Frank Frazetta’s paintings are works of dark magic. If you stare for a while, his paintings can make you forget that civilization exists, surrendering the notion that you’re protected from those monstrous creatures and cruel gods that tormented early humanity. An intense mythic force courses through his work, reaching below the consciousness and bringing to the fore ancient, primal feelings of dread and awe.
Why Frazetta’s art matters to me
Grief can change the way the world looks, and that’s especially true when you’re a kid.
I was only 13, and the safety of my home had been destroyed by a series of tragedies. My family was a nightly fixture on the local news, and my friends didn’t come around. We lost our home. Only weeks earlier, we’d been a happy family, and now that was all gone. As the grief grew heavier, I looked everywhere I could for an escape.
Of course, it started with Conan
My mother and I were taken in by a family acquaintance, and all I had were my guitar and a small selection of paperback books to occupy my time. Several of these books had come from my father’s collection. As I flipped through them, deciding what to read next, one cover painting evoked some new emotion I’d never felt, and I couldn’t look away. Here was a painting that somehow reflected the grief I was feeling, but also showed the grit and determination to overcome the horrors of life.
It was the first Conan paperback by Lancer/Ace Books. This was not a hero in gleaming armor, as I’d learned to expect from other fantasy art. Nor was he a fearless warrior, facing down his enemies with confidence. Rather, Conan’s face evokes a mix of terror and fury as he faces his mortality against a primitive ape-like beast who cries in mutual terror and fury. This is not a battle of good versus evil, but a battle of survival, and one or both of the combatants will suffer a horrible death. The mood here is of brutal desperation in an ancient world, where terror of the unknown lurks in every shadow. I felt a deep sense of dread, and I wanted more of it, so I opened the book and started reading.
I read Conan, and then I read the next book in that series, Conan of Cimmeria. Again, I found myself mesmerized by the cover art as much as the words within. Here, we have Conan, not as a hero, but as a desperate man, utterly alone, struggling to survive a world determined to kill him. This time, he faces two massive men with axes and murderous intent.
But it was not the antagonists that held my attention. I was enthralled by the pale gloom and desolation of Conan’s surroundings as he faced his assailants in the lonely, secluded depths of icy mountain peaks. Staring into that painting, I could smell the frozen air as it bit into my skin. I could hear the winds whistle through the rocky terrain. There was no civilization here and no one to call to for help. There was only one man’s will against the frozen wasteland and two terrifying assailants.
As with many of Frazetta’s paintings, he detailed the landscape only vaguely, and yet it is that hostile, amorphous terrain that brought such feelings of dread to the surface of my consciousness—the terror of becoming lost in those exposed peaks and tenebrous valleys. Even if Conan somehow survives his struggle against these two giants, he may yet suffer a slow and lonely death, leaving a frozen corpse to quietly rot on some icy slope.
How Frank Frazetta inspired me
I can point to several turning points that enticed me to create stories and songs that take people on dark and mythic journeys. Frazetta’s book covers are among the earliest and most profound. I wanted to create art to help others feel the strange catharsis I’d felt, using my imagination to face those deep and primal fears that our modern society has buried deep in the psyche and forgotten, but that our collective memory can still sense lurking in the recesses of our minds.
I can’t explain why I would enjoy art that invokes existential dread and reminds me of the fears from which civilization has protected me. I’m not a masochist, and I’m not a sadist who enjoys the suffering of others, real or imaginary. Good stories help me feel less lonely, showing me that my fears and suffering are Universal, even if most of us prefer to suppress these feelings. I often yearn for a simpler time, when humanity lived in tribes, afraid of what existed out in the darkness but facing those fears together, sharing fantastic stories and hypnotic songs that bring our collective minds into communion with the chaos that surrounds us.
My trip to the Frazetta Art Museum
When I moved to the East Coast, one of the first things I did with my family was to make that pilgrimage to the Frazetta Art Museum in the Poconos of Pennsylvania.
As we came closer to the museum that was once Frazetta’s home, civilization gave way to mountain wilderness. The roads became narrow and tortuous until it felt like they no longer belonged here. We passed creeks, the trees grew taller, and deer roamed the countryside. It made sense. This was a man connected to nature and all its beauty and hidden dangers.
Inside the museum, surrounded by his original paintings, I was overwhelmed by the impression that Frazetta was a man born in the wrong time. His work was even more impressive and immersive in person, when I could see the brush strokes and textures of paint. The scenes felt alive, driven by the inspired movements of their creator, and the dangers felt real.
Old emotions I’d almost forgotten came back to me. I remembered what it felt like to be that kid, suffering terribly, but comforted, somehow, by these depictions of primitive pain and struggle.