FRAZETTA: KING OF PAINT
Chapter 8: 1971
by Paul Vespignani
Black Emperor(1971)(oil painting)/Black Emperor(1998) (oil repainting)
Comparing the 2 versions of BLACK EMPEROR, the 1971 book cover(where the man and the woman are wearing clothes) is my clear favorite. The clothes are not at all incidental, they really add a lot of visual interest to the picture. The woman's light purple dress nicely harmonizes with her honey blond hair. The man's somewhat shredded beige/tan pants give him some much needed extra dimension and delineation.
As was the similar case with the 1991 nude Vampirella repainting the 1998 repainting of BE makes an already simple composition a little TOO simple. This might actually be the most minimal composition of any of Frank's oil paintings: essentially it is just a standing male, a reclining female, and a white background.
BE never appeared in any 1st generation FF art book and was not a poster. The 1998 repainting made its public debut in LEGACY (1999) along with a repro of the Lancer cover by its side for the sake of comparison.
Black Emperor(1998) (oil repainting)
NATIONAL LAMPOON 13(1971)(oil painting)/NATIONAL LAMPOON 13 (aka DESPERATION) (date unknown) (oil repainting) (1) (copyright date 1971)/NATIONAL LAMPOON 13(aka DESPERATION) (date unknown) (oil repainting(2))
NATIONAL LAMPOON 13(1971)(oil painting)
Frank's classic painting for NATIONAL LAMPOON 13 was sort of like his version of Indiana Jones a full decade before the release of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK(1981). This painting was about 99% perfect with only 2 minor flaws: the woman's left arm looked a bit clunky and her naked breasts had a Barbie Doll-like lack of anatomical detail and realism due to Frazetta's (or NL's) unhappy compromise over what was considered acceptable by 1971 magazine cover censorship standards. Frank could have fixed these things very quickly and easily with a minor repaint and called it a day with a masterpiece on his hands. So why was he so compelled to totally repaint the hero and his female companion?
Blond woman #2 looks absolutely fantastic, one of FF's very best female paintings ever. However the straight shooting, pith helmeted hero who looked so great in the original doesn't look so good in the repainting. His white pants were changed to yellow/orange. His straight ahead right arm with the blasting pistol is now diagonal and tentative and the gun is smoking. The pith helmet is gone and replaced with a mob of hair. Worst of all, his new facial expression is quite dorky. It almost looks like Frank was satirizing his own painting.
NATIONAL LAMPOON 13 (aka DESPERATION) (date unknown) (oil repainting) (1) (copyright date 1971)
Frazetta was doing further revisions on this painting around the time of his death in 2010. The hero looks the same as the 1st repainting, but the woman has been painted a 3rd time and looks very different. Frank further developed the cloudy blue background which was fairly sketchy in the 1st 2 versions. At least 1 of the back view figures in the foreground of the composition has been repainted.
Despite all of the extra work FF put in over the years repainting this picture in retrospect I think he might have been ahead of the game by simple doing nothing at all to the NL 13 cover. It was practically perfect in its original state.
FRAZETTA REWORKING NATIONAL LAMPOON 13(aka DESPERATION) (date unknown) (oil repainting(2))
CONAN THE BUCCANEER (1971)(oil painting)(1st version)/CONAN THE BUCCANEER(1971) (oil repainting)(1) (published version)/CONAN THE BUCCANEER(1971)(oil repainting(2))/THE DESTROYER(1971)(oil repainting(3))(copyright date 1971)
CONAN THE BUCCANEER(1971) (oil repainting)(1) (published version)
The following is my personal theory on the chronological time progression of the artistic evolution of CONAN THE BUCCANEER becoming THE DESTROYER backed up with plenty of real life evidence:
1) On the interior front flap of the dust jacket for the hardcover of TESTAMENT (2001) there is a fascinating full color photo of a slightly smiling Frank wearing a green and white striped shirt and holding an unpublished variant painting of CTB. I am now convinced this painting was the very 1st version of CTB that even predates the published cover painting. My evidence of this: if you look closely at the pileup of foemen that Conan dominates they are all somewhat drawn and painted differently compared to the way they look in the following 3 versions of the painting where they are consistently the same. Their different appearance is what puts this painting at the beginning of the progression because it literally doesn't fit in anywhere else. I figure Frazetta painted this 1st version very early in 1971, perhaps even January 1971.
FRAZETTA HOLDING CONAN THE BUCCANEER (1971)(oil painting)(1st version)
2) We have reliable eyewitness testimony from Michael Kaluta(who visited the Frazetta home multiple times in early 1971 before the family moved to the Poconos) that Lancer delayed the release date for CTB at least twice so Frank had this painting in his possession for almost 2 months...which was more than enough time for him to grow unhappy with the 1st version and do a 100% repainting of it. It is this repainting that he submitted to Lancer for publication.
3) Lancer released CTB in May 1971 and around this time returned the original art to Frazetta.
4) Frank repaints only the Conan figure, giving him a whole new face, a helmet with longer horns, a mail shirt, an elaborate necklace, and totally different muscles and veins in Conan's arms. Frazetta takes a black and white photo of this version.
