Frank Frazetta, the godfather of fantasy art, (February 9, 1928 - May 10, 2010) was born into a Sicilian family in the heart of Brooklyn, New York. His father, Alfonso Frazzetta, was a hard-working, first-generation Italian immigrant who married Mary, a New York native. In a modest Brooklyn home, they raised Frank Frazetta, the eldest, and his three sisters, Adele, Carol, and Jeanie. According to Frazetta and his immediate family, he became a paid artist as a toddler when his grandmother paid him a single penny in exchange for a crayon drawing.
Once Alfonso and Mary realized their son’s undeniable talent, at a mere eight years old, Frank Frazetta was enrolled in the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts where he would study under an award-winning Italian fine artist, Michele (Michael) Falanga. “I still remember the professor, Michele Falanga, and his face filled with skepticism as I signed myself in. He sat me down and asked me to copy a postcard featuring a group of realistically rendered ducks.When he returned to see how I progressed, he snatched up my drawing exclaiming, “Mama mia!” and ran off waving it in the air for everyone to look at,” chuckled Frazetta.
From the time Frazetta first enrolled in the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts, Falanga was impressed by his ability. With three years under Frazetta’s belt, Falanga felt that it was time to make arrangements for Frazetta to study abroad. Unfortunately, Falanga passed away that same year before Frank was able to accept the opportunity. When asked about his loss in later years, Frazetta philosophically commented, “I haven’t the vaguest idea of whether it would have really affected my areas of interest. I don’t know, but I doubt it. You see, we never had any great conversations. He might look over your shoulder and say.Very nice, but perhaps if you did this or that. He spoke very broken English and he kind of left you on your own. I think I learned more from my friends there, especially Albert Pucci”
In December 1944, a character Frazetta created when he was eight years old, “Snowman,” was published in Tally-Ho Comics #1, a collaboration with John Guinta, an older, more experienced cartoonist. Ambitious from an early age, Frazetta had accepted a job at age 15, assisting John Giunta in Bernard Bailey’s studio doing pencil clean-ups, ruling panel borders, and various odd jobs. Guinta befriended young Frazetta and recognized his talent, so he collaborated with him on the seven-page “Snowman” story. Frank penciled it, Guinta polished the pencils and inked it. Because it was a one-shot story in an obscure comic, it did not exactly set the cartooning world on fire. Nevertheless, Frank Frazetta was now a published cartoonist at the tender age of 15. Two months later, he turned 16. At the same time, he found himself working in the bullpen at Fiction House, doing similar chores. Because there wasn’t enough to do to keep his restless artistic urges occupied, he’d sit in the bullpen working in his sketchbook, developing his own characters and stories. He was soon fired from Fiction House and struck out on his own as a freelancer, but in the short time he was there, he made friends with EC horror great Graham Ingels, who recognized Frank’s talent even early on, and would later be his editor.
By 1946, Frazetta was doing some work for Standard Comics, at first, just inking or drawing isolated panels on other artists’ stories, but then he graduated to illustrating two stories for Treasure Comics #7. “Know Your America”, a four-pager about William Penn is Frank’s first published solo work, while the one-page “Captain Kidd Jr.” a humorous strip, is his first signed story, featuring his initials, F.F. He contributed a five-page “Know Your America” story to the next issue of Treasure Comics, this one profiling Ben Church. Frazetta continued working for Standard (also known as Nedor and Better Publications), where from 1947 through 1950, he employed his talent for humorous cartooning illustrating text stories and short (3-7 page) comics stories for titles like Coo-Coo, Supermouse, Barnyard, and Happy Comics. At the same time he was working on funny animal illos and stories for Standard, he was doing similar work for a lesser-known company called Ace Periodicals/Junior Books. Young Frank had a real knack for drawing cute funny animals, so much so that he was offered a job in Walt Disney’s animation department, an assignment he turned down, preferring to stay in his Brooklyn neighborhood and continue drawing comic books.
