Thursday, September 8, 2011

Frazetta Masterpieces #1

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.


Scott Williams said...

Never thought of this as overlooked, due to it's brilliance and it's priority in placement in the first Frazetta book. But I see your point that it's not as iconic as the "boobs and barbarian" stuff.

Great to see you blogging Dave!

Scott Williams

tony said...

Dave, what strikes me about this piece and all of Frank's work, both comics and paintings, is the narrative choices he makes. They are unerringly on target every time. There's not a wasted moment, a superfluous line or overdone effect. Learning from and working in comics, Frank honed an aesthetic economy of drawing. I don't mean simplistic or unsophisticated--just the opposite. He pulls out all stops as he shows his virtuosity at rendering lines and shadows. What I'm referring to is an innate sense of pacing, akin to a great writer or film director, the building of drama and the right moment to reach it's climax. Look at those Conans. They seem to tell a complete story, a full-length movie with just one image. Nobody does this as well as Fritz.

Tracy said...


Great idea and great piece to start this out with!

I loved this story from the first time I saw it in the FFF book 1 30 some odd years ago.. The use of the blacks and placement of them are to some dgree what set the standard for the rest of the world. They become the compositonal element and also focus your attention to exactly what Frank wanted. It is Frank being the dierctor again, and showing you where to look and see what he wants you too. It is the matter of knowing what not to draw.

The over exaduration of the boys movement in the way he is running lend a bit of commical relief to the story while adding that added bit of Frazetta motion and underlying humour that we see in tons of his pieces.

The silouett at the end of the piece not only signifies the end of the piece, but also suggests the end of the day as well. A black and white sunset for me anyways.

Thanks Dave,


robert gerson said...

Your Frazetta blog is a welcome addition to the blogosphere. Already I can't wait for the next entry!

I applaud your good sense (and taste) in leading off with one of Frazetta's children's adventure stories. Frazetta's rhythmic pencil/brush lines always perfectly captured split seconds of body action and anatomical motion in a way that no printed artist before Frazetta designed on paper. What better subject than kids in action for Frazetta. Thanks for giving us a look at this wonderful mid-century story after all these years. Frazetta's work continues to improve with age, it's always a pleasure to revisit his brush and ink art.

With Frazetta's powerful brush and ink art it is all too easy to overlook his children's stories and the romance stories in favor of the Buck Rogers covers, the iconic Weird Science Fantasy 29 cover and what I always considered the ultimate Brooklyn comic book story: "Squeeze Play." Keep surprising us with the lesser known works . . . but of course I hope you will have some exciting scans and insights on his Canaveral Press work and his early Warren period when those sensuous gray wash designs were flowing from his brush.

Frazetta was one of the most important mid-century New York City realist artists and your commentary and presentations are an important ingredient in recording his creative accomplishments for future art history studies.

Thanks Dave,
— robert gerson

Ray Cuthbert said...

That was an interesting choice to start off a blog on Frazetta's art -- his lesser known stuff. I applaud that approach.

I look forward to more of your insights. I appreciated your tale of the Nick Meglin connection in relation to the originals.

Best wishes!
- Ray Cuthbert

Abraham said...

I always adored this little Frazetta piece! His fluid lines are spectacular!

Keep posting and greets,


rjpistella said...

Hi Dave:

Many thanks for starting this blog...sober, pensive appreciation and criticism of comic art is a rarity these days. Kenneth Smith once said "Art, like philosophy, is ultimately about the deeper strata of life, so its own life is imperilled in an era of surfaces and shallowness." By the way, I agree, 'Cindy Is Saved' is a gem...and it shows how truly sensitive Frank's artistic heart is. Regards, ROB

Paul Herman said...

Hi dave,
Paul here, I think you, like I, got an introduction from Joe.

I just read your piece about Frazetta's lost masterpiece which, by the way, I have looked at critically before (& agree- fine work).

I like the way you write & agree with most of what you say but not your definition of art, while at the same time I voluntarily confessing that I have tackled the pinning down of that definition on my own blog ( without definitive success.

We may have the perfect mix for endless debate!

Good meeting you,

Rich Dannys said...

Great idea for a Blog, Dave!
I've always loved this HEROIC Comics story.. Frazetta's last, if memory serves?

I appreciate it mostly, as a brilliant example of Frank's technical control of pen/brush inking.. Of all the HEROIC stories, "Cindy Is Saved" strikes me as the best showcase for his use of "spotting blacks".. And also the way he's used black & white shapes, as an interesting compositional device..
I LOVE the way the lily pads are sprinkled across the dark deep pond water.. The way that Frazetta has used open-lines on some of the lily pads, to indicate the few that're lapped-up against the body of the Horse..
The way he exploded the view of the boy's Right Foot outside the Panel, to heighten the dynamics of the big DIVE into the water..
The staging throughout is absolutely amazing..

The action of the Boy running & diving has a real Norman Rockwell quality to it. And if you've seen the Wally Wood "copies" of some of these poses.. Then you know that Wood must've thought there was something extra-special about this story, as well!

Looking forward to more!

-- Rich