Like many of my artist colleagues, a recent event has given me pause to reflect upon art in general and upon my career in particular. This soul-searching was triggered by the passing of artist Frank Frazetta. I am not alone in saying that Frazetta kindled my interest in science fiction and fantasy art — an interest that ultimately led to my career. Frazetta’s sometimes playful, and often very dark, illustrations brought all of us into the alternate universes of Conan the Barbarian, Tarzan, and John Carter of Mars.
Frank Frazetta was born in Brooklyn, New York on February 9, 1928. The only son of a Sicilian family, the artist had three sisters. He showed uncanny artistic ability at an early age, and was selling art to family members by the time he was three-years-old. At eight, he was attending the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts, beginning a four-year mentorship under the Italian painter Michael Falanga. With Falanga’s sudden death in 1940, the school closed. But Frazetta’s traditional foundation shines through in his lifetime of painting, from his classical compositions to the richly textured painting techniques evident in his oils.
A second major influence on Frazetta’s style came from the art of the comic book. At the age of sixteen, Frazetta became an apprentice of Pulp illustrator John Giunta. Frazetta’s first published work was a comic called Snowman based on a homemade comic he had penned in his childhood.
Frazetta soon added to the list of publishers blessed by his pen and brush: Magazine Enterprises, Toby Press, EC, National (which became DC Comics) and even Mad magazine. His Buck Rogers series for Famous Comics is counted among the finest examples of comic art in history. During this time, Frazetta married Ellie Kelly. The romance changed his life. Ellie and Frank had four children (Alfonso Frank, Holly, Heidi, and Bill).
Ellie often posed for her husband’s dramatic paintings and drawings. The artist seldom used photographic reference, instead relying on his photographic memory of details in musculature, skin tones, poses, and costuming. His family life inspired a move from New York to a huge farm in eastern Pennsylvania. That Poconos farm became the heart of a bustling business in posters and fine art prints, as well as the Frazetta museum, housing 20 million dollars worth of the artist’s originals.
Frazetta’s life was not free of care. In 1986, the artist began to lose weight and became clinically depressed. Over the next several years, Frazetta’s energy was so sapped that he could not create art. After eight long years, doctors finally diagnosed a thyroid condition. Once medicated, his recovery was dramatic and swift. In later life, he was dogged by strokes, which ultimately took his life at the age of 82.
From the beginning, Frank was a storyteller. Though he happily labored in comics for the first two decades of his career, he realized that he could tell an entire story within the borders of a painting. The sweep of landscape and sorcerer’s robe frame a Viking hero in The Norseman. A scuba diver confronts the undersea guardian of a treasure in Sea Monster, while a voluptuous cave woman wields a spear in Savage Pellucidar. Swashbuckling John Carter works his way through six-armed Martians and mystical alien cities in Frazetta’s series for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars stories, while a sultry Egyptian princess reclines against a stony column, watching over her pet leopard, itself a limber, athletic form.
Throughout, the exaggerated anatomy of the comic book’s idealized physical form blankets people and creatures alike. Frazetta may be best known for his figural work. The female form embodied within his drawing and painting is unique and instantly recognizable. Female protagonists tend toward a small stature compared to Frazetta’s heroic, “ripped” leading men. His heroines cover a wide spectrum from independent to helpless, fierce to seductive, and always curved in just the right places. Some bear innocent expressions, but most seem to hold a sly secret behind siren eyes.
More than his rusted spaceship hulks or alien creatures, it is Frazetta’s figures that draw the observer into his worlds. As a fledging illustrator, I aspired to include similar figures in my work, as Frazetta had done. But my efforts were a pale comparison, a mere echo. I am good at a few things, but not this. Many attempts have been made by others, too, and these derived characters regularly fall short.
Frazetta showed us the best of the human form in action. For their numinous, supple, living quality and sense of magical adventure, no one can touch them. He was the master, and he will be missed.