It took me a day or two to consider what to write in the wake of Frank's death two days ago. Here is what comes to mind.
We use the words like "Genius" and "Master" pretty loosely. After all, there are a number of fabulous artists around that we can get impressed by, and those words trip off the tongue pretty easily.
Very rarely should we consider someone to be utterly in a class by themselves, and with his paintings, Frank was that. Illustration magazine has been making a good case for us to fall back in love with many of the early 20th century illustrators and pulp magazine painters, yet for the most part, their work has a nostalgic appeal. It has skill, yes, but for all the George Rozen Shadow covers that i find briliant and iconic, they simply aren't a Rockwell. Or a Leyendecker.
Frazetta's approach, technique, color sense and, very importantly, composition were game changers in every sense of the word. For all those that had worked in the fantasy genre before him, we see almost no precedent to his Conan, to the sense that he brought to those paintings.
He was a true artist in that, once you saw the piece, it appeared as if he had shown you another world that should have always existed, but that you simply hadn't seen before. The best artists show us things that should have been obvious and yet, somehow, we had never seen them.
His comic work prior to that is pretty well known, although i doubt that many have poured over Johnny Comet as much as the Death Dealer. I personally enjoy, as a single piece, this Buck Rodgers cover from the 1950's, with a peer in skill, Wally Wood, inking Frank's pencils. Not only is it a gorgeous piece in terms of technique (at his peak, Wood was an astonishing technician with regards to texture and light), but the composition is magnificent.
As an artist, I can look at this piece and start to dissect it, look at how it was achieved, look at the choices that Frank and Wally made along the way. Same thing with the aforementioned Johnny Comet newspaper strip. When i get to Frank's Conan covers, I get lost. Completely and utterly lost in the colors, the textures, the circular compositions that make you want to look at everything all at the same time and don't allow you to concentrate on any one thing. They don't have to be perfect (although I defy you to have the balls to tell me ways to improve any of the Conan pieces) to mesmerize. They helped to define an era of art, of shrinking genre paperback books that we trapped in a world that was busy trying to pretend that it didn't need them. Like the Beatles or Elvis, there is pre and there is post and we are now utterly post-Frazetta.
Your younger reader who is used to seeing graphic novels and trade paperbacks in the book store will have a hard time understanding that there was a time when you would walk into the Brentano's bookstore and in the "cartoon" section would be some of the oddest books imaginable smashed up against each other. Back in the glorious days of 1978 one would find the Garfield collections next to Doonesbury collections next to Peanuts next to The Art of Frank Frazetta. Astonishingly, they wouldn't put his art book in the "art" section many times but in the "cartoon" section since, obviously, it had barbarians and other fantastical worlds, so it couldn't be ART. Therefore it was cartoon, right? I dare anyone to look into the eyes of a Frazetta female and tell me "that come hither so I can kill you" look is cartoony and should be next to Garfield.
Rest in Peace Frank.