HU alum Tom Crippen (who wrote with us in our blogspot days) sent us this piece. It’s good to have you back here, Tom!
by Tom Crippen
Frank Frazetta (1928-2010) is probably the world’s best-known illustrator of fantasy adventure. He hit it big during the 1960s when his covers played a key part in the paperback boom that did so much for Conan the Barbarian and the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He stayed big all through the decades that followed. If you’re a dumb kid, or if any inch of you is a dumb kid, his paintings will overwhelm you. They’re like Led Zeppelin, premarital sex, or getting a driver’s license and driving fast enough to risk spinal injury. They’re as intense as psychedelic art but located at the other end of experience, the one where nothing matters but the juices flowing through your body. Look at them and your mind gets blotted out: there you are, hypnotized by muscle on muscle, shadow on shadow, detail on detail, and by the snakelike power that twists through his composition, because behind the whallop lies a superior degree of art.
Frazetta began drawing as an infant, then went to a local art school at age 8. From Wikipedia: “I remember the teachers were always mesmerized by what I was doing, so it was hard to learn anything from them. So I went to art school when I was a little kid, and even there the teachers were flipping out.” He became a professional at 15 when he joined Bernard Baily’s comic book studio. The pictures we see here came a few years later, when he was 19 and 20. A now-forgotten outfit called Nedor was publishing a funny-animal title called Barnyard Comics. To qualify for lower postage rates, Barnyard included two-page text stories, usually one per issue. Frazetta provided a spot illo for each story. So there he was, the man who would draw Tarzan and Conan, illustrating stories about runaway chickadees and lonesome raccoons.
The pictures below all came out in 1947 and 1948. I don’t claim to see any development from one to the other, so they’re not arranged chronologically. Instead the order is meant to illustrate how the balance between funny-animal work and pure Frazettaness could swing back and forth.
The first two pictures show Frazettaness and the funny-animal approach separating out from each other, like yolk and egg white. (Both drawings are from Barnyard 19, dated August 1948; for whatever reason, the comic ran more than one of the text stories that month.) The first picture shows a fluffy little kitten and a menacing but cartoony hand. The kitten has a bit of dynamism to its pose, but its outstanding quality is still fluffiness.
The next cartoon could be straight adventure work of a superior kind. The human element has changed from a hand into a group of full-fledged people with nothing cartoony about them. The funny animal is at the center of the drawing but is shrunk down until it’s almost lost. Most of all, the setting has proliferated into the foreground: those rocks have taken over and they aren’t cuddly. They’re massive and their arrangement is sinuous, a combination that is a Frazetta hallmark. They seem absolutely real while putting reality to shame. They could go up as a poster in a dorm room, except that dorm rooms needed a few decades to catch up with what Frazetta was doing.
The next two drawings are more typical of his Barnyard illos, in that they’re funny-animal work but with another element, their Frazettaness, barely kept in check. The little animal figures, placed front and center, are goofy critters but also dynamic—check out the awkward giraffe (Barnyard 17, April 1948)
and the composition of the group of jungle animals watching the distraught chimpanzee (Barnyard 14, October 1947).
Meanwhile, the backgrounds, while goofy and cartoony, show the same power that Frazetta would bring to his EC work and paperback covers. They’re ripe. You don’t expect the backdrop to a funny-animal drawing to seethe, but that’s the case here.