Still, it’s said that he treasured the letter from Walt Disney his whole life. While at Standard, he began to branch out from the funny animal material, inking pages and panels here and there. Graham Ingels assigned him his first jungle strip, “Judy of the Jungle” in Exciting # 59, done in a style very much influenced by Terry and the Pirates creator Milton Caniff. By 1949, Frazetta was branching out from the humor material to do westerns for Magazine Enterprises (Trail Colt #1), where he again worked with Graham Ingels as his editor. This story, and some of his earliest funny animal work was signed “Fritz”, an early nickname bestowed on Frazetta by childhood friends. Among his other early assignments was the story, “Why They Call Them Mavericks” for Western Fighters #11, one of many westerns Frank would illustrate over the years, but significant because it was the first time he collaborated with a very young Al Williamson, with whom he would do some of his best and most fondly-remembered comic book stories, particularly for EC Comics from 1952-1953. Frazetta and Williamson would go on to draw around 90 pages of material for John Wayne Adventure Comics and Billy the Kid for Toby Press, a comic book company run by Elliot Caplan, the brother of Li’l Abner creator Al Capp. While still freelancing for Standard, Frazetta was given the assignment to draw stories featuring “Looie Lazybones”, a character who was practically a carbon copy of Al Capp’s Li’l Abner physically, although the stories themselves were pure hillbilly humor, lacking the sometimes savage social and political satire Capp employed. Starting with a single text illustration of the character in Thrilling Comics #66, Frazetta went on to do a total of seven “Looie Lazybones” stories up through issue #73. In two of those issues, the hard-working Frazetta also contributed a pair of teenage humor stories, including one done in collaboration with artist Ralph Mayo, who was one his artistic mentors and lent young Frank a George Bridgeman book on anatomy, which Frazetta copied overnight, thereby improving his grasp of anatomy almost immediately.
The period from 1949 through 1952 is when Frazetta’s career as a cartoonist really exploded. During this time, Frazetta was working for a number of different comic book companies, both by himself and in collaboration with friends Al Williamson and Roy Krenkel. He worked for Avon, ACG, Magazine Enterprises, EC Comics (almost always with Williamson, with a couple of exceptions), and DC Comics (Then known as National Periodical Publications). For DC, he did one of the few continuing characters he ever drew, “The Shining Knight”, which was probably the closest he ever came to doing a superhero comic. He also did a single science fiction story for the first issue of Mystery in Space, as well as stories for Tomahawk, Jimmy Wakely, Gang Busters, All-Star Comics, All-Star Western, and Star-Spangled Comics.
Almost all of his DC stories, except for the “Shining Knight” series and “Spores From Space” in Mystery in Space, were westerns. It’s safe to say that the bulk of Frazetta’s comic book output was westerns, including the covers he did for Magazine Enterprises for titles like Bobby Benson’s B-Bar-B Riders, Tim Holt, Ghost Rider, and Straight Arrow. Frank did some of his best work in comics for Magazine Enterprises, including 16 installments of the “Dan Brand/White Indian” back-up strip for the first 16 issues of The Durango Kid comic, and the cover and entire first issue of Thun’da King of the Congo, the only comic book entirely drawn by Frazetta. The cover and four stories contained therein were Frazetta’s attempt to get the attention of the United Features syndicate, which handled the Tarzan comic strip. Despite producing a magnificently drawn jungle adventure, Frazetta was not picked to follow in the footsteps of his hero, Hal Foster. However, his comic was good enough to inspire a serial version also titled Thun’da King of the Congo, and starring Buster Crabbe, an actor Frazetta would depict many times during his comics career. The poster for the serial even included Frazetta’s cover for the first issue, a foretaste of his career as a movie poster artist, but Magazine Enterprises did not see fit to share any of the profits from the sale of the comic with Frazetta, so the first issue was the only one he worked on.
