Frank Frazetta

The Barbarian, by Frank Frazetta

The Barbarian, by Frank Frazetta, from FrankFrazetta.net

He’s elemental. He’s ugly. His body is scarred, nicked, battered, and beaten. His face is a face that’s been punched many times; but it’s the face of a man who comes back every time. His limbs are taut-muscled and gnarly-veined like twisted tree roots; his skin has a green sheen like verdigrised copper. Barbarous, piratical, adventurous, dark-eyed, deadly and dignified, the epitome of contained power in glorious, brooding, post-melee repose, Frank Frazetta’s ‘The Barbarian’ — painted in 1965, and used as the cover for the first of Lancer Books’ Conan paperbacks — is, to me, the essence of the sword and sorcery hero.

He is, of course, surrounded by death — the ghostly skulls hanging like a desert mirage in the flaming sky behind him, and the gloopy mass of blood, bones, and corpse-parts he’s standing on — but he’s triumphant. Unlike the rather stiffly-posed Conans that came before, with their neatly cut hair, their sandals and freshly-pressed tunics, here Frazetta brings mess and dirt to fantasy painting. More than a decade before George Lucas’s idea of a ‘used future’ made Star Wars so convincing, this Conan has been through the wars.

Gustav Adolf Mossa, She (1905)

Gustav-Adolf Mossa, She (1905)

There’s a woman clinging to his leg — the sex to compliment the icky-sticky death, because this is a male fantasy — but I don’t think she’s submissive. She’s holding onto his leg with what seems to me (I may be wrong — there is a chain in the background) to be genuine affection, as if to say, ‘This man’s mine. Clear off.’ And I think she can back that threat up. I’m pretty sure that’s her axe sticking out of the ground behind her.

‘The Barbarian’ is a Symbolist work of art, as the decadent Symbolists (much as I love them) could never have painted it. It’s simply too vital. Just compare it with a similar (though late-Symbolist period) work, Gustav-Adolf Mossa’s ‘She’ (from 1905). Mossa’s ‘She’ is that Symbolist nightmare, the femme fatale, here presiding over a mound of dead bodies; pale and languid-eyed, crows and skulls are in her hair (and a pistol, among other weapons, hangs from her necklace) because she, unlike Frazetta’s barbarous pair, is on the side of death. Frazetta’s barbarian, and his recumbent barbarienne, are on the side of life. But, it should be noted, their life, not yours. This pair is no abstract celebration of vitality. If you get too close, you may end up as one more decoration on their mound of corpses.

Egyptian Queen, by Frank Frazetta

Egyptian Queen, by Frank Frazetta, from FrankFrazetta.net

‘Egyptian Queen’, painted for the cover of Eerie issue 23 in 1968 (though Frazetta modified the face soon afterwards), is perhaps the archetypal Frazettan female. Sultry and kitten-faced, she exudes the same elemental power and dignity as ‘The Barbarian’, only with a shade more (though a very gloomy shade, it has to be said) civility. Her pedestal isn’t a mound of corpses, it’s an actual pedestal (though the chipped stone edge implies battles have been fought in this chamber), and she stands between her snarling pet leopard, and her scimitar-wielding bodyguard, with regal calm. Even that marble pillar presents its flame-like lustre as an aspect of her smouldering vitality. Again, it’s a painting that encapsulates power, perhaps recently-exercised, now in brief repose; and though it may, in this case, be political rather than physical power, it very much resides in the physical figure of the queen herself — not in statutes of law or machineries of state, but in sheer, living vitality. She perhaps owes something to Hollywood — her headgear and leopard could have come from 1934’s Cleopatra — but she has none of that film-star frivolity & foot-stamping pettishness about her. This is a woman who really could rule an empire (albeit a crumbling one — but they’re the best ones to rule).

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, 1934

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, 1934

Frazetta_TigerFrazetta’s greatest artistic quality is, I think, the combination of vitality and dignity he gives his figures. (And I don’t just mean his human figures, but his apes and lions and lizards, too.) His battles are always battles between equals. They’re not contests of physical prowess, they’re contests of dynamism and heroism, of sheer vitality. The un-armoured woman with only a dagger in her hand is clearly the equal, in Frazetta’s world, of that flame-eyed tiger, or that pack of wolves, or that flock of pterodactyls, because she has just as fierce a will to live. The conflict isn’t really conflict, it’s a pairing, a flashing moment of dynamic tension between equals.

It’s true, not all his paintings present women as heroically as they do the men, but in the best of them it’s vitality itself that’s the subject, heroically embodied, whether in the human body, male or female, or in troglodytes, gorillas, crocodiles or panthers. It even seethes out of the twisting roots of jungle trees, and the roiling waves of storm-tossed oceans. It’s that sense of elemental vitality I like to find in the best sword and sorcery: the feeling that the life-force (an old-fashioned term, but surely worth a non-scientific resurrection) is at its most potent when faced with death and darkness, surrounded by wildness and fierceness, and couched in the nobility of the individual, however rough and haggard, or svelte and beautiful. Frazetta’s work is, above all, exciting, living, and elemental — the essence of sword and sorcery.

