Saturday, May 29, 2010

Memorial Day Weekend 2010

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
in Flanders Fields
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields
Arlington National Cemetary

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Congratulations! British Army sniper Corp. Craig Harrison recently broke the record for long distance combat shooting.

He took out two Taliban machine gunners from about a mile and a half away. He says it was a once in a life time shot possible only under the perfect conditions of the day, "no wind, mild weather, clear visibility."

The previous record was held by a Canadian sniper who also made his shot in Afghanistan.

Geek Pride Day!

Yesterday, May 25, was Geek Pride Day. But even though I'm late, I can't let that go by without comment. Come on, this whole website is my bid to be named King of the Geeks.

Why May 25? Because this is a red letter day in the history of modern geekdom. On May 25, 1977 the world was forever changed by the release of Star Wars IV: A New Hope. No, I don't know why they didn't pick the anniversary of the first day Star Trek aired on television. Tough noogies, buster.

It's also not my fault that May gets two days commemorating Star Wars. May 4th is Star Wars Day. You know, "May the fourth be with you."

This year, we get to celebrate 30 years of The Empire Strikes Back.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


LOST will end its truly epic run tonight. I watched LOST very closely for the first couple of seasons, but as often happens these days with television shows and me... I was forced to make a choice -- train in martial arts, or stay home to watch TV. Of course, I chose training.

Schedules may have changed, but I was hopelessly confounded by LOST when I tried picking it up again. So I'm consigned to watching it all on DVD someday. I won't be watching the finale tonight, and I will try not to learn too much about how it all ends for the Oceanic passengers and their Other companions.

But in honor of this event, I want to say a word about Terry O'Quinn, one of LOST's most crucial actors.

Some of you may remember Terry O'Quinn appeared on two other sci-fi television series back in the 90's, The X-Files and Millennium. He even managed to get cast in the first X-Files movie, as the FBI Special-Agent-in-Charge who get blown up near the beginning. His Millennium character, Peter Watts, was a central character for moving the larger plot forward. And as a fan of that show's particular conspiracy, I started to really notice Terry O'Quinn on screen.

Not long after The X-Files movie was released, Terry O'Quinn wandered into the bookstore at which I worked. One of the other clerks got excited and came to get me. It wasn't all that unusual to have actors and actresses or other celebrities come through our store -- but it also wasn't an everyday event. (Someday I'll tell my Yaphet Kotto story...) I told the clerk we really ought to just let O'Quinn alone. But he convinced me we should say something. So we went to talk to him.

Terry O'Quinn was not a big star at the time. But he was almost as excited to have us recognize him and his work as we were to see him. He made small talk for a few minutes, and he signed autographs. I think he was a little tickled to do so. I think we helped him find some books too, but I don't remember what they were. O'Quinn was down-to-earth and a regular guy. I hope he's still a regular guy who's excited to find he has fans. I also hope he's not so surprised that he does have fans. He's obviously a hard working actor.

That's my LOST connection. It ain't much, but this seems the time to share it.

Tax-Free Shopping on Hattori Hanzo Swords?

Errr... Ok, a little background is probably necessary.

Hattori Hanzo was a retainer of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Everyone can agree that Hanzo was a samurai of hatamoto rank for Ieyasu. He is popularly known as a ninja leader for Ieyasu.

The dispute over this involves some definitional arguments about what is or is not a "ninja." The word "ninja" is only a couple hundred years old, but, of course, the functions of spy, guerrilla, commando, raider, ranger, etc. are as old as time. There are plenty of records showing unconventional warfare tactics being used in Japanese history. But the people associated with the activity carry a wide assortment of names. It's only in looking back that we might call any or all of them "ninja."

That of course brings up the question about who was or was not a "ninja." That's real quicksand stuff. In Hattori Hanzo's case, some argue that he was a ninja leader and was so valuable as to be counted among Ieyasu's hatamoto samurai. Others insist that samurai, by definition, could not be ninja. It's a bit like arguing angels and pinheads.

But in the folktales, there's no argument Hattori Hanzo was a ninja. So it comes as no surprise that outside this historical person's gravesite, you will find a tourist trap souvenir shop selling ninja novelties. Including swords like Hattori Hanzo used -- "Hattori Hanzo Swords."

