Friday, November 4, 2011

Frazetta's ULTIMATE TRIUMPH book

The following is an interview from 1999 concerning the publication of the volume, THE ULTIMATE TRIUMPH. The book was a labor of love and three editions were produced: a hardbound, a slipcased hardbound, and a lavish calfskin slipcased edition of just 100 copies. None of the editions were signed, although the Frazetta Museum did sell a few copies that Frank signed. I should point out that many copies are circulating with forged signatures. I had Frank sign several copies of the calfskin edition. He signed two copies for me, one for the publisher, Marcelo Anciano, and a copy for Gary Gianni. I took a photo of Frank signing the books to authenticate the signatures. He signed them cursively with his right hand. This was the period after his two major strokes and his normal professional signature was not good.

The Ultimate Triumph

Interviewer: Anya Martin

July 1999

AM: From what I understand, you really were the bridge to making this project happen. How did you meet Marcelo? What happened?

DW: We knew one another as from collector to collector. He's been a long-time fan of Frank Frazetta, and I've been a long-time fan of Frank Frazetta. He just called me up one day, and we started talking about Frazetta. He collects exotic Frazetta fanzines, photos, different types of things, as I do. He's also interested in original art and all different aspects of Frazetta. I've known him for several years, and we've had many, many discussions about Frazetta. I didn't realize until later on that he was a book publisher and a book designer.

He basically asked me to take a copy of the Solomon Kane book, bring it down to the Frazettas, show it to Frank Frazetta and his wife Ellie, and just have them take a look at the quality of the book. Then perhaps at some point in the future he was going to approach them with doing another book, somehow incorporating the art of Frank Frazetta.

So I brought it down to Frank, showed it to him, and pointed out the quality. Frank was very impressed with the production values. It was printed in the style of an old-time book with a lot of pen and ink illustrations on each page, a lot of tipped-in color plates. Frank enjoyed the art. He enjoyed the way the book was packaged. He enjoyed the entire thing.

So then subsequently I approached Frank and his wife Ellie, who functions effectively as his business agent, and I said, would you consider doing something with this particular company employing Frank's art. And they said yes. That's basically how the thing got off the ground. There was a little bit of reticence on the part of Mrs. Frazetta and Frank to begin with because they really didn't have very good dealings with Conan Properties. Then we pointed out to them that there's a big difference between the estate of Robert E. Howard and Conan Properties. It was really Conan Properties that was out there giving people a tough time and looking for a great deal of money. Whereas the estate of Robert E. Howard were people who basically didn't have anything, and they were trying to resurrect the reputation and get back some of the writings of Robert E. Howard. That in and of itself is a long story.

AM: When I was interviewing Gary [Gianni] about Solomon Kane, one of the things he said to me was that he had bought the Conan novels for the Frank Frazetta covers.

DW: And most people did. People didn't really care about Robert E. Howard, but those covers were so amazing you just had to have them.

AM: And hopefully the covers did get people to read the books.

DW: Oh, yeah.

AM: How many times have you not bought a book because it had a lousy cover or bought a book because it had a great cover?

DW: Yeah, and the influence is even greater than that because Frank Frazetta really did establish the paperback industry as a force in this country. Before Frazetta came along, paperback sales were never as gargantuan as they started to be after he arrived on the scene. From there, the paperback industry just exploded into all sorts of different directions. But Frazetta was the original catalyst for the paperback industry becoming a force in the publishing world. That can be documented; that's not just my particular bias operating. The guy had a tremendous amount of impact. But that's Frazetta.

AM: The book is going to be a compilation of sketches. How did this particular group of sketches get assembled?

DW: What Marcelo wanted to do was bring together a bunch of art that related directly to the barbaric world, the world of Robert E. Howard. He wanted that particular genre. He didn't want Tarzan drawings. He didn't want anything else.

He knew since I was probably one of the oldest collectors in the land, I knew where all the bodies were buried. I could contact other collectors, get xeroxes and transparencies, and gather together a lot of the disparate sketches that were buried all over the country and all around the world. I brought them together and got them ready for publication. I operated as the middleman for assembling all this stuff and contacting collectors around the world. I don't own all the sketches. I do own a number of them but I don't own them all.

