Interview with Frank Frazetta- Seconds #29 (1994)

flexes his muscles

By Steven Cerio

FRANK FRAZETTA’s work doesn’t fall into an easily-definable category. It is at home on a paperback book cover or on a gallery wall. Though his subject matter is highly illustrative, reminiscent of Sunday supplements and Comic culture, its elegance and painterly qualities propel it into the realm of Fine Art.

Perhaps you know Mr. Frazetta because of his seminal cover art from Vampirella #1. Or perhaps you go back far enough to remember the days when Frank’s paperback covers for Edgar Rice Burrough’s extensive Tarzan series screamed out from every book rack in America. It was those kinetic covers, through their erotic implications, that put Frank on the map.

To some aficionados, Frazetta is the Michelangelo of modern Fantasy Art. Frank’s romanticized versions of the human form, culled from men’s magazines and old children’s books, were lushly erotic and scantily clad. When his style coalesced a few decades ago, its highly-exploitive element was regarded as a necessary evil of the marketplace. But in these days of bulimic babes, are Frazetta’s big-bosomed broads still welcome?

If you want swords and sluts, Frazetta’s got’em. He’s made his mark drawing multitudes of savagely heroic figures in dynamic poses. Never passive, the figures fight one another with sensuous abandon and are provocatively attacked bye wild animals. In bringing the world of Tarzan and Robert E. Howard’s Conan to life, Frank improved upon the titillating and vulnerable vixens who populated the soft-core Eisenhower era.

At sixteen, Frazetta had Snowman, his first Comic, published by his employer, Talley-ho Comics. Soon thereafter he drew covers for Buck Rogers and was the ghost hand for Al Capp, creator of Lil’ Abner. Early in Playboy’s history he helped piece together Hefner’s Little Annie Fannie. As the paperback book market peaked, Frank did the work which would gain him fame. But it was his work for Creepy and Eerie that brought him into mainstream Pop Culture.

Frank’s album covers for Molly Hatchet and Dust brought him into the Rock & Roll spotlight. His images sailed smoothly into the collective unconscious of America, as evidence by the wide array of Frazetta tattoos, posters, and Seventies van murals world-wide.

Frazetta has the extraordinary ability to guide the viewer’s eye by focusing and unfocusing on chosen elements within a composition. This technique creates a picture plane which mimics the focal capabilities of the human eye. Objects on the periphery are blurred, indistinct, while the central image snaps with clarity. Such masterly touches have imbued Frank’s works with great financial value – for example rumor has it that his paintings have recently sold for a quarter of a million dollars.

Despite massive popularity over the decades, Frank’s current show at New York’s Alexander Gallery is the first public showing of his works ever outside of his own estate in East Stroudsberg, PA.

At this point in his career, Frazetta is the unchallenged master of the Sword & Sorcery genre. Many other artists have come under his influence – for example, Boris Vallejo, Richard Corbin, Barry Windsor Smith, and Bernie Wrightson. But when Frazetta pulls out the stops, the hero triumphs and the blood flows freely!

SECONDS: Where do you see yourself on the art continuum? How do you categorize yourself?

FRAZETTA: I’d like to think of the quality of my work as fine art. On the other hand, I’m in the wrong field. That’s because of people and their judgments. If you illustrate a book, you’re an illustrator. I’d like to think of Fine Art as being what it sounds like – fine. Quality. There are fine artists that do Comics, there are fine artists that do classical art, there are fine artists that do illustration and yet, if they’re in a certain field they think of themselves as fine artists when they could be terrible artists.

SECONDS: It’s that adjective then.

FRAZETTA: I think so. It’s the quality of art that counts. Whether it has all the great elements that make great art: the color, the design, the composition, the emotion it creates, all those things. If it doesn’t do that, I don’t care how skillfully done it is.

SECONDS: Who were some of your influences earlier on?

FRAZETTA: Everyone. All the masters that ever lived, many illustrators, and certainly guys who did Comics. Foster would be my main influence. From the sublime to the ridiculous I go from Foster to Sega, who did design. Even though Foster did Popeye, I thought he was a brilliant artist. His ability to simplify and tell a story, that’s a great artist. Then you go to the masters who rendered and painted beautifully but told no story at all. It was contrived, it was obvious that they just posed models and weren’t very excited about it, in spite of the skillful approach. Sure it’s great but so what? It leaves me if I have to sit there and wonder about the application of paint. It means nothing. I’d rather look at Harvey Kurtzman. On the other hand, certain classical artists like Goya had magic and power. That’s my own personal judgment. Unfortunately, there’s a million people in this world that have been brainwashed and have to be told what’s good and what isn’t.

