Friday, August 13, 2010

Early Influences: Frank Frazetta, Creepy, and the Cover Story

Being a first-generation monsterkid, I'm old enough to remember a lot of primal Frank Frazetta work hitting the newsstands back in the day. In particular, I have a strong recollection of seeing Creepy #7 on display at the local bottle shop (my mom's polite parental euphemism for "liquor store").

I wasn't quite eight years old when that issue came out. I was barely buying comics -- mostly Batman. My older brother and I were allowed to go to the bottle shop to get our monthly fix. The comics rack was near the front door. Sixties prices were twelve cents a pop for great stuff like The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and Tales to Astonish, or a quarter for a summertime King-Sized Special (as a kid, I loved those DC Giants featuring Superman or Batman... though just laying eyes on Bob Kane's version of the Joker was guaranteed to give me nightmares). Anyway, when all was said and done, my brother and I could have a lot of fun for fifty cents. Toss in a couple extra dimes, we could each grab ourselves a Frosty Root Beer or an R. C. Cola, too.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that the comics rack at the front of the bottle shop was one of my favorite places in the world. But I wasn't allowed to visit the magazine section. There were a couple rows toward the back of the store, and that's where they kept stuff like Playboy, and Gent, and Rogue. Of course, that's also where they kept the Warren magazines like Creepy and Eerie, which I was desperate to buy -- even though they seemed astronomically priced at thirty-five cents a pop (i.e. only one penny short of THREE Marvel comics!). But though I tried to explain to my mom that the Warren mags were just comic books like the ones I bought off the turnstile rack, she wouldn't go for it. No way was I getting to the back of that store to thumb through those things... or anywhere near those products bankrolled by Hugh Hefner or some other guy in silk pajamas.

Still, I got a peek at Creepy and Famous Monsters and the other Warren stuff every now and then (usually when my grandfather, who'd been a fan of pulp magazines, took us to the store). But I didn't get anywhere near Creepy #7 the month it was out. I only saw that cover, with the great Frazetta painting of a werewolf battling a vampire in the ruins of a castle. "Duel of the Monsters" the cover screamed. And, yep, it got me excited. How could it not? By then I'd watched a few of the old Universal Monster Rallies. Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. I thought Lon Chaney, Jr. was the coolest thing ever, because he was both a monster and a hero rolled into one. And Glenn Strange as Frankenstein's Monster? Man, I thought he was the scariest thing on two legs. He made the Joker look like a pussycat.

So I loved the Universal classics -- especially the dust-up battle royales between the monsters that would inevitably spell the climax of the later films. Those movies were probably at least partly responsible for the images the cover of Creepy #7 sparked in my head. Of course, spurred by Frazetta's art, what I saw was wilder than a Universal movie. And more violent. And a lot bloodier. Somehow much scarier... and, at the same time, much more real.

After all, Frazetta's werewolf was obviously a badass. He was cut, as the bodybuilders say -- a killing machine with plenty of tooth and claw on him, ready to clean house and stock a butcher shop single-handedly. And that vampire was no slouch, either. Frazetta's Count was all sharp features and sharp fangs. One look and you could see that the undead blood-sucker had chewed a layer of skin off the lycanthrope's arm, shredded it right down to muscle that looked as red as anything you'd find in a cutaway anatomy illustration.

Of course, I wasn't even eight years old. I didn't have the words to articulate my attraction to the cover of Creepy #7 in quite that way back then. But it certainly captured my imagination. Right away, I wanted to know what started that fight -- who that werewolf was, who the bloodsucker was. I wanted to watch their battle unfold in the shadow of that ruined castle. And I wanted to know how it all turned out once the battle was over.

I guess all that is another way of saying that Frazetta's painting set off some fireworks in my imagination. And that's true. The cover of Creepy #7 did just that. I never forgot it. For years, I wanted to track down that issue so I could read that story and answer those questions. When I bought Creepy as an older kid (Mom finally did relent on that score), I'd look at the tiny picture of Frazetta's cover on the back issues page and think about getting a copy. I never actually ordered one, but I thought about that cover a lot. Those same questions would stir in my imagination, and it wasn't long before I tried to build my own answer. I didn't know it then, because I figured I wasn't doing anything more than looking for a story that already existed. But really I was doing something much more valuable -- I was learning to build a story of my own.

And, as I'd already begun to understand, that process started with questions. Why was the werewolf after the vampire? Was he there to settle a grudge? Had the vampire killed someone he loved? Was that it? Had the werewolf tracked the undead leech to his lair in that ruined castle so he could settle the score? In my mind, it seemed that had to be the reason... or part of it, anyway. Each time I thought of Frazetta's painting, I'd think of that story. I'd add a little bit to it, then add a little bit more. And I'd see it all unfold in my head, marvelously rendered just the way Frazetta would have done the job.

Of course, years later when I was a teenage comic book dealer, I actually tracked down Creepy #7 at a con. I remember sitting in a hotel room and reading the Archie Goodwin/Angelo Torres tale, "The Duel of the Monsters." While it was a fun little twist-ender, it wasn't anything like the story I'd imagined. That wasn't an unfamiliar feeling. As is the story with a lot of comics and paperbacks, often the cover art is far superior to the story you'll find inside the book. And while I'm sure others might come to a different conclusion when sizing up Creepy #7, I've got to admit I was disappointed in a tale that seemed pretty tame in comparison to the wild one Frazetta's painting hinted at.

So, yeah, I was disappointed. That was the emotion I focused on then... and it's what I focused on for a good long time when I'd remember Creepy #7. But I've been thinking about it again in the shadow of Frazetta's death a few months ago, and what I focus on now is the cover itself and the wonderful gift Frank Frazetta gave me when I first laid eyes on it. If you want bang for the buck, that cover was more than enough. It was a spark that kindled a story of my own before I really understood the magic of that process. That's what counts, and that's what I'd like to thank Frazetta for tonight... and too many other fine cover artists to mention.