This is where we get our next bit of confusion. Back in the 70's and 80's, Sonny Chiba played a series of Hattori Hanzo ninja descendants on Japanese TV. Videos of these were bootlegged and sold in the US. Quinten Tarantino watched them. When it came time to produce his own martial arts epic "Kill Bill" he wanted to fit Sonny Chiba into the story, and saw a way to incorporate Hattori Hanzo in at the same time. But instead of putting Chiba's Hanzo in as a ninja, he became a renowned swordsmith. Thus begins the pop culture idea of "Hattori Hanzo Sword" being the best on earth.

By now, I've probably killed the magic here. Oh well, mission accomplished! Tomorrow is another day...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Frazetta's Artistic Heirs

It is not an exaggeration to say that Frazetta had an influence on most comic book artists working today. Some may be consciously rejecting his aesthetic, but that too is an influence. In other cases, the influence may be unconscious or thematic. Adam Hughes is well known in contemporary comic art for depicting strong, but curvaceous woman. He is particularly known for his depictions of DC super heroines, but has also turned his pencil to Red Sonja.
Red Sonja is a Howard pastiche character based on an actual character named Red Sonya from Howard's short story, "The Shadow of the Vulture." This is one of Howard's historical stories about the siege of Vienna.

Someone else known for his beautiful, strong, full-figured women in the Frazetta mold is Frank Cho. Cho is a huge fan of the ERB Barsoom stories and has contributed pictures to ERB fanzines and sites.

Cho was also tapped to portray Red Sonja for this promotional piece.

Here we see the Green Martian, Tars Tarkas in full battle.
And Cho's depiction of Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars!

In my mind, the artist coming closest to filling Frazetta's shoes is Gary Gianni. Gianni was commissioned to paint a series illustrating complete reprints of REH's principal pulp heroes. Above was Gianni's grim and noble version of Solomon Kane, Howard's Puritan adventurer.

Here we see Conan at rest. Like Frazetta, Gianni captures the solidity of a Howard Barbarian. Conan has the character of a prize fighter with his squashed face. Gianni also excels at capturing the exotic scene in detail.

A Gianni battle scene. (I think from the Bran Mak Morn series.) Like Frazetta, there is a lone hero in the thick of the fight, taking on all comers and scattering his foes. However, Gianni takes a more distant view, emphasizing the lone hero's predicament and his precarious position. The enemy may have limited access to him, but the hero has no path of retreat. Like a true Howard hero, he's in it all or nothing.

Gianni's depiction of Howard's Bran Mak Morn, last of the great Pictish Kings. The detail is astounding, and reasonably accurate to the Roman military equipment of the era. Although the fanciful Raven helmet is a nice visual pun on the Celtic name "Bran." Howard knew full well "Bran" meant "Raven," but insisted in correspondence that in his idea of Pictish language, Bran had no such meaning.

Conan makes off with another of his women. Like Frazetta, Gianni makes ample use of light and dark to set mood and draw the eye.

Can anyone truly replace Frank Frazetta? No. But we should all be grateful that so many talented artists will try. Thanks for the marvelous work, Mr. Frazetta. You'll be missed.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Frazetta's Hollywood Adventure

Frazetta had something of a tumultuous relationship with Hollywood. Even so, he worked for the studios with some regularity. One of his most famous and early works for the movies was the poster for the comedy What's New Pussycat? and he turned out cartoony posters for several other 60's comedies, including The Fearless Vampire Hunters. His relationship with Hollywood reached a peak when he collaborated with Ralph Bakshi to create Fire and Ice. The movie was wholly inspired and based on original imagery from Frazetta. Unfortunately, it flopped. I've never seen it, so I can't really give you an opinion on the quality of the movie. However, from the stills I have seen, the animation probably couldn't do true justice to the lushness of a Frazetta painting.

Frazetta was asked to produce a poster image for the Robert Rodriguez movie From Dusk to Dawn. It effectively puts some of the film's best assets on display... but by the mid-90's Hollywood marketing types had already moved to computer generated images based on actor photos. It's very rare to see a painted movie one-sheet image these days. (Although Lucasfilm still does turn them out sometimes -- bless them for something!) Apparently this was used on some overseas posters. I guess Marketing thinks the US public only likes photographs and has to see a "real" picture of the actors before they'll see a movie.

