On Jan. 28, 1952, Frank Frazetta’s breathtaking talent for dramatically charged action and erotic, muscular figure drawing finally made its way into newspapers with one of the most gorgeous, if short-lived, strips of the decade, Johnny Comet. The eponymous adventure was set in the racing world, a theme that should have tapped naturally into the car customization craze of the 50s. It was ceonceived and distributed by the McNaught Syndicate, ghost-written by Earl Baldwin, but co-credited to Frazetta and 1925 Indianapolis 500 winner Peter DePaolo who served more as an advisor and was attached to the project to lend an air of authenticity. Hobbled perhaps by uninspired scripting, Johnny Comet failed to catch on despite its standout visual poetry.
Frazetta’s instincts for engaging strip mechanics is clear in these first two days. The opening panel is an explosion activity, essentially projecting out to the reader the feeling of the crowd rushing towards the spectacle the artist had in mind for his strip. His use of ground-level and over-the shoulder perspectives imagines the reader as participant rather than detached observer. And it is clear from the beginning that the artist was channeling some of the photo-realist vibe of this post-WWII stage in strip art, but infused it with cartoonish physics. The race cars have a mechanical realism but they are rendered with a chiaroscuro shading and exaggerated physics. In the following days, Frazetta gives us an epically slo-mo crash sequence that takes literally a week to unfold.
Frazetta credits Hal Foster’s Tarzan work as an early inspiration, but it is clear that he was more than comfortable in the truncated cadence of a daily strip. His innate sense for activating the optimal moment of action and tension, a signature of his legendary fantasy work, is apparent even here. And he had an uncanny ability to use a three-panel sequence to communicate the drama in that moment efficiently, making all three images seem to be happening simultaneously.
The poetry of Frazetta’s figure drawing and the exaggerated physics of men in motion is so kinetic. He is bringing to the newspaper strips some of the best visual tropes of action comics (men frozen in mid-run, voluminous, frame-filling explosions, but with an energy any of his peers in the comics stable would envy. He renders physical force with such complexity. That final panel below registers the crash not only in the plume of smoke, but the disintegration of the car and the forward impact on Johnny himself.
The epic crackup sours Johnny to the race game and launches him as a nomadic mechanic in what could have been a great picaresque journey around 1950s America. As he did in his other work, Frazetta literally puts himself into his story. Johnny’s face and body is a self-portrait. The eroticism of Frazetta’s male and female modeling, whether in fantasy, romance comics, or even here in a family-focused newspaper strip is barely containable. And over the next year of the strip, he would fashion a remarkable gallery of visually expressive bit characters as Johnny moves from adventure to adventure. And yet the strip never caught on. In its final stages, it would morph into a more comedic affair, and Comet’s would have his name changed to Ace McCoy before Johnny Comet retired from the comic strip race in early 1953. But it was quite a run. While the public didn’t catch on to Johnny Comet, fellow artists did. After admiring the strip, Al Capp would hire Frazetta as his assistant on Li’l Abner for a famously stylish run of that strip. And, of course, as Frazetta moved into book cover illustration, he would eventually define the look and feel of modern fantasy art. The strips are worth reading and are available. And in the coming days, Taschen will be releasing what promises to be a door-stopper of an XXL retrospective of his career.
UPDATE – 2/5/23 – The enormous Taschen Press book mentioned above, The Fantastic Worlds of Frank Frazetta landed on my doorstep this week, so find below a few quick snaps of this impressive doorstopper.