Fantasy art owes a lot to Frank Frazetta. Conan, Tarzan, Death Dealer… just a few of the man’s famous pieces would have been enough to exert a defining influence on the field, but his output has been far more prolific than that. Not only have his powerful and versatile images made him a force within the genre, he has also helped to put fantasy itself on the artistic map.
Anyone who’s even had so much as a passing interest in fantasy art will probably have wondered how Frank managed to be so far ahead of the competition; however, a brief history of the artist himself is very illuminating. Born in late 1920s Brooklyn, Frank was always going to be an artist. Family legend has it that he began drawing at the age of three and had outgrown junior school by the time he joined it. Enrolled at the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts aged just eight, the boy’s talent was nurtured by his tutor, Michele Falanga, himself a talented painter. A cry of “Mama mia!” went up when Frank proved he was a prodigy and not a precocious brat.
At 16, Frank went to work for the famous comic book artist John Giunta, and a year later his first comic, Snowman, hit the shelves. He learned a lot from Giunta, commenting: “You can see a lot of his influence even today in some of my ink work.” By 1952 Frank had turned down a career in professional baseball and was beginning to find his feet as a professional artist.
Magazine Enterprises published his first (and last) full-length comic book, Thun’da, and he had a regular strip – Johnny Comet – in a national paper. This was the high point of Frank’s involvement with comics; his work on Flash Gordon was even name-checked by George Lucas. But he then took a job with Al Capp, ghosting a strip, Li’l Abner. This, Frank admits, was a mistake: “I shouldn’t have done it, but I was lazy.”
Frank’s wife, Ellie, credits a caricature of Ringo Starr, painted for Mad Magazine in 1964, as the true beginning. This is an astute observation because it was during the 60s that the now iconic images of barbarians and buxom slave girls began to appear. It was also during this time that Frank began to hone his compositions.
The fact that Robert E Howard’s Conan series sold millions meant Frazetta covers were de rigueur for fantasy novels. Luckily, for Frank, few people could work as quickly. Paintings such as Neanderthal are reputed to have taken just six hours to complete.
His reputation established, Frank went on to produce a series of increasingly amazing images, notably Death Dealer and Silver Warrior. It was all there: composition, subject matter, style and audience. Princess of Mars, from 1970, produced as part of an Edgar Rice Burroughs’s re-release program, shows a more considered, mature side to his work.
He began to cut back his production in the 70s, however, and by the 80s he was plagued with illness. A comeback was cut short in 1995 when, returning from being presented the first Spectrum Grand Master of Fantastic Art award, he suffered a series of strokes.
Through his determinism and flair, Frank Frazetta has made it okay for artists to plumb the imagination without feeling the need to kowtow to the art establishment. He made it acceptable to produce images of warriors and monsters. Fantasy art took a step forward into the light of possibility with Frank Frazetta; for that alone he deserves the status of our first ImagineFX Legend.