So it was an arduous task to find everybody and then to motivate everybody to make reproductions. But this is the first time that amount of material has been assembled for a book.

AM: Part of why I was asking was because I had heard Ellie had encouraged Frank to hold onto most of his work? So I wasn't sure how much came from their collection.

DW: I've probably done more deals with the Frazettas than any other human being on the planet Earth. I've gotten a lot of originals from them. It's like a war to get an original from them. They don't let them go easily. So you either have to have the right amount of money at the right time or do the right trade at the right time. It's not easy.

AM: Was Ellie pleased that you were able to bring works that were out in the marketplace at least in a way back into the fold?

DW: I think she will be once she sees the book, because she left it in the hands of Marcelo. Basically what she did was just grant him the right to assemble the material and put it together. Because of Frank's medical condition, because of the fact that they are relocating the museum from Loca Grand (Ck) Florida back to East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, and Ellie's in the process of building a brand new museum devoted to Frank's work, all of these things have been taking up her time. So she couldn't devote a lot of time to assembling this.

AM: Why are they moving the museum back to East Stroudsburg? Is it because it's easier to manage--

DW: No, because Frank had the strokes, and he thought it would be better to be back near his doctors who live in East Stroudsburg. And he's lived there for many, many years since the early '70s.

AM: What major city is that near?

DW: It's north of Philadelphia. It's about an hour and a half away from New York City. It's near the Pocono mountains which is a resort community.

Originally the first Frazetta museum opened up in 1984 in East Stroudsburg. The Frazettas owned a big building in the downtown area. On the third floor, they opened up a museum devoted to the basic works of Frazetta. Then they closed it and decided to move it down to Florida.

Then because of the medical situation, they decided to come back, and Ellie is putting together a brand new museum on their land, on their estate, kitty-corner to their own home. It's built like a small fortress, a castle. It's a very fantastic-looking piece of architecture. It's got a wonderful setting in the midst of all this land and trees and forest. It's the perfect setting for Frazetta's work.

AM: When is it going to open?

DW: It's going to be open sometime in the tail end of this year or early next year depending on how fast the contractors are working.

AM: I don't know if I've ever seen any of his work in person.

DW: No, it's tough to see it because he didn't release a lot of material over the years, and the people who have oil paintings usually have them up in their homes and don't lend them out very much. But going to the museum is really a very emotional experience. I know a woman who has a master's in fine arts and is a specialist in art history. She walked through the door and started crying because she was overcome by emotion because the paintings had such impact.

AM: Returning to the project at hand, with all the research involved to assemble the pieces, it sounds like a very challenging task.

DW: Well, I've been a fan of all this stuff since I was five years old. I'm 49 years old right now. Throughout all that time period, I have been in contact with every generation of collector. For many years, I kept a master list of where every single Frazetta piece was. Up until recently, when more material was released on the marketplace, I really did know where every single piece was. Now there's just too much bouncing around too quickly and prices escalating to keep track of it. But like I said, I know where the bodies are buried. I know most of the major collectors. It was just a matter of putting in the time, contacting the people and finding the stuff. And then knowing approximately who had what and what type of genre that Marcelo was interested in for this book.

And then, of course, I consulted with Marcelo asking him do you think this or that piece would be suitable.

AM: Can you tell me which watercolor roughs have been chosen for the limited edition? Are they studies for his cover art?

DW: Well, yeah. Most of the watercolor studies are little preliminary watercolor compositions that Frazetta would do before he would start a final oil painting. Basically, he would sit down, get out a sketchbook, get out a pencil, and then create a form in front of him. If he deemed it appropriate, he would then add some color to the form just to determine where the light would hit on the form itself. Now depending on how much energy he put into it, that would determine the quality of the studies.

Sometimes, he would do nothing with it. He'd leave it in a penciled state, just make a couple of little touches of color, and then go right to the easel and start painting. But sometimes, he would get fascinated with what he was doing. He'd add a lot of color, a lot of subtleties, and the roughs ended up like miniature preliminary paintings that had all their own little qualities that set them apart from the paintings themselves. What Marcelo was looking for was real quality studies that people normally do not keep and that would really shock people because of the amount of energy that Frazetta put into them.

