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Frazetta: Painting With Fire

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The first time I remember noticing Frank Frazetta was on the cover of the black-and-white Warren horror mag, Creepy. It was the mid-sixties; I was fifteen at the time; and the cover painting – which featured a wide-eyed hunter encircled by a pack of menacing black panthers – definitely suited the magazine’s title. Within the book, alongside artists like Angelo Torres and Al Williamson, was a one-page filler strip called “Creepy’s Loathsome Lore” that showcased the artist’s skill with pen and ink. Frazetta, I decided, was one cool comics artist. Darkly moody and primally physical, his work was the perfect entry point to the Warren comics: the first successful line to follow in the paths established by EC comics since the Comics Code was established. Look at the Frazetta cover to any issue of Creepy, Eerie or (just as memorably) the short-lived war comic Blazing Combat, and you knew that the material inside was not some namby pamby “we won’t show you any blood or zombies because the Code won’t let us” crap.

I followed the artist onto his paperback work where he was producing a slew of cover images for the Ace Edgar Rice Burroughs reprints (in many cases, the graphics were more evocative than the stories themselves) and, then, his memorable series of Conan graphics for Lancer Books landmark Robert E. Howard reprint series. (The cover to Conan the Adventurer is so well-known that it’s been parodied many times – as with the poster for the first National Lampoon Vacation movie.) I wasn’t the only adolescent male to fall under the spell of Frazetta’s work at the time: many of the EC comics fanatics were also largely in love with his work. The cartoonist had done a limited number of stories for the line – along with collaborating with s-f comics artist Al Williamson – and the fan-addicts knew ‘em all by heart. Didn’t particularly matter if the stories they illustrated were any good (when Nostalgia Press put out its collection of EC Horror Comics from the 1950′s, they included the weakly scripted, Frazetta illustrated “Squeeze Play” just to show the cartoonist’s trademark babes in swimsuits); it was Frazetta, dammit! I even later was convinced to lay out money for a black-and-white portfolio of romance comics that the guy’d illustrated back in the fifties. The stories were crap, but the ladies were definitely hot.

I personally started to cool somewhat on Frazetta as I got older, though. As I passed through my teen years, the fantasies I preferred turned out to be less muscularly straightforward than Conan or John Carter of Mars and more intellectually ambiguous – like Michael Moorcock’s Elric – while the number of spiritless Frazetta imitators so swelled that they couldn’t help but take away from some of the fun. (Perhaps it was all those bad swipes on the side of vans.) Still had a poster of his sea witch on the wall of my college dorm room, of course, right alongside a large black-and-white of Sophia Loren in a very wet shirt. Hey, I was young, and I was horny – whad’ya want from me?

But whether I personally continued to fannishly drool over the man’s work proved irrelevant when it came to his career upswing. For into the seventies, his audience continued to swell, and, thanks to some canny marketing on the part of his wife Ellie, the once-anonymous craftsman who spent years ghosting for Al Capp began to make a name for himself. The Frazetta style – those sinewy muscular, brutish male figures; the curvaceously big-thighed women; the hulking beasts and colorfully roiling skies – became an inexorable part of fantasy illustration. Take a look today at any early pulp mag renderings of Conan, for instance, from his appearances in Weird Tales and contrast this weedy specimen to the Frazetta model, and you can’t help thinking about the first, “That’s not Conan!”

Which brings us to Frazetta: Painting with Fire, Lance Laspina’s documentary on the life and art of the Artist Formerly Known as Fritz. Fire, recently released as a two-disc DVD set by Razor Digital, follows Frazetta from his Brooklyn boyhood through the years of scraping by as a free-lancer into his career ascendance and later years as subject of his own museum. It’s a not-unfamiliar American success story, and Laspina’s format – with a few small exceptions – doesn’t vary from the usual biographical format. We get the obligatory montage of childhood photos; the reminiscences from kidhood friends (in Frazetta’s case, however, these young pals also grew up to be part of the New York comics scene); plus moments with the elder artist reflecting back on his life. At times, the filmmaker attempts to spark the proceedings by pulling in Frazetta-esque imagery (in one scene, the artist is shown “walking into” one of his more pastoral settings, then standing there awkwardly looking around), though most of the time it’s more matter-of-factly utilized to complement discussions of style or subject matter.

