technically accurate but the words somewhat fail to convey the existential reality. This is the heaviest book I’ve ever come across, 400 pages of heavy-duty art paper at BIG size. (Amazon gives the dimensions as 16.1 x 12.6 x 2.3 inches or 409 x 320 x 580 mm.) The photo above shows the scale beside an old Mountains of Madness paperback (Ian Miller‘s cover art appears in full in the new book) and my own Haunter of the Dark collection. The cover art is by Michael Whelan, a detail from his wonderful 1981 HPL panoramas.

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The Virgil Finlay section showing The Colour Out of Space and his definitive Lovecraft portrait.

The range of contributors past and present includes JK Potter, HR Giger, Raymond Bayless, Ian Miller, Virgil Finlay, Lee Brown Coye, Hannes Bok, Rowena Morrill, Bob Eggleton, Allen Koszowski, Mike Mignola, Howard V. Brown, Michael Whelan, Tim White, Frank Frazetta, John Holmes, Harry O. Morris, Murray Tinkelman, Gabriel, Don Punchatz, Helmut Wenske, John Stewart, Thomas Ligotti and John Jude Palencar. The introduction is by Harlan Ellison and there’s an afterword by Thomas Ligotti. Many pages fold out to reveal spreads like the Giger ones below. Print quality is exceptional, of course, but then ladling the superlatives is pointless when it’s obvious this is a sui generis masterpiece of Lovecraftian art. Naturally I’m very happy indeed to be a part of it.

Continue reading “The monstrous tome”