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Frank Frazetta— Artist, Illustrator, Painter with Fire

by Mike Pascale ©2010

On May 10, 1508, Michelangelo, one of the greatest artists of his time, began work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Five hundred two years later to the day, Frank Frazetta, one of the greatest artists of his time, joined him on the Other Side. Michelangelo lived to be 89, Frazetta 82. Though the first was famous for his frescoes (and marble statues) and the second for his printed work, both were known for their painted illustrations of wondrous stories with larger-than-life, colorful, well-muscled, emotive figures. One was more critically successful and the other more financially so, but both men contributed significantly to the aesthetic pantheon of their respective times. This article is part of a celebration of Frazetta’s life and work.

Frazetta was born in Brooklyn, NY on February 9, 1928. Always doodling and drawing, he had his first art sale to his grandmother before age three for the princely sum of one cent. At the urging of teachers, his parents enrolled him at the age of eight in the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Art, under the tutelage of Italian classicist Michael Falanga. Not unlike Michelangelo’s apprenticeship with Domenico Ghirlandaio as a teen, Frazetta delighted and amazed his teacher with his inherent talent and ability. How much? At one point Falanga offered to send Frank to Italy for painting classes. However, the teacher’s untimely demise brought an end to that path of the artist’s career. So when the school folded a year later, the now 16-year-old Frazetta instead became an apprentice for comic book artist John Giunta, whom he assisted on the feature “Snowman” (a character he created) for his first published work in TALLY-HO COMICS number 1, 1944.

Continuing his comic book career in the nascent industry, Frazetta contributed everything from funny animal drawings for text pieces in humor comics as well as covers and short stories for western and adventure titles. (Oddly, he avoided the increasingly popular superhero genre.) His only book-length solo artwork appeared in his creation THUN’DA, published by M.E. Enterprises in 1952 when the artist was barely 24. No doubt the issue was an homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous creation Tarzan, with whom the artist had great affection thanks to Hal Foster’s comic strip version. He was also influenced by Milton Caniff’s TERRY AND THE PIRATES as well as E.C. Segar’s famous POPEYE. (Frazetta enjoyed reading adventure, fantasy and science fiction growing up, though he had to keep this hidden due to his gang-infested “tough neighborhood”. Such surroundings along with his many scapes and bully-battles played a pivotal role in shaping Frank’s powerful, action-oriented artistic approach.) He also tried his hand at a few comic strips, including a year-long stint on JOHNNY COMET (later ACE McCOY) but with little success.

In the 1950s the artist further made his mark in the comic field creating a striking series of Buck Rogers covers for FAMOUS FUNNIES (which was the first regularly published modern format US comic, starting in 1933) which soon led to even more stunning and iconic work for EC (publisher of the MAD comic and later magazine), considered by many experts and historians to be the high watermark of the field. In addition to covers, Frazetta contributed some interior work pencilling and inking along with friends Al Williamson, Roy Krenkel and Angelo Torres. So well respected was Frazetta by then that he was the only artist to have an agreement with publisher William Gaines to have his original art returned (unheard of in the industry at the time).

Opportunities changed greatly when the comic book industry nearly imploded in the mid 1950s due to the infamous Kefauver senate hearings, in which comic books were blamed for rising juvenile delinquency. Publishers of gory and violent books like EC (who also published titles like TALES FROM THE CRYPT and THE VAULT OF HORROR) were targeted for industry censorship, blacklisted and cut off from distribution. Multiple dozens of publishers gave way to a select handful and many artists and writers soon found themselves out of work; those that remained were often stigmatized by working in what was now a “kid’s” field.

