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I first became aware of Frank Frazetta at a young age when my grandfather, a graphic designer and architect, handed down to me a wonderful five volume book series of his work. Imagine that—being first exposed to the master painter not through a super cool poster or book cover, but by seeing an entire career’s worth of art—all of it, all at once. As I pored over page after page, the gorgeous paintings and drawings struck me as exotic in every sense of the word. It wasn’t just the fantastical landscapes and otherworldly creatures, or the half naked warrior men and women poised for…battle? Sex? My young mind wasn’t sure.

No, it was the age of the tomes. They smelled like a vintage bookstore, the way I imagined it smelled when Bastian entered  Mr. Koreander’s shop in The Neverending Story. To a child that still had little sense of time beyond the present, the paintings looked old, ancient, timeless. It felt like peering into history—a secret, perverse, forbidden past, as if glimpsing another world for the very first time. Two decades later, I realize that’s exactly what I was doing.

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These memories flooded back to me last weekend at Wizard World Chicago. Film auteur Robert Rodriguez was on hand and brought with him a traveling exhibition of Frazetta’s original paintings from his personal collection. Here now before me in glorious large scale were the canvases of the master himself, close enough that I could see his brushstrokes. Images that have been duplicated and copied so many times that they’ve become commonplace, even banal, were now made real in a whole new way.

They were not, as my childhood self suspected, created by the arcane magic of an ancient god. They were crafted by a man, many of them in only a few frenzied hours to meet a looming deadline, and that makes them all the more incredible.

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Now I could write for pages about Frazetta’s virtuosic command of composition, the masterful way his heroes and beasts are posed like sculptures yet imbued with an undeniable sense of urgency and motion. But Frank Miller summed it up best. Rodriguez had filmed the wrathful old fart as he viewed the original paintings for the first time. “Aw, shee-it!” he exclaimed in his slow distinctive cadence, like a drunk on the verge of death.

Staring at Frazetta’s At the Earth’s Core, Miller’s eyes were wide and intensely focused—the familiar look an artist gets when seeing something he wants to be sure he’ll remember in meticulous detail. Then he says simply, his voice filled with awe, “The woman…is perfect…the background…is perfect…the monster…is perfect.”

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There’s been a lot of commentary and snark over the years about the impossible and overly sexualized ways women are often depicted in comic books and fantasy art.  It’s fair criticism that touches on a number of important societal questions, not to mention the technical shortcomings of many a lazy and unimaginative artist.  But I wonder if much of this trope in its current incarnation can be traced back to Frazetta.  There’s no denying it—his paintings are male power fantasy at its most unabashed and triumphant.

Frazetta, who never painted from reference, instead drew from something far more personal and primal. It’s no coincidence that Sam Kieth’s The Maxx depicts the unconscious mind as an unspoiled savage land that unapologetically references Frazetta at every turn. Mysterious, violent, passionate, erotic—Frazetta’s body of work is the brain splatter of an artist tapping directly into the most primeval recesses of his boundless imagination.  And you know what?  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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