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Frank Frazetta: A Howard Artist for the Ages

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Frank Frazetta: A Howard Artist for the Ages

By S.C. Ringgenberg


Despite the fact that dozens of excellent artists have assayed their versions of Howard’s glowering Cimmerian barbarian, including Boris Vallejo, Joe Jusko, and Frazetta protégé Ken Kelley, Frank Frazetta remains the artist most closely associated with Conan. His Conan paintings, executed in the mid-60’s, and sometimes revised years later, remain the classic images of Conan. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most important one is Frazetta’s innate ability to convey unbridled savagery, something many of his imitators just couldn’t achieve. Another reason for this is: Frazetta really created a visual vocabulary for Conan, and, by implication, for the entire Hyborian Age. Of course, in discussing this aspect of Conan iconography it is fair to acknowledge, as Frazetta did, the contributions of Roy Krenkel. In the front matter of each of the Lancer Conan books for which he painted covers, Frazetta thanked Krenkel, listing him as a “Technical Advisor.” It’s safe to assume that with his broad knowledge of earlier illustrators, coupled with his knowledge of historical armaments and costumes, Krenkel was certainly an invaluable resource for Frazetta. It’s also reasonable to assume that Frazetta consulted with Roy Krenkel because of his superb sense of design and composition.

Above left: Roy G. Krenkel [1918-1983] Above right: Frank Frazetta [1928-2010] (


As Frazetta has acknowledged elsewhere, he collaborated with Krenkel on some previous paintings for the Ace Books series of Edgar Rice Burroughs reprints in the early 60’s. Frazetta assisted Krenkel on the paintings for The Mastermind of Mars, Back to the Stone Age, and Tarzan Triumphant. Frazetta was also an uncredited collaborator with Krenkel on his cover painting for the Airmont edition of The Wizard of Oz. And just to put Frazetta’s collaborations with Krenkel into context, the two men had been working alongside each since the ‘50s on comic book stories that  Al Williamson drew for EC Comics and other publishers. Frazetta also acknowledged that Krenkel provided some designs and sketches for Frazetta’s famous series of horror covers for Creepy and Eerie, done around the same time that Frazetta was doing the first Conan paintings. Frazetta also said that using Krenkel to generate cover ideas was a way to help his old friend make a few bucks when his own income was limited. Yet, whatever assistance Krenkel provided, the resulting paintings are vintage Frazetta, and became instant classics. They were, I submit, the definitive renditions of Conan (the opinions of the Howard estate aside). Other painters, cartoonists, even toy designers and filmmakers have endlessly copied Frazetta’s Conans.


Roy Krenkel, a peripheral contributor to Creepy and Eerie, worked up a series of pencil roughs which he passed on the Frazetta as possible cover ideas. (Krenkel’s pencil rough for Frazetta for Creepy #7)
As Conan the Barbarian (1983) director John Milius noted in an interview for Cinefantastique magazine (vol. 12, issues 2 & 3, 1982): “Frank Frazetta is the high priest of Conan…We were aware of this all the time we were shooting the film. He certainly was an influence on me. Frazetta’s Conan illustrations were more important to me than the books were.” The Conan paintings are among Frazetta’s most popular works. If the paintings that the Frazetta family still owns were put up for auction today, any one of them would command at least a million dollars, probably several millions. As far back as 1984, Frazetta was aware of the value of his work. “I’ve turned down offers of upwards of a hundred grand for any one of these,” he said, referring to the paintings on display in the first museum, “…and if you’re talking about the Conans, forget about it. It’s out of sight.”
John Milius and Larry Torro aka Rubber Larry's custom Conan the Barbarian Mask. 
 An autographed photograph from Arnold Schwarzanegger with his Canvas Print of Conan The Adventurer, gifted by Frazetta Girls.

In the intervening years, the Conan paintings, including The Destroyer, Frazetta’s impressively reworked painting for Conan the Buccaneer, have remained steady sellers as posters. The Destroyer is so popular that it has even been used as a patch design for a unit of the U.S. Army, for which the Army gave Frank a citation. Military types really seem enamored of Frazetta’s macho warrior images. His Death Dealer became the mascot of the U.S. Army’s III Corps in 1985, and in 2009, a larger-than-life-sized Death Dealer statue, dubbed “The Phantom Warrior” by the Army, was installed in front of III Corps’ headquarters at Fort Hood, Texas. Frazetta’s Conans are also finding new life and even greater popularity as limited-edition statues and collectible figures, even Frazetta Girls Christmas ornaments.


