Greetings from the Odinson,
This past week, the Lone Star Comics Family lost one of their own. Craig Miller, editor of Wrapped in Plastic magazine and Following Cerebus, passed away. He was much beloved by family and friends alike, and in just the few short years that I knew him, he left an ever-lasting impression on me. It’s so rare in this world that I find another, a kindred spirit, whose passion for comics, science fiction, pop culture and storytelling matches my own.
Craig and I bonded over our shared love for the works of Joss Whedon and I will be forever grateful for the memories of our discussions and debates about all things Buffy, Firefly and The Avengers. Craig also introduced me to the works of David Lynch and more importantly the ground-breaking television series Twin Peaks, a show that he was extremely passionate about as any reader of Wrapped in Plastic would, of course, know.
Craig was warm, personable, highly intelligent and a good man. He will be missed and my condolences go out to his family.
One year ago, Craig and I collaborated on a column for the So Sayeth the Odinson blog and I would like to honor him by sharing his portion of that collaboration with you again this week. I have omitted my section from the column (except for my introduction and afterward). I hope that you can feel the excitement and enthusiasm jump off the screen as he talks about another one of his great passions – artist Frank Frazetta.
Now the Odinson has a special treat for you.
Frank Frazetta is a legend in this industry. He is a renowned cartoonist and painter. His Conan work is instantly recognizable and many consider him to be the Godfather of fantasy art. Craig Miller, co-Editor of the long-running magazine Wrapped in Plastic and Editor/Publisher of Following Cerebus, has put together a review of Vanguard Productions recent release of their Frazetta Classics series. Craig is quite knowledgeable when it comes to the subject of Frazetta and he has lot of nice information to share. Here’s what he had to say.
In the past few years a number of exquisite editions of books featuring the art of Frank Frazetta have appeared. For instance, Underwood Books produced three deluxe hardcovers (Icon, Legacy, and Testament) covering Frazetta’s life and art in detail. BlackBart published Telling Stories: The Comic Art of Frank Frazetta, a stunning hardcover containing Thun’da plus a selection of other top-notch stories. It was a welcome change from previous books that had focused on the artist’s paintings. Spectrum Fantastic Art released Rough Work, a collection of sketches and concept art that gave fans a peek at Frazetta’s creative process. And Vanguard Productions gave us The Definitive Frazetta Reference, an invaluable illustrated volume to those of us seeking rare and obscure work.
Recently, that same Vanguard (publishers of deluxe art books featuring Neal Adams, Hal Foster, Jim Steranko, Michael Golden, Curt Swan, and many others) has presented a book that deserves a spot alongside those other Frazetta books comprising an essential Frazetta library, and that book is Johnny Comet, the first volume in Vanguard’s Frazetta Classics library (the second being White Indian, also highly worth checking out).
Newer fans might not be familiar with Johnny Comet, and even long-time fans might not have seen this material, as this work precedes Frazetta’s rise to superstardom that began in the mid 60s with his iconic covers for the Lancer editions of the Conan paperbacks. He had first garnered notice with his work on some of the EC Comics of the early 50s (often in collaboration with Al Williamson and others). When those comics died out, Frazetta ended up working as Al Capp’s assistant on Li’l Abner for nine years. Frazetta left in 1961, and his job search proved surprisingly difficult, as his style–influenced by early 20th century illustrators, was deemed too old-fashioned. Eventually he produced some memorable paperback covers to Edgar Rice Burroughs books, interior illustrations to Science Fiction Book Club editions of Burroughs, and the aforementioned Conan paperbacks, and by the early-to-mid 70s, Frazetta had established himself as the premiere fantasy artist of his time, and perhaps of all time. His work appeared everywhere–paperback covers, record album covers, posters, the sides of vans*, you name it.
*Factoid: Before Michael Golden broke into comics in the late 70s, one of his jobs was painting Frazetta swipes on the sides of vans.
