Frank Frazetta was an American artist known primarily for his fantasy-based artwork. His work has graced the covers of many books and magazines, as well as movie posters. While he didn’t do much work surrounding Tolkien, he did produce a series of illustrations for The Lord of the Rings (which are some of my all-time favorite pieces of artwork).
He was born in 1928 in Brooklyn, New York, and when he was younger than three years old, he sold his grandmother a crayon drawing for a penny (which was enough for him to buy a handful of candy!). Through this, she showed him that there was money to be made in art and encouraged him and always showed an interest in his work.
At eight years old, his parents enrolled him in the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts (which only had about 30 students, with ages ranging from eight to eighty). After his professor, Michele Falanga, died, many of the students got together and paid for the school’s rent, and the school remained open for another year before it eventually closed.
While Frazetta still continued to draw and paint a little during his teen years, he became interested in other things, such as athletics, and was offered a contract to play for the New York Giants’ farm team, which he declined.
It wasn’t until he was 16 when he had his work published for the first time. This work was called Snowman, and later that year he completed a feature called Captain Kidd Jr. He got a break three years later from Graham Ingels, an illustrator, who gave him a feature called Judy of the Jungle, which led Frazetta to do others such as Thund’a and Dan Brand and Tipi.
For a long time, he wanted to be able to do the Tarzan comic strip, but didn’t take it when he was finally offered; the idea of becoming a comic strip artist had lost its appeal at that point. He met lifelong friend Roy Krenkel in the late 40s and admits Krenkel was one of his inspirations and the reason he became interested in painting covers for books and magazines.
He created covers for paperback books such as Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and Barsoom series. My father has many copies of these books sitting on his bookshelves, and admits the main reason he bought them was solely for the cover art. One of my favorite covers is from a novel called The Reassembled Man (NSFW) by Herbert D. Kastle. In addition, Frazetta created artwork for magazines like Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella, as well as movie posters, a couple examples of these being What’s New Pussycat? and Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet.
In 1975, the Middle Earth Portfolio Publishing Company in Denver, Colorado commissioned Frazetta to create a portfolio based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It includes seven ink illustrations, and in addition, Frazetta created an oil painting of Gollum for his own enjoyment. When the portfolio was released, many Tolkien fans didn’t have the best reactions towards it. In the book, Testament: The Life and Art of Frank Frazetta, it’s stated that “it ignited a firestorm of criticism from the legion of Rings fans who took issue with Frank’s liberal interpretation of the story. Accustomed to his versions of fantasy characters becoming definitive, he was somewhat mystified by the controversy surrounding the folio.” Frazetta responded with, “Wow, I thought the Burroughs fans were particular, but the Tolkien fans were really picky.” (Sadly there is not much information surrounding Frazetta’s interest in Tolkien.) One thousand sets of the portfolio were printed, numbered, and signed by the artist. Unfortunately, while I don’t have an official set from the signed 1000, I do have prints of the portfolio, and they’re one of my favorite parts of my Tolkien collection. The artwork is different from how we are normally used to seeing Tolkien’s world, and I admit that the armor he created for Éowyn probably isn’t the most logical choice for battle, but I personally love Frazetta’s take on it.
In 1983, he released a movie called Fire and Ice with Ralph Bakshi, and a lot of the story and characters were created by Frazetta himself. (Many Tolkien fans will recognize the name Ralph Bakshi, as he directed the animated version of The Lord of the Rings in 1978.)
Frazetta had a few museums, the first one originating in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, but according to the Frank Frazetta Museum website, it is currently closed. As he got older, photography became a larger part of his life; he owned several cameras and used his own darkroom to develop his work. In 2003, a film documenting his life and career called Frazetta: Painting with Fire was released. In it, artists such as Neal Adams and Bill Stout, director Ralph Bakshi, as well as former late editor for Famous Monsters of Filmland, Forrest Ackerman (along with more people), discuss Frazetta and his influence in art.
Frank later suffered from several strokes, causing him to lose ability in his dominant hand, but eventually switched and taught himself to use his left hand. For him to be able to paint beautifully with his non-dominant hand is absolutely amazing! That takes a lot of determination and practice and I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of work that took.
On May 10, 2010, Frazetta died from a stroke at the age of 82, and a month later one of his original artworks for Weird Science-Fantasy No. 29 issue was sold for $380,000. This set the record for the largest amount of money paid for a comic book page by an American artist. Additionally, during San Diego Comic-Con in 2012, Frazetta’s original 1971 oil painting called Conan the Destroyer was sold for $1.5 million!
While Frazetta very rarely talked about his work, Dave Winiewicz, a Frazetta historian, asked if he could put into words how he felt about his career. In response, Frazetta wrote in The Burroughs Bulletin:
“I would consider myself to be a creative artist, not just a fantasy illustrator. I work purely from my imagination with swipe flies or photographs sitting by my easel while I paint. I stress good composition and a sense of design that borders on the abstract in spite of the subject matter. When people look back on my art, no one is ever going to say that I was the best draftsman who ever lived. And they’re not going to say that I painted the most beautiful women or the most heroic figures. But I think they’ll say that I made the most unbelievable things believable: that standing in front of one of my paintings caused a suspension of disbelief. Achieving that wasn’t done with style or color or technique; it was achieved with attitude, with a look, with a gesture. Imagination is all of it and I firmly believe that is what I’ll be remembered for.”
My own father is a huge fan of Frank Frazetta, and over the years I’ve become very familiar with his art. Frazetta was able to create such incredible worlds within his paintings and illustrations in such an original way; he went above and beyond. His work has an incredible impact on today’s concept of fantasy-based artwork. When Frazetta died, A Song of Ice and Fire’s author, George R.R. Martin said, “One of the giants of SF and fantasy art. In his heydey, it is said that having a Frazetta cover on your paperback would double your sales… Frazetta had a profound influence on many artists who came after him as well, some of whom went on to become giants in their own right.” I’d consider Frazetta to be one of the best fantasy artists of the 20th century, if not of all time.
For more information about Frank Frazetta and his art, visit the Frank Frazetta Museum website.
When I was a kid, I owned the first ten or more Creepys and Eeries, Frazetta’s art was on several of them. I wish to God I still had those mags. !!! That seems like light years ago!
PS thanks for this it’s good to see Frank being remembered and acknowledged!
I’ve always thought Frazetta a gifted artist, though not always a fan of what was portrayed, especially as it’s led to the perpetuation of some of the worst stereotypes of sci-fi and fantasy.
All that said, a fine article in memory of a great and gifted man.