Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Frank Frazetta, Artist Laureate of the American Id

America dies a little every day, but losing a Frank Frazetta just brings our culture that much closer to the dustbin of history.

There's something wild, free and savagely self-confident about Frazetta's artwork, qualities that have been sucked out of our culture by political correctness, corporate team-building, pea-brained paranoia and discount store religion. Frazetta was the poet laureate of untrammeled Id, and his art captured an America at the height of its powers and chronicled the start of its decline.

This is why the cultural elite might embrace a Robert Crumb or even a Jack Kirby, but Frazetta's work is untameable. You can't pretty it up or pretend it's not exactly what is; an face-grabbing immersion into lust and rage, a guiltless celebration of the human machine obeying its most primal impulses.

Indeed, if there's one word that best sums up Frazetta's work, it would be 'tumescent'.

Portrait of the artist as a young man

Here's a brief sketch of the man's life and work, taken from Erotic Art Village:
Frazetta was born in Brooklyn in 1928 and showed prodigious talent from a very early age. His kindergarten teachers were amazed that he could draw better than most 10-year olds, and at the age of 8 he began studying in the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts with Italian fine artist Michael Falanga...

At the age of 16 he began doing illustrations for Standard Publishing. That led to work in the comic book industry for several different publishers...

(Frazetta's) Buck Rogers covers gained the attention of Li'l Abner creator Al Capp, who hired Frazetta...They worked together for nine years, after which they had a falling out and Frank reentered the world of regular comic books.

The artist did find work eventually, particularly for men's magazines...He also drew the comic strip parody Lil' Annie Fannie for Playboy Magazine...In the mid-60s Frazetta's talent was recognized in Hollywood and the publishing industry.

Despite Frazetta's classical training, his art is not so much Italian Renaissance as Etruscan. There's no time for social or artistic convention - only sex, sorcery and swordplay.

And more sex.

Sex was Frazetta's muse- the testosterone explodes nearly from every brushstroke. His women - with their cat eyes, ample hips and thighs, their full, firm asses and modest busts - ooze an idealized Mediterranean fecundity, straight out of ancient Greek or Egyptian art. And for every prostrate barbarian moll, Frazetta served up half a dozen wild jungle girls and witchy women, every bit as imposing as his men. No doubt Frazetta was inspired by the tough-skinned Brooklyn girls of his youth, as well as his strong-willed wife, Ellie.

Similarly, Frazetta's depiction of men seems invested with a distinct kind of erotic energy, which is kind of amusing given the fact that he often used himself as a model. Frazetta wouldn't be the first artist guilty of narcissism, nor would he be the first some might accuse of getting off on his heroes as much as his heroines. Like Kirby before him and Richard Corben after him, Frazetta made no bones that masculine potency was itself the natural counterpart of the feminine sexual allure at the core of his vision. But certainly there is a polymorphous aspect to Frazetta's art - you get the impression a Frazetta hero would screw anything that moved, so long as he was on top.

As with violence, lust is self-justifying in the Frazetta Universe. No wonder his work was so potent (and popular) in the smug, self-righteous 70s - it was an antidote to the tedious, therapeutic liberalism of the time. In fact, that pretty much describes anything of lasting value from that decade- Glam and Punk, cult cinema (horror, sci-fi, grindhouse), Heavy Metal, National Lampoon, Hustler and similar explosions of the repressed Id in an age of encounter groups, corduroy, and soft rock.

Frazetta also played a vital role in the revival of the occult and the arcane in pop culture. His paintings played a major part in the sword-and-sorcery revival of the 60s, embodying the same atavistic energy that Robert E. Howard put into words.

He did the same for Edgar Rice Burroughs' Theosophist superhero, John Carter of Mars (Jack Parsons' favorite character)- Frazetta burned an image of the Martian badlands into the brains of young readers before they even cracked the covers.

The same goes for the classic black and white horror comics Jim Warren put on the stands in the 60s. When Warren needed an artist to summon the dark, esoteric powers of his classic books like Creepy and Vampirella, the first guy he called was Frank Frazetta. His was a primal, instinctual kind of pop esotericism- and was all the more resonant and lasting for it.

Not only did Frazetta capture that dark energy floating around in the Ether at the twilight of the Aquarian Age, he also brought the kind of gut-punching catharsis that Jack Kirby had brought to the table. The fury in this Creepy cover is the same you saw in Jack; you get the feeling that both artists had their fair share of street fights back in the day - and maybe saw the back of poppa's hand one too many times for their liking.