To Frank, getting his own syndicated strip was a holy grail; if it were successful, he could become very wealthy, as cartoonists like Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, George McManus, and others had. During this period, after Johnny Comet ran its course, he took another stab at creating a Tarzan-like strip, Tiga, which featured a long-haired strongman and his beautiful, exotic sidekick adventuring through a post-apocalyptic science fiction landscape. It didn’t sell, but Frazetta’s sample strips were re-dialogued, retitled “Last Chance” and ran in the third issue of Wally Wood’s Witzend prozine. Another failed strip sample, Nina, about a female Tarzan-like air crash survivor trapped in a world of monsters and savage beast-men, was published in the eighth issue of Witzend with the panels broken up to illustrate an Edgar Allen Poe poem, “The City in the Sea”. It was one of the most magnificently drawn pieces in Frazetta’s entire career, and the title topper art showing Nina sitting on a characteristic Frazetta mossy log while being watched by a beast-man was later recycled as a limited-edition print.
Frazetta’s collaborations with Al Williamson for EC produced some of the best-drawn science fiction stories ever done in comics, particularly stories like “I, Rocket”, “The One Who Waits”, “Fired!” (the most beautiful western story the duo produced) “Two’s Company”, “Fifty Girls Fifty”, “A New Beginning”, and the cover to Weird Fantasy #21. Frazetta’s only solo story for EC, “Squeeze Play” (Shock SuspenStories #13) came about only because Al Williamson was given the assignment but didn’t want to draw the roller coaster that figured prominently in the script, so he handed the job off to his friend Frazetta. However, when Frazetta was facing a deadline crunch, he asked Williamson to help out, and he wound up drawing the roller coaster anyway. Frazetta’s only solo cover for EC (Weird Science-Fantasy #29) came about by accident, too. Frazetta bashed out this acknowledged masterpiece overnight while working in Al Capp’s studio. It was intended to the ninth of his Buck Rogers covers for Famous Funnies #217. But, when he brought in the art, his longtime editor, Steve Douglas, thought it was too violent and wouldn’t use it, which ended his professional relationship with Frazetta forever. Disgusted, Frazetta went over to EC Comics and offered it EC publisher Bill Gaines. Gaines, and everyone else, loved the cover and thought it was an absolute masterpiece. There was only one problem with selling it to EC; Gaines always bought the original art outright. Frazetta, knowing what a gem he had created, didn’t want to part with the art at any price, so the canny Gaines made a counter-offer, Frazetta could keep the art, but would only get paid half the usual rate for covers (which was $60). Frazetta was happy to take the lower sum just so long as he could see his work get published and hang on to his baby. It was a wise choice, as it has since gone on to
become one of the most famous and highly praised pieces of comic art ever produced. In the ‘70s publisher Russ Cochran used differently colored versions of the image for the front and back covers of his EC Portfolio #2, and also issued signed, unsigned, and hand-colored and remarqued prints of it. Years later, Frazetta also produced a series of signed and numbered hand-colored prints of the image. That one image made money for the Frazetta family for decades.
The year 1952 was a banner year for Frazetta because he was offered his own daily strip, long the dream of many comic book artists, and Frank was only 24 at the time. The strip was Johnny Comet, and it chronicled the adventures of a race-car driver. It was ostensibly written by Peter DePaolo, the winner of the 1925 Indy 500, but was actually written by Earl Baldwin. Although gorgeously drawn and bursting with action, the strip was not a success. Debuting on January 28th ,1952, the strip ran until January 31st ,1953, undergoing a name change to Ace McCoy midway through its run, and a change in emphasis from straight-on action to a more humorous tone,especially in the Sunday strips. Frazetta drew both the daily and Sunday strips at the same time he was juggling comic book work for Heroic Comics, and other accounts, so he sometimes enlisted friends to help him out, including Al Williamson, Larry Woromay, Jack Hearne, and EC great Wally Wood, who did most of the art for the last three Sunday pages, with Frazetta drawing the characters’ heads to ensure continuity of the likenesses. Doing a daily and a Sunday strip is a grueling grind, and sometimes the deadlines were very tight. Al Williamson recalled a day when he and Frazetta banged out six Comet dailies in about four hours. After the syndicate pulled the plug on Johnny Comet/Ace McCoy, on February 1 st, 1953, Frazetta was out of work, but not for long. Flash Gordon artist Dan Barry tapped Frank to ghost the pencils for ten days of dailies from February 18th through February 28th . But after that, Frazetta did not have any more paying comic strip work.