SECONDS: How do you feel about abstract painters?

FRAZETTA: There’s a lot of abstract quality in my work. Abstracts are painted for the sake of creating patterns. That leaves me cold. I like some abstract art. If the design is wonderful and has some pizazz I can enjoy it.

SECONDS: I don’t see much Mondrian in your work.

FRAZETTA: Not really. I refuse to put on pretenses about what’s intellectual and what isn’t. For many, many years, anything that was representational was considered corny and old hat. They could be right about that but people that just jump from good drawing to abstract could be copping out. It’s nonsense.

SECONDS: The argument is that the abstract artists thought they were the ones acting directly on your psyche.

FRAZETTA: If it’s calculated and deliberate and there’s a certain intelligence behind it and assuming they paid their dues in the first place, that they did go through the fundamentals of drawing and found it boring and were looking for other avenues, fine. But don’t sit there with your finger up your ass and pretend you’re a genius. I don’t buy it. I’m very capable of painting abstract but I’d just be kidding people. What would I prove? That I can design wonderful shapes?

SECONDS: It ends up being sort of intellectual masturbation.

FRAZETTA: You said that, I didn’t. The subject I do is so hokey and yet entertaining but some of my fanatical fans like Dave Winiewicz have looked beyond that. I was doing a lot of things. I tried to appeal to the masses and at the same time inject little subtleties that would appeal to the intellectuals around. They did see past the obvious. If you look at the background, that’s what makes my work go on and on. Many people, even the fans, don’t realize why they keep enjoying it. It’s like abstract music, you don’t quite understand but because it’s so varied you keep enjoying it and you never get tired of it. There’s a lot going on in my art besides the superhero standing there doing his thing. It’s the way I lead into it, the way I move you around, not just a heroic figure looking wonderful. At least that’s the way I like think about it. I like to compare myself to Stravinsky. When he wrote The Rite Of Spring he went out in left field and people said, “What the hell is that?” To this day, I’ve never tired of that piece.

SECONDS: I’ve always sensed a real fluidity in your brush strokes. It always kind of reminded me of Sargent. Despite the fact you’d have a giant warrior on a horse, it seemed to have a calming effect on me.

FRAZETTA: I’m trying to make people feel wonderful. It’s not meant to create menace or anything like that. I try to be as tasteful as I can with everything I do and make it beautiful, in spite of the mayhem. I’d like to think that even my battle scenes are not ugly. It’s a beautiful piece to look at and you soon forget what it means and you start enjoying it for all these other reasons. That takes time, it takes study. Nobody went to art school and learned it all in a day. I developed as I went on and on and began to be more deliberate about what I was doing. The stuff I did earlier was just as good but it was more instinctive. I just had sense of design, composition, and movement. The fact that I could draw well didn’t hurt. I did a painting that almost approaches surrealism and it won an award and I kind of predicted it would. That one was called “Downward To The Earth.” I just went out on a limb with that. I said, “I’m going to prove a point here,” and I knew that a certain element of people would enjoy it. On the other hand, I realize the majority of my fans would say, “What happened to Frank?”

SECONDS: Do you often do un-Frazetta-like paintings?

FRAZETTA: I do but it generally fails commercially, although my peers enjoy the hell out of them. I don’t pretend this is a deep hunger in me. I do love shapes, wonderful moving shapes, moving your head around just like great music does. You don’t know what certain combinations of sounds feel good but they do. I think it all depends on your intelligence level. People on a certain level always seem to agree on a combination of sounds in music or a combination of colors and shapes in art. Then you get a lower element and you’re down to some lower level and they find another area that entertains them. It just depends on what they understand. I was a crazy guy, I tried to make everybody happy. You see that my fans range from ten to one-hundred-and-ten. That’s tough to do.

SECONDS: Do you work from life of photographs?

FRAZETTA: I work from my head.

SECONDS: Uh-huh.

FRAZETTA: There’s a lot of people that are very skeptical about that but go to the show and ask any artist who’s watched me work and they’re amazed. It comes out of nowhere. Not that I never have referred to a pose myself, there have been many times, but generally speaking, every Death Dealer painting I’ve ever done has come out of nowhere. I could pick out on the fingers of my hand the number of times where I might have posed or my wife might have posed. That was generally when I had a problem with lighting, never the drawing, never action.

SECONDS: The reason I asked that was because of how you keep your backgrounds abstract and washed away. I assumed that was because you were using photographic reference.