Avoiding this, Frazetta worked for eight long years as a “ghost” (uncredited artist) for controversial and sexist creator Al Capp on his ultra-popular strip, “Lil Abner.” Frank drew the Sunday page in Capp’s signature style for $300 a week, spending the rest of his time raising a growing family with his devoted wife Ellie (whom he married in 1956), and playing baseball. (He had once been offered a contract with the farm team of the NY Giants but turned it down, a decision he often regretted but grew to accept.) While the money was good for the time, the demands of family and the desire to break out from under such an unethical practice and aesthetically stifling assignment soon took their toll. When Capp had the audacity to cut Frank’s salary in half in 1961, the artist quit the strip and with his wife’s encouragement, struck out on his own to freelance.

Sadly, many editors and art directors both in and out of comics, as now, were more obsessed with either “house” or “hot” styles rather than what was simply “good”. They deemed Frazetta’s classic brush/pen and ink work and reliance on superior drawing rather than superficial technique to be passe. Even PLAYBOY would not give him work, a snubbing against which Frazetta would hold a grudge for nearly 15 years. (The only work done for the magazine in the 60s was painting the lead and background female characters of Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder’s classic parody strip, “Little Annie Fannie.” Frazetta collabortated on a handful of installments strictly as a personal favor to Kurtzman whom he knew from his EC days.) Frank contributed to a handful of men’s magazines and painted his first paperback book covers for a few obscure romance novels–both perfect for his often erotically-charged art and mastery of the female form.

Opportunity finally presented itself in the form of former EC cohort Roy Krenkel. Frazetta’s friend and sometimes mentor had begun illustrating paperback book covers of Burroughs novels for Ace publications. Krenkel’s backlog of work and lack of confidence caused him to seek Frazetta’s help with the assignment. Soon Frank was painting his own covers for characters such as Tarazn, John Carter of Mars and Tanar of Pellucidar. The downside was that editorial direction usually required them to be painted in a style reminiscent of original Tarzan artist, J. Allen St. John. Add to that editor Donald Wollheim’s condescending disrespect, the relatively low pay and unethical policy of not returning artwork, and Frazetta again sought greener fields.

Soon he found something into which he could finally sink his professional teeth–and fangs. Jim Warren, publisher of various movie magazines like Forry Ackerman’s FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, created a new line of magazine-sized, EC-inspired comics with black-and-white interiors. Frazetta was asked to paint “anything he wanted” for some of the covers and was given back the art and reproduction rights. In addition to his last published interior comics work, Frank produced some of his most memorable images for titles CREEPY, EERIE and VAMPIRELLA.

Then in 1965 arrived his career-defining project of painting covers of Robert E. Howard’s (REH) Conan series of paperbacks for Lancer books. After reading the books and feeling enthused by the character, Frazetta was primed for success. He now felt unleashed and focused the full reserve of his passion, talent and ability into the paintings, with spectacular results. The covers became wildly popular, the books sold millions and soon collectors were buying them strictly for the art. Many other book covers and interior b/w art projects followed. The artist also entered the lucrative entertainment industry, illustrating movie posters and album covers, thanks to the attention from a back page parody painting of Ringo Starr for MAD magazine.

By the mid-1970s, Frazetta became a nationally recognized name in the burgeoning field of fantasy art, due in large part to wife Ellie’s business sense. An attractive, strong-willed and savvy woman whom Frank has referred to as his “right arm” (and who modelled for much of his art), she embarked on a quest to retrieve as many of her husband’s original paintings (and the reproduction rights thereof) as possible. She then began selling poster prints of Frank’s paintings for four dollars, originally using her laundry room as an office and shipping department. Her acumen was responsible for also getting the rights to Frazetta’s most famous Conan cover images, as long as the character’s name was not used (instead being labelled as simply “The Barbarian.”) Ads for the posters appeared in many publications and the business flourished, eventually taking over much of their home. This coincided with a series of trade paperbacks on the artist’s work from renowned editor Betty Ballantine, and branched into equally popular calendars beginning in 1977 as well as several limited edition signed prints and portfolios. (These include “Lord of the Rings”, “Women of the Ages” and “Bran Mak Morn”, another REH character.)

