We cannot really talk about the resurgence of Sword & Sorcery or its longevity without discussing the role of art, and the Grand Master of Sword & Sorcery artwork was Frank Frazetta. Without him, it is entirely possible that the revival of Howard’s work, and of the genre in general, would never have happened. His influence on fantasy art, and on the image of S&S in the popular mind, are both probably impossible to calculate.
Frazetta was a New Yorker, born and raised in Brooklyn, and his artistic career spanned seven decades and saw him work in everything from comic books to book covers to movie posters. He was a flexible and skilled artist who mastered several mediums and could do bold, action-oriented work right beside detailed, iconic paintings – all within his highly recognizable style. He was, and remains, one of the most influential and indelible masters of modern fantasy art.
In the 1960s Frazetta was commissioned to do a series of book cover paintings for the Lancer Books editions of the Conan stories – a series that included both reprinted originals and pastiches. His subsequent works completely redefined the look of Conan and of Sword & Sorcery in general. His rough-hewn, iconic images became the standard for the genre, inescapable.
Because no previous illustrator had seemed to really grasp the essence of the genre, or of Howard’s work. Many of the original Conan stories had been printed in Weird Tales with cover paintings rendered by Margaret Brundage. Now, Brundage was a fine artist in her own right, but her pastel-rendered scenes of light bondage with their Valentino-esque barbarian heroes had never fit the works inside. Her version of Conan more resembled a debonair silent film star than the iron-jawed barbarian depicted in the stories. Frazetta was the first artist who seemed to grasp the violence and grim savagery the fiction called for.
Famously, Frazetta was not a fan of the works themselves, and he admittedly never read many of the stories and books he illustrated. He simply grasped the essence of the genre and his imagination did the rest. If his work was poor, we would mock this approach, but his works were revolutionary, and so in retrospect he seems brilliant. He was the first artist to paint Conan as he was written and how he appears in the popular mind – indomitable, brawny, grim and eternally poised for violence. With his first run of covers Frazetta created an image and approach that the field of fantasy art has never been able to get away from.
Because it is almost impossible, now, to find fantasy illustrations – especially S&S art – that are not influenced by Frazetta to one degree or another. When many people think of the genre it is a Frazetta image they probably picture in their mind. He crystallized disparate elements of influence and design into a new visual landscape that became synonymous and inseparable from the idea it was meant to illustrate, to the point where more people know Frazetta’s artistic renderings of Conan than know anything about the character himself or the stories he came from.
It was a perfect, synergistic melding of image and idea, and it set the mold for Sword & Sorcery as a genre and cultural artifact for the next fifty years. I think only now, as a new generation of artists and writers attack the form, will we be able to move from imitation and be able to view and utilize Frazetta’s enormous contribution as inspiration and influence, rather than as the straitjacket it has sometimes seemed to be. I cannot say that no one will ever paint Sword & Sorcery better than Frank, but I will say that so far nobody ever has.