AM: Are there pieces that people might recognize?

DW: There will be studies for some of the Conan paintings. As of the time of this talk, we haven't decided what the ultimate line-up is going to be. But they are all going to be pieces related to the barbarian genre. Not only did Frazetta paint Conan paintings, but once the Conans became so popular, then all the publishers were flocking to Frazetta to do sword and sorcery, that particular type of barbarian material. So you got a lot of different paintings for a lot of different authors. They were all a little bit different, but they all had the same barbaric theme.

They're wonderful. No matter which pieces Marcelo selects for the watercolor portion of the book, they're going to be exceptional because we've got a number of exceptional pieces to choose from.

I think one of the pieces that's going to be in the book, for example, is just a little pen sketch of a barbarian. There's a little castle in the background. When Frank does a sketch and thinks the quality warrants it, he'll go back and add a little watercolor to it. This wasn't done as a preliminary to a painting. It was just done for his own personal amusement. It's a lovely little piece of a barbarian holding a sword with a castle which captures the essence of the whole genre of barbarian sword and sorcery.

But Frazetta does this to amuse himself. Frank has told me many, many times in the past. He's said, "Dave, I'm my number one fan. I get more of a charge and more amusement and more fun out of this stuff than anybody." That's what he does. The joy really does flow from the work immediately. That's why he's so famous.

AM: It has to if you're an artist.

DW: Oh, yeah. Frank has always told me, the cardinal sin with art is to be boring. If you're going to bore people, don't bother being an artist. If you don't have anything to say. If you can't amuse people or intellectually confront people or give them joy, then there's no sense doing the art. It serves no purpose.

AM: Considering the opus of Frazetta's work that was published in the five-volume series, The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta (ck), what does this book add?

DW: The original five Ballantine volumes, which were published from 1975 to 1989, focused on his oil paintings. They wanted to present the essential core work of Frazetta to the public. They added only a few little sketches and pen and ink drawings.

This particular volume is going to show a different side of Frazetta. It's going to show his sketchwork. This is an entirely different book of Frazetta. When Frazetta sketches, there's an incredible joy which you can trace all the way back to his childhood. Frazetta has always had a love of drawing. He's always said, painting is hard work, it's arduous, it's labor, but drawing is fun. These sketches reflect the fun that comes out of Frazetta's soul. That's why there's so much light and so much bounce and so much verve. His sketches are absolutely wonderful. From the tiniest little sketch to the most major compositions, there's always something interesting, very living that comes out of them.

And as Frank has always said, real art is living art. It's got to have life. It's got to live by itself, or it's just dead on the page.

AM: What's the time range? Marcelo said that these works range from the 1950s to close to the present.

DW: It will cover the entire range of his work. Frank started doing comic book work in 1944. Really the sketchbooks he started around 1952, 1953. This work is going to come anywhere from the early '50s all the way up until the current days. So it's going to cover the whole gamut.

AM: So what would be the early works from the '50s before the Conan covers? Were these sketches he did just for fun, things we've never seen before?

DW: Absolutely. He just did them for the joy of drawing itself. A lot of these works would be drawings of Indians and primitive people. Frank has always had a deep fondness of anything that's primitive, anything that's raw and brutal, anything that's in your face, anything that's very direct. He doesn't like to draw court scenes with elaborate flouncy costumes or things like that. He likes to draw women without their clothes on, men without their clothes on. He likes the brutal, raw, flesh aspect of reality.

When the barbarians came along, it was right up his alley. Once again, it was something that very raw, very direct, very brutal. So it was like hand and glove. It was a subject matter that was perfectly suited for the type of thing he had been doing because just prior to that he was doing Tarzan. But Tarzan is very elegant, very noble and doesn't have the same degree of brutality. Whereas with Conan, Frazetta could really let out all the stops. In painting Conan, he was not only painting Conan himself, he was painting a picture of the 20th century and a painting of the dark side of humanity itself. He was showing us that particular dark, incredibly dreaded aspect of man. That's what emerges from his art.

