Lance Laspina was the producer and director of the 2003 documentary “Frazetta: Painting with Fire” and grew close to the subject of that film, iconic fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, who died Monday at age 82. As Laspina grappled with the sad news, he wrote this appreciation for the Hero Complex.
This morning I received some very sad news from a friend of mine. Legendary fantasy artist Frank Frazetta has passed. For anyone who was touched by Frank’s work or knew him personally, the word of his death comes like a shot to the gut. His long bout with illness, having suffered multiple strokes over the past decade, has been well documented, but the toughness instilled in him as a young boy growing up on the streets of New York seemed to keep him alive even through the bleakest of times. But this morning his body finally succumbed, leaving behind a legacy that will be felt and visually apparent for a very long time to come.
Widely regarded as the godfather of fantastical illustration, Frank influenced an entire generation of artists and filmmakers with powerful images of strapping warriors defending curvaceous maidens from creatures that were undoubtedly spawned in hell. Some of the more notable collectors and fans of his work include Hollywood types such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Jackson, Clint Eastwood, John Milius, Guillermo del Toro and Sylvester Stallone. His impact on the world of illustration, comic and concept art is undeniable. You cannot walk into a game studio, visual-effects house, comics convention or onto a film set without finding someone who was heavily influenced by Frank’s work at a young age, which in turn affected his or her own career decision.
Born in Brooklyn in 1928, Frank showed a real propensity for art at a very early age, and by the age of 8 was enrolled in the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts under the tutelage of instructor Michael Falanga. So convinced he had a true prodigy on his hands, Falanga intended to send Frank to Europe on his own dime to study under the masters, but due to Falanga’s sudden death in 1944, his wish never came to fruition. Soon the academy would close, forcing young Frank to start earning a living. He began his profession as a comic book artist, having worked on such famous strips as Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Li’l Abner before moving on to more detailed oil paintings that graced paperback and album covers. His career then exploded like a supernova after he was asked to do a line of book covers for a relatively unknown barbarian character, Conan, penned decades earlier by author Robert E. Howard. Suddenly those Conan paperbacks were flying off store shelves, in large part due to the magnetic draw of Frank’s powerful images that would entice people across a crowded bookstore, demanding that they pick up that book.
About the same time, Frazetta was also nurturing a new and much more prosperous line of work producing movie poster artwork for big Hollywood films such as, “What’s New Pussycat?,” “The Secret of My Success,” and eventually Eastwood’s action flick “The Gauntlet.” Frank was by then in his 40s and at the high point in his career, producing extraordinary pieces of art and making more money than ever before. There would be no stopping him. His legendary status was cemented forever.
It should also be noted that Frank was a robust young man, as good-looking and talented athletically as he was artistically. While still in his teens, he turned down an offer to play baseball for the New York Giants, a decision Frank would question for years later. Stories of his powerful throwing arm are legendary. He once told me he took more pride in his athleticism than his artistic talents — which will be hard for most people to fathom, I’m sure.
After a quiet stretch of well-deserved retirement, Frazetta had been back in the news as of late, though not all for the good this time. Frank’s prolific career took a turn for the worst after the passing of his childhood sweetheart and wife of 53 years, Eleanor, in July of last year. Shortly after her death, the issue of who would control the marketing and sale of his paintings would result in a sad turn of events involving a custody battle between his four children. Thankfully, the siblings have come to an agreement that (at least for now) has ended the feuding. There’s no telling how much the stress of watching his children quarrel contributed to Frank’s death. Hopefully the passing of their father will bring the siblings closer together and not spark more division. This photo of Eleanor and Frank in younger days shows an attractive couple ready for the world and meeting it together.
What, though, is Frank’s place in art history? He carved out his career in illustration — a term looked upon as a dirty word by the fine-art community. I personally admire this category because it most often contains two vital ingredients, working in tandem, that dynamically separate it from other forms of art: A sense of narrative (something grand is in full force or about to happen) and the human emotional element. We often find a connection to paintings that includes another human, perhaps in a state of distress, contentment or complete joy. Use of light, form, composition, color, storytelling and technical ability to render are all components that most would agree go into making good illustration art.
Unfortunately, what often trounces the aforementioned criteria is subject matter. And in the context of Frank’s work, he is often unjustly categorized as solely being a “fantasy” artist. If you were lucky enough to discuss this topic with Frank he would inform you, in his charming Brooklyn accent, that he was a “creative artist” and should not be categorized as being anything else.
