The Daily Heller: Frank Frazetta, the Sci-Fi Rockwell

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Frank Frazetta (1928–2010) may someday hang his paintings in the Guggenheim Museum (hey, whoever thought that Norman Rockwell would have a major exhibition in Frank Lloyd Wright's temple of Modern?). False equivalency aside, anything is possible in the current what-is-art world (what's more, Frazetta already has his own museum). Frazetta is to fantasy what Max Ernst is to surrealism (which is fantasy on another psychic and perceptual plane).

For now, Frazetta's work is best seen on the sci-fi book covers he painted and in the books bearing his work, most recently J. David Spurlock's Vanguard Press edition of Fantastic Paintings of Frazetta. For those who do not follow fantasy film, games and comics, Frazetta is the visualizer of Conan, Tarzan and John Carter of Mars. He birthed the iconic images of strikingly fierce, hard-bodied heroes and "bosomy, callipygian damsels" as well. Looking for a muscular dude riding a wooly mammoth? Look no further than his many books.

To learn a bit more about Frazetta's pop culture status, we connected with Spurlock below.

I am very impressed by the way you organized Fantastic Paintings of Frazetta, linking many to the sci-fi book covers that were so iconic just a few decades ago. How did you become interested in and close to Frazetta and his work?

As a kid in the '60s, I started following Frazetta with his revolutionary Creepy magazine covers and explosion as a paperback cover painter. I vividly recall being stuck in bed for near two weeks with the chickenpox, studying Frazetta Conan covers so intensely that I first discovered the printer's dot-screen patterns. I was working as an illustrator and teaching in Texas in the '80s. Then I had a chance meeting with Frank in California after which we would occasionally visit by phone. When I moved to the New York area in the mid-'90s, I was in driving distance of Frank and his East Stroudsburg, PA, museum, and visited often.

Frazetta transformed the fantasy genre. What can you point to as his most emblematic work?

There was a gradual building, including comic book covers in the early '50s, which influenced George Lucas and Star Wars. Then Frank's early 1960s illustrations for Edgar Rice Burroughs books, including Tarzan and John Carter of Mars. And Frank had a good run, painting big studio, humorous caricature-based movie posters in the mid-'60s. Most illustrators would consider movie poster work as a dream come true. But Frank walked away from them for what he felt was more uniquely his own, with his Sword & Sorcery heroic fantasy art. A shortlist of pieces that I cite as rocking the public's collective consciousness would include "The Barbarian," which first ran as the cover to the Conan the Adventurer paperback in 1966. Also "Death Dealer," which first appeared on an early-'70s paperback but inspired American Artist magazine to break their own traditions to produce a special issue devoted to illustration, including coverage of Frazetta and covered with the Death Dealer. "Dark Kingdom" is another, which most people recall as running on a multi-million–selling Molly Hatchet album cover.

Do you feel that Frank Frazetta's art is timeless or locked in time?Frazetta defined his time in many ways. Surely some people think of his work as of a certain period. An example of why that is, is that during the late-'70s, early-'80s custom van craze, the most popular theme for an airbrush mural on them was local artists all over America doing their imitations of famous Frazetta paintings. But, [as] anyone seriously looking into the subject of Frazetta will quickly find, Frazetta has continued to prove his longevity over and over. And the original art is definitely blue chip stock.

What is the quality that takes his painting to a higher level than much of the pulp art that is good but not as virtuoso?

Though the fantastic themes, sex and violence in Frazetta's work can be compared to pulp magazines of the 1930s, Frazetta stepped it up, pushed it a quantum leap forward. This was accomplished through his style, unique vision and amazing ability to imbue his work with palpable atmosphere. Despite his unusual subject matter, his oil paintings are rightfully compared to top fine artists and sell for millions! Though he often exaggerated or distorted for effect, Frazetta's work was grounded in classicism and he consistently made the unbelievable look uncannily believable—frequently without using any reference material. Pure imagination!

You have this in your book, but … was he indeed a peer to other such artists or the inspiration for them?

Influences on Frazetta include Hal Foster, Heinrich Klee, Zdeněk Burian, J. Allen St. John, Charles R. Knight, the Brandywine School, etc. But what he did went so far beyond, and everyone that did anything Frazetta-like since 1965 at latest, is influenced by Frazetta. This would include Jeffrey C. Jones, Boris Vallejo, Ken Kelly, Bernie Wrightson, Dave Stevens … an endless list. As little as 20 years ago, illustration historians pondered what influence—if any—Frazetta might have in 100 years. But today, many agree that Frazetta has proven to be the single most influential, as the list of working artists inspired by Frazetta so easily eclipses those influenced by
other Hall of Fame illustrators.

It would be wrong to fixate alone on the sexuality and eroticism of his work. But what role does this play in his extensive oeuvre?

Frazetta loved eroticism. No matter what the assignment, he would look for ways to boost both the testosterone and estrogen quotient. If he felt it was too much work to eroticize a subject, he might just place a boulder or other obstruction in front of it. Like most artists, he really preferred to paint what interested him personally.

Watching "Game of Thrones," I couldn't get "The Death Dealer" out of my mind. Do you believe he created the paradigm for fantasy of our times?

Yes. Conan, Kull, Red Sonya and Solomon Kane creator Robert E. Howard created the Sword & Sorcery literary genre at the end of the 1920s—predating J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings by decades. But no artist could truly capture that type of world until Frazetta. Frazetta created the Sword & Sorcery visual genre in the 1960s. "Game of Thrones" creator George R.R. Martin, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Momoa, George Lucas, John Milius, Dino De Laurentiis and so many, have all acknowledged Frazetta.

Can you talk about Arnold (Conan) Schwarzenegger's relationship with Frazetta?

I'd prefer to hear the Governator talk about Frazetta and would love to publish it in my next book. But, here's a great quote from the Arnold: “I have not been intimidated that often in my life. But when I looked at Frazetta’s paintings, I tell you, it was intimidating!”

Norman Rockwell was very much a reflection of Rockwell's work. Was Frazetta's painting an expression of his personality in some way?Yes. Frank had a primal essence and that came out in his barbarian art. But he also loved baseball, Frank Sinatra, and had a great sense of humor, which can be seen in his Li'l Abner comics strips and 1960s movie posters. Frank was a unique combination. A kid from Brooklyn, he could have a down-to-earth humble side and other times, a big ego. I like to say that some, including Frazetta, earned the right to have an ego. Speaking of Norman Rockwell, a good example of two-sides of Frazetta —humble and ego— is when I once mentioned Rockwell to him. Frank was suddenly, unusually reverent saying, "Ohhhh, wellll, those were the real guys!" Then, he paused a few seconds before coming back with, "But I showed them a thing or two!" I said, "Yes Frank, you surely did."