Back in the late 70's, Frazetta was asked to produce a series of promotional paintings for the TV series Battlestar Galactica. (This would be the original one. You know, Lorne Greene. Rag tag fugitive fleet. Mormon science fiction.) I even remember seeing them in the newspaper's TV guide -- in black and white! The above painting was down for the two part episode in which the Galactica fleet finds the planet Kobol and a hint of a path to find earth. The plot had the fighter pilots sick with a nasty flu bug, so the fleet was relying upon female reserve pilots to protect it. (This was the 70's, when women in combat was a social issue. Now, it's a reality.) It makes sense for Frazetta to leap at the chance of depicting the curvaceous Viper pilots springing to action.
Here we see Apollo, Starbuck, and Sheba confronting the demonic Count Iblis, who has threatened the salvation of the Galactica fleet. In the background, the mysterious, angelic "ships of light" are coming to the rescue. The scene in the show really affected my pre-adolescent psyche, and scared the bejeezus out of me! When I saw it in rerun as an adult, I was shocked at how tepid it came off. (Your mileage may vary...) But again, Frazetta has found the emotional core of the scene and pulled it off majestically. It looks nothing like the source material -- but it captures the truth of the story.

Clint Eastwood asked Frazetta to paint the one-sheet image to advertise his movie, The Gauntlet. It's an apocalyptic image that is juxtaposed against the absurdity of Eastwood's snub-nosed revolver. It's true what they say, you know: size doesn't matter. Eastwood's still going to come through in the end.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Warrior Dash

So I got an email today from a younger friend of mine asking if I have any interest in joining him for Warrior Dash in the Fall.

I said, "What the hell are you talking about?"

"Warrior Dash!"

It's a crazy 5k race over hay bales, wooden palisades, tires, through tunnels, through bogs, through mud (but under barbed wire). And the course he's looking at has a rappelling section.

Of course I'm interested! I'll need to increase my running distance, but I'm pretty certain I can be ready for a 5k race by the Fall.

Then he tells me there's an entrance fee! But it does cover a free turkey leg, a free beer, a free t-shirt, and a free "helmet" that looks like a Flintstones Water Buffalo Lodge hat. I said, "That stuff's not 'free.' You paid for it with your entrance fee." It's not that I don't mind making myself look foolish, or that I'm intimidated by the challenge of the 5k obstacle race. But I'm not keen on paying for the privilege of looking foolish. Still... I need to run this by Mrs. JRF.

Frazetta's High Adventure

We're almost finished... Today I want to showcase some of Frazetta's "other" High Adventure work. His paintings illustrating the classic pulp stories of REH and ERB tend to crowd out the covers he painted for other paperbacks of varying sorts. The first painting in this series appeared on a 1970's paperback exploring the myth and reality of Atlantis. "New Age" non-fiction books were making a big hit in the 1970's, and frequently featured lurid covers in the same style as the pulp action fiction. In addition to collecting pulp paperbacks, I have a growing collection of these paranormal "non-fiction" titles.

For me, the power of this work is in the choice of color scheme. It manages to convey melancholy, decay, and cultural decadence.
This was the cover for the semi-historical adventure, The Rogue Roman. All the hallmarks of the Frazetta style are there: naked girls, melodramatic posing, raw sensuality. But one of the things I find most intriguing about this painting is the fact that the men -- and to a lesser extent, the women too -- are more normally proportioned. Where the Conan-esque barbarians are meaty slabs of grade-A beef (can you tell I'm hungry?), these guys are smaller. Yes, they are cut like Olympic athletes, but they aren't man-mountains.

Here is a Frazetta cover for the ribald Flashman series, a raunchy 70's men's adventure series about a hero who managed to end up as a participant in various historical episodes, but was more interested in the ladies.

Frazetta was not known for depicting the American Frontier, but he did produce several illustrations of the subject. I like this one for the easy, savage grace he has imbued in character. You can sense he slips through the wilderness like a cat.

