Savage Heroics and Barbaric Eroticism – more of why I love sf/f
I don’t know when I first saw a painting by Frank Frazetta adorning a book. He had worked for many years in the comics industry, then began doing movie posters in the early 60s, and by the mid 60s he was painting cover art for paperback editions of Conan the Barbarian, John Carter of Mars, and numerous other similar sorts of fantasy book series. He became the go-to guy for that sort of book. And soon rock bands were licensing images for album covers or sometimes commissioning him to do an original work for an album.
His fantasy art style was described as primal and potent. He liked to call his work rough. He also freely admitted he didn’t read the books he created covers for—even when he was also paid to create pen and ink illustrations for the interior. He insisted that most of the people who bought the books didn’t really read them, either. I’m not sure if that was supposed to be an egotistical claim that the book covers were so great that people who didn’t read would buy them, or if he thought that only illiterate people were interested in the types of stories in the books (but if they were literally illiterate, what were they doing even looking at books?), or what.
I know that most of the books I owned that featured his artwork were picked up at used book stores. And they were almost always very worn, having had their pages turned a lot. Lots of people buy books to read only once then pass on. My experience with the other fantasy fans I hung out with during my teen years was that the folks who bought these books read them, re-read them, and re-read them again. We became obsessed, and would go back again and again.
I was reading them for the sense of adventure. For a chance to imagine a different world, where the bad guys were obvious, and the good guys would get back up no matter how often they were knocked down.
But I also spent a lot of time staring at cover art. Thinking about the world and the story, yes, but also wondering why the artist made this choice, or that. What was that thing in the bad guy’s hand supposed to be? That sort of thing.
I also had other, much less noble reasons for staring at the artwork. And for buying posters of some of the artwork to hang on my bedroom wall. Though I didn’t admit it. The artwork, particularly Frazetta’s wasn’t merely primal, potent, barbaric, and rough—it was also erotic.
My first week at university, the parents of my roommate showed up to visit. My roommate’s mother freaked out at this poster on my side of the room. I thought she was upset because of the naked man’s butt, or maybe she guessed that it was a “supernatural” picture (this was a Free Methodist university, and most folks there were quite rightwing conservative). The novel, The Book of Paradox was a sort of tarot-based fantasy, which I’m sure his mother would have labeled Satanic if she realized a battered paperback copy of it was sitting on the shelf above my bed in that same dorm room.
No, what she was angry about were the bare breasts on the winged creatures. I think I actually said out loud, “I forgot those were even there.” Because I literally had. They were obviously not the part of the painting that interested me.
My favorite Frazetta was “Atlantis,” which depicts a statue of some long forgotten warrior among flooded ruins. I know that part of my fascination was the presence of a near-nude male figure, as in so many others. But there was also something about the melancholy sense of determination in the face of great loss that spoke to me. The evocation of a great disaster that reduced the heroic exploits of generations of champions to a few vague remembrances alluded to in the stories of more recent adventurers. I wrote more than one story attempting to evoke the feelings that the picture gave me of a once mighty and noble people who had been stuck down by overwhelming, perhaps uncaring forces. I also used variants of this scene in a large number of roleplaying games I ran.
At the time I was doing everything I could to deny my attraction to other guys. Reading some of those hyper-masculine, pulpy adventures of barbarians and warriors seemed like the opposite of anything gay. Because, frankly, the only women who ever appeared in those stories were there as a prize to be won or a damsel to be rescued (or both). But I remember one friend commenting on just how often Edgar Rice Burroughs, for instance, mentioned that his various heroes were “half-naked.” At the time, I suggested that a lot of those stories had originally be written to be serialized in magazines. The writer had to re-introduce each character in each installment, for the benefit of readers just joining the tale, or to refresh the memories for those for whom it had been a month since reading the previous chapter.
Many years later, I’m not so sure. There were a lot of guys I knew back then who were all about my age that were really into these kinds of books. We lent each other copies of books we couldn’t afford or hadn’t found our own copy of. We talked about our favorite parts. Some of us bought posters of the book covers. We speculated about which ones would make good movies. We drew pictures of scenes from the stories. We tried to write similar stories of our own. In the years since, more than half of those guys have come out as gay or bisexual.
So maybe I wasn’t the only one who spent a lot of time staring at those cover paintings.