In 1954, Al Capp, recalling Frazetta’s run on “Looie Lazybones” and aware of the beautiful recent artwork on Johnny Comet, offered him a job as one of his ghosts on Li’l Abner. Capp was at the peak of his success in the 1950s, with Abner running in hundreds of newspaper all over the world, plus deals for product endorsements with Cream of Wheat cereal, Wildroot Cream-Oil, and hundreds of licensed products like hand puppets, wind-up toys, and an entire galaxy of products featuring Capp’s Shmoos. Eventually, the strip generated two feature films, animated cartoons, and a wildly successful Broadway musical based on the strip. Needless to say, Capp didn’t just need help drawing his daily and Sunday strip, he also needed assistants to generate artwork for all the product packaging, print ads, and incidental illustrations that were coming down the pike. When Capp first brought Frazetta in, he had him draw and ink three weeks of daily strips. The results were gorgeous, but the syndicate worried that readers wouldn’t like the drastic change in styles, so Capp had Frazetta shift over to penciling the Sunday page once Capp had roughed out the layouts and inked the characters’ heads. It took Frazetta about a day and a half to draw the Sunday strip and Capp paid him $150 a week, pretty good money in the mid-50s. Plus, it gave the fun-loving young artist plenty of time to pick and choose his other cartooning assignments, play baseball, go bowling, goof off (according to old friend Nick Meglin, Frazetta always goofed off “with gusto”.). It was during this period, early on in his association with Capp, that Frank did some of his most attractive comic book stories, a series of five romance jobs, including “Untamed Love”, which is widely acclaimed as one of the most beautiful comic book stories ever drawn. At the same time, he was also doing his legendary run of Buck Rogers covers for Famous Funnies (issue #s 209-216), now among the most expensive and widely sought-out comic books from the 1950s.
Handsome, muscular, and quite charming, Frazetta was popular with women and had a string of intense romances. In 1952, at the age of 24, Frazetta met petite seventeen-year-old Eleanor Kelly and his playboy days came to an end. "I sensed that she would be forever loyal and I never ever had that feeling about any other girl. I'd been involved with, " Frazetta says. "Sure, she had most of the physical attributes I looked for in a women, she was beautiful and athletic. But beyond that she was very sharp and alert and pert and she knew a lot of things I didn't know." After four years of dating they were married on November 17th 1956. Later Ellie Kelly led Frank’s career by taking over the financial and property rights components by ensuring his art would be returned upon completion of the project and that he would be compensated accordingly. Ellie also handled all merchandising and solely curated Frank’s three galleries.
By late in 1955, Frank had stopped drawing comic books entirely and focused on doing his work for Al Capp, year after year, penciling the Sunday page and sometimes the daily strips, and occasionally driving down to Boston to assist Capp in his studio, drawing promotional artwork for ads, contributing a drawing of the Women of Dogpatch for an article in Playboy magazine, and even executing a series of greeting cards featuring Abner’s cast of characters, all beautifully rendered in watercolor. With money from Abner rolling in steadily, Frazetta fell into a comfortable rut. He would occasionally paint or draw for fun or a gift for a family member, but even then, he did very little of that. Frazetta would admit in later interviews that he was pretty lazy during this period, and his lean artistic output from this time bears that out. However, after working for Capp for the same rate for eight years, Frazetta felt he was entitled to a raise, and was shocked when Capp countered by offering to cut his salary in half.