The Cold Flame by James Reeves

Brothers Grimm - The Complete Fairy Tales (Vintage Classics)For some months, now, I’ve been reading a tale a day from Jack Zipes’ translation of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, only having known the more famous ones till now. And they’re a mixed bunch. As well as the very fairy-tale-like stories of princes transformed into foxes or frogs, brothers turned into swans, princesses setting three impossible tasks for their suitors, or that overlooked third brother winning through despite everyone thinking he’s a clod, there are plenty of duds: shaggy-dog jokes about stupid people (“Clever Hans”, “Clever Else”, “The Brave Little Tailor”) or the (once, no doubt very funny, not-so now) misadventures of odd collections of companions (“The Straw, the Coal and the Bean”, “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage”), as well as some of the more traditional kind of tale that don’t quite satisfy as much as the well-known ones do.

Reading these lesser tales, where the shortcomings of the story are often made up for by an appeal to the listeners’ baser nature, you get a sense of their pulpy, lowest-common-denominator approach: silly jokes about talking sausages and stupid people on the one hand, lashings of revenge on the other. It’s not saying anything new to note how gleeful fairy tales can be in not just righting wrongs, but in getting a downright over-the-top bloody revenge into the bargain:

“The evil mother was brought before the court and put into a barrel that was filled with boiling oil and poisonous snakes. Indeed, she died a horrible death.”

or,

“‘The scoundrel deserves nothing better than to be put into a barrel studded with nails on the inside,’ said the old woman. ‘And then he should be rolled down the hill into the water.’”

or,

“‘She deserves nothing better… than to be stripped completely naked and put inside a barrel studded with sharp nails. Then two white horses should be harnessed to the barrel and made to drag her through the streets until she’s dead.’”

…being just three examples. Cinderella may win your sympathy by being forced to drudge for her nasty step-sisters, but some fairy tale heroes and heroines have very little going for them, morally or empathetically, yet the stories only work if you’re rooting for them to lord it over everyone by the end — and not just their oppressors, but often their oppressor’s entirely innocent children, too.

The Cold Flame by James Reeves, cover by Charles Keeping

The Cold Flame by James Reeves, cover by Charles Keeping

The Cold Flame, published in 1967, is James Reeves’ retelling of “The Blue Light” from the Grimms’ book of fairy tales — certainly not one of the more famous ones, but not entirely a dud, either. The protagonist is (unusually, for these mostly coming-of-age tales) a long-serving soldier, dismissed after twenty-five years in the King’s service (“Five-and-twenty years, five-and-twenty wounds”) with only a silver dollar in pay. He falls into the hands of witch, who makes him drudge for a couple of days, then sends him down a well to fetch a cold, blue, obviously magical light she dropped there. He refuses to hand it over till she’s helped him from the well, so she lets him fall back down to the bottom. Deciding to smoke one final time before he dies of starvation, the soldier lights his pipe with the blue light and thereby summons a little demon, who offers to do anything he demands. And so the soldier gets out of the well, is provided with riches, returns to the city where he was dismissed so off-handedly, and sets about getting his revenge by summoning the King’s daughter each night to clean up his room. He’s caught (on the third night, of course) and arrested, but thanks to his little demon turns the situation round, and by the end is not only king himself but getting inviting looks from the princess.

Perhaps it’s because the main character isn’t such an innocent as Cinderella or Snow White, but although the wrong to him is genuine (dismissed after twenty-five years with only enough pay to buy a single meal), having the tale expanded from short story to short novel only seems to emphasise how unfair it is that the king’s daughter — entirely innocent, as far as I can see — should be dragged into her father’s punishment. It seems even stranger in Reeves’ retelling, because he makes it clear that, for some reason, after being forced to drudge for him, she’s fallen in love with this raddled old soldier, whose only redeeming feature (as in so many fairy tales) is the fact he’s had the good luck to gain magical aid. But perhaps it’s just that, by being faithful to the rather uncompromising spirit of the Grimms’ version, Reeves has retained the essential character of the original, without pandering to any sensitive morals on my part. Anyway, it’s very well-written, if a bit distant from its rather bleak-souled characters. (The soldier is described as having an “almost habitual sardonic self-control”, and a “dedication to the virtue of despair.”)

One of the things that attracted me to the book wasn’t the story, but the illustrations. I think I must have come across Charles Keeping’s work first in Alan Garner’s Elidor. He mixes a sparse, telling line with a sort of random, squiggly-blotchy wildness that somehow works, and somehow fits these late 1960s/early 1970s books with their rather modernistic bleakness and understated, though deeply-felt, deeply-tried humanity — Reeves’, and Garner’s, and, I think, they’d suit the two William Mayne books I’ve reviewed recently, too.

