APPRECIATION: Frank Frazetta painted with fire on a timeless canvas

May 11, 2010 | 6:14 p.m.


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.

Frank Frazetta Conan The Barbarian

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.

Frank Frazetta smiels

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.

Ellie and Frank Frazetta


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.

Frank Frzetta Paints National Lampoon Cover

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…

Duomo Paintings


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.

Frank Frazetta Silver Warrior

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.

Frank Frazetta Dark Kingdom

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


Conan The Snow Giants

Frazetta children put down swords in $20-million art dispute

Guillermo del Toro: Frazetta gave the world a new pantheon of heroes

ELSEWHERE: The Frank Frazetta Museum

‘Hobbit’ is just the beginning of the Guillermo del Toro decade

Can ‘Hobbit’ escape the shadow of ‘The Lord of the Rings’?

Guillermo del Toro will take Disney on a scary ride

‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ star looks back on the magic

John Milius opens fire on ‘Red Dawn’ remake: ‘It’s a stupid thing to do’

All artwork: Frank Frazetta. Photos courtesy of Lance Laspina and the Frazetta family. 

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21 Responses to APPRECIATION: Frank Frazetta painted with fire on a timeless canvas

  1. John Cornell says:

    Lance does an excellent job of comparing the talents of those who came before Mr. Frazetta and painted ceilings of chapels. The difference between those great artists of the past and Frazetta was credibility. Even in the painting shown with this blog of the polar bears (sans harnesses) Frazetta made you feel the cold, his choice of color made you smell the swamps or the dark temples populated by tempting, but mysterious females. Frazetta took us to places we couldn't afford today no matter how much TARP money was provided. Frazetta also proved Stephen Hawking wrong, time travel can go backward, not just forward. As a child he took me there, just like Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth or Rockwell. The king is dead, long live the king!

  2. Eugene c. hrynkiewic says:

    my son, tom and I were going to make a movie with the little people (billie barty etal ) and we knew that the story line would lend itself well with illustrations by frazetta. we were vwry excited about the project and called frank. But each time we called we had ro talk with ella she seemed interested but she would never let us talk with frank and without frank, we had no deal. we did meet with billie and he was very excited about the project and to let him know as soon as we had a comitment from frank. needless to say this never came about and therefore one of the most creative movies,(long before the harry potter series) was left to die in the can.

  3. George Standfast says:

    I know Marty Hanly will love this piece. After all, he has loved Conan and Frazetta ever since I first loaned him my paperbacks in the '60s.

  4. MadMommy4u says:

    Frank Frazetta was the reason I bought and read paperback books during my youth. He is responsible for so many great images that encouraged many kids to read any drivel his illustrations were associated with. It was the cover that kept me reading. His images were so filled with magic that I imagined was present in the pages I was reading. An amazingly talented person, he trained himself to paint with his left hand when his tremors made it hard to paint with this right. I think he could have painted with his toes if he tried. God bless him, may he rest in peace…. I wish I had an original from him, it just tripled in value…. not that I'd ever sell it.

  5. Becky Reyes says:

    I always loved Frank Frazetta's work. Lance, when I saw your documentary, I fell madly in love with both Frank and Ellie. Their story is amazing, Frank's life was amazing but mostly his determination after the stroke that took his dominant hand. What a story. Thank you so much for your work.

  6. This is such a great article. I have read just about every Google alert regarding Frank's death since it happened yesterday. I interviewed him for several hours last month for a two-part story that ran in our newspaper in Boca Grande, where he lived with his daughter. I was very nervous about meeting him considering he had been a hero of mine since I was small,but when I walked in and saw all of his cameras we had an immediate bond. He could have been the local plumber at that point and I still would have loved his company just as much.
    To find out that someone you have admired for most of your life was truly even more cool than you ever imagined was one of the greatest moments of my life.
    Thank you for writing this wonderful piece, and thanks, Frank, for giving us so many decades of amazing work.

  7. Kris says:

    If major museums can trot out exhibits of Norman Rockwell, they can sure as hell do the same for Frazetta — he's at least as influential as Rockwell.

  8. John McLain says:

    Frank, you will be missed. Many of us were touched and inspired by your work, whether fantastic, comic, or other. Thank you for blessing the world with your talent. For those of us who only have the images left, a Facebook Memorial has been formed:… Thank you again, for everything.

  9. The heroic moment with its frenzied energy and savage desperation that Frazetta captured again and again during his career was nothing less than brilliant. I have stared at his paintings countless times looking over each brushstroke, each design element and studied the method of its technique and yet it has a power beyond a painter's control and conscious understanding. Frazetta's magic touch with a brush seized the essence of myth in a manner that made it seem so effortless and intimate that you could smell the blood and sweat of its epic struggle and yet at the same moment be awestruck by how the artist pulled the curtain of legend aside and allowed you, a mere mortal, to stare at gods and monsters battling for a universe.

  10. richard igo says:

    definitely the apex of fantasy illustration. his works have adorned my humble walls since childhood. although i am saddened by his passing he will live on through his works that have inspired people for decades. r . i. p.

  11. Mark says:

    Frank was the artist I longed to be. While I was in art classes, people would ask me what artist I wanted to be like? I would always reply Frank Frazetta. My early sketch books are filled with images of work trying to replicate Frank's works. I was drawn to his artwork by reading the Conan paperback novels and then the covers of the band Molly Hatchet along with the posters that used to be sold at department stores. His work influenced me as a boy and a young man. He will be missed!