Frazetta, always a proud man, was outraged by Capp’s cheapness and lack of appreciation for his years of hard work, so he quit. The only problem was, by this point, he was a homeowner with two kids and a mortgage, and no other work coming in. In the past, Frazetta never had any trouble getting work. Harvey Kurtzman, who had edited the war titles Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, as well as the Mad comic book, when asked why he never used Frazetta replied, “We tried. But Frank was always very busy.” However, by 1962, the landscape in the comics business was vastly different. Most of his old employers were out of business, driven under by the anti-comics hysteria of the mid-50s and the subsequent loss of sales so that pickings were pretty slim. And even when he went back to one of his few previous employers that were still in business, DC Comics, he was told his work was “old fashioned”. This did not sit well with Frazetta, and one day after pounding the pavements unsuccessfully, he came home, kissed Ellie, and then went into his small studio and sat down at his easel and painted his famous self-portrait, as if to prove to himself that he still had talent. T
The lean period continued for a few more months, buoyed by occasional assignments like helping old friend George Evans inking several issues of Frogmen for Dell, and inking a pair of Twilight Zone stories over Reed Crandall’s pencils. He also found work providing illustrations for second-rate men’s magazines like Dude, Cavalcade, and Gent and doing a series of wash illustrations for three Midwood Doubles volumes, which were essentially soft-core porn. It was a bleak period for Frazetta, but he soldiered on and even illustrated the Canaveral Press edition of Tarzan at the Earth’s Core published in 1962, finally getting the chance to do an “official” Tarzan project. By 1963, old pal Roy Krenkel came to the rescue, asking Frazetta to assist on several Burroughs cover paintings for Ace Books, and even take on some of the books himself. Ace editor Don Wolheim was initially reluctant to hire Frazetta, fearing that he wouldn’t be able to do artwork in the style of J. Allen St. John, as his friend Krenkel was doing. But after Frazetta did a sample watercolor illustrating Tarzan and the Ant-Men, Wolheim relented and gave Frazetta some assignments. As soon as the sales figures came in on the books Frazetta illustrated, Wolheim realized what an asset a Frazetta cover could be to any Burroughs or fantasy book. Frazetta eventually produced 23 covers for his first Ace series, (though ironically, his artwork for Tarzan and the Ant-Men was never used) plus Ace reused the cover to The Beasts of Tarzan as the cover to the paperback edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure, Dick Lupoff’s biography of Tarzan’s creator. Frazetta eventually quit working for Ace after about two years because their rates were low and the publisher insisted on keeping his original art, something
that never sat well with Frazetta. However, the Ace covers put Frazetta on the radar of fantasy and heroic art fans, and in the early 70s when he went back to do a second series of Burroughs covers for Ace, his rates were considerably higher, and he was guaranteed the return of his original art. The second series was of uniformly high quality, with Frazetta revisiting some books he’d previously illustrated, and in some cases, creating covers for books he’d never illustrated. One of these paintings, “The Mammoth” was given an Award of Excellence from the Society of Illustrators.
It was during the period 1964-1965, Frazetta began doing his legendary covers for Creepy, Eerie, and Blazing Combat, and doing his last sequential art for the first issue of Creepy and two subsequent issues, as well as a six-panel anti-smoking ad, rendered in ink washes that ran in a number of different Warren magazines for years. A few years later, Frazetta did eight covers for Vampirella, plus a handful of wash illustrations of the character that were used on the interiors. The work for Warren didn’t pay especially well, but Warren gave him complete artistic freedom to paint what he wanted,and he got his originals back. Warren retained reprint rights to these covers and issued some of them as posters and jigsaw puzzles. At the same time he was doing the Warren covers, he was also transitioning from the watercolor covers he’d been doing for Ace to rendering his art in oils. The Secret People and Torture Garden for Lancer are two of the last watercolor covers he did. It was during the mid-60s that Frazetta did what is arguably his most famous body of work, a series of eight Conan the Barbarian paintings for Lancer Books. These paintings caused the Conan series to sell in the millions, and when issued as posters through Frazetta’s publishing company, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Some of these paintings were later reused as album covers for bands like Dust and Molly Hatchet and entered popular culture through being tattooed on people’s bodies and airbrushed on their vans, motorcycles and car hoods.
