Thursday, January 7, 2021

Frazetta Says There's Gonna Be A Fight

Sword & Sorcery is Frank

Sword and sorcery is very Conan, by which we mean to say it's very Frazetta. Unless your Conan looks like this...

The Conan of heavy brow, long dark hair, aswarm with muscle--the one in Marvel Comics, the one Schwarzenegger played, the one Jason Momoa played--is Frazetta's.

As the graph shows, people kinda had stopped talking about Conan until he showed up and started doing covers:

A thing I notice more than I expected to notice once I started gameblogging was how much images and illustration shape our ideas of what genre stories are going to be like. And I don't know about you but I've seen way more barbarians than I ever read about.

So, the question I want to talk about now is: what stories is Frazetta telling us about the genre he paints? 

Frank Frazetta grew up on comics, he started out as a comic book artist, he worked for years doing nothing else (including ghost-work forever on Lil' Abner), his work appeals to comic book fans, the comic pages he produced with his mature style were amazing, the originals of his paintings are sold on websites that also sell comics, but I don't think Frank would have achieved the status he did or would have had the impact he did on a public that did not--up until that point--give a rat's ass about who made fantasy art if his paintings were basically just "great comic book panel, but on a longer deadline". This is not to say Frank was better than any given great comic cover artist, but that he was giving us something subtly different than the great comics cover artists, supplying some until-then-unmet demand.

Which Was What?

Here's a thing you can do with a painting, to see what story is being told: List what you notice about it, in order.

Red beard on right.
Foreground guy's extreme pose.
Blood on the sword.
High axe on the left.
(Left beard guy's pose isn't great.)
The modulation of the snow.
The reddish foreground and vague intimation of rocks.
Everybody's white.
The right beardo's brow is kinda wormcolored.
He's losing his helmet.
Snow sprays.
What is going on with right hand beardo's non-axe arm?
The way their ankles sink in snow.
The gray in all their muscles.
Their belts and armor are so thick.
Lots of circles in this composition.

Ok, so let's look at somebody else (Ian Miller):
Wait is it a machine or an animal?
Wait is this zigzag thing a border or is this a machine?
Wait does he have a lighthouse on his head?
Is the fish moving or rotating? If he was how come the lighthouse is straight up and down?
Hey there's a little guy.
Does he know the fish is there?
The fish's expression is mournful.
Is this a metaphor?
He is part-machine but he has feelings.
Also he's old. Like: this is some janky old technology?
Look at how those scales are done. 
Hanging over those shadow areas.
Yeah this is a weird little world.

So what are the important differences here? Well for one--Frank has no question marks. You always know where you are in a Frank Frazetta painting. Frazetta's fantasy world is not enigmatic. We don't go "Oh what's this?" We know exactly what this is. It's frost giants. And we definitely know why it's there: so we can watch them fight. Where did those shields come from, what culture? The store where you buy fighty shields. 

That's not an automatic or even usual thing in art: we are in another world and yet we know exactly what's up.

Frazetta saves all depth and subtlety for rendering alone. The axes, poses, mountain shadow, these are Vermeer-Velasquez-tier attempts. The light falls where it will be most beneficial. It is magnificently rendered. In service of? Showing you that it's magnificently rendered. This is not as common as you might think--especially among illustrators, who are allegedly supposed to be telling you a story about the thing the illustration wants you to buy.

This painting's for the cover of "At The Earth's Core":

Never has any fantasy illustrator--nay, perhaps anyone in any way involved in fantasy as a genre--ever given less of a shit what is at the earth's core. What's there? A monster and a babe. Why? So we can see the monster be black and green and coiling from purple mist and we can see the babe be hot and fleshy. What layeth within the veins of this pullulating Earth, oh Frank? Uh...brown. Not even a stalactite, Frank? Nah.

Frazetta's backgrounds are gorgeous but they don't ever make us go "What's up with that place?" What is up with that place is the painter painted it with subtle colors in a way that makes it look cool. It's like Frazetta has a little bottle of Gaspar David Friedrich that he squeezes into the back of the painting...
Friedrich (1800s, German romantic) cares about ice. You see the ice, you see its complexity...then you see a boat. We've just been told a story by this painting:

Once upon a time ice, which I bet you thought was boring and static, got all crazy and spiky and killed some people. And now it's terribly quiet and lonely again at the north pole. Isn't nature wild?

