Conan the Phenomenon, by Sammon and Frazetta

He was an artist, not an author, but I suspect he was responsible for more fantasy book sales than any single person except J.R.R. Tolkien.

Frank Frazetta died today, after an extended illness. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1928, he attended the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts and went on to work in comics and commercial art. He was an assistant to Al Capp on the classic Li’l Abner comic strip for several years, specializing in voluptuous female figures. In the late ’60s, he began doing the classic book covers for collections of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, which is where guys like me first became wonderingly aware of him. He did lots of book covers, some for good books, some for garbage, but in my opinion there was a synergy between Howard’s lean, evocative prose and Frazetta’s original combination of textures and a limited palette that worked reading magic. Especially for adolescent boys, which was what I was at the time. Still am, for all practical purposes.

I’ve said elsewhere that, although I loved (and still love) Tolkien, it was reading Howard that first put in my head the idea that I could write fantasy too. Tolkien’s work was so monumental, so towering in its erudition, that I never dreamed of trying to emulate it. But Howard was a pulp storyteller, the king of the three-cents-a-word men. He wrote for no higher purpose than to entertain and make a buck, and he did it better than almost anybody. When I read Howard, I had a good time, and I also thought, “I could do that sort of thing. I could even stretch it a bit, and make it serve the gospel.”

I know of no moral lesson from Frazetta’s career, and his art, to be frank, often verged on porn (very, very high quality porn). But what he did, he did better than anybody. He has his imitators, but in my opinion they’re all a little slick, a little refined. Frazetta’s Conan looked like a guy who’d been in fights and knew how to handle himself. Even his women, exaggerated as they were, had what I’d describe as “the strangeness of real life.” They weren’t quite what you expected, and were all the more interesting for it.

So thanks, Frank Frazetta, for “drawing” me into Sword & Sorcery. Rest in peace.

Conan the Phenomenon for sale here.

Lars Walker is the author of several fantasy novels, including West Oversea.