Frank Frazetta Goes to Dogpatch, USA, A Ghost Story
If you know anything about syndicated newspaper strips, then you understand that the punishing deadlines of creating a weekly or Sunday comic strip sometimes compel their creators to employ assistants, who are referred to as “ghosts”. If a comic strip is really successful, running in hundreds of papers and generating outside income from licensing deals, then the primary creator on the strip can afford to hire more ghosts, both to lighten his workload, and to allow him to take a vacation, a rare privilege for overworked cartoonists.
Al Capp started Li’l Abner in 1934, and in a very short time had amassed an impressive number of papers running the strip.It went on to become one of the most successful newspaper strips of all time, eventually running in 900 papers in the U.S., and 100 papers in foreign countries and reaching an estimated 90 million readers in an era before the Internet, before television, and when the daily comics and the Sunday Funnies section of the newspaper was an important part of American families’ weekly entertainment. Once television began to factor into America’s entertainment options, Capp embraced the new medium whole-heartedly, appearing frequently on talk shows and even helming four different television shows.
A shrewd businessman, Al Capp took full advantage of Abner’s popularity and eventually gained full ownership of his strip following legal action against his syndicate, including the merchandising, which turned out to be a gold mine for the canny, forward-thinking cartoonist. Starting with the “Shmoo” craze in the late ‘40s, he raked in millions for an avalanche of licensed products. In addition to his success with his comic strip, he also had a syndicated column, several radio shows, and even had his own amusement park, Dogpatch, U.S.A. He was so successful he maintained a permanent studio in Boston, with a crew of three talented artists to help him meet what must have been killer deadlines for producing six dailies and a Sunday stripand all the attendant artwork needed for the plethora of licensed products the strip generated.
So, it’s no surprise that Capp reached out to Frank Frazetta in the mid-50s, since he was one of the most talented young cartoonists working then, and even had experience with hillbilly humor, having drawn the “Looie Lazybones” strip for Standard Comics in 1948. Frazetta’s style hadn’t matured yet, but it showed plenty of potential with good action sequences, pretty girls aplenty, and detailed bucolic settings. The writing on the strip wasn’t as sharp as Capp’s barbed social and political satires, but the stories served to highlight both Frazetta’s gift for humor, and his skill at depicting realistic and comic characters, just the skillset Al Capp needed from an assistant.
Seeing that the comic book industry was on its last legs, Frazetta jumped at the opportunity to assist Capp, since he was eventually able to work from home, and Capp paid him the princely salary of $500 a month, which was very good money back in the fifties, Frazetta started on Abner by penciling and inking three weeks of dailies featuring a biker character named “Frankie” that Capp based on his new assistant. The results were gorgeous, but various papers complained to the syndicate about the change in Abner’s look and Capp quickly restored the strip to its normal appearance and moved Frazetta over to penciling the Sunday page, which was his regular assignment for around seven years. However, recognizing his talent and speed, Capp often asked Frazetta to come down to his Boston studio and assist with the daily strip and create specialty artwork for magazine features on the strip and for licensed products, including a beautiful series of 16 watercolors depicting all the major characters for a set of greeting cards.
Despite his occasional trips to Boston, Frazetta quickly settled into a comfortable rut where he spent most of each week doing whatever the hell he wanted, usually playing pick-up softball games with his friends, bowling, hunting and camping out, going to the movies with friends like Roy Krenkel, Angelo Torres, Al Williamson, and Nick Meglin, and basically just goofing off. And when Frazetta goofed off, as Nick Meglin noted, he goofed off with gusto. Because he was a fast artist when he wanted to be, Frazetta generally goofed off for most of the week before buckling down and penciling the Sunday page in about a day or a day and a half, depending on how much time Frazetta left himself.
While working for Capp, Frazetta stopped doing comic books and hadn’t yet started doing paintings for book covers; the occasional paintings he did were purely for his own amusement. And so it went for several years. Frazetta married his girlfriend, Ellie Kelly while working for Capp, coincidentally on Sadie Hawkins Day, the fictional holiday created by Capp wherein all of the eligible women of Dogpatch were let loose to chase down any bachelor in Dogpatch and could marry anyone they caught. Sadie Hawkins Day caught on in a big way, spawning countless Sadie Hawkins Day dances at colleges and high schools. Frank Frazetta swore up and down that getting married on that day was simply a coincidence, that the significance of the date just hadn’t occurred to him or Ellie. Capp was no doubt pleased by the synchronicity.
But, all good things must come to an end, and in 1961, when Frazetta, now a married father of three, with another daughter on the way, asked Capp for a raise. Unfortunately, his timing couldn’t have been worse since Capp’s strip had started losing papers. Capp also wanted Frazetta to start working in Boston and told him he was cutting his salary. Frazetta was insulted by this after years of faithful service and angrily quit. While Frazetta admired Capp’s skill as a humorist, he privately regarded the curmudgeonly cartoonist as “a miserable S.O.B.” and it was probably a relief to leave his employ. Frazetta initially assumed he’d be able to return to the comics business as he did before, but in the intervening years between when he’d quit comics, and the subsequent contraction of the industry, he couldn’t find any work. The few remaining editors he met with told him his work was “old-fashioned”, and for the only time in his professional career, Frank Frazetta was out of work. This bleak period didn’t last long, but the proud, immensely talented artist was immensely frustrated. He also had to work to shed the Capp influence on his own art.
Fortunately, he had friends, and good friend George Evans came to the rescue, offering Frazetta some inking work on comic books he was doing for Dell and Western Publishing. This kept the wolf from the door for a short time, and Frazetta also turned to some new markets, doing illustrations for anthologies of soft-core erotica, and contributing illustrations to second-rate Playboy clones like Dude and Gent. In 1963, his best friend, Roy Krenkel, asked him to help out on painting covers for a series of Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, and Frazetta pitched in on several of the paintings. Krenkel had an ulterior motive for asking for Frazetta’s help. He was overwhelmed by the volume of work he was tasked with and hoped that Frank could take over some of the paintings. While Ace Books editor Don Wolheim was initially reluctant to use Frazetta, increased sales and a flood of letters soon convinced him to give Frazetta more work. Frazetta continued painting paperback book covers for a vast number of publishers and established himself as the finest fantasy painter of the 20th Century.