Guillermo del Toro, Neal Adams and John Milius remember Frank Frazetta in this longer version of the obituary I wrote for Tuesday’s edition of the Los Angeles Times.
Frank Frazetta, the fantasy painter and illustrator whose images of sinewy warriors and lush vixens graced paperback novels, album covers and comic books for decades and became something close to the contemporary visual definition of the sword-and-sorcery genres, died Monday after suffering a stroke the night before. He was 82.
Frazetta had gone out to dinner with his daughters Sunday and then had a stroke at his home in Boca Grande, Fla. He died at Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers, Fla., his manager Rob Pistella told the Associated Press.
Frazetta’s most famous works were in oil, but his canvases were rarely seen in museums; instead his barbarians and warlocks reached out to readers from book covers on dime-store spinner racks. But as comic books and fantasy entertainment gained a wider audience in the 1970s and ’80s, Frazetta became a brand name, and his original artwork became a sensation. Last November, one of his pieces, a berserk battlefield image that graced a “Conan the Conqueror” paperback, sold for $1 million to a private collector.
John Milius, the screenwriter whose credits include “Apocalypse Now,” “Clear and Present Danger“ and “Red Dawn,” was the director and co-writer of “Conan the Barbarian,” the 1982 film that was based on the warrior character created by pulp writer Robert E. Howard in 1932. Milius said Monday that it was Frazetta’s muscular paintings of Conan that defined the character for him and modern generations of fans.
“Not that I could ever redo Frazetta on film — he created a world and a mood that are impossible to simulate — but my goal in ‘Conan the Barbarian’ was to tell a story that was shaped by Frazetta and Wagner,” Milius said. “Frazetta’s work is classified as illustration and there’s a connotation that goes with that, that it’s somehow lesser, but I think there are few artists in recent generations — especially painters — whose work really stays with you. I would compare Frazetta to Maxfield Parrish or Frederic Remington. These are the kinds of artists who work goes forward. The number of imitators alone speak to their talent.”
Frazetta was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Feb. 9, 1928. By age 8, he was studying at the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Art. One of his key influences was Hal Foster, the great comic-strip artist whose “Tarzan” became a compass point for Frazetta’s own scenes of jungle peril.
By 16, Frazetta was working in the booming field of illustration in New York. He toiled under Al Capp on “Li’l Abner” and on his own strip, “Johnny Comet” (later renamed “Ace McCoy“) in the early 1950s. In comic books, he worked on “The Shining Knight” and a western hero called “Ghost Rider,” but his fame would come with a paintbrush and in a more sensual sector when, in the 1960s, he began painting covers for paperbacks and magazines.
It was his covers for the “Conan” paperbacks of the 1960s, especially, that created a new overheated vision of fantasy realms. Later in life he told an interviewer that he didn’t find his strange beasts, sullen warriors or buxom maidens in the text of the books he fronted with his art.
“I didn’t read any of it,” Frazetta said. “I drew him my way. It was really rugged. And it caught on. I didn’t care about what people thought. People who bought the books never complained about it. They probably didn’t read them.”
Perhaps, but the readers of those Conan books — as well as the work Frazetta did on “Tarzan,” “John Carter Warlord of Mars” and “Vampirella“— said they found the words and pictures melded with a resonant power.
Guillermo del Toro, the Oscar-nominated co-writer of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which he also directed along with the “Hellboy” films, said that Frazetta was nothing less than “an Olympian artist that defined fantasy art for the 20th century.” The filmmaker, reached Monday in New Zealand where he is working on a two-film adaptation of “The Hobbit,” said Frazetta’s influence is difficult to explain to people outside the fantasy world, just as Norman Rockwell would be an elusive figure to define for someone unfamiliar with the U.S. heartland.
“He gave the world a new pantheon of heroes,” the filmmaker said by e-mail. “He took the mantle from J. Allen St. John and Joseph Clement Coll and added blood, sweat and sexual power to their legacy…. He somehow created a second narrative layer for every book he ever illustrated.”
There were also rock album covers: Molly Hatchet, Nazareth, Yngwie Malmsteen and Wolfmother all tapped into the clanging combat and temptress imagery that sprung from Frazetta’s easel.
His long, restless career took him into Hollywood work, posters, animation, commercial art and almost every corner of American illustration. The artist’s final year had been a wrenching one; his wife and partner, Ellie Frazetta, died in July, setting off a dispute among the Frazetta children about the custody of their ailing patriarch and his art collection, which by some estimates was worth $20 million.
The quarrel reached a bizarre zenith in December when his son Alfonso “Frank Jr.” Frazetta used a backhoe to knock down a wall of a small castle-like building that housed much of his father’s premium artwork. That building was a mini-museum that sat on the elder Frazetta’s farm in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, and the bizarre invasion led to a criminal case, although charges were dropped during a recent settlement among the Frazetta siblings.
Neal Adams, perhaps the most celebrated living comic book artist, said he believed Frazetta was the rare individual who could bridge the vast gulf between fine art and pop illustration.
“There is no one who can fill the space left empty by the passing of Frank Frazetta,” Adams said Monday. “Few have studied Classic Renaissance oil painting and applied it so successfully. Few can draw outward from deep within their gut; very few can actually paint and draw man/woman sexual allure; nearly none can tell a story with oil paint that lets you know what is actually in the muscle and sinew of the artist.”
Besides his son Frank Jr., Frazetta is survived by another son, William; two daughters, Heidi Frazetta Grabin and Holly Frazetta; and 11 grandchildren.
— Geoff Boucher
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Photo: A vintage photo of Frank Frazetta at work. Artwork: Frazetta’s work through the years on Conan, the newspaper strip Ace McCoy and album covers. Credit: Photo and images courtesy of Lance Laspin and Cinemachine, makers of the documentary film “Frazetta: Painting with Fire.”
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