Perhaps the best example of the artist’s newfound level of success occurred when he was commissioned to paint four posters for the remake of KING KONG by movie mogul Dino DeLaurentis. However, when the Italian producer demanded changes to Frazetta’s preliminaries, Frank simply walked away from the project and its $125,000 payment. Not many artists have had that ability or will–certainly not Michelangelo. (One version later became the cover of the novelization.) By this time many household Hollywood names, including Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood (for whom Frank painted a movie poster) George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had become fans of the artist’s powerful work. Many personal commissions followed and Frazetta was in high demand. Even PLAYBOY finally came around and wanted a piece of the artist. After much cajoling, they apparently paid him enough to dispel his grudge as he gloriously illustrated a couple articles. (And thanks to Ellie, he retained the rights to the images which were used later in books and calendars.) This success allowed the Frazettas to eventually move to a 67-acre property in eastern Pennsylvania.

The Frazetta art books revealed something relatively shocking to his legions of fans: Frazetta would occasionally rework older paintings. Several paperback covers as well as those for Warren’s magazines, were retouched or completely redone to satisfy the artist’s changed sensibilities or original intentions without editorial interference. To many fans’ and collectors’ chagrin (if not horror), these reworkings were painted right on the original canvases, making the printed version disappear forever from the market.

The ’80s saw continued success, with more books on the artist’s work as well as advertising (including ads for beer and even automobiles) and album covers. One of Frazetta’s most iconic images from the ’70s, “The Death Dealer”, became the subject of a series of novels written by noted illustrator and pinup artist Jim Silke.

In 1983 the artist became a filmaker with an animated version of his characters, FIRE AND ICE. Helmed by the innovative Ralph Bakshi (whose previous efforts included the controversial FRITZ THE CAT, the animated LORD OF THE RINGS and COOL WORLD with a young Brad Pitt), the movie set out to create a “Frazetta painting come to life.” To do so, Bakshi employed his rotoscoping technique in which footage of live actors was “traced” for accuracy of movement (similar to that used in Disney’s SNOW WHITE some 50 years earlier). Frazetta basically served as co-director, instructing the animators how to exaggerate the footage to more resemble his larger-than-life idealized figures and simulate the artist’s style. Though the film was not a big box office success, it became a cult classic for Frank’s worldwide legion of fans. It has since been reissued on DVD.

For commercial projects, such as album covers and advertisements, new commissions were ordered if the budget allowed, while others simply used older images. This allowed time for more personal endeavors. Chief amongst these were Ellie’s opening of The Frazetta Museum in East Stroudsburg, PA. No doubt frustrated by most traditional museums’ shallow refusal to exhibit his work due to their subject matter (or because they hypocritically considered it “illustration” rather than “art”), Ellie and Frank were now able to showcase the artist’s work and meet the growing demand of fans worldwide to see the originals in person. Originally open only on weekends in a modest but elegant three-story building, the museum housed dozens of the artist’s most famous and iconic images along with several unpublished and personal pieces (including a life-sized oil of an African Masai warrior, which Frank painted as a gift for his wife).

Unfortunately, the mid-’80s saw health problems creep into the artist’s life, as Frazetta developed thyroid problems which took over a year to diagnose. He suffered wild changes in weight and other issues but eventually brought them under control. He quietly and bravely soldiered on, continuing to divide his time and passion among painting, playing sports and being a devoted husband, father and now grandfather.

In the 1990s Frank entered into an unlikely partnership with heavy metal crooner (and longtime Frazetta fan) Glenn Danzig (of the bands Samhain and The Misfits) to produce a series of comic books based on the Death Dealer and other Frazetta creations. These used his work on the covers only but were still popular with the then speculator-crazy comic book market. Also released was the book ILLUSTRATIONS ARCANUM, the first to concentrate solely on the artist’s detailed, subtle but still powerful pencil art.

