Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Obituary: Frank Frazetta

Frank Frazetta, an artist who created some of the most familiar fantasy imagery and book covers, has died. He was 82.

His covers for Conan pulp novels would usually feature long-haired, under-dressed and absurdly muscled men fighting horrific beasts, often with scantily clad and incredibly curvy women watching.

"I didn't read any of it," Frazetta said of the Conan novels he illustrated, quoted in an obituary here. "I drew him my way. It was really rugged. And it caught on. I didn't care about what people thought. People who bought the books never complained about it. They probably didn't read them."

According to Comics Beat, Metallica's Kirk Hammett may be the buyer who spent a reported $1 million on an original Frazetta painting (possibly the Conan the Conquerer cover painting above).

Frazetta also illustrated covers for Edgar Rice Burroughs novels (including the Tarzan series), a Mad Max movie poster, and rock album covers for Molly Hatchet, Nazareth, Yngwie Malmsteen and others.

Comic Beat has a fine assessment of Frazetta's career here, which includes this summary:
"Frazetta the man was handsome, athletic (a career as a pro baseball player was contemplated) and testosterone fueled. Smashing with every brushstroke the stereotype of the wimpy artist (or Rockwell,, pipe clenched firmly between teeth), Frazetta was the man of action in deed and thought. Accordingly his imagery was violent, shocking, brutal, even brutish. Men stabbing giant snakes; women with their gleaming, globular butts turned to the camera as they were kidnapped by bestial man-like figures; bodies piled up in battle being chopped to stew-sized chunks by bloody swords. This wasn’t subtle stuff."
It certainly wasn't. I confess, as a childhood fan of both Burroughs' novels (Tarzan, the John Carter of Mars series, the Venus series) and Robert E. Howard's novels (the Conan series, the H.P. Lovecraft pastiches and all of the other brutish pulp stories), that Frazetta's art arouses some nostalgia. There's no doubt that he was a skilled painter, but could his art ever rise above its kitschy, pulp fantasy novel teen boy eroticism? I'm picturing walking into a wealthy rock star's palatial estate, and seeing, above a huge stone mantel, a painting of a big-assed nude woman writhing on the ground next to a juicehead wielding a sword against some creature. How could I not giggle?

Is it because Frazetta's book covers weren't subtle? Is it because they were, in effect, advertisements for the books rather than nuanced illustrations inspired by them? Is it the exaggeration of anatomy? Is it because by doing so many of them, his paintings became pardoies of themselves? Was this art for Frazetta, or merely commerce?

Maybe it isn't even fair to ask why Frazetta's art isn't great art. He was essentially a comic book and pulp novel illustrator -- one of the best -- and that's a whole separate category.

Below is a fan video showing some of Frazetta's paintings from the 60s on.

The most comprehensive -- and personal -- obituary I've read so far is this one from the L.A. Times, written by Lance Laspina, who got to know Frazetta during the filming of his 2003 documentary about the artist. A trailer for that documentary is below:


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