If memory serves me correct, this was the cover to one of the ERB Pellucidar books. Pellucidar was the name for Burrough's Hollow Earth realm. The Hollow Earth is one of those occult ideas that gains traction every so often, but has fallen out of favor with modern society's better understanding of geology. Frazetta did covers for most, if not all of the Pellucidar books and many of the Tarzan titles too. With her hair tossed in the air, the woman is as wild and vibrant as the saber-toothed cats, despite being posed coyly.

And lastly, we find Frazetta illustrating for National Lampoon. I have no recollection how this related to anything in the magazine. Possibly, it didn't. This is one of my favorites of his lesser known work because it is an excellent execution of a classic pulp fiction scenario. I admit it isn't as... err, "politically correct" as we might like to see today. Almost every character in this scene, including the viper, is caught in motion -- with the possible exception of the masked priest on the left. The mask adds a bit of humor as the figure looks somewhat shocked, and also like he's realized he's bit off more than he can chew.
Tomorrow we'll look at some paintings Frazetta did for Hollywood. Then we'll finish up with some heirs-apparent on Wednesday. It's obvious this Frazetta series is popular and generating more traffic to the site. I'd like to thank those of you who are stopping by.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Frazetta's Hyborian Age

I'll keep my commentary to a minimum here, since I've already discussed Frazetta's connection with Conan the Cimmerian, and some of the style involved in the illustration. The piece above, the cover for the Ace edition "Conan the Adventurer" is the print hanging in my home. I think it is the best all around example of Frazetta's Conan work at least for tone.

This is one of the most famous Frazetta paintings of Conan, and it was done to illustrate the short story, "The Frost Giant's Daughter." Here Conan dispatches her two brothers. It's been reproduced many times as book covers, album cover art, posters, prints, and comic books covers. It was the next print I hoped to buy when I last checked the Frazetta museum website.

Yes, according to Frazetta, this is a visual pun.

A pencil sketch. Frazetta not only painted covers for the paperbacks, but created pen and ink sketches, and pencil drawings for later editions.

Another of my favorites, although this is not the way the original painting appeared on the cover of Conan the Buccaneer.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Frazetta's Barsoom

While Frazetta is best known for his Conan paintings, he also illustrated Edgar Rice Burrough's Martian Tales.
Burroughs created the hero John Carter, a Southern gentleman who seeks refuge in a cave while being chased by bandidos in the Southwest. Falling asleep in the cave, Carter awoke to find himself mystically transported to Mars. (If you think this is a flimsy plot device, Burroughs began writing the story because he put down a pulp magazine is disgust, and decided to write a better story. Makes you wonder about how bad his inspiration was, doesn't it?)

Despite -- or maybe because of -- the flimsy plot devices, Burroughs' Martian Tales enjoyed a healthy following. Still do in many respects. They are a direct ancestor of Flash Gordon and Star Wars. Carter discovered Mars was teeming with life and civilizations, from the four-armed, green skinned Thrak warriors to the four armed white apes, to the beautiful (and scantily clad) red martians who were human in all respects except that they laid eggs. The Martians called their world Barsoom, and welcomed Carter into an existence of high adventure.

The outline may sound fantastic, but it provided Frazetta with another entire exotic, imagined world to play in with his brushes and pens. He gave life to the weird setting.

Frazetta claimed that he preferred illustrating Conan's Hyborian Age over Barsoom. The Conan fans were forgiving when his paintings and illustrations matched the tone of the story rather than depicted an actual event. Burrough's fans were detail oriented, and vocal about perceived deviations in the illustration from the plot.
Although there are obvious Frazetta stylistic similarities between the depictions of Barsoom and the Hyborian Age, I think there is a perceptible romanticism in the Barsoom work that isn't present in the Conan work. The Martian heroes are coming to the aid of damsels in distress, something you never see in the Conan work. There is even less blood in the Martian paintings. Even the accouterments about the figures are lighter and more delicate.

50 Years of the Laser!

50 years ago this week, science invented the laser. At the time, no one had any use for it. It was too weak to be the sci-fi death ray everyone wanted, and they were useless for playing vinyl records. But the laser endured, and now, well... It is no exaggeration to say that you probably have several lasers in your house right now doing all kinds of neat things.

So here's to the laser! And all its awesome applications... including as an optional attachment for super villain pet sharks.