Death Dealers And Destroyers: A Tribute To Frank Frazetta
When you think of fantasy art, and in particular of the kind of paintings that have long been a mainstay on the covers of mass market paperbacks, you're either thinking of Frank Frazetta or someone who was directly influenced by his work. Featuring violent barbarians, scantily clad sorceresses, and armies of ogres, Frazetta's art is the very definition of fantasy artwork, because it was his work in the 1960s and '70s that redefined it. Every artist, and particularly every painter, who has dabbled in Sword and Sorcery illustration in the last fifty years is either drawing on Frazetta or reacting against him.
Born in Brooklyn on January 9 1928, his birth name was Frank Frazzetta, but he dropped the second "Z" because he thought it made his name look clumsy. He was an artistic prodigy from an early age, and attended a small school known as the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts from the age of eight. He later said that the school's sole instructor, Michel Falanga, had very little to offer him, and he learned more from his fellow students.
In 1944, 16-year-old Frazetta wanted to break into comics, so he took a job doing pencil clean-ups for Bernard Bailey, the co-creator of the Spectre and Hourman. He soon found himself inking and then also pencilling comics for various companies. Over the next decade he drew comics in every conceivable genre, from funny animals to westerns to the sci-fi/fantasy that would eventually come to dominate his career. His most notable comics work from that period is probably on the Shining Knight strip DC Comics.
Frazetta moved from there to newspaper comic strips, working as an assistant to Al Capp on L'il Abner and Dan Barry on Flash Gordon, while also drawing his own strip, Johnny Comet. In 1961, he assisted Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder with their adult strip, Little Annie Fanny, which ran in Playboy magazine. That led to more satirical work, and a painting of Ringo Starr for Mad Magazine got him his first job painting a movie poster, for What's New Pussycat? That one painting earned him more money than he'd previously made in a year, so he was quick to do more posters.
In 1966, Lancer Books began publishing new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series, with new cover art by Frank Frazetta. This is when he became the Frazetta we associate the name with today. His Conan paintings fundamentally altered the aesthetics of fantasy as a genre, and defined the still-emerging "sword and sorcery" subgenre.
Frazetta's world was one of muted colors, dismal grey skies, and a grim-faced barbarian who resembled Howard's descriptions more than the usual heroic aesthetic allowed for. He was often depicted in mid-battle against semi-human beastmen, splatters of blood visible on his raised battle ax or sword.
His success on Conan made him a highly sought-after talent, and led directly to a similar gig doing paperback covers for Edgar Rice Burroughs' works, including the Tarzan and John Carter of Mars books. The John Carter books in particular were a perfect match for Frazetta's style, with nearly naked male and female protagonists alongside a wide variety of monstrous creatures. His cover art often connected only vaguely with the books' contents, and in his later life Frazetta freely admitted he didn't read the novels:
I didn't read any of it. It was too opposite of what I do. I told them that. So, I drew him my way. It was really rugged. And it caught on. I didn't care about what people thought. People who bought the books never complained about it. They probably didn't read them.
His success as a fantasy painter soon enabled him to create his own legends. His 1973 painting "The Death Dealer," for example, featured a demonic-looking warrior with a horned helmet and his face in shadow, riding an intimidating black horse. The painting was used as a cover for the 1978 debut album by Molly Hatchet. The character has also gone on to star in novels and comic books, as well as many more paintings. The U.S. Army III Corps adopted "The Death Dealer" as a mascot, and a statue based on the painting was eventually erected at Fort Hood.
In his later life, Frazetta opened his museum and gallery, along with his wife and business partner, Eleanor Frazetta. After a series of strokes paralyzed his right arm, he taught himself to paint with his left and continued to work.
He died in 2010, less than a year after his wife had passed. His work and the legacy it created lives on, of course. Every time a warrior lifts a weapon to the sky, a pile of dead creatures underneath, the spirit of Frank Frazetta is there.