Under alien skies

‘Death Dealer’ by Frank Frazetta. Image: robot6.comicbookresources.com

So Frank Frazetta died recently – I still can’t believe he actually existed.

It is a strange feeling to be browsing a site or two, click on an obituary link to some artist and find your childhood staring back at you. It seems the above painting style occupied some dormant part of my brain. I felt like some vestigial organ – an anachronism belonging to my fifteen year old self – suddenly ruptured and I nearly passed out from the nostalgia overload.

Hours spent wrapped up with my dad’s old copies of 2000AD and other pulpy “mature comics”, a heady suffusion of sci-fi, fantasy, boobs and blood came rushing back to me. I began to wonder, what happened to that boy? What had crushed his imaginative spirit? Then I realised I was walking into a man-child cliché, so I didn’t bother. Instead I did a little reading about Frazetta.

 

I like to relate everything to H.P. Lovecraft if I can; he truly is the Kevin Bacon of fantasy. In the 20s Lovecraft was publishing some of his short stories in Weird Tales, as was his friend Robert E. Howard. Supposedly Lovecraft’s work inspired Howard’s overarching mythos and setting of “The Hyborian Age” for his most famous creation: Conan.  Sword and Sorcery was born.

In 1967 Ace Books released the first comprehensive collection of the Conan the Barbarian stories. The cover artist was Frazetta, and he created the definitive image of Conan and by extension, every muscled barbarian forevermore. This image of masculinity has been mocked, aspired to, taken too seriously, played deadpan, played camp, over-analysed, over-used, unappreciated and generally tossed around in the hurly-burly Brownian Motion of culture.  If you’ve ever looked at the cover of a late 70s proto-metal album you’re probably looking at Frazetta, or some derivative of him.  Have a hunt in your local charity shop, and you’re bound to find a dog eared choose-your-own-adventure book with some horribly beweaponed nutter on the cover.

Frazetta occupies that strange role of a niche style that bubbles beneath the surface of cultural artefacts from decades ago, and is continually recycled through our consumption of nostalgia. The man influenced everything from Princess Leia’s Bikini to Zelda. Not exactly high cultural watermarks, but incredibly iconic to the right people.

Admittedly it is difficult to find his influence in recent fantasy works, unless it is by proxy of something he influenced earlier. Nonetheless, if we follow the chain backwards we find that Frazetta forms a nexus between the two halves of the 20th century, a pinch in the hourglass. He absorbed all the fantasy writing of the first half, and propagated it across the second.

Of course his imagery is hilarious, immature and endlessly reproduced across the fantasy spectrum. Brooding alien skies overshadow men and women of grotesque proportions, casting melodramatic poses as they slay opponents. Most of his work has a puerile sexuality, which makes them too embarrassing for a self-serious student to hang on his wall. Not that you could – his pieces regularly sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I suppose, I when I heard of Frazetta’s death, and who he was I was shocked to find that such a ubiquitous style had a singular origin. Perhaps this is the case for all styles; there must be one true original. After I read of his death and the initial nostalgia, I proceeded – cocooned in irony and reflection – to cast a wry eye over his paintings. I scoffed.

But after a while, I came to feel that my distaste for his work now stemmed from the sense that I couldn’t understand how I had once loved all his imagery and how generations of people had also un-ironically enjoyed his work. This lack of understanding contributed to a building sensation that the past – the 70s, 80s and my childhood thereafter- might as well be one of Frazetta’s alien landscapes. And something moved. I realised that Frazetta makes me want to stand up – grab my favourite axe off the wall and stride into his world. Somewhere, the fifteen year old me is smiling, and the nostalgia cycle begins again.

by Chris Bennet

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