Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Legends of Fantasy Art - Frank Frazetta

Frank Frazetta died this week, aged 82.

For many his name will be synonymous with the pulp fantasy and SF of Robert E Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs - his Conan is simply definitive, and his approach to the human form of both genders made him the foremost and most logical artist of Burrough's Barsoom/Mars books. As I mentioned earlier in my Erol Otus piece the works of Frazetta and to a lesser extent Boris Vallejo were probably the leading examples of 1960s and 1970s fantasy art, and Frazetta went on to inspire a host of artists and cartoonists of the next generation including White Dwarf's Peter Jones, and Carl Critchlow (whose style he initially lampooned in his Thrud the Barbarian), and in 2000AD most crucially, Simon Bisley. Bisley was directly influenced by Frazetta's oils as well as his pen and ink washes, and his adoption of those styles, borrowing Frazetta's earthy palette and accentuated musculature both reinvented the look of two key series by Pat Mills. The previously angular and robotic ABC Warriors became heavy metal beefcake (though done in Bisley's earlier line drawing style) and Celtic hero Slaine in the acclaimed Slaine the King
remains a highlight for Bisley's studied and faithful homage to Frazetta (even down to the aforementioned palette) as much as Mills' own stripped-down narrative. Bisley's tribute marked something of a visual homecoming for a fictional hero whose legend-based roots owed as much to Howard's barbarian hero.

I wasn't always a fan of Frazetta, and didn't come to reassess his work until seeing Bisley's work which some at the time and since have called derivative (the irony remains however that for nearly ten years on from Slaine the King 2000AD's pages were cursed with the mud-coloured muscled monstrosities of lesser artists, each bearing the unmistakeable hallmarks of slavishly copying Bisley himself). He remains a colossus in his field, his heroes seemingly hewn from the same rocky terrain they inhabit naturally. Where other artists sometimes use terrain as a backdrop or pagefiller, Frazetta's appear to rise from that chalky earth, his heroines graced with the same watery luminosity of their dungeon environments, or as perpetually buoyant as the Martian gravity around them. It's work in caricature sometimes - the warriors sinewed, biceps and thighs bulging as they pose, crouch and fly in battle, their womenfolk equally underdressed to show off the curves, the flowing locks, the undulating concupiscence. Great fodder, as I mentioned earlier, for album covers, movie posters and panel vans, the pop culture canvases of the Seventies. Small wonder then that as ideal body shapes changed into the Eighties Frazetta's work was seen less, and for a good time the airbrush became the champion of fantasy artists. But Frazetta had flow, the style that oils and brushes demand, the medium being so very unforgiving. His subject matter is visceral and as utterly testosterone-led as the stories behind them, which probably explains more than it needed be said why my earliest brush with the master's work was some sneaky peaks at my older brother's borrowed volume of Frazetta art as a very young teen; each portrait a doorway into older, wilder, savage and erotically-charged worlds. And yet to this day I'd be more comfortable in public with that volume under my arm than the likes of say, Vallejo or Chris Achilleos whose work alongside is endlessly glossier, sleeker, more lurid and less elemental.

They really don't make them like Frank anymore.

1 comment:

  1. And of course, today's D&D WTF? on Something Awful covers the art of Frazetta in a far cruder and wittier way than me!

    Given the visuals, quite possibly NSFW.