Frazetta was a superstar, painting the movie poster to Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet, designing Bo Derek’s letterhead, meeting with the likes of George Lucas and Sylvester Stallone, painting double-spread TV Guide ads for Battlestar Galactica, and on and on. One science fiction writer told me that a Frazetta cover on a paperback book boosted sales by 10,000 copies–“Not enough to guarantee a profit, but a pretty good start.” Bantam Books released a series of successful, authorized Frazetta art books, while numerous unauthorized magazines and fanzines simply published collections of his art without authorization.
Frazetta’s work has been reprinted to such an extent that surely by now, in 2011, fanatics (present company included) have seen all of the major Frazetta work to date and much of the minor work too, right?
Not so. David Spurlock’s publishing company Vanguard has reprinted Frazetta’s short-lived 1952-53 Johnny Comet newspaper strip and produced a volume for the ages. There are at least two amazing aspects to this: one, that the strip itself has been so difficult to find in any format to date (two previous inferior editions were produced many years ago and are now out of print), and even more, that the Johnny Comet work is some of the most astounding work ever done by Frazetta. How could it have been virtually forgotten all these years?
The story itself follows the adventures of midget-car racer Johnny Comet, and while exciting in and of itself, it’s the art that will interest Frazetta’s fans, and Vanguard’s deluxe edition finally allows fans to see its beauty. The artist’s deft pen-and-brush inking is all here, along with the dynamic compositions and figure work that may be Frazetta’s most recognizable talent (well, that and his drawings of beautiful women–also here). But there are other treats, such as the artist’s surprising skill with caricature. While the strip is basically drawn in a “realistic” style, Frazetta pushes that realism significantly with some characters, and yet they all comfortably reside within the same comic book world. This ability should not be underestimated; it’s extremely difficult to pull off, perhaps one reason it’s such a rare occurrence in comics. I’m not talking about combining, say, humans and cartoon characters, of which many examples could be found, but broad caricature and “realistic” illustration in the same story. Michael Golden pulled it off in The ‘Nam, for instance, but it’s hard to think of too many examples. Wallace Wood could do it. But most comics artists have to pick one direction or the other and stick to it, or the work becomes a clashing mess of competing styles.
But Frazetta succeeded here, as he seemed to excel at every other style he attempted. And yet, even considering everything mentioned above–the dynamic art, the beautifully drawn women and heroic men, the stunning ink work–that still might not be the most amazing aspect of Johnny Comet. There is still something else that puts Johnny Comet on par with the greatest adventure comic strips of all time–and yes, I’m talking about Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon. And that “something else” is this: Frazetta produced these strips on a daily basis. Foster and Raymond had a full week to produce their masterpieces. But Frazetta was creating a full daily strip in the time Foster and Raymond produced perhaps a single panel. When this fact sinks in, Frazetta’s talent becomes even more amazing, and the Johnny Comet strip becomes perhaps the most phenomenal comic strip in history. The art is beautiful in and of itself; that it was produced at breakneck speed is nearly unbelievable.
Frazetta’s long-overlooked masterpiece is finally given the presentation it deserves in the Vanguard edition. It not only puts to shame the previous Johnny Comet books; it puts to shame many of the high-priced reprint books that have poured onto the market in recent years. Frazetta’s fine-line inking required a superior reproduction process, and [David] Spurlock has found a way to do it using the artist’s own proofs (scanned at 3600 ppi!). The Sunday strips are reproduced in full color (never before published in any collection) and are worth the price of the book just by themselves. A slipcover Deluxe Edition also contains 16 bonus pages of scans made directly from original artwork and provides yet another glimpse into the creation of the work.
Unless all of the original art is someday individually located and scanned directly, it’s safe to say that there will never be a better Johnny Comet book ever published. It’s frustrating as a comics fan to purchase a high-priced volume “despite its problems” just because it’s the best available edition, only to have a significantly better collection come along years later (such as has happened with Prince Valiant). Frazetta fans need not worry; this Vanguard edition will not be outdone. When the Eisner Awards are handed out next year, Johnny Comet deserves to be one of the recipients.
Now that’s a knowledgeable Frazetta fan! The Odinson would like to thank Craig for his enthusiasm and for sharing his considerable knowledge about an industry legend like Frank Frazetta. So be sure to check out Johnny Comet.
This is Odinson bidding thee farewell