Frazetta's paintings tell a story, too, but it is a remarkably simple and consistent story: There was this cool ____ who met this cool ____ in this beautiful, faraway place and they fought:

And, yes, there are ones that aren't fights, like the ones where somebody's just won a fight or is looking for a fight. Some of his best ones have no fights:
But I've never seen The Reassembled Man on the side of a van.

Just as Michaelangelo had the Medicis and popes, Frazetta's biggest career-peak patrons were Clint Eastwood (who got Frazetta to do a poster for The Gauntlet) and Sylvester Stallone (who wanted him to do a poster for Paradise Alley).

Who are these guys? Actors--that is: artists, who took acting classes and had to read plays and sometimes learn to dance and sing--who play tough guys. This is a nerd-jock overlap, where the question posed is often: What do I, a jock, want with a story about ancient civilizations and monsters? Fights. 

Ok, so it's maybe not an amazing insight that Frazetta paintings have a lot of fights, but let's look at how Frazetta paintings interact with the narratives that are attached to them.

Your Story Vs Frank Frazetta

You ever see From Dusk Til Dawn? Here's what I remember: Salma Hayek is in it and not nearly enough. That's pretty much it. That is also what Frank remembers:

Robert Rodriguez got interviewed about the poster:

That's why when Frank Frazetta saw the movie originally he called me and said “Where did you find this gal? I wish I was painting her when I was painting these things!” I said, “She's based on your paintings, that's why she looks like your paintings!” He said, “Oh, okay.” The whole costume design and headdress was all based on that painting....His whole comment on the poster is “That's all you need on the poster. You don't need anybody else but her and that snake.” I said, “Well, we kind of have to put in the other actors, too, because it's George Clooney and Harvey Keitel...” He said, “Alright, alright.” But if you look at the painting it's 90% Salma and at the very bottom is George Clooney. He didn't even bother to put Harvey Keitel on the poster! It's just George Clooney, Richie and he didn't even draw in the vampires, he just [put in] the monkey guys he usually does. Quentin and I thought that was the best. Alright! He didn't even bother with our vampires, he put his own creatures that he always has in his paintings! It's so fantastic.

Frank decided the only good thing about the movie was Selma Hayek with snakes and then he took it out of the movie and put it on the poster and now the movie is boring.

Have you every read this book?

I have. It sucks. I mean, ok: Edgar Rice Burroughs is a visionary, yes. He invented 4-armed apes and those martians and decided to have a story set on Mars before most anyone else did. These are all good ideas--but the execution is like: Jon Carter is good at everything! Then he gets to Mars and, guess what? Earth men are better than everyone on Mars and are super-strong and can jump like whoa. Then he meets someone who looks like a human on Mars. Guess what? She is super hot and loves him. Also a princess. He gets in a lot of fights, and you know what? He wins. 

What did Frazetta do? He put everything good about the book on the cover. Mars! Alien flowers! Alien building! 4 -armed apes! A weird alien! Heroism! Fights! Ok but where's the hot babe?

Ah, there she is. On the back. Along with a cool building.

Here's Edgar Rice Burroughs' description of the first building Jon Carter ever sees on Mars. That's a big deal, right? First evidence of an alien civilization. Time for some awe and wonder, right?

I was determined, however, to explore the low structure which was the only evidence of habitation in sight, and so I hit upon the unique plan of reverting to first principles in locomotion, creeping. I did fairly well at this and in a few moments had reached the low, encircling wall of the enclosure.

There appeared to be no doors or windows upon the side nearest me, but as the wall was but about four feet high I cautiously gained my feet and peered over the top upon the strangest sight it had ever been given me to see.

The roof of the enclosure was of solid glass about four or five inches in thickness, and beneath this were several hundred large eggs, perfectly round and snowy white. 

That's it. am I being unfair to the ur-titan of sword-and-planet sci-fi? Maybe, let's try to find a more impressive building. Let's see what else he's got:

A word from the leader of the party stilled their clamor, and we proceeded at a trot across the plaza to the entrance of as magnificent an edifice as mortal eye has rested upon.