I recently returned from a trip to Italy where I was fortunate to survive the lung-searing 463-step ascent to the top of the Duomo in Florence to get an up-close look at the frescoes painted on its inside ceiling. These detailed paintings, produced in the latter half of the 16th century by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari, depict “The Last Judgment” with the bottom portion portraying a rather wicked cast of characters in “Capital Sins and Hell.”
The subject matter for the entire fresco could rightfully be categorized as “fantasy,” but because it is Biblical in nature it is looked upon as fine art — and rightfully so. The amazing display of artistry and its immense size when viewed up close only adds to its grandeur. All of the components that go into creating a good piece of illustration art are on display here, even though in one scene horned demons are shown skewering several unlucky sinners with their flaming spears. While I was standing there, marveling at the frescoes, it was hard for me not to draw a comparison to Frank’s work.
Here’s a photo I took during that visit…
After all, the subject matter was very similar and the technical skill required to paint this fresco is really no different than what Frazetta possessed. I’m not so bold as to claim that Frank was a better painter than Vasari or Zucarri, but I do see him as being their equal. In fact, had Frank grown up in Italy back in the 16th century (he certainly had the Italian surname needed), there’s no doubt we would be revering his frescos as some of the best to emerge out of the Renaissance era. Perhaps Frank’s current crop of oil paintings are the closet representations of classical art from the Renaissance period we will see for a long time to come.
My point is that the painting’s subject matter, or reason for being painted (many critics would argue the majority of Frank’s work was commercially produced) should have absolutely no basis as to whether or not a piece of art is deemed fine art. I’m quite sure my argument will not change how the established art community views Frank’s work.
As with most artists who have followed a similar path, the passage of time is the necessary ingredient to eventual acceptance — the years leave behind the extraordinary pieces but the unfashionable contexts of their creation are forgotten. Just last year, Frank joined a very exclusive club of illustration artists when his famous “Conan the Conquerer” painting (a.k.a. “The Berserker”) was purchased for a million dollars.
Granted, there are dozens of deceased artists whose paintings routinely sell for a million dollars or more, but the fact that Frank was still alive at the time and categorized as an illustrator elevated him to an extremely rare category. He and his wife’s contributions to artist rights have also been largely recognized, as Ellie began to demand Frank’s original art be returned to him upon publication. Prior to this, the original artwork was either discarded (which makes many of us shudder) or kept in the private collection of the publisher, who could reuse the painting without additional compensation to the artist. Ellie’s request for the return of Frank’s original art was a concept previously unheard of, but in the end paid enormous dividends not only to the growing wealth of his art but for fellow artists alike.
In the end, the success of an artist’s career might be judged by a number of factors. How truly skilled was he? How prolific? How much money did his paintings command? Did he contribute to the greater good of society? How many lives did he affect? To judge him solely on the last question alone, Frank Frazetta’s career was magnificent beyond words.
Ten years ago I had the distinct pleasure of spending time with Frank and his family during the production of my documentary, “Frazetta: Painting with Fire.” As a young, aspiring artist, Frazetta’s work heavily affected me I and owe him a great deal for leading me down the path toward a career in illustration. This same sentiment can be expressed by thousands of my contemporaries who, like me, discovered his work in their youth when their likes and dislikes were being shaped forever. I began to seek out his work, snatching up magazines and paperbacks that bore a Frazetta cover, eventually leading me to his line of portfolio art books. The artist behind the paintings remained a mystery — interviews with Frank were scarce — and I was desperate for a better understanding of the man responsible for these astonishing creations.
I suspected others felt the same way so I approached the artist with the idea of documenting his life and career on film so that his story could be told forever. You can imagine what a unique thrill it was to finally meet and get to know the very private Frank Frazetta on a personal level. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long for me to feel comfortable in his presence — he was so personable and down to earth. He was definitely a man’s man, but with a sensitive side that belied his tough exterior. He loved to debate art and, even more, sport. That helped us connect during a pre-filming week that I spent hanging out in his studio, marveling over the oil paintings he had casually stacked up next to his easel and treating him to dinner at his favorite Chinese restaurant. During one of my visits, Frank allowed me to draw in one of his personal sketchbooks, a thrill I will never forget. It is private moments like that, spent with Frank, that I will cherish forever, and in the end wish I could’ve captured on film for the documentary, but perhaps they were meant to remain as special memories just for me. Memories I can revisit every time I hear his name, including a sad day like today.
– Lance Laspina
RECENT AND RELATED
ELSEWHERE: The Frank Frazetta Museum
All artwork: Frank Frazetta. Photos courtesy of Lance Laspina and the Frazetta family.
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