But barbarians, primitives, cavemen, he was doing that right from the '50s, right from the '40s. As a matter of fact, when he was a child, he did a series of comic books which he put together himself. Some of them are titled, "The Panther-Woman" or "The Caveman of Such-and-Such." A little girl would be lost in the wilderness and be attacked by dinosaurs or something. The themes would always be very barbaric, very primitive. And that was from the time he was eight or nine years old. The themes of Frazetta's artwork always remained consistent with him throughout his life.

AM: So really for anybody who thought his drawing barbarians started in the 1960s, this book is going to show that, no, no, it really runs the gamut of his career?

DW: Yeah, it's just a natural extension of what he had been doing all along.

AM: I would assume that you selected sketches somewhat because they did relate to Howard's work. But is there some work included from his Burroughs years? Is there anything to do with Death Dealer mixed in just because it seemed to evoke the right mood?

DW: We tried to avoid things that a fan of Frazetta would immediately recognize and associate with other characters. The Death Dealer is Frazetta's own character. That's a world unto itself. Tarzan is a world unto itself. Marcelo wanted works that directly related to the worlds of Robert E. Howard. That included Indian stories, Arabian stories, things that have exotic themes, not just straight barbarians. But he wanted to stay away from anything that would have a resonance that would lead to something else. Because after all, it's a book on Robert E. Howard.

But there's a lot of really great stuff. We had to pass on a lot of great material only because it was just too derivative.

AM: What about anything from his animated movie, Fire and Ice?

DW: I think he is going to include that because that particular movie got very limited distribution. It didn't do as well as he thought it was going to do just because there were all sorts of problems that occurred. But Frazetta did do a series of drawings for Fire and Ice that were very barbaric in nature and are perfectly appropriate for this book. So I think Marcelo wants to use some of that.

AM: Are there any stories behind any particular sketches, any anecdote that would really reflect the way Frazetta works?

DW: That's an interesting question. I could only answer that if I saw the individual sketch. There are thousands of stories about Frazetta, about why he would do something as opposed to something else. It's tough for me to grab on one thing. There are just so many different stories, so many different reasons why he would sit down and sketch something.

In the book, for example, in one of the essays I wrote, I talk about Frazetta's technique and there is reproduced a sketch of a fight scene. I point out that this particular fight scene is so significant that it represents really the essence of Frazetta's approach when he sketches. Because when Frazetta sketches, it's unlike anybody else. His pen jumps around on the page like an electric live wire. It's everywhere. He's got lines going in every conceivable direction. It's just a jumble of incredible chaos. And then later on, if he wants to turn it into something more finished, he then goes over it and picks one particular spot and focuses on that in order to bring forth a specialized drawing. In this sketch, you see the liveliness and electricity of Frazetta's lines. It enlivens the entire thing. So the whole drawing is exploding in front of you in a non-stop arena of movement and motion that really captures the essence of Frazetta.

So I found that sketch to be just the essence of Frazetta itself. You should really look for that in the book. It's an exceptional piece. Like I said, it's just a fight scene, but it's done with such flair and such grace and such effortlessness that very few artists in the world, if any, could reproduce it.

AM: So you've written at least one essay for the book?

DW: I wrote one essay on Frazetta and Robert E. Howard, and I added another little appendice essay on Frazetta's technique and how he goes about doing sketches.

This book by Marcelo and Wandering Star is going to be an interesting blend of the authentic writings of Robert E. Howard, which Frazetta always enjoyed, as opposed to the adulterations in Howard's writings when L. Sprague deCamp and other writers expanded the texts. Frazetta always enjoyed the original words of Howard. He thought the original words were powerful. He enjoyed the brutality and rawness of his language, and he thought later authors just ruined the work of Howard.

AM: Do you know when Frazetta actually discovered Howard?

DW: He was aware of him from the time he was a young boy. I'm not sure at what point he started reading Howard. When Frazetta was growing up, he was very familiar with all of the major writers and major artists, like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, J. Allen St. John and Hal Foster. These people were his primary influences. He loved the Popeye comic strip. He loved the comic strip, Henry, because it was so simple. All these things had a profound influence on his youth. You can see all these influences, even the early Disney cartoons like Fantasia and Snow White. Even the coloring on the early toys and toy boxes had an impact on Frazetta.

AM: How did you meet Frazetta?

