Above left: Roy G. Krenkel [1918-1983] Above right: Frank Frazetta [1928-2010]
Over the last few months I’ve been going through my studio archives, such as they are, to ferret out bits and pieces to help some friends with a project they’re working on (which, unfortunately, I can’t discuss at the moment). During the search I came across transcripts of my conversations with various artists from years past buried in the files, including several with Roy Krenkel and Frank Frazetta talking about Frank’s first Conan paperback cover. The interview with Krenkel was intended for one of the amateur magazines I was publishing way back when but was never completed (there was no email, no SmartPhones, and long-distance phone calls were expensive, something along the lines of $1 a minute if memory serves); the conversation with Frazetta was one of many that took place in his studio while Cathy and I were working on his books. The painting for Conan the Adventure was first published in 1966—though Frank added a © 65 for some reason to his signature years later—and is, without the slightest hint of exaggeration, one of the most imitated, parodied, and iconic covers of the last…well 55 years. Roy and Frank were friends and their personalities definitely come through in these snippets.
Phone interview excerpt/Roy Krenkel & Arnie Fenner/1976
Arnie Fenner: I have a couple of questions about Frazetta’s Conan covers.
Roy Krenkel: The Great Frazetta! What do you want to know?
AF: You were thanked in the front of the books as a “consultant”: what did you do?
RGK: Oh, nothing much. Frank has never been a reader and I had read all of the Conan stories so I talked to Lancer’s editor—Larry Shaw—found out what stories were going to be in which book, and made suggestions to Frank. They never really give the artist a manuscript to read, you know, just suggestions or maybe a synopsis, so I was able to give Frank some ideas…except for the first one. [James] Bama had already been a huge hit a few years earlier with his first Doc Savage cover: you know the one, black background, Doc in a torn shirt. A real knock-out. That really introduced Doc to everyone and Larry wanted Frank to do the same for Conan…and history was made! Except [laughs] when Frank got the painting back he brought it over and I’m oooing and ahhing and finally said, “This is great, Frankie, but you need to give him a f*cking neck!” Conan’s shoulders were up around his ears! [Laughs] So I took out my knife and turpentine and scraped Conan’s head off.
AF: You what?!?
RGK: Scraped Conan’s head off. [Laughs] Before the war I had studied with [George] Bridgeman and after had gone to Burne [Hogarth]’s school so I knew a little more about painting with oils at that time than Frank did—though I was never all that good, especially when compared to Frank! Who is? All I did was scrape and prep the board, then Frank repainted Conan’s face and head—with a neck! [Laughs]
AF: How long did it take?
RGK: Oh, maybe an hour or two; Frank’s always been fast when he wants to be. He did it over an afternoon when we were hanging out and gassing. He worked on the girl, too—of course!—and made her more Frazetta-yummy.
AF: So you suggested scenes to him…
RGK: Yeah. Let me see…“The Frost Giant’s Daughter”—though Frank didn’t make the two giants “giant” and sort of modeled them after [Hal] Foster’s Vikings in “Prince Valiant”—uh…“Rogues in the House,” “[Beyond] The Black River,” and “[The] Scarlet Citadel,” with the big snake between Conan’s legs! [Laughs] For the novel [Conan the Conqueror] Frank did a big battle and for the novel-not-by-Howard [Conan the Avenger], Conan with a fruit bowl on his head saving the girl. I guess that’s in the book somewhere. [Laughs] Frank was bored around the last one [Conan the Buccaneer]: he really didn’t want to do them anymore so he just sort of copied one of his old Tarzan drawings and called it a day. Did you know he’s gone back and repainted it since then? It’s funny that Frank became so famous for Conan: it was just a job to him and his Conan doesn’t look anything like Howard’s Conan, not that Frank cares.
AF: Don Grant says you’re going to illustrate one of his Conan books…
RGK: I am, but first I have to get off my dead ass and finish the pictures for the sequel to Sowers of the Thunder [The Road of Azrael]. I’m going to make pictures for “[The] Scarlet Citadel”*—not “illustrations”: pictures!—but I plan to keep the snake in Conan’s pants! [Laughs]
[*Note: Roy never made much progress illustrating “The Scarlet Citadel” and there were only a few sketches existing when he died from cancer in 1983. Some of the art is included in the recent book, Roy G. Krenkel: Father of Heroic Fantasy—A Centennial Celebration.]
