Saturday, September 10, 2011

Foster, Frazetta, And Tarzan

"Foster is the father of us all." Jose- Luis Salinas, artist of the CISCO KID

The very first time I walked into the studio of Al Williamson I went to his drawing board. There was a beautiful Warren page that he was inking. On the floor next to his chair was a beaten-up comic book, heavily used and soiled.

"What's that, Al?"

"Oh, that's the Bible."

"The Bible!"

"Yes, that book answers all my questions. If I have a problem, that's the first place I go. All the answers are there."

The comic book Al was talking about was the TARZAN SINGLE SERIES #20 book that contains reprints of Hal Foster's TARZAN pages from the early 1930's. The influence of Hal Foster simply cannot be calculated. Every master of the field and every wannabe artist swiped constantly from Foster. He was the number one resource.

And yet, in our field, Foster's TARZAN is underappreciated and wildly undervalued by the wider audience. There are 2 reasons. One is that most people have rarely seen top-quality Foster TARZAN originals. Secondly, most of them were in deplorable condition because of mistreatment and improper storage. Most of the extant Tarzan originals came from 2 sources...George Roussos and Fred Ray. Both artists had large caches of these pages obtained directly from Foster and they gradually let them go into the art marketplace. Several collectors (in particular, myself, Russ Cochran, and Jack Gilbert) spent thousands of dollars to restore these treasures and save them for posterity. I had a dozen pages restored, including a fabulous 3 page dinosaur sequence for Al Williamson from 1932.

The famous "egyptian sequence" of pages from 1932-34 might be the finest strip art adventure ever drawn and certainly the most influential. Even the great Alex Raymond "borrowed" many motifs from Foster for use in his Flash Gordon strip. Consider the 3 pages I have reproduced. First there is the 2 page egyptian sequence where Tarzan battles the apes to become King of the Apes, then must confront the Pharaoh. The color page was a hand-colored gift by Foster to the ER Burroughs family. The ERB archives has a letter from Foster talking about this wonderful gift. The last panel of this page is probably the greatest of all Foster's Tarzan drawings. Note the gestures of Tarzan throughout the pages. This was something new. His handling of the human form was fresh and experimental. The second page, "The Miracle", continues the furious action. Note the sophistication of the layout. The top banner showcases the two protagonists and foreshadows the content. The portrait of Tarzan on the top is sensational and captures the rugged good looks of the ape man. Foster confided to Al Williamson that he borrowed the look of Tarzan from the old Buck Jones cowboy serials.

Foster changes his vantage points from close-up to cinematic panoramas. The art is beautifully drawn and the historical details give a special atmosphere. Remember that this is really the birth of the adventure strip. Foster was creating from whole cloth. You can feel his juices being poured into the drama and cliffhanger endings. His compositional designs and storytelling are simply first rate. If you don't "get" Tarzan by Foster, then you need to deepen your grasp of real art. Every page from this sequence is a great American treasure.

Frazetta was equally fanatical about Foster. In the late forties he pursued George Roussos to get some Tarzan originals. Both he and Al wanted them desperately. I have added an early sketch page by Frank from one of Roussos' sketchbooks where Frank pleads for some Tarzans. Frank knew "the good stuff" at a very early age. Frank ultimately received 3 pages, all from the egyptian sequence. The page I have reproduced is the best of the three. Frank had it framed and it hung in his living room for 40 years until I wrested it from him. If you look at that page carefully you can see the elements that would stay with Frazetta for his entire career. The upfront action, the delicate foliage, the "gravitas" and authenticity of the settings and story; all these things defined the later Frazetta. I was fortunate to learn about Foster at the feet of men like Al and Frank. What an education that was!

Dr. Dave Winiewicz (c)2008