Hash’s Faves: Frank Frazetta

27 Nov
Frazetta_CappThis week’s General Fave is the artist Frank Frazetta. I was going to describe him as “the fantasy artist,” but that’s only what he was best-known for; he also worked in the comics field, advertising, commercial illustration, and science fiction. He was part of the legendary EC Comics stable, and of what was known as the Fleagles, a loose-knit crew of young artists who evolved out of the EC stable to work on Mad Magazine. He drew what’s known in the comics world as ”funny animal” stories, as well as westerns, romance and science-fiction (one of his covers for the Buck Rogers comic book is iconic, much as I hate to use that word, but it applies); he was Al Capp’s assistant for 9 years, drawing mostly the sexy women in the Lil’ Abner comic strip. He also occasionally assisted on the Playboy comic feature Little Annie Fanny, mostly drawing Annie (Frazetta’s women were scandalously sexy; he always claimed that his wife Ellie was his principal model).
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He did a lot of work for Hollywood; although many of you probably aren’t aware of
this, if you’re of a certain age you’ve seen his work. He did the artwork for the posters, one-sheets and ad campaigns for movies like What’s New, Pussycat?, The Night They Raided Minsky’s, After The Fox, Fitzwilly, The Busy Body and many others.
Tarzan_Lost_EmpireThe work that catapulted him to pop-culture fame and recognition was probably the paperback cover work he did in the 60’s and 70’s, for Ace books’ Edgar Rice Burroughs editions (Tarzan, John Carter, etc.) and the Lancer books Conan series.
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In the opinion of many, myself included, the Conan covers were his best work, especially the very first one in the series, Conan The Adventurer.

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He also did some very good work for Warren Magazines’ _Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella._
By all accounts he was a real mensch. He dominated the field for at least two decades. His philosophy and style fell out of favor in the 90’s and early ‘aughts, a period in which, in my humble opinion, typography went to hell in a handbasket. But I’ve tried to carry the torch in my own humble way…
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The recognition he got for this work resulted in some high-visibility advertising and album cover work in the 80’s and 90’s, but he had some health problems as a result of long-term poisoning by the fumes from the kind of turpentine he used in his studio, and unfortunately some of his work during the 90’s especially had lost the indefinable magic that his mid-period paintings had. He also suffered a stroke that left his right arm almost completely paralyzed; he taught himself to paint with his left hand, but I don’t know how that worked out, since I don’t believe I’ve seen any of his work from this period. The last years of his life were fairly tragic. Along with his health problems (he had always been a rugged, active athlete, once having actually been scouted by the New York Giants), his lifelong companion Ellie died in 2009. Later that year his son, Frank Jr., was arrested for attempting to steal 90 of Frazetta’s paintings from the Frazetta Museum in Pennsylvania (charges were eventually dropped). And finally, on May 10,2010, Frazetta died.

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Frazetta was the Charlie Parker/Coltrane/Bill Evans/Jaco of the fantasy art field; after his Conan covers appeared, his influence could be seen everywhere. Some of the young artists whose work closely resembled Frazetta, like Jeff Jones and Berni Wrightson, were eventually able to break free and find their own styles, while others like Boris Vallejo and Mike Hoffman became almost exact clones (not the worst thing to be, I guess). I must admit that when I thought I’d like to be a comics artist, the two stories that I actually had published (in a fanzine that I was the art director of; yeah, nepotism at its finest) bear Frazetta’s stamp to an embarrassing degree (I even styled my signature from those days after his). Thankfully, the only copies of those magazines that now exist are buried here in Hashimotoville, never to be seen by prying eyes.

Frank’s work isn’t perfect; it pains me to say that, but it’s true. Sometimes his anatomy gets a little wonky; I don’t think he ever formally studied anatomy, as in dissecting cadavers (just as he used Ellie as his primary female model, Ellie said that he used himself as his male model). His mentor, Roy G. Krenkel, did, I think; Roy’s figures always look alive and fluid, whereas sometimes Frank’s can be stiff, and sometimes if you really look carefully, limbs can look out of place, and there are funny lumps. But that’s only occasionally (Wally Wood, another of my favorite artists, also sometimes had weird anatomy). Frank was a child prodigy, the story being that he attended the Brooklyn Academy of Arts at age 8, which was run by an instructor named Michael Falanga. I think Falanga was so bowled over by the kid’s precocity that he let Frank get away with murder, and even Frazetta admits that he didn’t learn much there.

As with a lot of people with incredible natural talent, I think Frank sometimes coasted. But Frank’s coasting was usually better than anybody else’s flat-out running. At his best, his figures burst with life and have a tangible weight, but the thing that I think I love the most in his best work is the sense of mystery. He doesn’t feel compelled to paint every detail, often merely suggesting stuff going on in the background. The work of his that I find the least interesting, from his “turpentine” period, seems over-painted and over-rendered. But that’s just nit-picking and sour grapes; if I could draw and paint like him, I’d be one happy (and wealthier) camper.

This post is reprinted from News From The Trenches, a weekly newsletter of commentary from the viewpoint of a working musician published by Chicago bassist Steve Hashimoto. If you’d like to start receiving it, just let him know by emailing him at steven.hashimoto@sbcglobal.net.

 

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Steve Hashimoto

 

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