Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Was anyone ever better at doing Frank than Frank? Hell, no.
For me it was the Ace Tarzan paperback covers from the early '60's. If that wasn't what Tarzan and his world looked like, then what was? The colors, the elegance of the Frazetta line, the design, and of course the musculature. That ridiculous anatomy, where every living thing looked as if steroids grew on steroid trees, and the trees were in Frank's backyard. Even the big cats, the lions, the tigers, the panthers looked like they worked out at the cat gym every day.
After the Tarzans were the Conan covers. If anything, Conan took Frank even further into the savage realm than Tarzan. Remember, Tarzan was an English lord, despite the whole ape thing. But Conan, well, he was something else. Barely civilzed, barely human. A kind of primal fighting machine, unstoppable, amoral, invincible. Frank got the whole thing right. Conan's women even seemed more savage, and Frank definitely got the whole big butt thing way before the rappers did.
At the same time, his great painting of Ringo Starr for the Mad back cover came out, as well as the first issue of Creepy Magazine. By then, every kid my age into comics knew who Frazetta was.
Later on when I interned in comics, I found out he had a past. Funny animal comics, Buck Rogers and most importantly, the Lil' Abner Sunday strips that were ghosted by Frank but still signed by Al Capp.
I also learned more: that all the men in Frazetta paintings are Frank, that he had the single coolest signature in all of illustration (even better than Norman Rockwell's- yeah, I said it), that he never sold his paintings, only the reproduction rights, that the paint on them was very thin, almost like watercolor (they were oils), that he could paint a Frazetta in about four hours and that he would copy his existing paintings if there were enough demand. Okay, I don't know for certain how true all that is, but I think there's something there.
Self- portraiture in comics is not unique. In fact, it's very common. Example: Ben Grimm is Jack Kirby. In fact, all those Kirby monsters are rooted in Jack's self- image. But especially Brooklyn tough guy Ben Grimm. It didn't really matter that Jack was a little guy (more like Scrapper in the Newsboy Legion), what mattered was that this was how Jack saw himself.
The thing is, all of Frank's guys really did look a lot like Frank. I don't think his beloved wife Ellie was the model for all those incredible princesses or queens, but hey, I could be wrong. I did try to find some of the Abner strips where Frank introduces a character completely based on himself, but for once, the internet did not provide. The books are available on Amazon if you want proof. Plus, they're great.
There's no real need to go into his bio any further- plenty of stuff out there and a great New York Times obituary. So let's just say goodbye to a guy that my old friend Howard Chaykin once described as "the best cover guy in the business", and do what Frank would have wanted: let's look at the pictures.