Oh shit, this is going to be good... 

The building was low, but covered an enormous area. It was constructed of gleaming white marble inlaid with gold and brilliant stones which sparkled and scintillated in the sunlight. The main entrance was some hundred feet in width and projected from the building proper to form a huge canopy above the entrance hall. There was no stairway, but a gentle incline to the first floor of the building opened into an enormous chamber encircled by galleries.

I mean...ok? Now look again at Frazetta's building. It's wonderful--especially from a guy who never draws right angles, hates painting architecture and--as noted--doesn't start you off with mystery.

In a million ways, Frazetta is far more of a poet than Burroughs: his Mars has fights and monsters and babes but it also is a place of weird, looming, colored light, picturesque while it is brutal. It's all in the rendering. The Burroughs books best use is to simply: let you pretend you are in this painting for a few hours.

I had a job to work on a Conan-influenced RPG once and the publisher sent the Conan book he wanted me to use as a model. I was reading it at my girlfriends' Airbnb while she was falling asleep--

"The girl on the cover is so cool I want to be her"

"Oh yeah?"

"Will you read to me the part you're reading while I try to sleep?"


Four sentences in...

"Oh it's so bad. Ok stop."

And this is a non-native-english speaker. Now, Howard's not for everyone but the point is: at least for her, Frazetta sold the book and the rest is details. Worse details.

So what is sword and sorcery according to Frank? Beautiful. The women are beautiful, the men are beautiful, the monsters are beautiful, the jungles and animals and plants and (rare) buildings are beautiful, the horses are beautiful, the backdrop planet that hangs like a moon too-big and in the wrong colors is beautiful, the violence is beautiful. Everything is a paragon of its class, nothing is undercut by being a lackluster example of itself.

Ok, fine, what artist doesn't like beautiful? But consider some side effects: since everything is a paragon, almost everyone is the same in Frazetta:

The two guys? They're heroes. What are they like? They seem to expect some danger but otherwise--one's blonde and one isn't. The woman? She's like them only wearing less clothes. 

It's not just that Frazetta makes things beautiful, it's that the beauty of the things is his story.

Just because a painting is beautiful and a genre illustration doesn't mean it has to tell that story:

That's Bob Pepper. He's telling a story about danger and conflict and monsters's saying something else. Also, Pepper has achieved something Frazetta never has--he makes the book look like it might be good.

Frazetta tells us only this story: These people fought and it was beautiful. Because it is not just a beautiful painting but part of its beauty is based in everything in it being very good at being itself. Some artists find beauty in ugliness, humbleness, quietness, not Frazetta. He finds beauty in beauty. Or, as anyone who has tried to photograph the Grand Canyon and failed can attest, he does a harder thing: he shows us a painting which makes the beautiful thing beautiful even after its been reduced to two dimensions. 

Frazetta and the Sword and Sorcery Narrative (or lack thereof)


Ok, I do have some questions about the Egyptian Queen: Is she, like, supposed to be there? Is she a captive? Is she scared of the leopard? What is that column made of? But something about how she's lit--like a stripper at the beginning of her stage time--tells me no-one involved cares or will tell me.  They're there so the painting will be there. Frank serves no god, not even the narrator. The column is made of those colors because that is the most beautiful thing. She is smooshed against it because it is the most fetching pose. The leopard looks hungry because Frazetta finds the beast at its most beautiful when its stalking. 

The genius of Frazetta as a sword and sorcery illustrator was that he told you not so much why you'd want to read that book but rather why you'd want to read sword and sorcery at all. This world is beautiful that's why. The flipside is: not a single fucking plot detail. Sometimes he didn't even read the books.

Think of a really good sword and sorcery tale--as soon as you get into details you get away from the Frazettian vision. That Fritz Leiber story where the Snow Women are waging cold war on their husbands? Too satirical for Frazetta. Jack Vance? Too clever by half. Clark Ashton Smith's 7 Geases? What kind of hero just shows up and gets immediately cursed?  Frazetta would fight you and all of nine nations before he put a trap or make a picture that showed how a magic item worked or painted an evil king next to an advisor maybe he didn't get along with.

