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Frank Frazetta: The Greatest?

From Dusk till Dawn

(This is the second of three articles commemorating the artist. For the first, a retrospective, click here.)

I’ll come right out and say it: Frank Frazetta was and is the greatest artist of the 20th century.

That’s right, I wrote “greatest.”

Better than Picasso? Dali? Parrish? Rockwell? Ross? Kirby? Boris? Elvgren? Warhol?

Maybe, maybe not. I didn’t say “best”, I said, “greatest”. There’s a difference.

“Greatest” isn’t as empirically quantifiable as “best.” But also not as wholly subjective as “favorite.” “Best” implies a level of skill, talent and ability that exceeds all others. In art, that is difficult to determine and measure, if it can be at all.

“Greatest”, though, includes intangibles and things not always directly related to skill and technique. Things like popularity,  influence (artistic as well as cultural), innovation, imagination, accomplishment, degree of admiration and respect among peers and public, financial success, longevity, versatility, likability, power and impact. When all are added together, Frazetta stands above those of his time.

Others have had greater financial success, were better innovators, more creative, more popular, more famous, more technically skilled, more influential and/or even more respected, at least amongst the academic types. But overall? The sum of all the parts? If it were math, the equation would have Frazetta as “greater than.” The goal here, however, is not to denigrate other contenders but argue for Frank. So I’ll refrain from using specific names and speak only of generalities–you, the reader, can insert your own comparisons.

Let’s examine the evidence: First, this is a Renaissance man. Where Michelangelo was a sculptor, painter, architect and poet, Frazetta was a painter, storyteller, penciller, illustrator, cartoonist, and athlete. (I bet his batting average would be double that of anyone from the Renaissance…if baseball had been invented.) Next, the major and minor categories of other “greatest” contenders:

The innovators. Some of the greatest artists are those who have started entire movements and genres. We know them from art history books, big auction houses and “serious” academic, critical essays. They pushed the boundaries of what is considered “art” and even caused many to question and alter its definition. But how many stories did they tell? Frazetta could sell entire novels with a single picture. Forget a thousand words…Frank’s covers were worth 40 to 50 times that much.

More importantly, did they have the raw power of a Frazetta? The beauty? The eroticism? Sorry. Those innovators may make you think, but Frazetta makes you feel. Art is more about emotion than intellect. Pedantic treatises and wealthy-but-clueless celebrities don’t decide what is great art. It’s in the soul. If the average viewer is scratching his head, rubbing his chin or trying to figure out which way to hang a painting, that piece has failed its aesthetic promise. With a Frazetta, you’re not studying a concept, philosophy, or religious message; you’re not even looking at paint–you’re there, experiencing the scene yourself. As the master himself said, “This is the way I feel about art: art is not painting and it’s not drawing—it’s total effect; it’s hitting people between the eyes.” None of the art history textbook “greats” of the last century can claim that.

The illustrators. These are the great storytellers. Whether adorning decades of magazine covers, books and calendars with beloved images of Americana or thousands of comic book panels with creative characters that formed massive followings and spawned billion-dollar franchises, these giants told stories that made viewers laugh and cry, feel awe and joy. Some became American institutions, their work and names globally famous. Their art boasts eye-pleasing compositions and rendering; compelling and lifelike characterizations. But again, where’s the impact? The split-second action? Where’s the fire? There’s passion, to be sure, but it’s not the same as snatching the viewer and pulling him into the work.

Some are great with whimsy–but Frazetta could be as whimsical as a Disney ‘toon one second and rip your face off with an oncoming axe the next. When did these old magazine or book cover folks ever strike fear into a viewer? Raise a pulse or arouse a libido? Advantage Frank.

Regarding the comic book greats: Some do have Frazetta’s gift for raw power. But not his knowledge of form, anatomy and usage of color. Others may boast muscular, handsome heroes but not erotically-charged “real” women with innocent faces and bodies of prurient male fantasy. And while some of Frank’s 20th century comic-book contemporaries influenced legions of artists and created genres or entire universes out of whole cloth, the influence has become passive and homogenized, often associated more with a company (sadly). While they had imitators, no one is still making a living imitating him like several continue to do with Frazetta. And none have canvases hanging in their own museums or selling for six and seven figures.

How about the great pinup artists? Surely they captured the beauty, innocence, grace and sexiness of the female form as good or even better than Frazetta. But what about the heroes? The villains? Animals? Flora? Stories? They specialized in a single genre, where Frazetta simply busted in and made his mark on their turf, like some sort of aesthetic Zorro.

Pinups, comic books, strips, movies, horror, science fiction, fantasy, sword and sorcery, humor, western, parody, adventure, whimsy, erotica, even sports–they all have a big, bold “FF” carved onto them saying, “Frazetta was here!”  Who in the art history books tops that?

Granted, there are what seem justifiable prejudicial accusations regarding subject matter–from those who think Frazetta was little more than panderer, drawing and painting clichés that struck a lowest common denominator. But anyone saying that is only displaying their ignorance of the man. He wasn’t some phony just doing it for a check. He wasn’t “Leonardo Da Atheist”, painting a Madonna and Child he didn’t believe in to get his commission and stroke his ego for fame. Frank was that barbarian, that jungle king, that space hero, that handsome dude fighting for the little guy and getting the girl. All of that stuff flowed from his own soul, cliché or not. That makes it true and We Who Get It realize it–and love him for it.