FRAZETTA: Not at all. I am a dyed-in-the-wool shutterbug but it never does a thing for my art. I never use it. Unfortunately, I have watched artists refer to models and photography and become enslaved by it. Next thing you know they can’t draw, can’t think. It’s an absolute fact. They get so damn lazy. They find using the model and photographs made the painting look very realistic and they become entranced by that fact. That’s precisely what I don’t want. I want it to look dreamlike, I want it to look made-up, I want it to look unreal. If I start getting lazy simply because I’m frightened of making mistakes, I’m done. Sure, sometimes I have to struggle because I’m trying to solve problems with my noodle but I have this great drawing ability which helps a lot. And this imagination I can’t explain.

SECONDS: With the subjects in your paintings, you seem to have a set body type. Are those based on your own idealized body types or is that because it’s fantasy work?

FRAZETTA: We all have personal likes and dislikes and I love a certain body type in women and men and in creatures and lizards and dinosaurs. I’d like to think that I break it down to the perfect machine, whatever it may be. There’s a certain physical type, a certain look, in a heroic figure of a guy that just is the ultimate. I have a very personalized woman, as you know. You’ve seen my women, they kind of look alike. I’ve tried to escape from that and I was never happy. I’d make a perfectly nice rendering of a female and it would just make me unhappy. “I don’t love her.” She’s got to have a certain look, those eyes that I love.

SECONDS: I’m sure you know what a great impact you’ve had on Fantasy Art.

FRAZETTA: I’m aware of everything that goes on out there. Everything. I’ve seen my imitators and the rest and it’s wonderful, I’m glad. They’ve talked to me about it and I tried to tell them, “You have to do your own thing for your own joy.” Their answer is, “That’s easy for you to say, Frank.” I guess what they’re saying is that they don’t see what I see. I just see, I visualize very clearly. The minute somebody says, “Here’s a job we want you to do” –bang! There’s the image, right between the eyes. I see it and begin to move it around in my head. I not only see it vividly, I begin to select the perfect perspective in my mind’s eye. That’s something I have that I couldn’t possibly teach or explain away. I’ve always had that ability.

SECONDS: Is it challenging for you to illustrate other people’s ideas?

FRAZETTA: Not really. A lot of my most successful works are my own ideas in the first place. Death Dealer and many things I’ve done over the years, I just did what popped into my head and they wrote stories around it. Conan was a commissioned work. They told me about his character and I began to visualize this character as I speed-read through the first few chapters. I went right ahead and developed this character that didn’t even barely resemble Howard’s description at all. Quite a different guy. It was what I thought a barbarian should look like, the ultimate barbarian. His description was quite different. He was leaner with tousled hair and hawkish features. I instead saw a bruised, battered, scarred, monster of a guy. That’s just the way I felt a guy should look like at this point. Once again, it’s all personal. My interpretation of the feeling I get from it. I’m prone to develop characters every day. I just sit there and create images that are powerful, sensual, whatever I’m in the mood to do.

SECONDS: What’s the strongest reaction you’ve ever seen anyone have to your work?

FRAZETTA: Catgirl is certainly high on this list. Death Dealer, some of those. I’ve never seen a whole publishing place go crazy as the day I brought in the first Conan painting. That was an interesting story. They commissioned me to do it and as usual I waited to the last minute. They called the day before it was due in and said, “Frank, how’s it coming?” At this point they had confidence in what I was doing. “By the way, what’s the concept?” I said, and I was being very facetious, “It’s a portrait.” There was silence at the other end. They had their own ideas, the obvious approach, a battle scene. They said, “A portrait?” In any event, I sat down and bashed it out in a day, brought it in, the place was in an uproar. They went crazy, they were drinking champagne. I even predicted it would turn the world of illustration upside down. Kind of arrogant, isn’t it? I knew it was a new look, nobody had ever seen something quite like it before. Maybe I just sensed the world was ready for something like that. Typical of me, after the Fourth or Fifth painting I was bored. I just don’t like chewing my cabbage over and over.

SECONDS: Do you think you would have stayed doing Comics?

FRAZETTA: No way. I always loved to paint and work with color. When I was younger there was no market. You either painted for galleries or you told stories in Comics. Then suddenly there was Science Fiction and I saw a market for what I liked to do. Create strange, wonderful images and tell a story, and there I went. But Comics are fine too because you can draw a panel after panel and tell stories. I love telling stories and now I do it in one page. I like to think that my paintings have a beginning, middle, and end when you look at them. That’s what separates it from illustration. Illustration is a design to lure you into buying a book, it leaves you hanging. “Gee, that looks interesting. I wonder what that means?” I want them to look at my cover and say, “I don’t care what the hell’s in the book. I’m not even going to read it. I just want to cut out the drawing.”

