Noah asked me to weigh in on the work of Frank Frazetta, who died on May 10. Frazetta has probably received more celebratory tributes upon his death than any comics-related figure since Charles Schulz, and for good reason: like Schulz, he is one of the few who succeeded in becoming a pop-culture icon in his own right. I think Noah asked me to write about Frazetta because he knew from things I’d written elsewhere that my attitude towards his work was more ambivalent than what one usually finds. However, I’m not here to knock Frazetta or otherwise take issue with the tone of the tributes. I’d like to examine his work at a more critical distance, and I don’t think those goals are mutually opposed.
I do want to engage in some hyperbole, though. The man could draw and paint. He was a master at depicting the human figure, and the dynamism of his figure constructions was only surpassed by the deft, sensual touch of his rendering. His men had a sculptural, athletic quality, and they rarely felt posed or stiff. Frazetta had a knack for capturing them in the midst of balletic movement, and the male figures he showed in repose had an air of violent portent about them. As for his women, well, no artist has ever depicted women as sexily as Frank Frazetta did. He didn’t favor the lanky, lean-hipped ideal the mass media has championed for the last few decades; his women were curvy and plump, and he rendered them like he was feeling them up in the process. (While paging through his Pillow Book monograph, an old girlfriend said to me, “I like this guy! He makes cellulite look sexy!”) Ironically, the sexiness he gave his women got him fired from Playboy. During a journeyman period in the 1960s, he briefly assisted Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder with their “Little Annie Fanny” strip. William Stout, who assisted on the strip later on, once told me he asked Kurtzman why Frazetta didn’t work out. Kurtzman said that publisher Hugh Hefner saw Frazetta’s treatment of the title character and threw a fit: “We can’t have this! She looks like he’s thinking about fucking her!” Given that Frazetta was never one for pornographic poses, one can only surmise that Hefner was worried Frazetta’s Annie would show up his centerfold models. And if so, he was probably right.
The comics work Frazetta headlined himself is a mixed bag. Apart from a couple of strips he drew for Warren’s Creepy magazine in the mid-Sixties, all of it was produced between the mid-‘40s and the mid-’50s. He was a teenager at the start of that period, and the work he produced is very much that of a novice artist learning his craft. In the 1980s, DC and Fantagraphics did Frazetta a disservice by bringing, respectively, his 1950-1951 “Shining Knight” work and 1952 “Thun’da” strips back into print. The storytelling in both is, to be charitable, quaint, and the figure drawing, usually the highlight of Frazetta’s art, suffers from rampant problems with proportions and is generally quite gauche. I picked up both at the time out of curiosity. My impression was that if these were typical, his comics work wasn’t worth paying attention to. Frazetta’s drawing skills didn’t come into their own until the very end of his comics career, and the date is usually the best guide to the work. Anything produced in 1954 or 1955 is just beautifully drawn. Examples include most of his romance comics, “Squeeze Play” and the unfinished text story “Came the Dawn” for EC, as well as his Buck Rogers covers for Famous Funnies and Weird Science-Fantasy. The romance work from 1953 is of the same standard. The work apart from that is really only for completists. One sees flashes of the mature Frazetta here and there, but for the most part it’s like watching a talented player get kicked up to the majors before his time.
Frazetta’s paintings for fantasy-adventure paperback covers in the ‘60s and ‘70s are what made him famous, and my favorite argument with fans that champion them is whether his comics pieces from late 1953 to 1955 are actually the superior efforts. Despite what I’ve said to some people in conversation, I don’t think they are, mainly because they haven’t had the impact on the popular culture that the paintings had. However, I do think the romance and EC material holds greater artistic promise. My main reservation about Frazetta’s paintings, apart from a general antipathy to the sword-and-sorcery adventure material so many of them exemplified, is that even when the subjects are ostensibly original, they’re just him rehashing the entertainment of his youth—Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, Robert E. Howard pulp stories, 1930s monster movies. The romance and EC material, though, with their focus on the mundane, made him think outside his own box. They challenged him in a way the fantasy material never could, and he responded by bringing a delightfully fresh surface to what were otherwise some pretty humdrum stories. Frazetta often said that his childhood art teacher wanted to send him to Italy to learn how “to paint the street scene.” The teacher died before it could happen, and I, for one, feel the loss. There’s no telling what Frazetta’s talent and eye would have done with such subjects under the tutelage of a disciplined instructor. He might even have rivaled Kirchner.
