A warrior's farewell: RIP, Frank Frazetta, master of fantasy illustration
Among modern fantasy illustrators, could anyone render flesh quite like Frank Frazetta?
Amid all his artwork's massive swords and towering cliffscapes and thundering skies of menace, Frazetta could flat-out make the viewers' eye feel the "meat" of the thing. Coiled pythons. Poised big cats. Rippling torsos posed just so. Frazetta's artwork pulled you into worlds that put you at immediate peril -- and it all started with the sinew. Glorious, striving, all-too-mortal muscle.
If only Mr. Frazetta were with us today to unsheath his ever-deft paintbrush and, wielding it like a New Master, depict his own family's recently resolved squabbles over his multimillion-dollar artwork. His relatives wouldn't be perched at courtroom tables, hoisting pissy-little legal briefs. They would be inserted as in the scenes his longtime wife Ellie, who died last year, once modeled for -- fierce moments of primal titanic struggle -- and his son Frank Jr.'s recent arrest on Frazetta-Museum robbery charges might be a brawny scene akin to the pillaging of Tarzan's jungle, a reptilian attorney underfoot.
Sadly, though, the artist's masterful hand has rendered its last. Mr. Frazetta -- prolific painter of so many Conan covers and Tarzan illustrations and pseudo-futuristic Buck Rogers adventures -- reportedly died Monday in Fort Myers, Fla., after a stroke. He was 82.
The man who once tried out for baseball's New York Giants leaves us a fantasy-art titan himself.
It's impossible to recall the first time I was struck cold by a Frazetta painting. Was it while poring over a dungeon scene from "Conan the Usurper," the chained barbarian posed as if in an old Joe Weider muscle mag, giant reptiles threatening to strike? Or perhaps it was as an impressionable young kid, admiring not the music but the album art when a friend down the street broke out the Nazareth LP "Expect No Mercy." Vinyl may feel dated today, but Frazetta's art never yellows.
Like some other artists of his era, Frazetta began drawing for comic books and strips while still a teen. EC Comics. National Comics. "Li'l Abner." "Johnny Comet" and "Flash Gordon" Frazetta's talent fluorished, and he could do it all, helping to carve out a look of superheroic comic art.
Hollywood came calling -- .the "What's New Pussycat" poster is so emblematic of the era's comedy-movie art -- but Frazetta really invaded my sense of animated possibilities when he teamed with Ralph Bakshi for the commercially failed "Fire and Ice." The film faded from theaters; the impression it made didn't.
Frazetta's worlds of heavily muscled, barely clad, hypersexual men and women fending off creatures became so iconic, his name became synonymous with a genre. But his talent with oils, especially, was beyond genre.
Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett recently paid $1-million for Frazetta's cover art -- for the paperback reissue of Robert E. Howard's "Conan the Conqueror." That purchase prompted two immediate thoughts:
First, it's high testament to a talent when almost no one blanches as a million bucks is shelled out for the work of "a fantasy illustrator."
And second: Who better than a musical "ax-man" to appreciate Frazetta's richly imagined worlds of sword and sorcery? In the parlance of metalheads everywhere: "Frazetta could shred."
RIP, Frank Frazetta. Your stony palaces -- populated by the height of sinewy flesh in peril -- will long rock on.
THE RELATED READ: Gary Groth's excellent 1994 interviews with Frank Frazetta.
| May 11, 2010; 11:10 AM ET
Categories: General | Tags: Buck Rogers, Conan, Flash Gordon, Frank Frazetta, Johnny Comet, Li'l Abner, National Comics, Painting With Fire, Ralph Bakshi, Robert E. Howard, Tarzan
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