In addition to his boyhood friends, his fellow artists (among them: Neal Adams, Simon Bisely, John Buscema, Mike Kaluta, Bill Stout and Bernie Wrightson) and several Hollywood folks (Ralph Bakshi, Bo Derek, John Milius) offer their own takes. It’s Milus who notes that many of the big Hollywood biz men own Frazetta art – which certainly explains something about current mainstream movie product – while Derek amusingly expresses her delight over being rendered in a Frazetta movie poster that made her look even more curvaceous than she already is. (That even Bo Derek can be “improved” in a Frazetta painting is kinda sad, but never mind. . .) But it’s art historian David Winiewicz who offers the most risible testimony, noting that the artist’s paintings have so much life that you can “walk into the canvas and shake their hands.” Yeah, I wanna shake the hand of the charging Neanderthal holding onto the spiky mace. . .

Still, it’s fun seeing comic guys like Dave Stevens, Mike Kaluta and Bernie Wrightson chat amongst themselves about the elements of Frazetta art that most appeal to them. Listening to a bunch of male middle-agers discuss whether the artist’s bootylicious female are “fat” is nearly as funny as any of the pop culture dialogs in Clerks, though you can’t help wondering if any of the participants realize it.

As for Frazetta himself, the man comes across as a self-confident, plain-speaking guy who just as easily could’ve taken the career track into professional baseball, a family man who took advantage of his work-at-home schedule to spend a lot of time with his kids and a stubbornly conscientious illustrator. It’s wife Ellie, we’re told, who possesses the financial smarts in the family. She’s the one, for instance, behind the packaging of his posters in the seventies, and you get the sense that without her, Frazetta might’ve been just another member of the Screwed by Work-for-Hire artists who abound in the field. (He was, apparently, one of the first paperback artists to actually make it a condition of his contract that publishers return his paintings to him.) At one point, the artist ruefully notes that he doesn’t even a key to his own museum and that Ellie holds onto it because he’s likely to take things about of the building if no one is around to stop him. We don’t see a lot of his spouse in the documentary – just some photos and an appearance at the opening of Frank’s museum – but she comes across pretty no-nonsense.

At times, as with most creator bios, Fire can get hyperbolic in its enthusiasm for Frazetta’s art. We’re told, for instance, that the artist is as skilled a sculptor as he is a painter, but the small parcel of examples that we’re given in the accompanying gallery don’t really make that case. We’re also given testimony about his “camera-like” ability to render something from memory, but when we’re shown an instance (a rabbit running out of the brushes in the panel of a cowboy comic), the results are more cartoony than photo realistic. One of the appeals of Frazetta’s art resides in the way he is able to blend cartoonishness and faux realism (many of his figures are anatomically unbelievable, though we accept them in a way that we’re unable to with his more ham-fisted imitators), but this is never explicitly discussed. Instead, we get a lot of comments on how “life-like,” groundbreaking and vibrant his figures look, with a passing reference to the triangular layout of some of his more striking covers.

The documentary ends with the artist, nearly felled several years ago by a stroke that took away the use of his right drawing hand, still working at a much slower pace with his left. Few artists, we’re told, have been able to successfully manage the transition from right to left hand. And while we’re not really given a lot of evidence to demonstrate that the artist has completely managed it (we do get repeated shots of him working on a nice small pencil sketch of a big cat), the stubborn attempt says much about the personality of the man himself – and, perhaps, the personality of the artist behind that unforgettably imposing image of Conan of Cimmeria. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.