I wouldn't know it until 15 years later, but the first ever Frank Frazetta pictures I saw, admired and studied were the covers to two Ace Paperbacks by Edgar Rice Burroughs: Back To The Stone Age and A Fighting Man of Mars, c. 1963. The cover credit on the indicia pages attributed both covers to Roy G. Krenkel, who's art on the other Ace ERB books had stopped me in my tracks and made a dent in my mind. My visual acuity wasn't developed enough at the time to see the subtle differences between Roy Krenkel's other covers, like The Master Mind Of Mars and Pirates of Venus, and these two beauties. Many years into my career the word would come out: Roy had had Frank Frazetta "ape" his style for these covers to meet deadlines, eventually suggesting Ace Books hire Frazetta in on the rest of the ERB books.
Once Frank was doing cover work under his own name and style the differences were obvious, if not one better than the other. Roy and Frank shone on the covers in their separate ways, and both attracted my attention and demanded I study their divergent thinking, drawing and painting as presented with each month's new ERB book. Like The Beatles and Bob Dylan songs of the era, each original, surprising and uplifting, Roy and Frank had the fantasy arena in thrall to their varied presentations. As a young artist, lured by both the content of the books and the content of the art, I was twice blessed, never knowing which artist would have the next release, nor what image to expect. Add to the cover art the fact that each Ace book also had one black and white interior drawing, well, it was like I was enrolled in a Master Class on how to draw Science Fantasy Art.
The Ace Books Tarzan Series covers were totally Frazetta... he nailed them, redefined the character while honoring the past depictions. The concepts and compositions were so other-worldly I could hardly grasp them...Frazetta's figure knowledge and "camera angles" formed the major impact of the covers, along with his unique color choices. His added design subtleties showed his knowledge of what gave a picture depth beyond the portrayed subject. No matter how often nor with what intensity I studied the covers, there was always more for me to learn... a great help was having my artist friends nearby to discuss the elements as each discovered them... trading Frazetta Insights between artists was one of the great learning tools, one still in use today.
I always had an interest in "scope" in pictures and often a painting could grab me with nothing more than a believably realized landscape, be it fantasy or reality... in those early days the figure work came second to me. But Frazetta's concentration on The Figure As The Picture showed me how one could invent a world by presenting a well-conceived figure. It was in how that figure was dressed, their demeanor, pose and accoutrements that one sensed the world in which the figure lived. And Frazetta excelled at that task as no other Fantasy artist had. What need for an entire legion of Cimmerian Soldiery when he could conjure the complete world in the way he had his main character hold his weapon. The choice of the weapon and armor, or lack of both was always in keeping with the world he was building in his painting. I was quick to note the authenticity of his imagined world: never was there that clumsy, "dressed for the picture" look so common on Fantasy Covers. This, if nothing else, separated Frazetta from the Run of the Mill.
I might add here there really was no Run Of The Mill at that time. There is reason to believe the modern Fantasy Art Genre was born with Frazetta's depiction of Conan the Barbarian on the Lancer paperback, Conan the Adventurer. The art on the Edgar Rice Burroughs' books did not engender copyists. The copying of ERB's writing had come earlier in the Century... when those old Read-Alike books by lesser authors were re-published, the savvy publisher got Roy Krenkel or Frank Frazetta to do those covers too. Robert E. Howard's Conan stories were to Edgar Rice Burroughs' adventures what Frazetta's paintings were to the Pulp Cover Art of that bygone day: akin, but enlarged.
I was a "tourist" during my early admiration of Frazetta's work... each new piece before my eyes was like a revealed vista now open to my amazement. I drank in the view and hungered for more. Being 18 years old in 1964, there were years and years of Early Frazetta Work for me to discover, while at the same time being treated to each new offering coming off the publishers' list. So, I went both forward and backward in time... a terrific Conan painting on a new paperback one day would be overwhelmed when a package arrived including 14 Funny Animal headings from the year of my birth. A new Creepy Magazine cover the following week would be set aside when a copy of Thund'a Number One arrived by the next week's mail.
