Obituary for Frank Frazetta, 82, celebrated comic artist and illustrator

By Terence McArdle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2010; B07

Frank Frazetta, 82, the celebrated comic artist and illustrator whose ax-wielding muscular warriors, scantily clad heroines and ferocious beasts of prey graced numerous science fiction and fantasy novels, died May 10 at a hospital in Fort Myers, Fla., after a stroke.

Mr. Frazetta, who started as a pencil-and-ink comic book artist, painted movie posters and rock album covers, but he was perhaps best known for the cover illustrations to the paperback reissues of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian series and Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan and Pellucidar series.

Mr. Frazetta's drawings were credited with renewing the popularity of the character, a mainstay of the 1930s pulp magazine Weird Tales. He helped define the illustration style for the fantasy sub-genre known as "sword and sorcery."

Describing Mr. Frazetta's bold, sexually charged style, the author Donald Newlove wrote in 1977, "There's no love of decay and fetidness -- his swamps and jungles are soft green, lush, aswirl and gently vivid, germinal . . . a perfect setting for the erotic."

Mr. Frazetta was one of the first artists in paperbacks and comics to negotiate the ownership of his artwork -- a move that worked out well for him. The cover painting for a 1966 Lancer books edition of "Conan the Conqueror" sold for $1 million in a 2009 auction.

Although he left comics work in the 1960s, his later paintings influenced such artists as Richard Corben of Heavy Metal magazine and anticipated a trend toward painted graphic novels.

Inspired by Tarzan

Frank Frazzetta -- he later dropped the second "z" in his surname -- was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Feb. 9, 1928. As a child, he was inspired by the drawings of Hal Foster, whose work on the Tarzan comic strip would anticipate many of Mr. Frazetta's jungle scenes.

For DC Comics, he drew the Shining Knight and, for EC Comics, he illustrated a series of science fiction stories. He had his own short-lived racing car strip, Johnny Comet, in 1952. The same year, he joined cartoonist Al Capp as an uncredited artist on Lil' Abner, a position he held into the mid-1960s.

He painted a Mad magazine ad parody in 1964 -- featuring Beatles drummer Ringo Starr in an endorsement for Blecch Shampoo -- that caught the eye of United Artists films. The company hired Mr. Frazetta to do a painted poster for the film "What's New Pussycat?," a 1965 comedy written by Woody Allen.

His later film poster credits included Roman Polanski's "The Fearless Vampire Killers" (1967) and Clint Eastwood's "The Gauntlet" (1977).

His work also appeared on album covers for such hard rock acts as Molly Hatchet, Nazareth and Yngwie Malmsteen -- though he professed disdain for most rock music.

His illustrations inspired new interest in the Conan the Barbarian franchise. Marvel Comics launched an ongoing comic book series in 1970s, and there was a 1982 movie directed by John Milius with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role.

"Not that I could ever redo Frazetta on film -- he created a world and a mood that are impossible to simulate," Milius recently told the Los Angeles Times. He added that his goal in "Conan the Barbarian" was to tell a story shaped by Frazetta and composer Richard Wagner.

After a stroke in 1995, Mr. Frazetta, a right-handed artist, continued to work first by penciling, then by teaching himself a left-handed handed brush technique.

His wife of 53 years, Eleanor "Ellie" Kelly, who served as Mr. Frazetta's business partner, died in 2009. Survivors include four children, Alfonso Frank Frazetta, known as Frank Jr., and William Frazetta, both of East Stroudsburg, Pa., Heidi Grabin of Englewood, Fla., and Holly Frazetta of Boca Grande, Fla.; three sisters; and 11 grandchildren.

Ellie Frazetta started a small museum to house her husband's works on family property in the Pennsylvania Poconos in 2000. After her death, the children fought over the custodial rights to Mr. Frazetta's works. In December, Frank Frazetta Jr. was arrested in an attempt to remove 90 of his father's paintings from the family museum.

Mr. Frazetta sided with the other three children, who had formed a limited partnership for estate planning.

He told the Poconos Record that one of the paintings Frank Jr. had removed wasn't finished. In April, the family stated publicly that the dispute was resolved after mediation and that charges against Frank Jr. were dropped.

For an artist whose career was so associated with Conan the Barbarian, Mr. Frazetta made perhaps a surprising revelation when he told an interviewer he never read through an entire Conan book.

"I didn't read any of it," he once said. "It was too opposite of what I do. I told them that. So, I drew him my way. It was really rugged. And it caught on. I didn't care about what people thought. People who bought the books never complained about it. They probably didn't read them."

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