Tag Archives: Frank Frazetta

Frank Frazetta

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.

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Puritan citizen Kane

Kane’s last vestige of reason snapped. He gibbered to and fro, screaming chaotic blasphemies . . . and he lifted his clenched fists above his head, and with glaring eyes raised and writhing lips flecked with froth, he cursed the sky and the earth and the spheres above and below . . . in one soul shaking burst of blasphemy he cursed the gods and devils who make mankind their sport, and he cursed Man who lives blindly on and blindly offers his back to the iron hoofed feet of his gods.

Ah yes, there’s nothing like Robert E. Howard in full lather. That’s one of the subtler passages from “Wings in the Night,” a 1932 novella published in Weird Tales that for sheer demented intensity outdoes just about every other story Howard pounded out during his brief life and briefer career as a pulp writer. I’m not going to tell you he was Proust, but if you have taste for this stuff, Howard had qualities that made him stand out in a disreputable genre. I also think that if he’d been able to make it through the depression ( and the Depression) that led him to commit suicide in 1936, Howard would have developed into a significant regional novelist and possibly something more. As it is, Howard’s decade of intense productivity showed him to be a seminal figure of the pulp era, capable of churning out blood-and-thunder stories in a variety of modes. I’ve already argued that if Dashiell Hammett warrants a Library of America volume, then Howard does as well, if only to recognize his position as a bridge between Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jack London.

Though Howard is best known for creating Conan the Barbarian,  I actually prefer the gory story cycle Howard built around Solomon Kane, Solomon Kanea deeply conflicted Puritan who wanders the Earth righting wrongs and stamping out evil in both human and supernatural guises, along the way combining near psychotic religiosity with an appetite for righteous violence that would have Dirty Harry hiding under his bed.  I was a wee lad when Lancer Books started churning out paperback editions of the Conan stories, and after inhaling every available copy I was glad to find the Kane stories published in three volumes by Centaur Press, a boutique operation that had labor of love written all over it. It also had some intriguing cover art by Jeff Jones, who spent much of his commercial art career in the shadow of Frank Frazetta, though he had a sense of color and technique all his own. This cover painting from one of the Centaur Press volumes pretty much set the standard for depictions of Kane, much the way Frazetta’s covers for the Lancer books defined the image of Conan until Arnold Schwarzenegger came along.            

One of the most interesting aspects of the Solomon Kane stories is that several of them are set in Africa, which Howard imagined as the realm where harpies and other monsters of classical lore took refuge from the advance of Western civilization. Howard was a howling racist, but he also romanticized barbarians, and therefore his imaginary Africa was depicted with a curious mixture of condescension and respect. During his sojourns in Africa, Kane forms a guarded semi-friendship with a witch doctor who offers advice and aid in his dreams. And when Kane comes across a beleaguered African tribe caught between a domain of cannibals and a colony of revenant harpies, there is no question that he will do everything he can to help them. This help opens the tribe to a terrible reprisal that sparks the passage quoted above, and leads Kane to plot a spectacular vengeance that is not for the faint of heart.

The two Conan movies are pretty embarrassing, but I have to admit I’m intrigued by the prospect of the Solomon Kane movie that’s now being shopped to distributors. Instead of getting pulp fiction filtered through Quentin Tarantino, let’s get it straight with no chaser, right from the source. Cheers.

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