A savage strength: A tribute to the muscular art of Frank Frazetta
Thursday, May 13, 2010
posted by Brian Murphy
With tributes, remembrances, and recaps of the life and art of Frank Frazetta lying spread across the internet like blue mantles beneath the stars, I found myself struggling to come up with anything fresh or meaningful to say on the subject that hasn’t already been said. But I love Frazetta’s artwork, and wanted to add something to the discussion, so I asked myself, What is it about Frazetta’s style that keeps me coming back to his images?
The more I thought about it, it’s his ability to depict strength. Frazetta understood raw power and human musculature like no other artist I’ve encountered. He was a master at portraying rippling, powerful heroes in scenes of sweeping action, bursting with dynamic motion and power barely contained by the canvas.
This characteristic permeates all his work, even his J.R.R. Tolkien sketches. Here’s one of my favorites, a Thor-like Witch King ready to bash a curvaceous, full-figured Eowyn with a hammer of the gods:
One of the hallmarks of swords and sorcery fiction is the solitary strong hero stalking through vine-choked jungles or scaling sheer cliff-faces in search of some great lost treasure. As a kid, strength drew me to the Frazetta-illustrated Lancer and Ace Conan books. I wanted to be a powerful, self-sufficient lone wolf like the Conan Frazetta drew, and I was, vicariously. I still get the same thrill viewing these pictures even now. Frazetta’s art captivates because it offers an appealing alternative of action and motion and man-to-man conflict alien to our modern office lives. His drawings empower—there’s no telling how many young men he spurred to hit the gym and to try to emulate his paintings through hard work in the weight room.
This painting from Conan the Usurper of the Lancer line features the Cimmerian ready to uproot or snap a massive pair of chains and tear into the great serpent looming over him. Look at that back!
The subject of Conan’s strength and size is a frequent topic of internet debate. Some say he was lean and pantherish; others prefer the heavily muscled depiction of the Cimmerian made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Howard’s texts seem to lean towards the latter, describing Conan as possessed of a “massive, muscular build” (“The Black Stranger”) or with a physique that was “almost a giant in stature, muscles rippling smoothly under his skin which the sun had burned brown” (“Red Nails”). I’ve always pictured a heavily-muscled Conan in my mind’s eye while reading and Frazetta’s images confirm this. Of course, Frazetta’s art may have simply programmed my brain to think that way.
Conan’s great strength is ironically most evident in the things he cannot do, such as hurling a mighty rock with the same force as the gray man-ape of Iron Shadows in the Moon:
Olivia’s lovely eyes dilated in wonder. The stone was a symmetrical block, indisputably cut and shaped by human hands. And it was astonishingly massive. The Cimmerian grasped it with both hands, and with legs braced and the muscles standing out on his arms and back in straining knots, he heaved it above his head and cast it from him, exerting every ounce of nerve and sinew. It fell a few feet in front of him. Conan swore.
“No man living could throw that rock across this glade. It’s a task for siege engines. Yet here there are no mangonels or ballistas.”
The fact that Conan can pick up and throw such a massive block at all of course speaks volumes of his physical power. In another famous scene (and perhaps my favorite Frazetta painting), Conan is outmuscled by the ape-man Thak in “Rogues in the House,” but possesses just enough barbaric strength to hold the beast’s jaws at bay until his poniard finds the beast’s heart:
Murilo saw that the barbarian had locked his legs about the apeman’s torso, and was striving to maintain his position on the monster’s back, while he butchered it with his poniard. Thak, on the other hand, was striving to dislodge his clinging foe, to drag him around within reach of the giant fangs that gaped for his flesh … And he saw that in spite of the handicap of Conan’s first hold, and the voluminous robe that lashed and wrapped about the apeman’s limbs and body, Thak’s giant strength was swiftly prevailing.
But for sheer unbridled strength, muscle on muscle and sinew vs. sinew, nothing beats the match of Conan against the massively muscled giant Baal-pteor, described by Howard as follows:
In girth and breadth he was enormous, with huge limbs on which the great muscles swelled and rippled at each slightest movement. His hands were the largest Conan had ever seen … Slightly taller than Conan, and much heavier, Baal-pteor loomed before him, a daunting image of muscular development.
Baal-pteor is a Strangler of Yota-pong, raised from birth to snap the necks of human sacrifices on the altar of his grim god. He and Conan engage in an epic match of strength on strength, grabbing one another’s necks and squeezing to see which will break first. Baal-pteor’s eyes widen when he feels the Cimmerian’s strength and unyielding iron cords of his neck. Inexorably, Conan prevails. His return boast to the choking Baal-pteor is the stuff of legend:
“You fool”! He all but whispered. “I think you never saw a man from the West before. Did you deem yourself strong, because you were able to twist the heads off civilized folk, poor weaklings with muscles like rotten string? Hell! Break the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull before you call yourself strong. I did that, before I was a full-grown man—like this!”
It’s a shame Frazetta never painted the interlocked columns of muscle that formed this titanic struggle.
Buff though he is, I can’t seem to warm to Jason Mamoa as Conan. I may be proved wrong by the finished film, but he just doesn’t seem to be possessed of that coiled, steely, near-inhuman strength that Howard described and Frazetta depicted so well. Conan wasn’t necessarily built like a modern-day bodybuilder, but he should be powerful-looking, sheathed in a convincing layer of muscle that allows him to match the athletic performance of a savage tiger.
In other words, just like Frank Frazetta painted him.