As for Frazetta’s paintings, it is a bit harsh to characterize them as rehashes of the entertainment of Frazetta’s boyhood. That is what they are at heart, but Frazetta did bring a fresh perspective to their subjects. His principal achievement with these pieces was to highlight and dramatize the male adolescent fantasies that inform the material. The Barbarian (1966), the first and most famous of Frazetta’s paintings for the ‘60s reprint series of Robert E. Howard’s “Conan the Barbarian” stories may be the best example. The protagonist, a living sculpture of muscle and sinew, has asserted his dominance over all others and stands, stoically triumphant, over a heap of their remains. A woman clings to one of his legs, her appearance and action suggesting subservience, a desire for protection, and sexual availability. In short, the painting is an all but perfect inversion of the adolescent male’s central insecurities—those of physical strength, the competence to handle the world’s challenges, and sexual appeal to women. The protagonist’s indifferently domineering attitude towards the woman is an expression of the fear of women’s ability to assert authority in an interaction. What gives the painting its power is that it is so starkly lacking in awareness of the irony it depicts, which makes it a wish-fulfillment fantasy to be reckoned with. It’s not the least bit politically correct—I fully agree with those who find its misogyny and glamorizing of might-makes-right violence repugnant—but there’s no denying that it resonates with common human desires. And in art, resonance is often all that matters.
In any case, when one goes through the more offensive tropes in Frazetta’s artwork, there are much bigger fish to fry. One is the rape imagery. A recurring scene in his art shows a subhuman creature—often a Neanderthal—carrying off one of Frazetta’s trademark half-naked Amazons over his shoulder, and with no salvation in sight. However, the aspect of Frazetta’s art I find the most shocking is his fascination with executioners. The attitude behind it is about as anti-social as they come. In most cultures, the executioner is both a terrifying and pathetic figure. He’s terrifying because he has the state’s license to slaughter his fellow citizens (criminals, yes, but still), and his victims can do nothing to defend themselves. But he’s also pathetic: he does society’s dirtiest work for it, and his fellow citizens repay him with ostracism—he’s shunned in all his interactions with others. Most of Frazetta’s executioner scenes simply emphasize the former and ignore the latter. One would think that this is horrifying enough, but it’s nothing when one considers the images where he did confront the pathos. His response was to invert the executioner’s alienation from society into a romantic, self-reliant pose. I am writing, of course, of The Death Dealer (1973) and its affiliated paintings, in which Frazetta reimagined the executioner figure as a knight-errant. Is there anything more appalling in the arts than taking society’s disgust with itself and turning it into a heroic point of pride? And sadly, there is—The Death Dealer became probably its creator’s most famous and popular work.
But no matter how odious some of Frazetta’s imagery could get, he always came up with something that redeemed his more offensive moments, and it was usually the women who saved him. Cat Girl (1984), the most popular of his later efforts, is a lusciously atmospheric inversion of adolescent male anxieties about sex and women. The protagonist is a gorgeous, plushly-figured woman, wholly unabashed by her nudity and the viewer’s gaze. Everything about her speaks to her desire to be seen as a sexual object. But she is flanked on all sides by leopards—the deadliest and most agile of predators—and while they appear willing to let one approach, there’s no knowing if they’ll let one depart. The protagonist may be offering sex, or she may be using it as a lure to one’s doom, or she may be doing both. One looks at her and feels both lust and terror. That tension is not an unusual subject for a painting; Picasso evoked it in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), considered by many to be the greatest painting of the twentieth century, and it is also present in Matisse’s early masterwork Carmelina (1904). Cat Girl is nowhere near the level of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon–Frazetta can’t begin to compete with Picasso’s stylistic originality—but I think it’s a stronger work than the Matisse. Carmelina explores the subject entirely through characterization; its central dynamic is the contrast between the harshness of the protagonist’s face and the sensuousness of her body. Frazetta’s treatment is far more poetic—the drama is created through metaphor. I think Cat Girl is the finest thing he ever did, and one notes that he was extremely fond of it himself; the original was kept framed above the drawing board in his studio.
I could discuss more. This talk of how Frazetta once outdid Matisse makes me want to visit the subject of fine art versus illustration, and how no illustrator apart from Doré will ever stand alongside the giants of fine art. I feel the compulsion to talk about how Frazetta, a wonderful illustrator at his best, could never be considered a great painter. But enough. As one of his audience, I always end up coming back to my awe at his figure drawing and my delight in his rendering ability. No matter how repellent I find some of his images, I admire others a great deal. Frazetta was a working-class guy, so I imagine he preferred beer to wine. So with that in mind, let’s kick back and raise a mug in his honor. His work offers more than enough justification for a toast.