When collectors and connoisseurs gather to debate the qualities and merits of the art of Frank Frazetta, they usually focus on his great periods and great themes. His CONAN oils and the Canaveral Press drawings from the 1960’s easily represent his greatest level of creative attainment. The later drawings of KUBLA KHAN and LORD OF THE RINGS represent another outstanding period. However, there are moments in Frank’s career when he produced gems that are overlooked because they don’t fall into that “babes, barbarians, and burroughs” category of subject matters that made Frazetta world renowned.
Frazetta’s last published interior comic work appeared in HEROIC COMICS #94 (December, 1954). It is a 2-page story entitled “Cindy Is Saved” with a charming storyline of a boy rescuing a horse. In my opinion, this story is as good as anything Frazetta ever did. It is an overlooked masterpiece. I should point out that Frank knew the quality of this story and that is why it was given the lead position in the first volume of The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta, the groundbreaking series of art books published by Ian Ballantine in the mid-1970’s. The original art was given to Frank’s boyhood friend, Nick Meglin (who went on to become the editor of MAD magazine). Years later, Nick gave the art back to Frank as a gesture of friendship. In return, Frank gave Nick the choice of any sketch in the house. Nick thought deeply and selected the delightful sketch of a nude dipping her toe in a pond. This sketch was also published in the first volume of the Frazetta Art book series.
Let’s look at this story and ponder its qualities. First of all, a few preliminary observations. Any genuine work of art discloses a world, a world created from an imagination. Art establishes a presence and it makes an appeal to the observer to enter the world presented. How intensely we respond to that appeal defines the level of quality of the world being presented. Art appreciation requires a poetic grasp of the subject-matter. We surrender to the lines and forms. They construct images, symbols and metaphors in our imaginations. Most often the artist is not consciously aware of everything that is present in his creation. That is part of the essential mystery of art, the mystery of creativity, and the mystery of creative engagement with a piece of art. I am not an advocate of that fashionable verbal obscurantism that proliferates in the Madison Avenue art worlds. All those endless self-serving dissertations only serve to place a barrier of impenetrable verbiage between the art and its direct appreciation. It really should be easy…great art speaks and we listen.
Frazetta opens up this story with a beautifully drawn splash panel that foreshadows the conclusion of the story. He grabs our attention and places us squarely in his world. The black pond becomes a symbol of danger and impending death. The entire visual style of this story employs this yin-yang of light and dark. The bottom panel is a superb expression of texture and atmosphere. Frank uses thin inks to soften the details and give some age and authenticity to the interior of the barn. It is a virtuoso piece of draftsmanship. The young boy is made aware of the horse’s dire plight. His sense of right-minded morality sparks him into action.
Page two continues the rhythm as the boy runs to the aid of the distressed horse. The wild exuberance of that opening panel is exhilarating to the eye. We are “IN” that world. Frank has us visually captured. The blacks are delicately spotted; the details are spare and placed perfectly. The compositional balance in this panel is sheer perfection. The second panel is equally good both in its details and overall design. Frank varies the viewing angle; he has us running with the boy. Again, the drawing is exquisite. The horse has animation and life. The mid-panel continues the basic rhythm. We are visually jumping into the pond with the boy. The boys shoe pops ever so slightly outside the panel line. A virtuoso touch by Frazetta indicating the energy and passion underlying the saving leap. It’s not overdone, it’s just right. The vegetation is natural and a nice counterpoint to the fluid action of the scene. I doubt if Frazetta has ever drawn a better panel. The idiosyncratic movement and animation that Frazetta has given the boy establishes the unique nature of this art. I can just see Frazetta sitting at his drawing board and his mind exploding with boyhood images and smells and wild runs through the undeveloped areas of Brooklyn. He has captured all that sentimentality and youthful vigor in these 2 pages of art.
The final panels continue the quality and excellence of the drawing. The closeness of horse and boy is felt clearly during the act of rescue. The “concerned” look on the horse’s face as he looks at the boy undoing the chain. Has anyone ever drawn animals like Frazetta? The answer is a resounding “no”. Frank has always had that mysterious ability to draw animals that live and exhibit personality. These animals don’t come from frozen-in-time photographs, but from a living imagination that confers life upon them, whatever the species.
The last panel is a perfect silhouette, perfectly drawn. The dark and light have changed their symbolic associations. He has turned the color of that dangerous pond into the color of rescue and salvation and triumph. I am sure there are deep meanings and archetypes at play here that touch our imaginations in unique ways. The impact is there, even if one cannot verbalize it. That is the magic of great art.