Monday, October 2, 2017

The Old Master

If we’re talking about Sword & Sorcery fiction, then we are also talking about art, because fantasy art has had a huge impact on the look and style of the genre, and in fact, in the mainstream of pop culture, artwork has had a much bigger impact than any story, book, or film. When asked to point out the meaning of Sword & Sorcery, most people would settle on an image by Frazetta, Kelly, or Vallejo, because those were men from the generation of artists coming into their own when the genre crystallized, and Frazetta himself was the primary shaper of how Sword & Sorcery artwork looks.

But that generation of artists didn’t come to exist in a vacuum. Many of them started out before the late-60s S&S boom - working in comics, on magazine covers, and other places where fantasy illustrators of the time made their bones. And they came from influences of both comics and illustration and the artists who worked before them. One of the biggest names from that slightly earlier generation was Roy Krenkel.

At one time, Roy G. Krenkel was one of the most famous fantasy artists in the field, and that seems kind of hard to remember now. He was only ten years older than Frazetta, and yet while Frank’s work is still recognizable all over the world, Krenkel is far less well-known.

Part of that is just the misfortune he had of working in the shadow of Frazetta, a much younger and ferociously talented artist. Krenkel was a kind of mentor to Frazetta, they collaborated together, and it seems that Frank always had great affection for his friend. Yet Frazetta’s talent was so massive, and his impact on the genre so huge, as to overshadow his more old-fashioned compatriot. Frazetta’s larger-than-life personality also tended to push Roy into the background almost by accident.

The other part is that Krenkel’s style is just of an earlier era. Heavily influenced by old-school artists like Norman Lindsay and J. Allen St. John – illustrators of an earlier generation – Krenkel’s style was detailed and almost fussy. He had a tremendous ability as a penciler, and he created fantastically detailed landscapes and cityscapes in the pages of comics and in paintings.

When Lancer revived Howard and Burroughs in the late 60s, a lot of artists caught some of the cover work, but Krenkel and Frazetta became the most iconic. Krenkel won a Hugo in 1963 for his cover for a collection of Kull stories, but really, his best works were for the revived Burroughs books. Krenkel’s feel for landscapes and strange architecture made him perfect to illustrate stories of Barsoom and Pellucidar.

On the Howard side, Frazetta was hard to compete with. Frank’s florid, dynamic sense of composition and energy fitted in much better with the emerging modern sensibilities, while Krenkerl’s staid, classical sense of design and taste for muted colors made his work seem to pale in comparison. Roy’s art was like him – somewhat muted, old-fashioned, and a bit stiff.

It also didn’t help that Krenkel had a strange relationship with his own work, which he was known to regard as unimportant and disposable. The man was unassuming, and didn’t like to call attention to himself, and he seems to have suffered a lack of confidence in his own artwork. It may be this, in fact, which deterred him from breaking out of old styles of compositon and color and doing something more dynamic, but perhaps he didn’t have it in him, and was just a born traditionalist.

His heyday was in the 70s, but his health began to fail him, and he died in 1983 at the relatively young age of 64. Ironic that his good friend Frazetta was ten years his junior, yet outlived him by almost thirty years. Krenkel’s work has had something of a revival, with collections published, and a lot more attention paid to his part in shaping modern fantasy art – a part he himself would probably be first to disparage. He has become – like Ralph McQuarrie – an artist loved by fans, but who's name is known to few others.

1 comment: