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Posted at 11:10 AM ET, 05/11/2010

A warrior's farewell: RIP, Frank Frazetta, master of fantasy illustration

By Michael Cavna


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.

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By Michael Cavna  | 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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Cheers to the Icon: Frank Frazetta! Your magnificent art has brought joy and heightened imaginations to millions; maybe even billions. Perhaps no other art from any of the masters can be viewed at with intricate detail for hours on end. You are my favorite artists and are one of the reasons I choose to paint fantasy art myself. It is sorrowful to think that we will never see a new Frazetta painting; but you have already given us a lifetime of amazing and original art. Rest in Peace, Sir Frank! It is now someone else’s turn to enlighten us with such delightful and thought provoking art.

Posted by: HammetMetallica | May 11, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Although his massively muscled torsos are unsurpassed, Frazetta should also be remembered for his female characters such as Vampirella. He was assistant to Al Capp on "Lil' Abner" (I believe the curvaceous character "Moonbeam McSwine" was his) and to Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder on "Little Annie Fanny". I shall also remember forever his "Breck girl" shampoo-ad parody that he executed for "Mad" magazine - featuring Ringo Starr as the subject!

Still, it is the "barbarian" style art for which he will best be remembered, and rightly so. When his famous "Death Dealer" painting appeared on the cover of the "American Artist" magazine in 1976, that issue became the only one in the magazine's history to sell out at the newsstand.

I do hope modern-day comics fans realize what an industry giant he was!

Posted by: seismic-2 | May 11, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

I used to take my students to the Geppie business offices in Baltimore as a field trip. There was a gallery there of collected comics and originals, and while all garnered oohs and aahhhs, it was the Frazetta paintings that had everyone standing silently as they drank the images in. He was a giant painting giants.

Posted by: jsutliff | May 12, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

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