Fritz & Vampi
by Arnie Fenner
Frank Frazetta’s relationship with publisher James Warren began in 1964 and was both rewarding and, near its end, tempestuous, but in between he created some of his most popular and influential artworks, not the least of which were his design of the character Vampirella. Warren (born James Warren Taubman in 1930) originally worked as the advertising assistant manager for Philadelphia’s Caloric Range Company in the 1950s. Inspired by Hugh Hefner’s runaway success with Playboy magazine in 1953, he turned his hand to publishing and produced an imitation titled After Hours in 1957—which only lasted four issues and ultimately led to his arrest on charges of obscenity and pornography in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
When the cases were eventually dropped, he turned his back on adult entertainment and focused his attention on another genre entirely. Teaming with science fiction fan, collector, writer, and literary agent Forest J. Ackerman, he published the first issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland in 1958: the magazine was an instant—and major—success. FM offered short articles, illustrated with publicity stills and art, about horror movies from the silent era to the current date of publication, their stars, and filmmakers; Warren’s and Ackerman’s decision to aim the content at late pre-adolescents and young teenagers proved to be astute and the first issue sold out several printings, totaling over 200,000 copies.
Impressionable readers like Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Stephen King, and many more future filmmakers, writers, and artists were inspired by the magazine.
Famous Monsters prompted a variety of spinoffs from Warren, but none had the same impact as the original and most only lasted a few issues—until 1964, when he produced the first issue of the horror comic Creepy.
Though Creepy was inspired by the EC classics of the 1950s, Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear, Warren avoided the restrictions of the comic industry’s moral watchdog, the Comics Code Authority, by publishing it in a magazine format, much like Mad had done. The idea of Russ Jones or Larry Ivy or Warren himself (depending on whose story you choose to believe) it featured the work of writer/editor Archie Goodwin and many former EC artists including John Severin, Reed Crandall, Angelo Torres, Al Williamson, Alex Toth, and, of course, Frank Frazetta; each story was introduced by the magazine’s “host,” Uncle Creepy. Creepy—and its subsequent companion magazine, Eerie—not only featured Frazetta’s last full-length comic story (“Werewolf” in issue #1), but also boasted an outstanding series of Frank’s cover paintings. Unfortunately, after several years of enviable success, Warren experienced a serious financial downturn beginning in 1967; Goodwin, Frazetta, and virtually all of the leading artists left when their pay was cut and Warren was forced to rely on reprints (for which he paid the creators nothing) for Creepy, Eerie, and Famous Monsters of Filmland for several years while he reorganized and recovered.
By 1969 things were looking a bit better; Warren began purchasing new stories and art, raised the pay (slightly) again for the creators, and began thinking about adding a third title to his horror comics line. Very loosely inspired by the 1968 film adaptation (starring Jane Fonda) of Jean-Claude Forest’s erotic Barbarella comics, Warren phoned Frazetta and commissioned him to do a drawing to use for promotion for the new magazine, much like Frank had done of Uncle Creepy some years before. “Warren never paid very much,” Frazetta said, “but he had the gift of gab—and he’d always give me a kind of special ‘bonus’ when I delivered a job, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ We discussed the character and I did a few drawings. [Jim] told me about this funny costume: Vampirella was a kind of vampire-type girl and it was really pretty silly. I just drew a sexy girl.” But Warren had a very clear idea of what he wanted and Frank wasn’t providing it." I told [Frank] I wanted the new character to have an aura of sexuality and mystery,” Warren said. “He originally saw her as blonde, but I insisted she have black hair.” He also didn’t care for Frazetta’s initial costume design.
“I was sitting in Warren’s office,” remembered cartoonist Trina Robbins, “where he was talking to me about the fact that my artwork was nowhere good enough to appear in his magazines, which was very true. Frazetta called to discuss a sketch of Vampirella that he’d sent to Jim. Warren said it wasn’t right. Frank had drawn her wearing, more of less, a basic bikini, but Jim had something else in mind. It became clear that Frank wasn’t getting the idea as Jim tried to describe it, so Jim turned to me and described the costume, the way the top was open in front and attached to a collar, the boots and so on. I drew it as he was talking. ‘That’s it!’ he said, pointing at my sketch. ‘Now describe it exactly to Frank,’ he said and handed me the phone.” In return for her costume design, Trina was given a “lifetime subscription” to Vampirella in lieu of money.