I'd go so far to say that Frazetta was every bit as important to the evolution of the Heavy Metal aesthetic as a Jimmy Page or Tony Iommi. Certainly the New Wave of British Metal bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Motorhead were heavily influenced by the Frazetta barbarian milieu (both visually and spiritually) and Southern metal band Molly Hatchet used Frazetta art on their first few album covers, just as countless other bands used bad Frazetta copyists for their own. Certainly 80s metal wouldn't be the same without the overall barbarian aesthetic that Frazetta popularized.

And therein lies the problem- when a revolutionary artist comes around, they almost immediately inspire a wave of imitators who invariably degrade the aesthetic currency. What was once exciting and visionary becomes cliche. It inevitably gets to the point where all of the bad imitations sour the public on the original and the baby is then thrown out with the bathwater. The process probably began with cave paintings.

We're not quite there yet but we may be nearing a Frazetta revival. The honesty and potency of his art has survived the backlash inspired by all of the crappy clones and incredible depth of his vision still packs a tremendous emotional punch, maybe more so today since that kind of gutpunching eroticism is so rare in an age bogged down with crappy porn pretending to be art. Frazetta was a true American original, one I'm very much afraid we're becoming unable to produce any more of. Every time one of these giants leaves us, I get this gnawing feeling of anxiety in my gut.

What makes Frazetta's work so powerful was not only his dedication to craft and ferocious work ethic, but also its fearlessness, its surrender to Eros and Ares- even Hades. It's very much the reflection of a younger, more confident society, one less beaten down by political correctness and self-censorship.

As the Romans said, life is short but art is eternal. The man is gone but the work lives on. Like Kirby, Frazetta tapped into something very deep and primal. Time took everything away from him, but the work is bouncing around the Net and probably will forever. Frazetta channeled those impossibly deep mythic streams at the core of human consciousness, even if the museums don't want to know about it. But I'll bet the farm his work outlasts pretty much everyone being shown at the Whitney or the Guggenheim.

Art is eternal but bullshit is very, very temporary.

NOTE: This piece is a bit rushed, but I wanted to get this out while the topic is still timely. I will probably give this piece a polish or three and stick it up on the Solar Seminar. Frazetta is a huge part of my worldview and I want to do the man justice.


  1. Indeed, a great tribute to Frazetta, for my age group, his work is so deeply imbedded in many people's psyche, people take for granted his impact. Thanks Chris.

  2. My first encounter with Frazetta art was on the covers of Vampirella, Creepy and Eerie...burned a hole in my brain. So long Mr. Frazetta. Thanks for the great art and inspiration.

  3. Sad to hear he's gone, but a long, productive life he led and a tremendous legacy left behind.

    Frazetta RIP.

  4. Great writeup Chris,
    Mr. F couldn't ask for a better one.

    R.I.P. Frank...

  5. Funnily enough, Christopher, it took a fellow Elven friend to alert me of Frank Frazetta's passing. What a sad day. First Lena Horne, then the master of fantasy fandom art. Who'll be the third? When twelve years young I carried around with me the just-published cryptozoological Bible by John Alva Keel (who himself passed away last July), Strange Creatures From Time & Space, which he'd done the magnificent cover for, in which were depicted every phylum of cryptid surrounding a park ranger with an otherworldly full moon illuminating the entire pastiche looming in the background. I turned many a fellow seventh-grader classmate on to his œuvre through that tome alone. Of course, I'd already amassed an entire collexion of those legendary Warren magazines that were blessed to have been graced with his unique style themselves. Brilliant blogticle, this. Thank you for so beautifully commemorating him. And thank you for having beautified the world of fandom, Frank. You are an immortal among men ~ (•8-D

  6. Great tribute, and I have plenty to say about it when I have the time. But I do disagree w/ your assessment of the 70s. True, there was some of that smugness which gave birth to PC (which is as much or more a religious right phenomenon than a left wing one, btw), but there was as just as much of a free wheeling, ex positive, anything goes vibe. For someone like myself who grew up in the thick of it, it's been difficult to adjust to the self-righteous, prudish, shrewish society America has become. The 1970s was the *only* time in American history where the right wing *ever* shut the **** up, as R.U. Sirius notes. As I said, I'll have more to say later. Thanks for the piece, I now feel like trolling Ebay for old RE Howard paperbacks and esp. Warrens.

  7. A fine eulogy and an interesting take on the 70's. You might have a different view of it if you had been cruising the baths (temples of Eros) or the piers in Manhattan back then. Of course, you probably wouldn't have survived it, either.