DW: I got involved with Frazetta when I left graduate school and started to enjoy myself and do casual reading. I was always so profoundly interested by Frazetta. I sat down and I said, well, I'm going to write an essay and try to figure out why I'm so interested in Frazetta's work. Aesthetically, what happens when I look at a Frazetta painting? Why is it significant? I did a little six or seven page essay, and I sent it to Frazetta. Frazetta called me up, and he said, "Dave, that's the best thing that's ever been written on me. Come on down. Let's talk."

Since then, I've probably been Frazetta's best friend for the last 15 years. So it was quite the entrJ e. That happened in early 1980s. I had known him prior to that, but we had never had a close friendship. Once that happened from about 1982 to 1999, we've been inseparable. I talk to him once a week. I go and visit him every couple of months. He lives about 350 miles away, and I just jump in the car and go down there. We have a ball.

AM: Is Frank Frazetta still painting?

DW: Yes, he is. He's doing it left-handed. He's basically going in and trying to correct some of the mistakes he made on paintings. The reason why he does is because many times when he was doing a commission, an art director at a publishing house would say, look, we want you to put in x, y, and z. And Frank would probably not want to put in x, y, and z. So when he gets the painting back, he thinks, well, I'm going to make it the way it should be. Now I'm going to make it a Frazetta painting.

That's why the current state of a painting looks completely different from the published version. He either didn't do enough or an art director was forcing him to do something he didn't want to do and he was basically picking up a check for it. But being the artist that he is, he wanted to go back and make it as true to his vision as possible.

AM: He was unique as being one of the first cover illustrators to want his work back, wasn't he?

DW: Absolutely. He set a trend for that as well. He also was one of the first people to grant first publication rights for his artwork. In other words, he sold the first publication right and that's it. You have no other right to publish his work instead of giving away the work in perpetuity.

AM: Which has undoubtedly benefited fantastic illustrators.

DW: Oh, everybody followed in his footsteps. Everybody copied his techniques. There's no question about it. He wanted the work back when he was doing the Tarzan paintings in the early '60s. He was only getting paid a small amount of money, and they were keeping the paintings. So he figured why should I knock myself out. Then when the Conan assignment came through, they offered him an immense amount of money compared to what he had been making previously plus he was allowed to keep the original paintings. So, of course, he poured his heart and soul into them. Once again you see an incredible increase in quality from the paintings he was doing in 1962 versus the ones that started in 1964. He was much better appreciated, much better paid, plus he kept his product.

AM: Now he used to paint and sketch with his right hand?

DW: Yes. The strokes weakened his right hand, and he lost his feeling in his arm. He's done miraculously in terms of recovering from the strokes he's had. He gets around very well. He's able to take care of himself. He talks reasonably well. But still he has that numbness in his hand. Because of that, he gets micro-tremors, and he just can't handle the brush and do the kind of fine work that he normally would do. So that's why he switched to the left hand. Not only is he painting with his left hand, but he's also doing watercolors and pencils with his left hand.

For example, a couple of years ago in San Diego, he gave one of his agents a drawing of a left-handed nude, and it sold for $2,000. This really is very rare in art history. There are only a few documented cases of an artist switching hands and doing even halfway passable and decent work.

AM: That's such an inspirational story.

DW: Yes, he's a remarkable man, just an incredibly remarkable man. What he's gone through physically in terms of his medical problems would have killed anyone else. He's got such incredible life energy about him.

AM: After you've been through that kind of debilitating medical condition, you really have to have that drive to live and go on.

DW: Oh, absolutely. The life force within him is just one of those divine gifts that some people have.

AM: Because many people would be brought down by much less.

DW: Oh, yes. No, Frank never wanted to be a victim, absolutely. He wants to persevere. He doesn't like the fact that his life is limited in a way that it wasn't limited previously. Of course, he has his black days and dark moods, but he's still Frazetta and he overcomes that.

AM: Is he still drawing barbarians?

DW: He draws everything. The last time I was there I saw four pencil drawings of sabertooth tigers which he had done. They were magnificent, each one. Unless you were specifically told these were left-handed drawings, you couldn't have told the difference between right-handed or left-handed. They were Frazetta. You could not tell the difference. Remarkable.