If Thomas Kinkaid can get away with calling himself “The Painter of Light,” then I move that the late Frank Frazetta shall henceforth be known as The Painter of Id. If the late Baby Boom generation’s sexual fantasies could be transferred directly to canvas, chances are they would come out looking like one of Frazetta’s paintings: lusciously curved and endowed women and overmuscled men in armor, poised just as they are about to launch themselves at some snarling monster. Frazetta’s work embodied everything good and bad about American pulp: its vivid trashiness was as undeniable as the technical skill used in its making.
To put it bluntly, Frazetta painted sex. Scratch that — he painted lust. Other fantasy artists, like the Brothers Hildebrandt, were stately and decorative; Frazetta, bless him, was always down and dirty. There were no skinny women in Frazettaland. They were always buxom and built, with fleshy bellies instead of killer abs. When Rolling Stone decorated its profile of Jennifer Lopez with photos of her posing as a Frazetta heroine, no male reader under the age of 50 had to question the choice. It was as though Frazetta had already been painting her for decades. It’s no accident that Frazetta is identified with the slutty, down-market end of the fantasy genre. Though he occasionally ventured into the Tolkien universe, the sexlessness of Middle-Earth didn’t call up his strengths as an artist. Contrast the childlike hobbit in this drawing with the avid menace of the wolf hunting him. On the other hand, this image of Eowyn killing a Fell Beast does leave you wondering what might have been.
I was introduced to Frazetta’s work at just the right age, via multiple avenues. First, I was a pretty dedicated fan of James Warren’s horror comics — Creepy, Eerie, and of course Vampirella. I didn’t know from EC back then, but the Warren titles hewed pretty closely to the EC formula: gutbucket horror stories, usually with gruesome twist endings, introduced by a host armed with the kind of puns that normally get punished by a firing squad. Warren’s addition to the formula was a bullpen of top-flight commercial artists, and Frazetta loomed large among them. I bought my first issue of Creepy because it featured a Harlan Ellison story, “Rock God,” done up in comic form, but I spent long periods of time staring and musing over the Frazetta cover, which showed the titular deity seeming to form itself out of murky colors and impasto swirls.
At about the same time, I stumbled across the Lancer paperback editions of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. The first two I bought were Conan of the Isles and Conan the Usurper. Who the hell knew what a usurper was? But the cover art had a guy with muscles on his muscles, chained in place astride a giant snake, in a dungeon full of leering monsters. How could I possibly go wrong buying a book like that? There was also a giant snake on the cover of Conan of the Isles, but it had a generic, lifeless look to it. Frazetta’s snake looked like it might eat the reader for dessert, once it polished off Conan. There’s an almost tactile quality in the way its weight rests on the ground, in the tension of the chains and the muscles of the man straining to break free. It’s the junkiest kind of fantasy image, but it breathes. It was the kind of feat Frazetta pulled off many, many times. The man was incapable of painting a dull picture.
Now that books and magazines are no longer at the center of culture, I wonder if the generations beyond the horizon will get their own Frazettas. Those pulp magazine paintings (and the paperback covers that succeeded them) created a private theater of the mind unlike that of film. Though Ralph Bakshi’s Fire and Ice was meant to capture the Frazetta spirit, the film seems almost lifeless when compared with any one of the man’s pictures. Frazetta’s art was about the tense stillness of an image, a frozen moment of action. It’s a quality that lives only on the painted canvas, the inked paper, and the printed page.