by Christopher Helman
Which artist helped make Arnold governor? Frank Frazetta, the Rembrandt of barbarians.
Put aside the deft political machinery, the Kennedy Family missus and the seething masses' discontent. Californians today might not have Arnold if Arnold had not had Conan. The role of a virile, axe-wielding, fur-bearing, cranium-smashing barbarian suited Schwarzenegger to a tee. It made him first a star, then a public figure, now a politician. But who created Conan?
Pulp writer Robert E. Howard dreamed up the character in the 1930s. It was not until the 1970s, though, that the barbarian's popularity took off. That was when illustrator Frank Frazetta gave Conan his present form. Frazetta's wild cover art--fantastic, sensuous, a bit tawdry--moved paperbacks that previously had languished.
In a recent video biography called Frazetta: Painting With Fire, John Milius, director of the Conan films, says he borrowed heavily from Frazetta's imagery.
Raised on the streets of Brooklyn, Frazetta, 75, began drawing at age 2, and drew with an obsession; when he ran out of paper he would fill up the endpapers of novels. He matured into an athlete with movie-star looks, brandishing baseball bats and tennis rackets with the same intensity as his later heroes would wield swords. In 1947 the New York Giants drafted him. Already making good money as an illustrator, he turned baseball down.
If you grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, chances are you've seen his work in comics such as Famous Funnies, Buck Rogers, L'il Abner (which he ghosted for Al Capp) and Johnny Comet. His covers for pulp paperback series like Tarzan and Conan helped sell millions of books.
Though he didn't invent sci-fi/fantasy art, he's the acknowledged master of the genre. Why? "His fluidity. Everything looks so easy. Like he didn't have to work at it," says James Halperin, a Frazetta collector and chairman of Heritage Comics Auctions in Dallas. Frazetta doesn't use models; scenes leap fully formed from his head. His loose and confident lines and ingenious compositions make other pulp novel illustrations look flat and awkward.
Baby boomers laden with nostalgia and cash have helped Frazetta set records for every category of art in the comic and fantasy fields, says Joseph Mannarino of All Star Auctions, who worked with Christie's in 1992 to put together an auction of comic art and illustration. The highlight of that show was Frazetta's "Mastermind of Mars," which went for $86,000. This year it resold for $250,000.
The biggest knock against illustrators is that they're merely artists for hire, rather than conduits to the soul. At least maybe that explains why a museum or a wealthy collector would rather pay $5 million for a Roy Lichtenstein canvas inspired by a comic strip than drop $250,000 for the real deal. Even so, the works of some painters who made a living as illustrators (Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell, for example) fetch pretty good prices these days. Frazetta, being alive, is something of a rarity in this group. The only other living illustrator in his price range is Robert Crumb, hyperneurotic, hippie-era celebrant of pert nipples and heroic butts.
Schwarzenegger's isn't the only famous name to add market value to Frazetta's work. Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood own pieces. George Lucas owns 6 oils and 14 pencil and pen-and-ink drawings, some purchased under special circumstances.After Frazetta fell ill in 1985 with thyroid disease, says his wife, Ellie, the family sold pieces to Lucas to help pay for Frank's medical treatments.
The artist is famous for not parting easily with his favorite originals. Sylvester Stallone supposedly offered $1 million for "Cat Girl"--a glorious painting of a naked Frazetta heroine in a dark green forest, arms outstretched against a moss-covered branch. Frazetta declined to sell. The family finds other ways to make such paintings pay: "Death Dealer," for example--a shadowy figure on horseback wielding a bloody scythe, its crimson eyes burning beneath a face-obscuring helmet--has never been sold, but the same image has been used for everything from tattoos to motorcycle art. It has been turned into sculpture and has sold by the thousands as a poster.
Ellie runs the business side of Frank's career, and she knows a thing or two about marketing. Enough, that is, that the family does not have some gallery representing the artist and taking the usual 25% to 40% cut. The Frazettas pocketed their first million, she says, in the 1970s, by selling $3 reproductions of Frazetta paintings. When licensing images for books, posters or trading cards, she insists on large, nonrefundable advances against royalties--a demand few illustrators can get away with, says Russell Cochran of Gemstone Publishing, who has dealt with the artist for 30 years. Explains Cochran, "Frazetta doesn't go to the world, the world goes to Frazetta."
If you want to buy, head for East Stroudsburg in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, where the Frazettas live on 75 wooded acres. Next to their modest home sits a museum--or maybe we should say showroom--that exhibits 85 oils that are not for sale (see www.frankfrazetta.com). The family, though, will let go of some of the other oils at the museum for $250,000 each; of some watercolors (from an inventory of 300) for $100,000 each; and any of scores of pencil drawings and pen-and-inks, at $50,000 apiece. Thirty years ago Frazetta-drawn panels for Johnny Comet comic strips sold for $35. Ellie now has 40 of them left, at $3,500 each.
Frazetta periodically takes paintings off the walls to fiddle with them, changing a character's posture or subtracting clothing. He does so now with his left hand, since his right (which he used to paint his most famous works, including the Conan oeuvre) has been incapacitated by strokes.
A modest amount of material is available through secondary markets. All Star Auctions (www.allstarauctions.net) is currently offering a half-dozen mediocre oils, including the prototype poster for Robert Rodriguez's flick From Dusk Till Dawn.
Twenty-one rough sketches are being auctioned by Heritage (www.heritagecomics.com). Bids range from $300 to $12,000.
In Illustrious Company
These ten American illustrators have drawn the highest prices at auction. In private sales, some, like Frazetta and Dunn, have fetched even more.