The Bloody Rockwell: How Frank Frazetta Became a Master of Fantasy Illustration

The artist went from comic strips to Conan, reinventing the fantasy genre along the way.
Frank Frazetta | Godfather of Fantasy Art
Frank Frazetta | Godfather of Fantasy Art / Art Shutter

In 1966, Frank Frazetta, a successful freelance illustrator, was hired by paperback publisher Lancer Books to render a cover for a collection of fantasy stories by Robert E. Howard. The star was Conan, a brutal warrior from Cimmeria who encounters all manner of beasts and black magic—problems he typically solves with a stroke of his sword.

According to Frazetta, he waited until the last minute to begin; he got to work after a phone call from a nervous Lancer employee, who was checking in. In less than 24 hours, he had realized the now-iconic image of Conan standing triumphant over a towering pile of skeletons.

“I sat down and bashed it out in a day, brought it in, the place went crazy, they were drinking champagne,” Frazetta recalled to author Arnie Fenner decades later. “I knew it was a new look. Nobody had ever seen something quite like it before. It changed [the world of] illustration. Sounds arrogant, I suppose, but it’s true.”

With his Conan covers, Frazetta ushered Howard’s creation into a new level of popularity, which eventually climaxed into stardom for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Frazetta’s lavish oil paintings were a keyhole into a world of grand fantasy that came to dominate pop culture in the 20th century, inspiring everything from music to movies to comics. In his private art collection, George Lucas has both Norman Rockwell and Frazetta originals. Like a Frazetta painting became an aspirational phrase, though it was hardly ever achievable for anyone but Frazetta himself—a child prodigy whose path in life was set by the age of 8.

Drawn to Perfection

Frank Frazzetta was born February 9, 1928, in Brooklyn. (He later eliminated the second z from his name, feeling it looked odd.) His parents, Alfonso and Mary Frazzetta, encouraged his early interest in drawing by enrolling him at the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts when he was just 8. Tasked by his teacher with copying an illustration of ducks, Frazetta mimicked it perfectly. By age 15, he was assisting artist John Giunta at Bailey Comics and finishing his first published work: a short story about a sentient snowman for Tally-Ho Comics #1 in 1944.

Frazetta spent the next several years toiling in comics for various publishers, albeit more of the funny animal variety: He worked on characters with names like Looie Lazybones and Supermouse. Considering his future work in violent fantasy, it now seems an odd juxtaposition. Having grown up on comic strips during their heyday in the 1930s, however, he felt drawn to the genre.

There was one possible detour: baseball. In a 1994 interview with The Comics Journal, Frazetta recalled having a “freakish” pitching arm developed from tossing rocks in his Brooklyn neighborhood. (“I don’t know why [but] I loved to throw rocks.”) He said he received an offer from the New York Giants (now San Francisco Giants) at age 20 but that it wasn’t financially or logistically viable.

“The routine was that you would spend the next three or four years—and some guys would spend 10 years—in the minor leagues,” he said. “I thought, ‘I don’t know if I could stand even one year away from home.’ So I said, ‘Let me think about it.’ … I just couldn’t make myself do it.”

Frazetta focused instead on an increasingly rewarding art career. After a stint drawing Western comic covers as well as covers for Famous Funnies featuring hero Buck Rogers, he got the attention of Al Capp, the creator of the popular comic strip Li’l Abner. As was (and still is) the custom in newspaper strips, successful creators sometimes hired ghost artists to do much of the work.

Frazetta worked on Li’l Abner from 1954 to 1962 before he and Capp had a disagreement over money: Capp reportedly wasn’t offering enough of it. That, and Capp’s insistence that Frazetta at least briefly relocate to Boston—Frazetta was moving into a new home with his wife Eleanor Kelley at the time—dissolved their working relationship. He returned to odd jobs: There were illustrations for movie posters and Playboy and Mad magazine; in the latter, he rendered Ringo Starr in a mock ad for Blecch shampoo.

By this point, however, Frazetta was becoming more interested in painting rather than pencil drawings. While he had been working with oils since childhood, it wasn’t until the 1960s that he began to earn a living with them.

The Conan paperbacks were undoubtedly Frazetta’s landmark work, though Frazetta himself believed he had made his name in the genre by working for Warren, a fantasy publisher run by editor James Warren that offered titles like Creepy and Eerie. Frazetta did several covers, including one for Warren’s signature character, the provocative Vampirella.