Clayburn Moore’s Conan the Barbarian statue 

Frazetta Conan Holiday Ornament by Frazetta Girls 

Sculptor Clayburn Moore’s Barbarian statue, based on Frazetta’s final version of the painting for Conan the Adventurer, is a magnificent rendition of the character in three dimensions. Two other Conan paintings, the cover for Conan the Conqueror, and the cover for the proposed but unwritten Sons of Conan book, provided the basis for two of the Frazetta Master’s series of collectible figures. Technically, the cover for Sons of Conan was never used for its intended purpose, and in The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta Book V, the painting was retitled Charging Huns. Although many fans don’t know this, there is still another, largely unseen Conan painting. Originally intended for a King Conan novel, it was never used because of Lancer Books’ demise. Unfortunately, the original was stolen from the Lancer offices back in the ‘60s and is still listed as a stolen painting with the FBI. King Conan has seen print however, as the cover of the 1975 bootleg fanzine The Frazetta Treasury, and was also included in the gallery of Conan paintings reprinted in Icon: A Frank Frazetta Retrospective (Underwood Books, 1998). Frazetta has also repainted the stolen canvas, and the repaint is better than the original. Yet, Conan is not the only Howard character Frazetta brought to life. His version of Bran Mak Morn for the eponymous Dell paperback is absolutely the definitive version of Howard’s dark Pictish king. For Lancer, Frazetta also did the cover for Wolfshead, a collection of unrelated short stories.

Bran Mak Morn artwork by Frank Frazetta

While the Wolfshead cover doesn’t depict a specific story or character in the collection, and, in fact, was originally intended to be the cover of Brak the Barbarian, it nicely captures the mystery and violence that imbues all of Howard’s heroic fantasy tales. Bran Mak Morn is one of Frazetta’s most powerful and trenchant depictions of barbarism. However, despite the power of this image, Ellie Frazetta once mentioned in passing that the painting is one of the least popular of Frazetta’s oils with his fans. Perhaps they were put off by the painting’s somber color scheme of earth tones, or the grim stillness of Bran’s advance. Personally, I love this painting. Frazetta’s image of Bran, a Pictish king at the head of his inexorably advancing barbarian horde, perfectly captures the moody and understated tone of Howard’s Pictish tales. Frazetta even includes a joke in the painting that most fans missed. Conan’s horned-helmeted head is visible on a pike in the background. So, once again, Frazetta scores a bull’s-eye. Though it must also be noted that Barry Winsor-Smith came close to the master with his melancholy watercolor painting of Bran, done for a color portfolio depicting half a dozen of Howard’s characters that was issued in the mid-70’s.

The onset of Frazetta’s health problems, first a misdiagnosed thyroid condition, and then a series of strokes precluded the creation of any new Conan artwork after he completed his repaint of the Conan of Aquilonia cover. Nevertheless, Frazetta’s work will, continue to be associated with Howard’s legendary barbarian, Bran, and indeed his entire oeuvre. As a case in point, Night Winds, a limited edition hardback of Howard’s poetry published in the 1970’s, which used a recycled painting of Lin Carter’s Thongor (a Conan imitator) as its wraparound dust jacket. Furthermore, there is the sumptuous Ultimate Triumph book issued by Wandering Star collecting some of Robert E. Howard’s barbarian fiction, poetry and letters, that boasts a Frazetta barbarian on its cover, and 120 illustrations inside, selected by the book’s editor and Frazetta collector David Winiewicz. Frazetta illustrating Howard seems a match made in heaven, even more so than Frazetta and Burroughs. Frazetta’s work is almost too muscular and dynamic for
Burroughs’ imaginative, though now somewhat quaint, Victorian fantasies. In the fanzine SquaTront #3, in Bob Barrett’s “Frazetta Collector” column, Frazetta echoed that sentiment, “Although I have enjoyed illustrating the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, I find them a bit slow and Victorian and the fans are too prone to condemn the artist if he hasn’t been faithful to the text. I much prefer illustrating the tales of Robert E. Howard. They are much stronger in mood and narration than those of Burroughs and allow a wider range of illustrative interpretations. As (J. Allen) St. John is remembered for ERB and Tarzan, I would like to be remembered for REH and Conan. I feel a certain sense of loss that Howard isn’t alive to appreciate what I’ve done with Conan.” One gets the feeling that Howard would have approved mightily of Frazetta’s version of his best character. He’s probably smiling down from Valhalla even now, toasting Frazetta’s vision with a horn flask full of mead, by Crom! And if he is, let’s hope that Frazetta is there with him.