Although much of his work during the ‘60s was the fantasy paintings that brought him world-wide fame, he also garnered significant attention for a caricatured painting of Ringo Starr in a fake shampoo ad on the back cover of Mad Magazine #90. This caught the attention of the art directors for United Artists and in 1965 Frank was asked to do the movie poster art for the film What’s New Pussycat? Featuring caricatures of Peter O’Toole, Peter Sellers, Capucine, Paula Prentiss, Romy Schneider, and Woody Allen. He proved more than up to the challenge, designing charming scenes of the entire cast chasing each other in the style originated by Jack
Davis for It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. To Frazetta’s immense gratification, he was paid $5,000 for the assignment, almost a year’s salary for work he knocked out in one afternoon, as he later claimed. He followed up the Pussycat assignment with the poster for a now-obscure comedy starring James Booth, Stella Stevens, Shirley Jones, and Honor (Pussy Galore) Blackman entitled The Secret of My Success. From 1965 through 1968, Frazetta produced artwork for ten films, including a painting of the cast, used in the movie The Group, a wild chase scene inserted at the bottom of the poster for Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, a 1967 comedy entitled The Busy Body, as well as posters for After the Fox, Hotel Paradiso, The Night They Raided Minsky’s, Fitzwilly, Yours, Mine and Ours, Mad Monster Party, and The Fastest Guitar Alive. Among his unused movie poster art were illustrations for films like Billy, starring Patty Duke, and A Man Called Dagger, a James Bond spoof, the epic musical Paint Your Wagon, Paradise Alley, a Sylvester Stallone comedy, and Ghosts Can’t Do It, a supernatural comedy starring Bo Derek and Anthony Quinn.
After 1968, Frazetta’s film assignments were fewer, though in 1971, he did the poster for Mrs. Pollifax, Spy, and then in 1974, the poster for Mixed Company, another family comedy. In 1977, he took a break from comedy when he executed the poster for Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet, garnering an additional payday when Ellie sold the original to Eastwood. Frazetta did a black and white illustration advertising Give Us Barabbas, a TV movie, that ran in many newspapers. In 1978, Frazetta was commissioned to paint four paintings illustrating Battlestar Galactica that were published in TV Guide and heavily featured in posters promoting the show. Frazetta occasionally returned to painting movie posters or doing production art through 1997, though most of this remained unseen except in the three Underwood Press volumes chronicling his entire career. His last movie poster was for Robert Rodriguez’s fantasy vampire film From Dusk ‘Til Dawn but unfortunately it was not used by the studio, in favor of a photo poster featuring star George Clooney. Frazetta was also a trailblazer in the art world. In the early 1980s, Frazetta worked with producer Ralph Bakshi on the feature Fire and Ice, released in 1983. The realism of the animation and the design attempted to replicate Frazetta’s artwork, with Frazetta designing the characters, doing key illustrations, even sculpting busts of some of the characters for the animators to work from. Bakshi and Frazetta were heavily involved in the production of the live-action sequences used for the film’s rotoscope animation, from casting sessions to the final shoot. Following the release of the film, Frazetta returned to his roots in painting and pen-and-ink illustrations.
In 2001, Frazetta was awarded with the World Fantasy Award—Life Achievement for artwork such as Conan “The Destroyer” and “The Death Dealer”. In 2003, Frazetta was the subject of a comprehensive documentary, Painting with Fire that featured interviews with many of his friends and colleagues. It was a fitting tribute to a distinguished career. All of Frazetta’s works embody a quality that makes you feel as if you are stepping into an imaginative world your wildest dreams wouldn’t dare to explore. For over 50 years, Frazetta dominated the art world with his images of fierce warriors, voluptuous princesses, and fantastical creatures set in the most lavish landscapes. His impact upon the worlds of fantasy art and film was unparalleled, and it can be seen to this day in the look of Lord of the Rings trilogy and other epic fantasy films. Amazingly, he managed to do this while nearly dying because of a misdiagnosed thyroid condition that left him unable to paint for a decade. After some adjustments to his medication, Frazetta returned to work and produced a new series of “Death Dealer: paintings for the Verotik comics line and even did a volume of detailed pencil illustrations (Illustrations Arcanum) that showed the master was still in full possession of his considerable powers. Sadly, a few years after his recovery from his thyroid condition, he was assaulted by six strokes, which forced him to switch from drawing with his right hand to drawing with his left hand. Even that didn’t stop the courageous and tough as nails Frazetta from producing new paintings and even reworking a few of his classics. He had some unfinished paintings in his studio at the time of his death, showing that he was working almost until the very end.It is this fierce spirit, coupled with his boundless imagination and astonishing talent that made Frank Frazetta the godfather of fantasy artwork. To this day, some ten years after his passing, his work continues to enthrall and astonish new fans.