A series looking at some of my favourite book
covers and cover artists, mostly taken from my own collection.
#2 Frank Frazetta’s covers for the Robert E. Howards’ Conan novels published by Lancer in the 1960’s
Texan author Robert E. Howard’s first published Conan story appeared in the December 1932 issue of the pulp science fiction magazine Weird Tales. Howard, a prolific writer responsible for hundreds of short stories, had previously experienced minor success selling to the pulps but it was his creation of a Cimmerian barbarian that struck a cord with readers.
After the authors untimely death at the age of 30 in 1936 the Conan stories languished in relative obscurity for almost 30 years. There was an attempt to revive the character in the 1950’s when Gnome Press hired writer L. Sprague de Camp to edit seven hardback editions featuring Howard’s most famous creation. The Gnome editions sold well but with limited print runs they failed to propel the character to a wider audience.
With the 1960’s came the emergence of the counter-culture movement in the USA and the fantasy fiction genre enjoyed a resurgence, thanks mainly to the growing popularity of The Lord of the Rings novels. Hoping to capitalise on both the boom in fantasy fiction and in the increasingly popular paperback format, established science fiction and crime publisher Lancer signed a deal with de Camp to reprint the Conan novels.
With a decision that would prove fortuitous to all concerned Lancer hired commercial artist Frank Frazetta to paint the cover. The Brooklyn born Frazetta, who had recently found success painting movie posters and book covers for other fictional mainstays (Edger Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and John Carter, for example), leapt at the chance. Enticed by a sharp bump in pay and the promise of being allowed to keep his original artwork, Frazetta created what would become both his signature piece and an iconic piece of commercial art: The Barbarian. Painted in just one night (Frazetta was a self confessed procrastinator who regularly waited until the night before a deadline before starting a piece) the work is as boldly eye-catching as it is assured and perfectly captures the brooding menace of the character. The naked chick clinging to his leg didn’t hurt either.
The painting immediately resonated with readers, many of whom wrote to both the publisher and the artist praising the work as the first true depiction of the character as described by Howard. This appreciation quickly translated into sales: the Conan books would sell millions of copies in paperback and propel the character into the forefront of fantasy fiction. Lancer very quickly realised that many readers were buying the book just for the cover and quickly commissioned Frazetta to paint more and over the next five years seven more books would feature Frazetta’s depiction of the character.
Frazetta’s impact on book cover art cannot be understated. With one painting he single-handedly revolutionised not only fantasy fiction but all fiction book covers. He was was one of the first artists to show that readers were willing to purchase books for the cover artwork alone which in turn raised the bar for all cover artists.
Visit the official Frank Frazetta online shop.