Frank Frazetta pictured with his original artwork "Conan The Usurper" AKA Chained 

Earlier depictions of Conan from the pulp era and the Gnome Press editions from the 50s usually showed him resembling a fur-clad Norse barbarian or even clad in Roman armor. Wally Wood’s cover for The Return of Conan is a good example. It’s a fine painting, vigorous, and well drawn, but its depiction of Conan is too generic. Frazetta's Conan paintings were also originally intended to take Conan into fatherhood with the proposed Sons of Conan novel, and on into old age in King Conan. Despite the original art being stolen, that was not the end of the painting, however. It was never used as the cover for a Conan novel in the US, but since transparencies existed, one was used as the cover for the bootleg fanzine The Frazetta Treasury, and the painting also appeared in the UK, on the cover of the Sphere Books edition of Conan of Aquilonia.


Frazetta's Conan of Aquilonia

Frazetta's painting for Conan the Adventurer has subsequently become one of the most famous images in the annals of fantasy. Interestingly, Frazetta did two other Conans that were vaguely similar in their compositions, if not in their actual execution: Conan the Buccaneer and Conan the Warrior. Both show Conan battling atop a pile of enemy bodies. But the two works are distinctly different in look and in the moods they evoke. It must be noted that the next painting to consider, the cover for Conan the Warrior, retitled Indomitable for its issuance as a poster, is one of Frazetta's  favorite of the Conans. In Icon, Frazetta observed, “Most artists and art directors favor Conan the Warrior. The design makes it one of my personal favorites but I know it’s not as popular with the fans as my painting for the Adventurer. Interestingly, most book editors favor the cover for the Conqueror. Perhaps it’s more commercial. I don’t know.” That said, I have to break with the master on this painting. In my opinion, Conan the Warrior is Frazetta's least successful depiction of Conan.

While I can appreciate the power of Frazetta's overall design, and its painterly qualities, the small figure of Conan at the apex of the composition seems too blocky; the rendering on the figure looks too rushed, unfinished. To me, the central figures small size makes him too remote, too distant to evoke much of an emotional reaction from the viewer. Also, the rendering of the entire painting lacks the polish that makes the other Conans so frighteningly vivid. Frazetta's  usually impeccable color sense seems to have failed him here; the colors in the foreground are too muddy and drab to really grab the readers attention. To my eye, this is one painting that Frazetta should have taken back to the drawing board and reworked. “Well, these covers tend to be many things to many people,” Frazetta commented.


 However, the reworked Conan the Buccaneer painting, retitled The Destroyer fully justifies the additional time and thought Frazetta expended on it. He took a great painting and reworked it into a full-fledged masterpiece; arguably the best depiction of Howard's Cimmerian anti-hero done by any artist anywhere. In this powerful painting, Frazetta takes the same basic composition as Conan the Warrior and brings Conan down to a point just above the viewer's eye level and moves in so close you can almost feel the hot gore spattering on your face. Unlike the small, foreshortened figure in Conan the Warrior, this Conan is close enough that you can see the feral gleam of barbarism flashing in his eyes. To me, this is what Conan should look like: savage, implacable, like a coiled cobra ready to lash out in a burst of deadly speed. However, Indomitable is virtually the only weak link in the Conans. The rest of them rank among Frazetta’s very best work. Conan the Warrior does have power and energy; from any other painter, this would be a
noteworthy depiction of Howard’s character. In my opinion, Frazetta set his own bar so high with the other Conans that this piece suffers by comparison. The Destroyer takes virtually the same idea and expresses it in a far more forcefully, due in no small part to the more polished rendering that enhances the realism and brings home the violent nature of Conan’s world with inescapable ferocity. In looking at the evolution of Frazetta’s Destroyer it’s interesting as an example of Frazetta’s perfectionism and his habit of tinkering with paintings with which he’s dissatisfied. Although Frazetta’s fans can regret losing any of his paintings, his repaints were generally improvements over the originals.

