Thursday, May 13, 2010

Culture Shock 05.13.10: Frazetta leaves behind legacy of fantastic art

Frank Frazetta didn't create Tarzan or Conan the Barbarian, but he did bring both to life. His brush strokes transformed fantasy into reality.

Heroes and villains, monsters and maidens — Frazetta painted them all. His fantasy artwork, appearing mostly on magazine covers and paperback novels, depicted worlds that previously had resided only in the imagination.

Frazetta, the father of fantasy art, died Monday after suffering a stroke at his home in Fort Myers, Fla. He was 82.

Born in 1928 in Brooklyn, N.Y., Frazetta got his start in the 1940s, drawing for comic books and, later, newspaper strips like Al Capp's "Li'l Abner." But it wasn't until the 1960s that he found his true calling. That was when he began painting the cover illustrations for Robert E. Howard's "Conan the Barbarian" stories, which were published in a dozen paperback volumes by Lancer Books and Ace Books.

Most of what people now think of when they think of the sword and sorcery genre comes from Frazetta's paintings.

Every cliché is there, but when Frazetta began painting, they weren't yet clichés: the thickly muscled barbarian warrior wielding his ax or sword in battle, naked (or mostly naked) maidens chained to dungeon walls and sacrificial alters, hideous monsters emerging from subterranean depths to prey on the innocent. Every sinewy muscle and every lurid detail pointed to Frazetta's passion for his art, which he pursued at the expense of a professional baseball career.

The 1982 film "Conan the Barbarian" starring Arnold Schwarzenegger is as much the product of Frazetta's vision as it is Howard's. And the two visions are sometimes at odds because, as Frazetta once remarked, he never read the books.

"I didn't read any of it. It was too opposite of what I do. I told them that," Frazetta said. "So, I drew him (Conan) 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."

People did read the books, but Frazetta was right about one thing — no one complained.

Frazetta reached his creative peak in the 1970s. He was still painting covers for the Conan series when he took up the adventures of two other classic pulp characters, Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, both created decades earlier by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

With John Carter, like Conan, Frazetta had an entire world to imagine — a Mars populated by beautiful princesses and 12-foot-tall, four-armed warriors who call their planet Barsoom. When you see Frazetta's Dejah Thoris, you immediately know why Carter would take up arms against all of Mars to defend her.

Frazetta also painted magazine covers for Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella, and the 1983 animated film "Fire and Ice" was based on characters he created.

His admirers include Clint Eastwood, who hired him to paint the promotional poster for his 1977 thriller "The Gauntlet," and George Lucas.

Frazetta also is the subject of Lance Laspina's 2003 documentary, "Painting with Fire." And "painting with fire" is as good a metaphor as you'll find for Frazetta's work.

Unfortunately, Frazetta's final year adds a sad footnote to his story. His wife and muse, Ellie, died after a yearlong battle with cancer, and their children subsequently squabbled over their father's original artwork.

For the rest of us, however, Frazetta's legacy is an enduring testament to the power of what art snobs try to dismiss as mere commercial art. That legacy is right there on our bookshelves.

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