SECONDS: I actually did that to your books when I was a kid. I never read the books you did covers for.

FRAZETTA: You see. It’s complete. You look at it and know what’s happening and you love it for the sheer artistry of it. Who the hell cares what the book is about?

SECONDS: Do you read much?

FRAZETTA: No. I did when I was younger. Now, every time I decide, “Maybe I should read once in a while,” I realize I’m wasting my time. Why sit there hour after hour when I could do a painting in that time? Which would you do? But I used to when I was younger and I didn’t do this stuff. I read books from the library and stuff like that. Nothing very profound, just a lot of animal stories.

SECONDS: What do you think of the state of Comics now?

FRAZETTA: I don’t like what I see at all. I look at it and I don’t understand it. I don’t know exactly where they go. It’s a huge ego trip. “Look at how I can design these crazy panels, look at this great coloring, look at these great effects.” Everything is special effects. I hate special effects! I’m a purist. Do your panel a step at a time and get involved, like a great movie. What is with these special effects? The young kids, they love it. But what do they know?

SECONDS: I was just looking at your Vampirella stuff the other day and it’s just like, “Here you go, here it is.”

FRAZETTA: Yeah, I want you to identify with it. I want you to know what you’re looking at and understand it. If I can look at art in Comics and not understand it, something’s wrong.

SECONDS: I see a psychedelic influence from the Sixties coming back.

FRAZETTA: Sure, fireworks on stage, what the hell does it have to do with music? I go back to Frank Sinatra and Forties, when music was beautiful and romantic –I’m and old guy. It was romantic and grabbed you by the heartstrings. Suddenly they’re screeching and hollering and they’re half-naked on stage. Every one of them has a guitar –what the hell is this? It’s not a question of how skillful you are anymore, it’s a question of how crazy you are. I don’t buy that. That’s bullshit. Same with art. Even at this late date I’m very capable of keeping up with these kids that do this nutty stuff. I just wouldn’t let myself do it. I want it to be beautiful and I have my own ideas of what I think is beautiful and there’s an awful lot of people that feel the way I do. I don’t try to appeal to the masses and the assholes just because there’s more of them, I could care less.

SECONDS: What do you think of the state of fantasy covers right now?

FRAZETTA: It’s pretty boring I think. If you ask any of the artists, they blame someone else. “This is what the editor told us to do, this is the effect they want, skulls all over the place.” What happened to pure art?

SECONDS: With your covers, I’ve never seen anyone use type to compete with your images.

FRAZETTA: I’ll kill them. I wish I could agree with you but they’ve screwed up so many. You got some of these art directors that just didn’t like me and decided to do me one better. They’d crop a cover I designed beautifully – bigger is better with these guys. Zoom in close – wait a minute, I had a whole lot going on out there. “What’d you do that for, you nut?” They just loused up the composition just to get a close shot. That irritated the hell out of me. I didn’t waste all my time in that space for nothing.

SECONDS: Are you happy with this new book of pencil drawings that Glenn Danzig’s company put out?

FRAZETTA: Do you like it?

SECONDS: Oh, it’s beautiful.

FRAZETTA: In spite of the great printing, the originals still blow it away. Something got lost in the reduction. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the quality, it’s gorgeous, but in the reduction it made it look tighter. In the originals they’re looser and more fun to look at.

SECONDS: It stood out as some of the better printings of pencils.

FRAZETTA: Oh it is! It’s great. I’m only saying the originals are more fun to look at.

SECONDS: Do you see yourself in the Met in the future?

FRAZETTA: I don’t plan on that but if some people want to take the ball and run with it, that’s fine with me. I thought I’d be long dead before anybody really saw what I did. It’s pretty hard to crack that are brainwashed. I like to think of them as brainwashed. I’ll be the first to tell them too. I think I’m a pretty good judge of what great art is, I’ve studied it all my life, I went to art school – a Fine Art school, I might add – and learned all the do’s and don’ts. It’s not like I’m some dunce that grew up doing Comics. I had Fine Art training and found most people had no talent. They just sat there and painted a still life or posed someone and that was it. I saw no creativity, I saw no pure talent. Okay, maybe they got pretty good with a brush, maybe the color was interesting, but what does it boil down to? Style and technique, period. I have to be creative. I have to create images that knock your socks off. I want images that have never been seen before and then paint them with the style and technique. That’s what I try to do. I try to have people say, “That’s incredible! I’ve never seen anything like it. I am really moved.”