An interesting observation during this time was, even though I could see definite stylistic similarities in all the work, it was surprising how little Frazetta's terrific oil paintings resembled his terrific comic book or illustration work. Frank's talent shone in all three areas. But when it came to oil painting, he didn't just translate his line into color. His paintings outgrew the roots of his earlier work. Certainly there was some shared imagery, but as Frank went from Line through Tone and into full gear with his oils, the effect was like watching a child grow through all the intricate levels of behavior until a fully mature adult stands at the apex of his profession, still commanding all the energies of the inquisitive child, the brash youth, the exploring teen and the introspective young adult yet blending them into something beyond the sum.
Somewhere during my feeding frenzy I started trying to absorb the art, focusing beyond my amazement and entertainment in an attempt to understand why I was fascinated. Why was a Frazetta-depicted wrist so much more informed and alluring than another artist's? I still can't answer that question, except to suggest there was something that Frazetta tapped into in his own mind that resonated in mine. It is unquestioned that Frazetta's pictures, to those who admired them, give the viewer a sense of "always having been." Once set down on canvas, the most outre of scenes becomes the template for how that action, character or scene has to be thought of from that moment on. True Creation: there was no image, then, set down, the image becomes the image, definite, all other attempts mere dross or imitation. Fans sense the majority of Frazetta's work as Iconic. as if they'd dreamed or lived that scene and had forgotten about it until presented with Frank's painting. I never questioned if his Conan pictures were anything but a true representation of Robert E. Howard's character and world, and knew, without reservation, his Tarzan was the Tarzan, all other representations becoming quaint. Frank's ability to "nail" a hero while capturing a dynamic moment is unsurpassed, possibly only equaled in the paintings of 100 years earlier, though not often and never to the same degree. No one, to my knowledge, has rivaled his ability to capture raw energy as embodied in the figure in action. Where earlier painters may have touched his depth of mood, they missed his impact. Where another artist might have equaled his force of design coupled with characterization, they missed his sweep and atmosphere. As personal as I felt these pictures to be, as much as they illustrated my dream life, I wasn't the only person so enthralled. The Frazetta Way washed out many of the other artists' work being published at the time, making that other art appear underdone, underfed, uninspired. There were older artists, dead artists whose work held up in the glare of Frazetta's power and energy, but the main gang of other Sci-Fi and Fantasy Artists just looked sun bleached and forgettable next to the series of paintings being published through Eerie and Creepy magazine, the Conan Books and Frank's other covers in the field.
A large fan base of young, on-their-way artists were drinking in the Frazetta Look. Almost the only reason any of them got a break was that Frank couldn't do all the covers as the Fantasy Market grew. An unfortunate side of this was, too often, the publishers looked to artists who were standing on Frazetta's shoulders, if not actually standing behind him with their hands in his pockets. They needed the Frazetta "look"... it sold books. Lesser artists can hardly be blamed for being overcome by Frazetta's approach. There are few talents who become Trend Setters, but once the trend is set, some artists of lesser ability get their souls stolen by the stronger artists' style and solutions. This happened during the careers of Charles Dana Gibson, Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell, all certainly Originals, as it has and still does in these days of Jean "Moebius" Giraud's work. And Frazetta was as complete an original as there has ever been. The trap in studying and emulating any of these Icons is the lure of the borrowed style. These accomplished masters of illustration have, in their work, answered all the hard questions: Design, Content, Color, Lighting, Feeling, Mood, Expression. Even a mediocre artist, following the greater artists' lead, can touch heights otherwise unavailable. A talented artist, caught in the whirlpool of imitation, can, time after time, create a masterpiece. A satisfying event, as long as they don't mind the constant observation that their work looks so much like the artist of their focus. A copyist, even a brilliantly talented one, will always present the same picture, always a step behind the Original. The hallmark of the Talented Original is each painting or drawing surprises even the most ardent fan. One of the most often heard exclamations in my circle of artists during the Frazetta Years, 1962 to the present, was: "I never thought of that!"
There are, of course, many levels of inspiration and there are many, many artists who have felt the heat of Frank's work without ever having had to steal the flame. That Frazetta painted pictures was enough for many younger artists to climb into their own styles and let loose their own demons and warriors, feeling Frazetta at their shoulder, a companion on their personal road.