  8. "the smug, self-righteous 70s"?

  9. Matt- I knew you'd be on this one. Cheers.

    Sam- No doubt. That's real art, no matter what the critics say.

    Justin- Immortality.

    TD- Thank you kindly.

    Anadae- Frank was definitely a force in the weirdness explosion of the 70s. I hadn't seen that Atlantis Rising cover until it showed up on Cryptomundo- that's some heavy stuff. The Warren stuff was amazing- absolutely an inspiration behind Metal Hurlant, and very much a forbidden/underground vibe on the stands. I had to hide them from my mom.

    Anony- "It's been difficult to adjust to the self-righteous, prudish, shrewish society America has become." Oh, I feel your pain my friend, but that's definitely a bipartisan, ecumenical phenomenon. PC was absolutely a left wing thing- it grew out of the ashes of the Yippies/ radical fem's, et al. I also have to disagree with the Right being quiet in the 70s- the Republicans controlled the White House until 1977, you had Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell and the tax revolts, the school busing wars, Alan Bakke and the rise of the Religious Reich in response to Carter ordering that Christian schools be desegregated.

    Michael- Well that's what I'm driving at- everything we remember fondly from the 70s was fringe and counterculture. The mainstream media and culture was pretty stultifying- earnest and well-meaning, certainly- but inert. I'd be interested in hearing your take on Frazetta's work- seems to dovetail with your own tastes in some cases, no?

  10. I just recently got reacquainted with John Norman's GOR series of basically trashy Fantasy/SF novels. I knew about them when I was a teenager, but completely forgot them until a few months ago when I discovered Gor had been transformed into a kind of Second Life virtual world on the Net (with more female fans than men, surprisingly).

    Though obviously influenced by Burrough's Barsoom books, I think Norman's work probably got its tone from the utter individualist masculinity of Frazetta's cover art.

    I think Frazetta's genius was his ability to express the basic adolescent energy that is the driving engine behind almost all adventure novels. Often the story told by his cover was far stronger than the one inside. I doubt R. E. Howard and his characters would be so well remembered had it not been for Frazetta. In fact, I wonder if there are some writers out there who would have had more of a legacy if they had better covers on their books.

  11. I love his work because he celebrates as beautiful the body type that real women have, not the dessicated physique the media and fashion industry tell us we should have.

  12. Brother Chris -
    Your piece on Frazetta was beautifully done, and as far as I'm able to determine, every word is true. We're about the same age, I think, and ever since my uncle gave me that first box of comics and pulp magazines back in '75, Frazetta's art has been a part of my life. There was really no one quite like him. Thanks for the really great reminder of how terrific he was.

  13. Kirby and Frazetta were two of a kind. They both did art that was very primal and alive! I am sure they are now having a drink together.

  14. I was a real fan of Heavy Metal Magazine, I'm a bit young to really know too much about him. But he was a real inspiration for the old school graffiti community and there are memorial mentions all over the Graffiti web world! Amazing stuff! A real legend! On point as always! I put up a new Rap Occult cross over if your interested, a bit out of my depth on this one! You probably could spread more light on it. Also the Masonic New Jeruse article was really interesting
    Peace The Kool Skool

    p.s. The Strange Angel book is excellent, I read it recently!

  15. In the present day feminized U.S., anything having to do with male sexuality or that reminds people that men have genitalia or bodies is greeted w/ the obligatory "eeewwww." Frazetta is clearly a well-deserved finger in the eye to that sensibility as well.

  16. I doubt R. E. Howard and his characters would be so well remembered had it not been for Frazetta. In fact, I wonder if there are some writers out there who would have had more of a legacy if they had better covers on their books.

    Frazetta also did the covers for Thongor, Brak and Elak, yet they are practically forgotten now: they're probably only remembered for the Frazetta covers in the first place. Conversely, the non-Frazetta Conans sold almost as well as the Frazetta covers, and the recent Del Reys have sold just fine without Frazetta covers.

    While I believe Frazetta was instrumental in the Lancer boom, there's no way Howard would've been forgotten if it wasn't for Frazetta. Maybe not quite on the same cultural plateau - Frazetta & Howard together was magic - but certainly he wouldn't be trapped in the doldrums of obscurity like Lin Carter and others are now.

    That said, Frazetta & Howard complemented each other perfectly. Frazetta was the first author to thematically capture Howard's relentless fury and passion in visual form, and to this day has never been equaled in that regard.