Monday, May 10, 2010

RIP Frank Frazetta

When Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queene and Renaissance poet, died in 1599, the surviving great poets of England each wrote a poem in memoriam to him and read it at the funeral service. Brilliant writers such as Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson, John Donne, and William Shakespeare each wrote a unique poem dedicated to Spenser, and then after each was read, it was placed in the coffin. Those poems were buried with Spenser in Westminster Abbey, never to be seen or heard again. My mind boggles at the incredibly appropriate action of the poets, memorializing a great talent with pieces of their own, gifts to him that will never be reproduced.

Like the best poets, Frank Frazetta's art had the power to not just capture the imagination but to also set it free. For thousands and probably millions of readers, his cover work was their first introduction to speculative fiction, an invitation to worlds they barely imagined. For myself, I remember wandering through a chain bookstore as a youth and stumbling across one of the volumes of The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta from Ballantine Books and just being unable to look away. Inside, I found cover art for Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom series, my favorite series of all, and then went on to see other pieces by a man whose name I did not know until that moment, but who just took my breath away. Knowing very little about art, I was amazed and walked away, forever able to identify Frazetta's work from that point forward. Others I know actually got to see the Frazetta covers of the Barsoom books, and of Howard's Conan as they were released. I can only imagine the thrill finding them in a bookstore must have been. For myself, I wasn't allowed to buy that book, in part because it cost, I believe, the princely sum of $14.95, but also because of the scantily clad women who threatened to ensorcel my heart, if not other pieces of my anatomy.

His work became a touchstone to which I can always return, mingling an aftertaste of my youth with the critical eye of an adult. And rarely does a piece of his work not astonish me, no matter how many times I see it. Instantly identifiable, visceral moments of interrupted action.

His influence on the illustration industry is unmeasurable. There is not an illustrator alive today who is not responding to Frazetta in one way or another. He is, I think, the standard to which all illustrators are compared. It would not be a stretch, I think, for current illustrators to bury their memorial art in Frazetta's coffin, a tribute to the man who molded the industry and delighted so many.

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