Then came Conan, a situation in which Frazetta was able to take an existing character and elevate him beyond his modest fame from the pulps of the early 20th century. As Frazetta explained it, his Conan did not resemble Howard’s description. “I did Conan my way,” he said. “I went right ahead and created this character that didn’t even resemble Howard’s description at all—mine is quite a different guy. He was what I thought a barbarian should look like, the ultimate barbarian. Howard’s description was quite different. He was leaner with shorter hair and hawkish features. I instead saw a scarred, a real monster sort of a guy. That’s just the way I felt a guy should look like at this point.”

The Conan paintings, like many of Frazetta’s works, were thought to be accomplished quickly. “One day,” he once said of his pace. “Well, three or four on a couple of them.” (Perfecting them, however, could take longer. Frazetta once stated he could spend several days just getting a face done to his satisfaction.)

By the mid-1970s, Frazetta became a kind of industry unto himself. From his home in Pennsylvania, he and Eleanor operated a mini empire, sending off thousands of posters of his artwork to fans and retailers. A book, The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta, ultimately sold over 300,000 copies. The publisher, Bantam Books, got four letters a day from people who wanted permission to apply Frazetta art to their vans.

The Fabled Frazetta

Frazetta picked a good time to showcase his mastery of fantasy. The genre was experiencing a surge in popularity in the 1970s thanks in some measure to 1977’s Star Wars. By one estimate, up to 13 percent of all paperbacks that year were fantasy or science fiction. The trend continued well into the 1980s, with Conan himself getting the feature film treatment in 1982’s Conan the Barbarian.

That film’s director, John Milius, was complimentary of Frazetta, saying his paintings were “impossible to simulate.” But Frazetta was not quite as kind in return, remarking that Conan star Arnold Schwarzenegger was “not a bruiser, he’s not a killer, right? Let’s face it.”

Frazetta often bristled at the idea of the fantasy hero as a gym rat or bodybuilder. “I don’t think there’s anything particularly graceful or catlike about the physique of that type,” he said. “As an ex-athlete, I think I know what creates power in a human figure. And it isn’t a wasp-like waist and huge, fat, overblown thighs. They mean nothing. They’re utterly useless, except for posing, and even then they’re disgusting.” Frazetta preferred a square chest and “great buttocks,” which, he said, usually indicate strength.

These concepts got a workout in a number of Frazetta jobs. In addition to Conan, he breathed life into covers for Edgar Rice Burroughs characters like Tarzan and John Carter. His own creation, Death Dealer (1973), became an iconic Frazetta portrait, with its helmeted, faceless character astride a horse and emitting an air of mystery.

There remained a desire to somehow transplant Frazetta’s aesthetic into a moving image. In 1983, Frazetta got a chance to try and help make it happen. Fire and Ice was an animated feature that he co-produced with Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat), which utilized rotoscoping, or the practice of animating over live-action. Frazetta illustrated the poster, while screenwriters Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas used some of Frazetta’s characters (like Death Dealer) as inspiration.

The film, while not commercially successful, was nonetheless emblematic of Frazetta’s appeal: Quick-tempered men and pin-up posed women. (Return of the Jedi costume designer Aggie Rodgers credited Princess Leia’s infamous metal bikini in that film in part to the artist.)

A Finished Canvas

By the turn of the century, Frazetta was fantasy royalty. Publishers came calling to flesh out his enigmatic Death Dealer in novels and comic books. Later, in his seventies, Frazetta suffered a series of strokes, which slowed but didn’t curb his prestigious talent. With his right side affected, he relied on his ambidexterity to work with his left hand.

Frazetta’s passing in 2010 at the age of 82 reignited discussion of his work, which remains influential as well as profitable. Unlike a lot of artists, Frazetta had a guardian angel of sorts in his wife, Eleanor, who worked to ensure his original art was returned to him and could thus profit from their sale. At least four of his paintings have sold for at least $1 million, and one—“The Egyptian Queen”—fetched $5.4 million in 2019.

The sums are representative not only of Frazetta’s fame, but the feelings his work seems to elicit in admirers, who can almost hear the galloping horses and swishing axes emerge from the static images.

“There’s this professor who comes around to look at my paintings,” Frazetta said in 1976. “He keeps asking me, ‘What are you on? What do you take to come up with this stuff?’ I tell him, ‘Nothing.’ He won’t believe it.”