  12. Colette & Clayto says:

    My Husband Clayton, mother Marguerite, and I had the pleasure of meeting Frank Frazetta last year in July. Unfortunately Elle had passed the day before our visit. We came to visit the museum. Frank Frazetta is my husband’s inspiration for his artwork and has respected him as one of the great artists ever. We had seen the note on the museum door that Elle had passed and we met another couple that came from Florida who also came to visit the museum. Frank had overheard us talking and came out of the house to talk to us. We extended our deepest sympathy of the passing of Elle.
    He was apologetic that we came all that way and it was closed. He went inside the house and came out with the keys to the museum, but only had the key to the outside gate. We had thanked him and were ready to leave but, he invited us into his house to sit and visit him in his art studio. He said he has some artwork and hoped that would.
    Clayton was so amazed how down to earth he was and we had visited for about an hour. Clayton was able to ask questions he always wanted to ask about his art. That was the best gift for us to meet him and share some time with him.
    We will always cherish the time we were able to be with him, we will always hold a special place in our heart for him and will be missed greatly.
    We extend our deepest sympathy to the Frazetta family, even though he has passed away to be with the love of his life..Elle, his legacy will always be here forever.

  13. Mark Lukas says:

    Frazetta is the reason I became an artist. His work will forever influence me and (unfortunately) I feel his legacy may be relegated to that of a fan boy phenomenon rather than his true place as one of the greatest illustrators and painters of our time. I am saddened by his passing and by the thought that there are no more Frazetta illustrations or paintings coming that would transport me to his worlds of beautifully elegant savagery and adventure. You will be sorely missed Frank!

  14. Jim Wadsworth says:

    Mr Frazetta is deeply missed by people from all walks of life. His inspired artwork touched us all, transported us to new times, places and worlds. His vitality, spirit, and humor all sparkled in his work in vibrant colors, somber shadows and ethereal light that only true masters of painting and art can truly convey. He shared his thoughts and imagination with us and through his art, he will live forever, just as he does in the hearts of all who knew him, whether through his work or in person. Mr Frazetta and his lovely wife Ellie were devoted to each other and are together again, alive in spirit and smiling from Heaven, two bright stars in the sky. We miss you!

  15. Brian Siegel says:

    I knew Frank as a child Ellie (Eleanor Kelly was my baby sitter when she was a teenager). My mother was friends with Ellie's mother in Brooklyn. I remember Frank and Ellie's wedding in which my mother, fater and I were invited in Tappens in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. Frank and Elllie stuggled in the fifties, he made his bread and butter money in those days by doing comic srtips Lil Abner for Al Capp. He used to get the stick figures afor the weekly comics and he filled them in and created the characters in the comic strip. He got $50/strip and he probably did about 5 a week. He and Ellie lived in Bensonhurst then and he also had a separate apartment as a studio. I remember I was 10 years old at that time and he let me watch him paint in the studio with the models, but for the most part in those days Ellie posed for a lot of his work. Frank and Ellie then bought a house in Sheephead Bay and then Long Island. He also took me bowling and taught me how to play baseball as a kid. Incidentally, he graduated from Lincoln HS where he played on the HS Baseball team that was his 2nd love. If he didn't become an artist he would have tried that 1 in million chance to become a professional Baseball player. He took me to an auction in Manhattan as a kid and bought the African shields and spears he used for his paintings and the work he did for Tarzan books, oh Ellie was the model for it. The last time I saw him and Ellie and the kids was in Long Island, I just got out of the Navy and my wife, son and I visited them. No matter what he was still a guy from Brooklyn and we had that camaraderie. I followed Frank and his career and he left a legacy for future generations of young artist to evolve…with his artistic talent.

  16. phillips2u2 says:

    His art work taught me so much!

  17. Shelley Austin says:

    I just found out about his passing. What an inspiration he was to me as a young artist. He is still inspiring young artists today as I see their work I see Frazetta. He was and continues to be the best of our time.

  18. Anthony Triglia says:

    Anthony Triglia, in the mid 1960's i came home with a poster i liked and hung it in my bedroom, when i showed it to my dad althought hed never seen it before he immediately recognized it, my father John Triglia went to shool with a young boy that lived next door on E. 11th. Street Brooklyn N.Y., they played baseball along with their friends and did all the things young kids did exept for one young boy that would draw with chalk in the middle of the street, so enthralled in doing his art work hed forget about the on coming car traffic so my dad became his spotter watching for cars, yelling for the boy to get up off the asphalt, and on too many occasions literally having to grab him and drag him aside, that young boy was Frank Frazetta. In 2007 as a gift i took my dad to Pa. to visit the museum, both Frank and his wife were inviting, honest,down to earth individuals, it gave me great pleasure watching my dad and my fav. artist Frank Frazetta reminiscing,laughing,and testing one anothers memory….thank you Frank Frazetta, rest in peace.

  19. Dave Nielsen says:

    Although it's a shame that artistry like Frazetta's won't likely ever be appreciated by the "art community," it's not quite correct putting his work in the same class as that of the Duomo fresco. The difference is that Frazetta's work depicts in large part the fantasies of a pulp writer. While Christianity is just as fictional as anything Robert E. Howard came up with it at least had a reality for a large percentage of the population for centuries. That's the main difference. It's also necessary for that kind of thing to have been painted when it was – had it not been done, a fresco identical to it painted in the same place today wouldn't be considered art.

  20. Felix says:

    A little known fact Frazetta's influence made its way to graffiti artist like myself in the early 70's his works made a very powerful impression on some graffiti artist.

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