Conversation excerpt/Frank Frazetta & Arnie Fenner/1998
Arnie Fenner: Let’s talk about the Conan covers. Roy Krenkel is listed as a cover “consultant” in the front of the Lancer books…
Frank Frazetta: That was all their idea, not mine.
AF: Ok… Roy had told me years ago that he had helped by given you some ideas based on the different stories in the books…
FF: Maybe. I don’t really remember, but they gave him credit because Roy was more of a fan than I was and knew the Lancer people, I guess—but I did Conan my way. I went right ahead and created this character that didn’t even resemble Howard’s description at all: mine is quite a different guy. He was what I thought a barbarian should look like, the ultimate barbarian. Howard’s description was quite different. He was leaner with shorter hair and hawkish features. I instead saw a scarred, a real monster sort of a guy. That’s just the way I felt a guy should look like at this point. It’s all personal. My interpretation of the feeling I get from it. Roy might have given me some ideas based on Howard, but he’s all mine. Some of these goofy fans say I look like Conan! That’s nuts! Look at those arms! Look at those scars! Yesh! [Laughs]
AF: Frank, all your characters do sorta look like you: Thun’da, Johnny Comet, Conan, John Carter…
FF: Well, maybe; I don’t see it. But…I’m a good looking guy! I make a great model! [Laughs] When I got Conan, as usual I waited to the last minute. They called the day before it was due in and asked, “Frank, how’s it coming? What’s the concept?” I told them—and I was being very facetious—“It’s a portrait.” There was silence at the other end: they had their own ideas, the obvious approach, a battle scene. They were worried. In any event, I sat down and bashed it out in a day, brought it in, the place went crazy, they were drinking champagne! I knew it was a new look, nobody had ever seen something quite like it before. It changed illustration! Sounds arrogant, I suppose, but it’s true. Everybody has copied my Conan ever since. The hippies even started wearing their hair long because of my Conan.*
AF: [Laughs] Well, I think the Beatles and other bands had more to do with that than Conan did. And, Frank…c’mon, you’re pulling my leg. Champagne? Really? I didn’t think Lancer could afford a can of Schlitz much less champagne! And…didn’t they already know what you were going to do based on your rough?
FF: I just sat down and painted him. I didn’t do a rough, wise guy.
AF: Uh…sure you did. Several. I’ve seen them, including the one you eventually turned into the cover.
AF: Larry Shaw sold that one to a book dealer [Barry Levin] way back in 1977; he sent me a Xerox®.
FF: Ok. Well…maybe. Boy, you sure know how to ruin a story! [Laughs]
AF: You did some more work on that first painting after you got it back, didn’t you?
FF: Yeah. Roy mentioned a few things so I raised his head a little and finished the girl. It’s better now.
[*Note: Frank told this practiced “first Conan cover” story, with very slight variations, multiple times over the years to interviewers and it’s become part of the Frazetta legend among his fans. Unfortunately, Frank was misremembering or exaggerating or, shall we say, BS-ing me and everyone else (as he sometimes did), not only about not doing any roughs (obviously—and there’s at least one more that I’ve seen but don’t have a copy of), but also about the reaction in the Lancer office. Lancer began in 1961 and was never considered a “prestige” publisher, especially among the artists; at the time Frazetta first worked for them they occupied several dingy offices on West 47th St. in NY. They published one of the earliest Frazetta posters—seen above—without Frank’s prior knowledge or permission; if it had been intended simply as a store advertisement Frank might have been fine with it, but Lancer sold thousands of copies without giving Frazetta a cut. They filed for bankruptcy in 1973 and quickly went out of business; the owners subsequently formed Kensington Books, Zebra Books, and Pinnacle Books. Frazetta wasn’t paid for his last Conan cover for Lancer—Conan of Aquilonia—and the original painting was stolen when the offices closed; it has never been recovered. To add insult to injury, when Ace Books acquired the Conan series they reprinted Frazetta’s covers without paying him an additional fee—which, to put it mildly, didn’t make Frank very happy, either.]
Eventually, my conversations with Frank and Ellie Frazetta—and others—will find publication somewhere. Probably. Maybe. We’ll see. In the meantime, if this post has you itching to hang some Frazetta art on your walls (or to wear a Frazetta jacket or pin), I heartily recommend paying a visit to the Frazetta Girls website, which is owned and operated by Frank’s granddaughter, Sara Frazetta.