Fantasy painter and illustrator Frank Frazetta died this week, at age 82. As with many famous personages who pass on, I didn’t know him but my imagination owes him a great debt.
I first encountered his work as a teenager when I checked Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter novels out from my local library. The tales fascinated me with their hot-blooded adventurism, unnerving, surreal dreamscapes, and high-flown sexuality. And Frazetta’s illustrations held me captivated, with their intense athletic energy and lurid visions of a sensuality I could almost feel and smell. There was a taste of the forbidden about them, a lusty frankness that seemed at once both indulgently naughty and beautifully pure.
There are many other artifacts of my adolescence that held a similar place in my developing, frankly hormonal imagination. But I’ve since grown to regard them with boredom or even disgust—Xanth novels, Image Comics artists, and Baywatch all invoke nothing but shame or contempt. What was it about Frazetta’s drawings and paintings that transcends mere immature wish-fulfillment wankery?
I believe, as I mentioned, that it’s the energy—the dynamic movement and sheer poetry of muscular bodies in action. Frazetta’s people are always moving and doing, or smoldering with life even at leisure. Mighty sinews strain and heave, lithe bodies coil to spring, terrific beasts threaten to leap off the page, exotic beauties seem to stretch catlike as they lounge in opulence. The illustrations are not mere titillation; they are life, writ large.
The paintings pulse with masculinity, but also exude a powerful femininity; there are soft and submissive women, yes, but also dangerous and magnetic ones: huntresses, witches and queens. The male and female sexuality that arrested me at 15 still enthralls me now. I was and am fascinated by a physicality that never seemed quite safe, by naked bodies with meat on their bones, by the exotic promise of furious, heroic fighting and equally heroic loving. I drank deep of that fantasy, and today I still have its taste on my lips.
Thank you, Frank. As your spirit wings its way toward Barsoom, your gifts remain for us to enjoy. I love also your spiritual successors—Sam Kieth, James V. West, and others—but you were the first to hold my imagination. For that I’m grateful.