Wednesday, May 12, 2010

In Memory of Frank Frazetta

Monday saw the news of the death of Frank Frazetta at the age of 82. Many others have written on it, which is perhaps more than anything a testament to the strength of his influence. For those in my generation and a few before, Frazetta has been a giant in the field. Modern fantasy art as we know it owes more to him than perhaps any other artist. In an era when the genre was even more ghettoized than it is now, his was illustration that resonated so powerfully that practically every genre illustrator since has had to deal with it. One way or another, a fantasy illustrator (at least, any American one) has had to arrive at Frazetta like a fork in road and decide--would you follow his path or not? Would you follow his path for a bit then jump the rails elsewhere? The Frazetta aesthetic had to be dealt with. But regardless of which way you went, you had to stop to admire it.

My own run-ins with Frank's work began with the Bantam Books collections of his art, back in elementary school in the 80s. I would flip through them at the local bookstore at the mall, partly titillated by the sexy women he painted, partly thrilled by the sheer power of his characters. Little did I know back then how much of the weight of this power was through his actual handling of the paint--itself a force to be reckoned with--all I knew was that these warriors were nearly crazed with might. I was too young to consider owning the books (plus, they might get me in trouble), neither did I have the allowance money for them. My brother bought some Frazetta-illustrated editions of Conan the Barbarian, still the definitive representation of this character in my mind. In fact, I happen to have a copy of the Frazetta-illustrated "Conan of Cimmeria" on my bedside table. I've long wanted to paint a scene out of it, which I first read maybe 6 years ago. I haven't done so, and the Frazetta cover on the front (and his body of work for that series) has kept me in utter fear of moving forward with it.

Here is where, if I but had access to them, I'd go and pull out a couple of copies I did of Frank's work as a student. In high school, I did at least one full pencil drawing of his (including the cover at left), in a sketchbook which tells of all my influences when I was young, featuring copies from all the luminaries of the late 80s. My first year of college, I took a portion of one of his Death Dealer covers and painted it 8x10" in oils, in my first usage of Liquin medium (the cropped image of Frank's original above). Such has been the effect of his work on me. In both cases it was a challenge to work against my own grain; the painted study particularly was fun to do.

Which is not to say that I've worshiped at the altar of Frazetta in my own work. I haven't, and I think that's probably obvious. I've enjoyed and respected his art, but I am not the "Man's Man" that Frank seemed to have been in his youth, and neither is my aesthetic driven in that direction. In this industry, the opinion of other illustrators regarding each others' work can often be broken down according to the Frank signpost: for those who have walked much distance down the path of Frazetta, the art of those who didn't is often seen as lacking.  For those who walked the other way, the work of those who've hiked the path of Frazetta is often seen as imitation. It's very hard to stand on the shoulders of that giant and not simply follow. Which is not to say there is animosity between the two camps (usually), but it is to say that this industry has for a long time drawn lines based on his work. Such has been the effect of Frank on the industry.

I never had the chance to meet the man, nor to see a finished original in person (only sketches). I'm sad about both of those, the former because obviously I would've loved to have met him, the latter because I'm told his work in person is worlds better than it has reproduced, in large part because most of his work (until recently) was reproduced poorly in a bygone era of poorer printing standards. But also because the physicality of his paint-pushing has to be seen to be appreciated, by all accounts. I can certainly imagine so, and would love to reevaluate his work on the strength of the real deal.

Frazetta achieved the status of superstar in this genre, a status only a very small handful have reached since. As the progenitor of the modern genre, his work is also the first to break the million-dollar barrier for sale of an original. That is soon to be equaled and bested, no doubt. He spent his life married to the same woman and painted as long as he was able. When he lost use of his drawing hand, he started drawing with the other (with amazing results). If you haven't seen the documentary "Frazetta - Painting with Fire," it's high time you did.

On a sad note, his legacy in the short term is tarnished by an already-brewing estate battle among his children, which will hopefully not worsen now. His gallery, which I hoped to visit in the next year or two, is basically no more. I sincerely hope Frank's family will value his estate and the posterity of its images. It'd be wonderful to see Frank's work end up in our major institutional museums, and it no doubt will if his work gains a champion for the cause. Fantasy's representation in such venues has been sorely lacking since the Golden Age illustrators died. Frank's work is the next best hope for a reconsideration of the genre.

His work has affected me, has affected the industry, and can without a doubt affect the art establishment. I hope it does.