Frank Frazetta's repaint of Conan The Buccaneer titled "The Destroyer"

 His reworkings of several Conan paintings are excellent examples of this. Frazetta’s first published version of The Adventurer, while a powerful, well-designed composition, is clearly unfinished. The version seen in volume one of The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta is one of the most definitive renderings of Conan. His reworking of the cover for Conan the Avenger is another example of a painting that was vastly improved by Frazetta’s tinkering. A comparison of the two versions shows that the artist extensively reworked the figure of Conan, greatly improving the anatomy and giving him a more brutal visage. For me, as for many fans of Howard’s sullen Cimmerian, Frazetta’s paintings crystallized our mental images of Howard’s most famous creation. Aside from The Death Dealer, the Conan paintings are arguably Frazetta’s best-known work, prized by his vast legion of fans, and lusted after by well-heeled collectors, including Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, who paid one million dollars to own Conan the Conqueror back in 2009. In 2010, an un-named collector shelled out 1.5 million dollars to own Conan the Destroyer and prices have only gone through the stratosphere since then. To cite an unrelated example of how the value of Frazetta’s best work has increased. Frazetta's daughter, Holly Frazetta sold the Egyptian Queen painting recently for a record-breaking 5.4 million dollars, and A Princess of Mars sold in 2020 for 1.2 million dollars.  Although Frazetta was not approached to do a new Conan painting for the movie poster. for Conan the Barbarian, the more reworked version of The Barbarian was used to promote it in Europe. Copies of this poster are highly sought after among American Frazetta fans.

Frazetta's Conan the Conqueror AKA Berserker

It would be fair to say that Frank Frazetta’s body of work depicting Howard’s characters, including Conan and Bran Mak Morn, are the most influential on the artists who have followed him. Frazetta’s Conan is important not simply in the context of Frazetta’s justly famous oeuvre, but also because he laid the groundwork for all subsequent visualizations of the character, and for much of the sword and sorcery art that followed his. The costuming, weaponry, settings, and physical depictions of the characters have all been studied, emulated, and sometimes outright swiped from his works.
But while Frazetta’s are the definitive renditions of Howard’s characters, it should also be noted that a number of excellent artists have made significant contribution to the visual canon of Howard and Howard-esque characters, including Roy Krenkel, Jeffrey Catherine Jones, Gary Gianni, Ken Kelley, Michael Kaluta, Barry Winsor-Smith, Jim Steranko, Wallace Wood, Sanjulian, Barry Windsor-Smith, Ken Barr, and John and Marie Severin to name only the best of them. Many, many other artists have essayed Howard’s characters in paintings with varying degrees of success, including Boris Vallejo, Joe Jusko, Bob Larkin, Earl Norem, and John Buscema, who are among the most prolific. Interestingly enough, Frazetta painted some of these paintings in a very brief span of time. Several of them were done only days apart, and one was executed in less than a day.
As Frazetta has noted, the Conans were executed at a time of intense creativity and artistic growth. To give the Conans some context with the rest of his career, consider this: at the same time, he was painting the Conans, Frazetta was also painting his famous covers for the Warren horror magazines, Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella, and was simultaneously earning unparalleled sums of money (for the 1960s, anyway) doing movie posters and promotional art. If there is a downside to Frazetta’s work as a Howard illustrator, it’s that he didn’t have the opportunity to do his versions of Kull, El Borak, Breckinridge Elkins, Skullface, et al. It’s tantalizing to think of what he might have accomplished with his vast talent and singular vision, given the time and the opportunity. Still, it’s impossible to quibble with the imperishable artistic legacy Frazetta graced us with in his depictions of Conan and other Howard characters.


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