Here is the second in what is turning out to be a series of posts here at RCN featuring obscure SF book covers by Frank Frazetta. The first “obscure SF book cover” is over here.
Although Frazetta has plenty of classic covers to his credit, the cover for Time War is not one of them; this, despite the fact that Frazetta was, I think most fans of fantasy illustration would agree, at the height of his powers as a draftsman and cover artist around the time he painted it. Simply put, Time War is the epitome of an inadequately developed, compositional cliché wedded to flashy but underdeveloped, even desultory, technique.
Go in with me, and I will tell you my drift.
The controlling compositional idea here, bog-standard in illustration art, is to use something or someone in the foreground, often in shadow or silhouette, to frame and direct attention to something or someone of interest in the more brightly illuminated middle distance. In Frazetta’s uninspired variation on this idea, the main figures, which dominate the foreground, are turned away from the viewer and are looking off into the distance at a glowing planet from which several figures are emerging. Never mind the problem of where the foreground figures are standing, exactly, to give them such a view, the real difficulty here — the two-pronged problem that prompts me to label the painting “uninspired” — is that what they (and we) are given to look at and react to in the distance is neither in their direct line of sight — the foreground figures, the man and the woman, appear quite clearly to be looking at a spot below and to the right of the distant, stiff, faceless background figures — nor is the presumed threat, i.e., those distant, stiff, faceless background figures, anywhere near as visually compelling, beyond the lurid colours of the planet from which the threat is emerging, as the hero’s shirtless torso and heavily muscled arm and the woman’s shapely rear.
Aye, there’s the rub: as many of his fans have become aware over the years, when left to his own devices, Frazetta will seize any excuse, no matter how flimsy, to feature bare buttocks in a painting! Not that there’s anything wrong with bare buttocks (or gestural, flowing hair, or gnarled roots, or moss-covered deadfall, or any of the other elements that have become clichés of the Frazetta style), but the plain truth is that 1) nudity is neither necessary nor sufficient to create a first-rate paperback cover (and especially not an SF cover!), 2) nudity can very easily be fallen back upon as a titillating, eye-hooking substitute for real engagement and effort on the part of the artist, and 3) the nude figures here have been left mostly underpainted, with little of the impasto overpainting in the areas where the light is strongest that ordinarily gives Frazetta’s painted figures their variety, their three-dimensional solidity, and their overall liveliness. Yes, the figures are sort of in shadow, which accounts for the lack of detail, but in my view, they take up far too much of the composition to be left so under-developed.
That Frazetta himself recognized the inadequacy of his own work here is perhaps reflected in the following trio of facts: 1) Frazetta revised the painting after he got it back from the publisher; 2) the revised version has only been reproduced in one of the books on his art produced with his participation and blessing (see Arnie Fenner and Cathy Fenner, eds., Legacy: Selected Drawings & Paintings by Frank Frazetta [Underwood Books, 1999], p. 167); and 3) the original version has been reproduced, well, never. And although in the revised version both figures are completely nude, and their naked flesh has been brought to a level of finish it previously lacked, and the man is now brandishing a non-existant gun (seriously!), and the man’s right foot has morphed into a curious form that is neither foot nor boot, and the man’s genitalia, which common sense says should be clearly visible from this angle, is some strange configuration that is neither penis nor codpiece, and the woman’s hair is even more insistently Frazetta-like, and her backside is even larger and more moon-like, I say, even though Frazetta has made all these changes, the composition remains egregiously under-motivated, uninspired, and unconvincing.