Obituaries

THUNDER ON CANVAS: A TRIBUTE TO FRANK FRAZETTA

By • May 12th, 2010 •

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Frank Frazetta has died.

Most film aficionados won’t recognize the name. Only occasionally was he directly involved in film production. Frank Frazetta was an artist and illustrator, but his influence on the mediums of film and television cannot be overestimated, perhaps because his powerful vision crossed over so many genres and avenues of expression, while he, himself, remained essentially unseen by most of the public.

Born and raised in New York, Frazetta was a startling child prodigy, and the death of his professor halted plans for him to be schooled in Europe as one of the great fine-artists of the time. Looking to earn a living at the age of 16, he started drawing for major comic books (already an extremely significant accomplishment for a teenager) – but with an aptitude that essentially eclipsed the medium. Then he was offered the assignment to create the satirist/comic poster for the comedy WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT in 1966, earning in a day what he did otherwise in a year. And while the strains of that famous film’s pleasantly optimistic pop-song theme played endlessly on car and transistor radios all over the country to some modest acclaim, and the focus was on the film’s stars and music, people passed by and smiled at the movie poster created by a man who would, within a decade, be regarded already then as one of the finest illustrators the world had ever seen.

It was, however, his assignments to paint the paperback covers for Conan the Barbarian and the fantasies of Edgar Rice Boroughs, and for which he established a powerfully sweeping, intensely rugged yet colorful signature style, that struck right into the core consciousness of the vast majority of genre fans of that time. Many of these people so influenced by Frazetta would become extremely powerful in some areas of Hollywood – and thus the obvious string of dominoes was firmly set to proceed.

His designs and ideas – entirely original to his imagination – were often lifted willy-nilly by producers who so regarded him as a national treasure that they seemed to think his work was, like a national park, admission-free.

The singular motion picture in which he is listed as a co-producer and into which he had direct directorial input, FIRE AND ICE, was a poorly-distributed and undeserved flop, though reasonably produced and directed by experienced pro Ralph Bakshi, yet another lifetime fan. The film is almost entirely rotoscoped – meaning staged with live actors and the animation traced, image by image, over the frames of live action film. It’s the one film that truly brings Frazetta’s style as fully to life as the hand-drawn medium could capture on a budget, and is generally entirely successful as an animated action film and shows the promise of what could have been had more been made.

Off and on he continued to contribute to films while establishing himself further as a fine artist of very significant renown. The book cover paintings, while commissioned by the publishers, were photographed and returned to Frazetta, who retained ownership of the originals. Recently, the only “Conan the Barbarian” painting sold by Frazetta and his estate to date went for $1 million to a private collector.

Animation producer, production designer, poster creator, cover painter, significant fine artist and one of the most powerful influences the world has ever seen on all the imagination-centric visual genres and mediums, has passed away at the age of 82.

On a purely personal note, Frazetta, along with Ray Harryhausen, for me like millions of others, had by far the biggest artistic influence on my childhood, and my sense of loss at his passing in my experienced middle-age is surprisingly striking. My own feelings, probably like those other millions, no doubt, are somewhat randomly collected into a scattershot internal scrapbook of feelings and images that whisk me back in time:

So many paperbacks I never read because there was never enough time in the day to study Frazetta’s cover art as the impact of that work always seemed to demand…. I never got to the written words inside.

A rare lone lion in a world of tomcats. Endlessly imitated, never equaled. A painter who could draw and vise versa with equal style, power and originality. And in those action scenes for which he is most famous, always the apex of the action, somehow always the very highest peak of dramatic tension and never a millisecond less one way or the other. The moment of life and death action caught at the very definition of the struggle.

Brilliant. Original. Powerful. Exciting. Fun. Grand. Intimate. Imaginative…. the language hasn’t enough words to do him justice.

He’ll be teaching drawing and painting in Heaven, and still his students won’t come up to his shoe tops.

Rest In Peace.

* Editor’s Note: My old friend Al Kilgore, who created the Bullwinkle comic strip for Jay Ward, was a close friend of Frazetta’s for a time during their careers, and when he’d visit the artist at his home, the floor would be littered with drawings and paintings. “Al, would you just take an armful of these out of here! Just help me get rid of this stuff!”, Frazetta would plead with him, but Al never did. As the decades passed, and Frazetta’s stock rose, Al came to look back on that decision with a certain regret…

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5 Responses »

  1. While my mother was living in the Greenwich Village, Frank Frazetta did a painting of her.
    It like that he and I share a similar last name.

  2. Frazetta would have been the greatest film poster artist of all time if he had continued in that vein. The first poster I had purchased with his art was for the Clint Eastwood copfest THE GAUNTLET. I still have many of the paperbacks emblazoned with his muscular men and women in scant clothing from my high school days.

  3. His iconic style was his alone. A great, beautiful tribute.

  4. A fantastic Artist.

  5. Lovely, lovely tribute. I am a huge Frazetta fan. One of my favorites is the poster/album cover for “The Night They Raided Minsky’s.” In a PBS documentary about the artist, it was mentioned that Frank’s last name was originally spelled with to “z’s,” like mine. It has always made me wonder if we were related.

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