Here are some examples of his work on The Cold Flame:

CharlesKeeping_Flame01

CharlesKeeping_Flame03CharlesKeeping_Flame02

Star Wars day…

For Star Wars day…

Princess Leia by Murray Ewing

 

Princess Amidala by Murray Ewing

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

Titus GroanIf you imagine a sliding scale of fantasy from the Epic to the Gothic, the defining works at either end must surely be Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Peake’s Gormenghast books. Both Tolkien and Peake were illustrators (Tolkien on a much more amateur level), and both used (initially private) drawing as a means of immersing themselves in their created worlds. A quick glance through J R R Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator shows that Tolkien was mostly interested in, and accomplished at, landscapes. His humans and humanoids, when present, are often stiff, and usually take second place to the scenery, but his landscapes, though conjured with a decorative rather than a realistic style (and very much under the influence of the Golden Age of Illustrators), are much more convincing. Peake, on the other hand, was a professional illustrator, and his manuscripts for Titus Groan were peppered with evocative little sketches, mostly of his characters, in an attempt to capture their personalities and test the authenticity of the dialogue he wrote for them. Tolkien’s characters are people in a landscape, and you know that, should the people depart, the landscape would remain, just as magnificent, just as laden with myth and history. Middle Earth is a place you can imagine visiting for a while. But you can’t imagine visiting Gormenghast castle without the fear of it bringing out your Gormenghastian side, your urge to find your own lonely niche in its spidery attics and dusty, junk-filled side-rooms, and there stew in your eccentricities till cooked into a weird and ornery self-caricature. Peake’s characters and landscape are one — his cast of oddities are not so much in the shadow of the great castle, as it is the shadow of them, and they the shadow of it. So much do its limits make an entire world for them that when one of their number, crack-kneed Flay, is banished to the wilderness, he’s astonished to find that:

“Nature, it seemed, was huge as Gormenghast.”

Peake's own dustjacket design for Titus Groan

Peake’s own dustjacket design for Titus Groan

Knowing Peake is an illustrator, it’s tempting to say that the incredible vividness in which his world and characters are described must be the result of an artist’s eye and a well-honed visual imagination, right down to the details:

“a sweep of old cobwebs, like a fly-filled hammock…”

“a thin beam of light threaded the warm brooding dusk and was filled with slowly moving motes like an attenuate firmament of stars…”

“His face was very lined, as though it had been made of brown paper that had been crunched by some savage hand before being hastily smoothed out and spread over the tissues…”

or, one of the most evocative lines from the second book, Gormenghast:

“…a streak of lightning, like an outrider, lit up the terrain so that for a moment the world was made of nothing but wet steel.”

But read his descriptions closely, and you find that Peake feels his world as much as he sees it — both the physical weight of it, and the unseen tensions and moods that haunt it — though this of course may be what explains his ability as an illustrator as much as it explains his ability as a writer: both are translations of a keen inner sense of the is-ness of things, and the being-ness of people, rather than merely what they look like. And Gormenghast is a world as much shadowed with dark emotion as it is by lack of light. Here is doomed Sepulchrave in his doomed library, dwelling on doom:

“The library appeared to spread outwards from him as from a core. His dejection infected the air about him and diffused its illness upon every side. All things in the long room absorbed his melancholia. The shadowing galleries brooded with slow anguish; the books receding into the deep corners, tier upon tier, seemed each a separate tragic note in a monumental fugue of volumes.”

Fuchsia, by Mervyn Peake

Fuchsia, by Mervyn Peake

I first read Titus Groan when I was about 17. I read it again a year later, then once more just recently, and was amazed to find how vividly every incident and character had remained in my memory throughout the 24 year gap. Each character, though grotesquely fantastic, is also utterly, realistically human, a product of what Peake called “extreme individualism”, both infinitely strange and infinitely right, a perfect example of a type of person I’m sure I’ve met, but know I can’t have. That shark-eyed look of cold calculation you get from Steerpike (who was originally called Smuggerly in Peake’s earliest drafts) makes him the original of all Machiavellian social climbers and arch-manipulators; Fuchsia’s tempests of love and hate, resentment and forgiveness, (always full on, one then the other), make her the most awkwardly adolescent of adolescents; Prunesquallor so rightly accused (by his snapping sister) of being “drunk with [his] own levity” is perhaps the only character with the potential of seeing beyond the Gormenghastness of Gormenghast, if only he weren’t so Gormenghastian himself; the Twins as emotionally dead as marionettes; the drear solemn weight of mournful Sepulchrave; the stateliness and indifference of Countess Gertrude; the insignificant whining of Nanny Slagg — all so real, so human, so exaggerated, so true.

In a radio broadcast at the time of the book’s publication, Peake said:

“I enjoy the fantastic and the sheer excitement of having a sheet of white paper and a pen in one’s hand and no dictator on earth can say what word I put down…”

And, in a later essay (“How a Romantic Novel Was Evolved”), he talks of just what sort of words he found himself putting down as he began Titus Groan:

“A mixture of serious as well as nonsensical fantasy began to pour itself out, without object, sentences growing out of their precursors involuntarily.”

Growing out of their precursors — like the mass of Gormenghast grows from its own tortuous foundations. Has a novel ever so resembled its own subject? Titus Groan is a monumental fugue of words.