5) At some point a cartoon lightbulb lights up over Frank's head and he has a genuine brainwave with the ultimate revelation that what is bothering him isn't the way Conan is painted, it is the way Conan is POSED. Frazetta then does a quick black and white ink wash prelim of an axe-wielding Conan with his right arm in the backward position.
6) Frank paints out the strangling Conan figure and paints in a fully finished axe-wielding Conan following the rough very faithfully. He also paints a new face and helmet for a small gnome-like character immediately adjacent to Conan's right knee. This final repainting was titled THE DESTROYER and eventually appeared in FRANK FRAZETTA: BOOK TWO(1977) and became a popular poster for Frazetta prints.
THE DESTROYER(1971)(oil repainting(3))(copyright date 1971)
I am now totally convinced that all 4 versions of this painting were painted in 1971 and I believe Frazetta putting a 1971 copyright on THE DESTROYER was his way of verifying this for us.
Of the 1st 3 strangling versions of CTB my very favorite is the published cover art(although it probably is unfair to compare a black and white photo of a full color painting to a full color painting reproduced in full color).
It is our good fortune that Lancer gave the CTB cover such excellent repro quality considering that Frank completely wipes out that Conan figure on the original art, inadvertently making this book an extra special FF collectors item.
I certainly don't claim to have any insight into FF's inner thoughts but I think I know what bothered him about the original CTB composition. This composition was "freely adapted"(to coin a Roy Thomas phrase) from Frank’s 1960s pen and ink drawing of Tarzan dominating a pile of his foes. Frank earlier adopted this drawing for his JONGOR OF LOST LAND(1970) painting which was a complete artistic bust for him(he fully repainted it in 1994). Here Frazetta was recycling this composition yet again and I believe he felt he was repeating himself needlessly and even pointlessly. The axe-wielding Conan figure was exciting for Frank because it was a new thing for him specifically and a new thing for the sword and sorcery genre generally.
JONGOR OF LOST LAND(1970)
Tarzan ink drawing “Lord of the Savage Jungle”
The 1st 2 paperbacks I bought with Frazetta covers were CTB and CONAN OF CIMMERIA(1969). I purchased both of these books in the summer of 1972. I acquired them strictly for Frank's covers and certainly had no intention of reading them. However once I owned them I thought: why not read them? I read CTB 1st and enjoyed it. So in a weird way I have Frazetta to thank for my lifelong love of recreational reading and I was always very grateful to him for that. And yeah, I fully realize the irony that my very 1st Conan book was a novel by de Camp and Carter and not a short story collection by Robert E. Howard. I would soon enough learn to respect REH(and Roy Thomas too!).
I now think that the CTB cover painting and THE DESTROYER are equally excellent. I certainly can't objectively(or subjectively) pick a definitive favorite between these 2. If you ask a parent which 1 of their 2 children they love the most their knee jerk answer will always be: "I love them both." Same deal with me concerning these 2 paintings.
THE DANCER FROM ATLANTIS(1971)(oil painting)/THE DANCER FROM ATLANTIS(1987)(oil repainting)(copyright date 1987)
I really like both versions of THE DANCER FROM ATLANTIS, but my favorite is still the 1971 original. The thing that I like the most about that cover painting was Frank's beautiful impressionistic painting of the background colors. This is a good example of Frazetta creating an impressive something out of practically nothing, just brushstrokes of colors and values fueled by pure painting virtuosity.
Since this was a 100% repainting I wish it had been done on a 2nd piece of canvas board with the 1971 original being spared.
THE DANCER FROM ATLANTIS(1971)(oil painting)
The pose of woman #2 is pretty similar to the pose of woman #1. Same back view, same angle of the head, and most importantly the same distinctive positioning of the legs. The main difference is that woman #2 is holding up both of her arms diagonally almost like she is a human TV antenna. Frank redraws woman #2 so she has much greater scale than woman #1 and she takes up much more space in the overall composition. Woman #2 is far more taut and sinewy(but still feminine) compared to the softer look of woman #1. And of course woman #2 is naked while woman #1 wears a triangular green fabric bikini bottom.
The back half of the bull is pretty much identical in the 2 paintings(with the bull visually bisected by the woman in the immediate foreground). Bull #1 is facing the viewer with his head in a full front position while the head of bull #2 is in pure profile. Bull #2 is mostly a large black mass with a minimal amount of light source somewhat rounding off the top edge of his form.
THE DANCER FROM ATLANTIS(1987)(oil repainting)(copyright date 1987)
The background space of the repainting is all monochromatic warm gray tones with a cluster of smoky textures on the viewer's right side suggesting an "off camera" fire right beyond the edge of the composition.
To the best of my knowledge Frazetta never talked about TDFA in any interview. Since the 1971 original never appeared in any 1st generation FF art book(and no poster) and with the repainting being such a complete and direct repudiation of it visually, I think it is safe to come to the conclusion that Frank did not like the 1971 painting and felt he needed to "correct" it with the 1987 repainting. Which brings up a logical question: what is NOT to like about the beautiful 1971 TDFA painting?
Both versions of TDFA appeared side by side for their "better late than never" 1st ever Frazetta art book presentation in TESTAMENT(2001). This was also the public debut of the 1987 repainting.