Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Frazetta Mystery

In 1966 I was a high school student in Chicago. I was fanatical about comics and anything related to comics. I loved the early fanzines and all that wonderful enthusiasm that dripped from every rexographed  and mimeographed page.  In 1966 Spa Fon 2 appeared, published by a group of fanatical Chicago land collectors. That issue had an interesting essay on Frank Frazetta written by Helmet Mueller and a never before seen piece of art by Frazetta as the cover image. I was in heaven. Helmet also owned an original Ghost Rider cover and would also acquire the watercolor cover to the Secret People a bit later. He was a very passionate nut. I liked him a lot. I asked Helmet where the Spa Fon art came from and he told it was owned by a guy named Bill Zichter who worked as a freelance commercial illustrator. I tried to locate him but could not. Eventually I just gave up. He knew Frazetta back in the early 50's when Frank worked for Magazine Enterprises , M.E. Comics. He moved to Chicago a bit later. Everyone wondered what happened to that original art. This is, I believe, the first time a finished Frazetta illustration appeared as a fanzine cover. Many many bootlegs would follow.

Skip forward almost 50 years! The Spa Fon 2 cover shows up on an eBay auction run by Gary Dolgoff  Comics.  I inquired and found out that the estate was selling off an art collection owned by a deceased artist named Bill Dichtl. My God, I was given the wrong name all those years ago. Just finding out what his name really was provided real satisfaction. Dichtl also had two Johnny Comet Sundays, with one done by Wally Wood. He also had several Durango Kid pages. Everything was fresh to the marketplace and unseen for almost 50 years. Amazing that it survived. The mystery, of course, is why the art was done in the first place and why it ended up in Bill Dichtl's hands?

Here's the second part of the mystery. Dichtl had the original art published in Durango Kid #3, p. 27. It was an early page with dramatic lighting effects.  It sold during the eBay auction. However, and this is where it gets interesting, many months earlier Mike Burkey sold an almost identical page as part of a complete White Indian story. Owners and potential buyers got concerned. Many collectors were drawn into the discussion to voice their opinions: Roger Hill, Pat Kochanek, Duane Capizzi, Wally Harrington, Rob Pistella, among others. I have pictured both pages with this essay for reference. The White Indian page was published in White Indian #13, dated April/June 1954. Since Bill Dichtl owned the original page that means that someone was hired to draw a duplicate page for the much later reprint of that story. Who did it? Many thought it must be Angelo Torres. Angelo was contacted and he had no memory of doing such a page. I think the page was recreated by Frazetta himself. The argument against this is that Frazetta was assumed to be furious with Vince Sullivan, the owner of M.E, for doing a deal behind his back with Columbia pictures for a Thunda serial in 1952. Frank received nothing and didn't know about the deal. The argument is that Frazetta would not do any extra work for Vince because he was furious with him for cutting him out of the deal. However, the page exists. Someone got paid to recreate the page so a reprint of that full story could be published. Look at the cover art on the reprint. I enclosed an image of the cover.  Could that artist have recreated the page? Not even close. No way.

Longtime collector and art historian Roger Hill was able to track down Bill Dichtl and did a few interviews with him. Unfortunately, Bills memory was rather fuzzy and unclear. He didn't remember specific circumstances surrounding the Spa Fon cover art or the other Frazetta originals he owned. After prodding by Roger, he did recall some of the art he had. We will never know how he got them. I searched out a discussion I had with Frazetta about this artist. At the time I asked Frank if he remembered Bill Zichter (remember I had the wrong name for years). Frank had very fuzzy memories of people hanging around the offices and doing various jobs. When I pressed him about the Spa Fon cover image, he mistakenly told me it was probably a Johnny  Comet drawing. In reality, the cover image is a portrait of Thunda. Over the years confusion arose because the inscription looks to be a classic Johnny comet signature from the end of the strip. It's a powerful portrait with tremendous energy and intensity. It is a minor masterpiece and I was very gratified to add it to my collection after so many years of wondering about it. A gem, as Frank would say.

As for that recreated White Indian page... it sure looks like 100% Frazetta to me. It's just too damn good. Great energy and very confident brushwork. I just don't see Torres in that page or anyone else for that matter. Looking at that face in the lower left panel, it just screams Frank to me. And the bottom right panel looks like a little art challenge that Frank set for himself. Again, it's just too good for most other artists. Also, look at the thinned ink throughout that page. Who else utilized that technique? Also, the fact that both bottom panels were reconceived and other smaller changes made all over the page just reflects Franks temperament to me. Never happy, he had to change the weak points. Frank was always searching for a better mode of expression, a more powerful presentation. Isn't this a foreshadowing of what he would do later with his oils and his constant tinkering? This is, in my opinion, the earliest precursor for what would become a Frazetta trademark: Change and the relentless search for higher and higher levels of excellence. So we have a precious gift here...a comic page drawn in 1949 and the same page recreated in 1953... The difference is clear. Frazetta's powers had grown considerably during that period. 

The question remains...why would Frank do it if he was mad at Sullivan? The answer is Frank probably needed the extra cash. Sometimes the most obvious explanation is the correct one.

© 2014  DocDave Winiewicz