Frank Frazetta: What He Meant To Me

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Many, many things have been said about Frank Frazetta’s work over the past five decades. Some of those quotes can be accessed here. What I want to write about is how Frank’s work and his life affected me over the past thirty-plus years. The influence of both was profound.

Unlike some, I did not come upon Frazetta’s work via the covers of Robert E. Howard paperbacks (or vice versa). The Lancers were out of print and Ace had not started republishing those volumes. I discovered Frank Frazetta’s art on the side of a van. A big, groovy 1970s van sitting in a K-Mart parking lot. Frazetta’s Silver Warrior was airbrushed on the side. While not a perfect reproduction, it was plenty close enough to the original to blow my young mind.

That powerful, transcendant image haunted my thoughts for the next few months. Then I saw it again, this time in a tee-shirt stand at the Labette County Fair. This outfit had a sizeable collection of various iron-ons (like I said, it was the late ’70s) which could then be applied to a shirt of the customer’s choice. Using hoarded quarters from my weekly allowance, I chose Silver Warrior on a sky-blue tee. I wore that shirt all the time, to my mother’s exasperation. I outgrew it/wore it to shreds in about a year, but I never outgrew my love for Frazetta’s work. No way.

I then strove to become as expert on Frank Frazetta as possible. With my very limited resources, that consisted of haunting book-racks looking for his covers. Luckily, Frank’s art appeared on plenty of ERB and REH book covers during the next few years. I quickly developed a keen eye for differentiating Mr. Frazetta’s work from that of other painters used to fill the artistic void created by the fact that Frank couldn’t paint covers for every fantasy book out there. Still, I wanted to know what the man behind all of that incredible artwork was like.

Around 1980, I caught a break.  A short-lived magazine called Questar ran a cover story on Frank. That article did a good job of providing a thumbnail sketch of Frank’s life and career, complete with quotes from the man himself. Plus, it reproduced Frazetta’s Destroyer painting, which I still consider the best overall depiction of REH’s Cimmerian in action. As you might have guessed, I read that article a hundred times or more.

What I got from that Questar article was a picture of an intensely creative, self-confident artist. Frank was a child prodigy from the mean streets of Brooklyn who attended a fine arts academy at the age of eight. He was a good enough baseball player to get an offer from the New York Giants, but turned it down to pursue his Muse. Frank was a man who did things his way and he had the talent to make his dreams come true. I was absolutely astounded when I found out that many of his classic paintings had been wrought in a few days or hours.

A few years later, Jim Steranko’s Prevue magazine ran a story on Frazetta’s Fire and Ice movie project. The interview in that article simply strengthened first impressions. Here was a man in control of his destiny, doing what he wanted to do. Frank was still athletic enough in his mid-fifties to put the movie’s stunt-men through their paces. By that point, it was pretty hard not to come to the conclusion that there wasn’t anybody else on the planet like Frank Frazetta.

Another thing I brought away from various articles was the close relationship that Frank had with his wife, Ellie. It became plain that she was an integral part of Frank’s life and success. A good man knows a good woman when he finds her. Frank Frazetta was a good man.

Later in the ’80s I picked up books like The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta and Frank Frazetta: The Living Legend. Besides the jaw-dropping art, both books gave more glimpses of the master behind it all. Still, it seemed like Frank hadn’t been doing much new work. Seeing the older stuff was grand, but what was going on? It would not be revealed until the 1990s that Frank was fighting a thyroid condition that nearly killed him.

The twenty-first century really brought some great things to Frazetta fans. Underwood Books published Icon, Legacy and Testament. All three art books presented some very hard-to-find pieces and yours truly was most thankful.

Then the documentary, Painting With Fire, was released. Actual footage of Frank himself. In-depth looks at his friends and family. A treasure trove for anyone wanting a real view of this artistic titan. To me, the most poignant moments were when Frank discussed surviving his thyroid condition and five strokes. I always knew that Frank could handle himself in a street-fight, but here was a true test for his indomitable spirit. Most people, if they survive it, are invalids after one stroke. Frank Frazetta came back from five and continued to create, teaching himself to use his left hand. That’s a true warrior right there.