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?
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.
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.
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"
"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 but...it'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?