Frank teamed up with other companies to produce gorgeous statues and detailed action figures based on his works. Many of these were produced in limited quantities and sold out before they were even released. Frazetta also tried his hand at sculpting, though unlike Michelangelo, he limited himself to modeling rather than chiseling away at stone. He even had his own magazine, FRANK FRAZETTA FANTASY ILLUSTRATED, which featured full-color comics stories by other artists under Frank’s covers. It lasted eight issues.

Entering his 70s, a series of minor strokes took their toll on the athletic artist and he moved between Pennsylvania and Florida for health reasons, eventually settling in the sunshine state. The museum changed locations to Boca Grande, FL and in 2000 finally settled in a properly elegant, newly-constructed building on meticulously landscaped grounds in Bushkill, PA. A fitting way to close out the century that brought Frazetta to the world.

Eventually Frank lost most of the use of his right hand, but refused to let that stop his artistic passion. The master simply retrained himself to draw and paint with his left hand–it took him a bit longer to finish something but the results were nearly indistinguishable. The new century and millennium saw the release of the DVD documentary, PAINTING WITH FIRE, in 2003. The two-disc version contains many tributes from Frank’s contemporaries and those he influenced, as well as a segment showing his new left-handed technique. The film remains the best and most comprehensive visual overview of an amazing artist and his equally amazing career. A trilogy of definitive monographs emerged as well: LEGACY, ICON and TESTAMENT, published from 1999 to 2001.

Unfortunately the end of the decade proved unkind as Ellie succumbed to cancer in 2009. She was definitely the matriarch of the family as well as her husband’s greatest inspiration. Frank soldiered on as best he could, still creating art while remaining father and grandfather, until additional strokes took their toll and he joined his wife. Tributes from his legion of fans, admirers and inspired peers continue to attempt filling the void.

Frazetta’s influences ironically never included Michelangelo or other classicists, but rather classic illustrators like Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth and Heinrich Kley, along with the comic strip giants previously mentioned. Yet like all greats of their fields, he synthesized those myriad influences into a unique vision and voice. Also like other giants, Frazetta has spawned a slew of imitators and swipers, some building their entire careers by being little more than cheaper versions of the master. However, these imitators have never had original works sell well into the six (and rumored seven) figure range; nor have they won the numerous awards and honors that the original artist has, perhaps the highest of which was being inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame.

Due to this association with illustration, most museums and art historians have neglected or refused to afford proper credit to Frazetta and his work, or permit its rightful placement alongside that of his so-called “fine art” brethren. By negatively classifying him “merely” as a commercial illustrator, they open themselves to embarrassing charges of hypocrisy when one considers Michelangelo, Leonardo and nearly every European painter through the 17th century served basically the same function. These and other titans of art  accepted paid commissions to illustrate tales of mythology and/or the Bible (often to promote/advertise the Church), or for portraiture. To the cognoscenti, muscular saints battling evil dragons are Art with a capital “A”, but muscular barbarians battling same are “mere” illustration with a lower case “i”.

One guesses even Michelangelo would likely have a problem with that.

In fact, were he alive today, he’d most certainly be a Frazetta fan.

© All images are copyright Frank Frazetta and Frazetta Properties.

Mike Pascale is a freelance storyboardist, writer, artist and comic book & strip creator based in Modesto, CA.

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4 Responses

  1. A correction: Frank’s thyroid condition took EIGHT years to bring under control. The diagnosis was very difficult not only because of the condition and symptoms but because he normally has a different range than most people (a rare but normal condition amongst the populace). Also because even at the Mayo clinic, doctors wouldn’t listen to him. Just 25mg difference in medication brought it under control–thanks to his stubbornness.

    And what was the initial catalyst if not cause of the whole issue? He linked it to buying cheap turpentine for a series of projects; the fumes in his work area were unbearable for his family and he basically locked himself in for days at a time. It all started when he noticed a horrible taste in his mouth weeks and months later.

    So for you fellow painters out there, don’t skimp on supplies and make sure you open a window!


  2. Outstanding article Mike! What an incredible artist, person, and life.

    Dan Lawlis

  3. Again – awesome article, Mike. So much information in here – Thank you!



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