It's hard to make an engrossing time-based entertainment that's just a string of superlatives. You can watch seven seasons of Game of Thrones because it has politics and treachery and characters that aren't all the best fighter in Westeros, you can read Tolkien because there's a riddle game and Frodo and Bilbo aren't sure they are heroes, and Boromir is maybe bad and there's an invisibility ring and...details details.

But there is no time in a painting--you get it all at once. So Frank doesn't care. There doesn't need to be a plot. All that shit they tell you in screenwriting class about setting the stakes before the fight? Don't need to: everyone in the fight looks cool and they're fighting in a cool place. That should be enough for you jamokes. Fuck stakes.

That Frazetta movie, Fire and Ice? It should've just been like John Wick with skeletons. Just 120 minutes of axes forged by a generic non-culture smashing skeletons.

I don't know if this makes Frazetta the best or worst possible tutelary deity for game masters and game designers. It is beautiful to be in a dungeon, it is beautiful to fight a dragon, who cares about anything else?


Simon Tsevelev said...

Now I know two things - who made the covers for some fantasy books that I've read and I have no idea about the plots and the authors and what the hell happened in the books and couldn't care less, but I will always remember the covers; and when you talk about art, it's awesome to listen.

Zak Sabbath said...


Thanks! I try.

Adamantyr said...

Beautiful! The post and the artwork. And Burroughs would probably agree with you. He never thought his fiction writing was profound or meaningful.

Next stop Boris Vallejo or is that just more of the same?

Zak Sabbath said...


Boris is very different to me, and not as good--which I discovered when I was hired to write an essay about Boris.

Adamantyr said...

Well the contrast would be interesting to read then!

Zak Sabbath said...


The paying gig may have tapped out everything I have to say on Boris, but if I think of anything else to say you'll see it here.

Benjamin Cusack said...

Speaking of comics, I am curious how you approach Wormy?
Dave Trapmpier was always one of my favorites when reading AD&D, and his comic is really interestingly breaking the fourth wall being about a game dragon that plays games.
It's like Windsor McCay's Little Nemo with the panel formatting sometimes also, which adds something intangible to the flow of the story, but the full page art is almost unrivalled in it's visual depth for the time.
The coolest is when Solomoriah jumps into sphere-world.

Zak Sabbath said...

@benjamin cusack

i like trampier but dont really get why people like wormy so much.

Kull said...

Egyptian Queen reminds me of the late 19th century academic painters : Bargue, Gerome, Alma-Tadema with its Orientialist influence.
Are you aware that Frank only did ONE comic from start to finish all by himself? It’s called Thun’da which was a Burroughs character concept rip, lol. If you’re interested there is a deep dive on that comic,

I prefer REH’s Conan, but to be very honest with you Frank did solidify the image of Conan in popular perception. There is division between the two portrayals but both are very good in their own ways.

Zak Sabbath said...


Yeah the orientalists were important to illustrators because their jobs had an overlap: they had to bring very specific details that their audiences could not see to those audiences. Precision was prized on both fronts.

I do know about Thun'da--since Frank usually worked on comics where there were more than one complete story per issue, it's true he didn't much do complete comics. But he did do complete stories that now are in collections, if anyone else reading this is interested. They range all over the place: all the funny animals, horror, crime, romance.

Zak Sabbath said...


your comment about Frank soldifying Conan's image made m go back and run an N Gram on the phrase "conan the barbarian"--I added it to the top of the article

CastlesMadeOfSand said...

This is quite fucking accurate, really hit the nail when you gave the Dusk till Dawn example.
Thing is Frazetta is so good at what he does that the rest kind of doesn't matter.

CJGeringer said...

I love reading your writings on art.

any chance of you doing an analysis of this on moebius and jodorowsky´s stuff?

Zak Sabbath said...


I like Moebius but I think his Jodo stuff is actually some of his less-interesting work. I did write a short eulogy for him:

Zak Sabbath said...



Last time you commented you got asked a question. You can't comment until you answer it. Everyone here --including me--has to answer questions here.

Zak Sabbath said...


Rob said...

What a great piece! It's nice to have an art fellow walk me through this.