Frank Frazetta brought Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian to visual life in a way that director John Milius or Arnold Schwarzenegger could never hope to. Frazetta did it with paints and canvas, perhaps a better medium for realizing the grim Cimmerian with his arms of corded steel than perhaps movies or the bodies of Austrian bodybuilders with political aspirations. Robert E. Howard first created Conan in 1932, but the sword-wielding barbarian didn't take on the stature of other fantasy strongmen such as Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan until Frazetta's art started appearing on the covers of Lancer Books reprints of the pulp stories.
Previous printings of Conan stories had always depicted Conan in uninspiring Greco-Roman garb, sometimes even in a decidedly unmanly toga or tunic. Frazetta clothed the thief, warrior, barbarian, king in little more than a few animal skins, letting Conan's musculature define his character. Frazetta also took the time to cover Conan's forearms with battle scars. The barbarian's skin had the proper leathery look that Arnold's greased up beefcake never attained.
But Frazetta didn't only linger on the male form in his fantasy art. He also rendered buxom fantasy babes with perfectly rounded breasts and butts to adorn the manly slaughter draped across the canvas. But the Frazetta Conan cover that fascinated me the most as a seven year old combing through endless catalog pages in the back of every issue of "Famous Monsters" didn't have any of those women in it. It was the cover to "Conan the Usurper" and it pictured our hero with his back turned to us, chained to a dungeon floor, and straddling a massive anaconda. It's homoeroticism only just now registers on me. Whether Frazetta was aware of it or not, the image looks like Conan has a massive, fanged cock. There is a similar scene in Milus' "Conan the Barbarian", but Arnold hacking through a mechanical snake created by the same guy who did the effects for "E.T." still doesn't have the power of Frazetta's still image, even with all of our Governor's grunting and the movie's excellent score.
My first encounter with Conan was through the Marvel Comics that usually sported pencil work by Barry Smith and "Big" John Bucema with inks by Ernie Chan and a whole host of others. Smith and Bucema's imaginings of Conan were both excellent, but both artists owe their entire conception of what Conan should look like to Frazetta, as does Arnold and his wig maker. In fact, Frazetta's work shaped the look of fantasy as a whole as much as George Lucas or Peter Jackson did with moving pictures and their digital backlots. Those paperbacks that Frazetta did the covers for, usually contained butchered versions of Howard tales, called pastiches by Howard fans and experts today, but Frank did his job and did it better than well. The fact that Howard's original prose has finally seen the light of day, unaltered by sci-fi snobs who thought they knew better than the suicidal Texan fantasy writer, owes something to Frazetta's artwork for capturing our imaginations all of those years ago and letting us know what Conan should be.
It's just now being reported that Frank Frazetta died today at age 92. Only a month ago, his adult children resolved their nasty dispute over his fantasy art that involved lawsuits and charges of theft. Last November, his painting titled "The Berzerker" sold at auction for $1 million. In 2003, one of Saddam Hussein's pleasure palaces was discovered with walls adorned with fantasy art of the type that Frazetta was famous for. None of the paintings in the Iraqi dictator's collection were by Frazetta himself, but all of the images of warriors fighting scaly beasts and voluptuous priestesses still bore Frazetta's influence if not his almost limitless talent.
There will never be another artist in any medium that can fill Frazetta's boots.