Sure, some illustrators and artists were more facile with a brush, pen and paint. Their animals and people may have looked more real–even like photographs. But that’s the problem–the figures are then arguably too earth-like to have the same visceral, vicarious impact. Not like the individualized, archetypal representations of Frazettaland. Those “realists” never got in anyone’s face. Everyone else in the “golden age of illustration” or creators of various art world intellectual “-isms” took the “safe” way out and never went for our jugular; never punched us in the gut or kicked us in the crotch (while simultaneously massaging our limbic systems, funny bones or privates) like Frazetta.

And those who came after Frank, who took his lead and did go for that impact, still lacked. Either his technical prowess or his sensitivity, his humor, or his tender and loving side. They couldn’t do funny animal comics and playful parodies, nor ink Alex Raymond-like handsome heroes with virginal damsels in distress. Couldn’t switch from innocent childlike imps prancing nude to full-bodied femizons welding swords bigger than Conan’s arms. Nor could they, or any other contemporary, bring to life menacing monsters of fantasy, action-packed animals of reality, detailed flora of earth or worlds unknown and make them all equally believable. Horses, giant cats, dinosaurs, wolves, bluebirds, giant apes, tiny monkeys or Hucky Ducks–Frazetta mastered them all in pen and ink, watercolor or oil and convinced us he loved them. And they, like all his work, were alive.

And that is what sums up Frazetta’s greatness in one word, if required: Life.

Life infused every line of ink, every shade of pencil, every dollop of color in pretty much everything he created. No other contender had the talent or ability to make everything they put on canvas or paper come alive to the viewer like Frazetta. That’s the key to artistic greatness. The way for an artist to connect to his fellow humans–through life. Add to that the legions of past and current fans, the pop culture influence, the professional impact, and you have a greatness that is undeniable. One that, unlike his contemporaries, transcends the previous century, continues through the present, and will continue as long as imaginations are used to create images that multitask: entertain, motivate, sell, inspire, and most importantly, resonate.

Alluding to philosopher and aesthetist David Hume in his brilliant and poignant essay, “The Standard of Taste”, those best qualified to judge art are those who practice it. Don’t listen to critics, curators or historians. They’re not artists. They’re not creators. Those who matter most in art, the artists (and their fans), have spoken–with their work, their souls, and their admiration.

And they say Frazetta is the greatest.

At least this one does.

Mike Pascale started drawing Batman and Robin on the backs of his kindergarten papers at age four, attended the Joe Kubert School at age 17, took two years of art history while earning a BFA from the College for Creative Studies, and was a senior art director for 15 years before turning freelance. And he fell in love with Frazetta’s art around age 14 (he’s now over 30…way over).

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8 Responses

  1. Wanted to add this:

    Frazetta himself addressed the subject of subject matter cogently (if not bluntly) in an interview with The Comics Journal in 1994 (#174). Responding to the interviewer’s statement, “It’s true that the subject matter you paint could turn a lot of fine art types off”, Frank said:

    “It does, but that’s their problem…That’s the way they were trained…They feel it’s barbaric for me to do these ridiculous, impulsive things that belong in comic books. I tell them, ‘Go…somewhere else.’ No one has the right to criticize my work if it’s that good simply because I added something that might be surreal or a little fantastic. Why does that make it any less, for crissake? They’re so narrow-minded.”

    I agree. As said, there are those that have handled a brush or colors or compositions better (Frank acknowledged this on more than one occasion). But criticizing Frazetta for his choice of subject matter is like criticizing The Stones for playing rock ‘n’ roll, Mahailia Jackson for singing gospel or Joe Montana for always being a quarterback. Does anyone get on Picasso’s case for not painting bowls of fruit, playful children or Marilyn Monroe sitting on a Campbell’s Soup can? Of course not.

    Thank you,

  2. I’m convinced.

  3. Frazetta is one of those artists that has effected everyone whether they knew of his work or not, because his influence is so ingrained in pop art. How many artists decided to be artists because of him? More than any other artist I would think.

    Dan Lawlis

  4. At last, an article about a representational artist that doesn’t try to give you a lesson about technique but delves into the soul of the man and the effect of his art on the viewer. Great!

  5. Outstanding review. Eye opening for me. Superbly written.

  6. Best tribute and assesment of Frazetta I have read since his passing. (and I have read them all) Great work Mike, and thank you.

  7. Inspired thinking, here – and so very well put. “Art is more about emotion than intellect. Pedantic treatises and wealthy-but-clueless celebrities don’t decide what is great art. It’s in the soul.” In my humble opinion, that sentence encapsulates the problem with a lot of art in recent years. Intellect has taken over art teaching and art appreciation, and we are the poorer for it. Clever ideas and gimmicks seem to have become the touchstone of ‘good contemporary art’.

    Ah well, as with all things, the pendulum swings…. We need some passion and excitement back in art again, and who better to hold the torch than Frank Frazetta? I had no idea he had passed away until today RIP? No – I imagine he’s painting somewhere …

    Thank you for this.



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