Sunday, February 9, 2014

Conan and The Lancer Artists

If Robert E. Howard created a genre in heroic fantasy, then he also created the most well known character in that genre, Conan of Cimmeria. Howard's original stories of Conan came to an end in June 1936 with the author's death. Since then, Conan has served as a model for countless characters, from Henry Kuttner's Elak of Atlantis (1938-1941), to Crom the Barbarian by Gardner Fox and John Giunta (1950-1951), to John Jakes' Brak the Barbarian (1963 and after), to imitations of the present day. Conan has been drawn by many artists over the years, including Hugh Rankin and Margaret Brundage of Weird Tales. I would hazard a guess that in the minds of most readers, especially of a certain age, Conan is as Frank Frazetta depicted him on the covers of eight Lancer paperbacks from the 1960s and '70s.

Conan the Adventurer (1966), "volume one of the complete Conan" published by Lancer Books. I can't imagine that readers of fantasy and science fiction would have been prepared for a cover like this one in 1966. After years of Buck Rogers comic book covers, Li'l Abner women, J. Allen St. John- (and Roy Krenkel-) inspired Burroughs covers, and comic movie posters, Frazetta--in all his muscularity, violence, mystery, and eroticism--arrived.
Conan the Warrior (1967). Frazetta's sophomore effort was less inspired, though no disappointment. I have always found the figure of Conan here to be a little stiff and flat. The four figures on the right are more skillfully done. The action on this cover looks like it would have taken place before that in the first cover. When my brothers and I were drawing as kids, we would call this a "blood pile."
Conan the Conqueror (1970). I'm not going to try to sort out the various re-printings of the Lancer Conan books. This printing says that it's volume five. The first printing, from 1967, calls it number three. In any case, I find this cover to be extraordinary, like a vision from a nightmare. A lesser artist might have failed here. I think Frazetta's success depends in a large part on the look on Conan's face. Based on the cover illustration, this book could easily have been called Conan the Berserker.
Conan the Usurper (1967), volume four in the series. You can easily make jokes about this cover, but you can't really dismiss it, if only for the expression of power in the back and arms of the main character who--contrary to common practice in composition--has his back turned to the viewer. I suppose readers would have known Conan well enough by then that they didn't care that they couldn't see his face.
Conan (1967), volume five in the series. Frazetta's first three covers for the series showed exterior scenes. The next three take place in murky interiors. This one gives you the best look yet at Conan's face. The pose and the use of the red cloak and its brilliant sheen are unconventional, but then Frazetta was not a conventional artist. This is an eye-catching cover and one of the most powerful in the series. 
Conan the Avenger (1968), in order of publication, Frazetta's sixth cover in the series and the first with a clearly defined female figure--and what a figure. I suppose it is a man's fantasy to rescue a beautiful woman and a woman's to be rescued. A cover like this one offered plenty of room for fantasy, not in a lewd or lascivious sense, but in the kind of fantasy that has drawn men to the Conan stories from the very beginning. Incidentally, the wizard must be pretty small in stature. Conan is as large as he is while still on the other side of the table.
Frazetta revised his painting in 1980. I doubt that the original exists in its original form. The revised version has its merits, but I think the original is better, its parts more harmonious.
Conan of Cimmeria (1969), by date of publication, Frazetta's last cover for the series drawn from Howard's original stories and I think one of the strongest. While the others are gloomy, this one is bright, despite the violence and blood. I didn't quite understand this illustration when I was young. It takes a moment to realize that Conan has cut the throat of one of the Frost Giants. The scene is fantastic, but the violence is real: instead of vivisection and extreme gore, we realize the mortally wounded Frost Giant is drawing his last breath because, with his hand at his throat, he stumbles, his helmet askew, his eyes with a dazed, unseeing look; because his axe is dropping in a weakening hand, his blood is reddening the tip of his adversary's sword, and two tell-tale drops have fallen into the pristine snow.
Conan the Buccaneer (1971), a Conan novel written not by Robert E. Howard, but by his successors. I didn't see this illustration until many years after I had seen the others. I was struck by the oddness of it. Conan looks like he is made of bubbles. I wonder if musculature and a pose like that are possible or if Frazetta's imagination carried him away into another realm.
Frazetta revised this painting as well. The revision appears to be limited to the figure of Conan. Maybe Frazetta wasn't happy with the first go-around. I think both versions have their strong points. The strangeness of the first version gives it a certain power. The second version is more conventional, but it probably works better as a composition and as a narrative.

There were eleven books in the complete Lancer Conan. Everyone remembers the Frazetta covers. Less well known are the covers by "the other Lancer artist," John Duillo.

Elmo John Duillo was born on January 4, 1928, a few weeks before Frank Frazetta and probably not far from him. Like Frazetta, Duillo was an Italian-American. His father, James Duillo, was born in Cosenza, Italy, and came to the United States in 1922. He brought his wife, Beatrice Perciasepe Duillo, and his son, Ettore, over in 1926. A second son, Edward, was born in New York that same year, and a third, Elmo John, the future artist, two years later.

Elmo Duillo was barely old enough to serve, but he was a veteran of World War II. While in the U.S. Navy, he learned aerial photography. In civilian life Duillo studied art with the painter and printmaker Adja Junkers (1900-1983) and photography with Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Duillo ran his own commercial photography business for a time. He began painting covers for books and magazines in 1960. Many of his five hundred cover illustrations were for Westerns by authors such as Zane Grey, Max Brand, and Louis L'Amour. In the 1970s, Duillo turned to graphic art and fine art, but not before he had completed three covers for the Lancer Conan series.

Conan of the Isles (1968) with cover art by (Elmo) John Duillo. Judging from the number (73-800), this was the seventh book in the Lancer series. Strangely, Conan has a beard and gray hair. That snake that earlier crawled between his legs has gotten bigger and more dragon-like.
Conan the Freebooter (1968) with cover art by John Duillo. In Duillo's second cover, Conan looks more like Conan. The cover is needlessly gruesome. It reminds me of a scene from a Conan comic book from Mexico, reprinted in The Savage Sword of Conan many years ago.
Conan the Wanderer (1968) with cover art by John Duillo. Duillo's third cover is probably his strongest. The brushwork reminds me a little of Earl Norem (1924-2015), a later Conan artist.

Elmo John Duillo, who called himself John Duillo, did other work in the genres of science fiction and fantasy. Here are two magazine covers from 1960:

Fantastic Science Fiction Stories (May 1960) with cover art by John Duillo. (The moiré effects are not in the original.) The cover blurb reads: "The Challenge from Beyond--A Long-Lost Story by H.P. Lovecraft." However, Lovecraft was not the only author, for "The Challenge of Beyond," from 1935, was actually a round-robin story in five parts, each part by a different author: C.L. Moore, A. Merritt, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long, Jr.
Fantastic Science Fiction Stories (Sept. 1960) with cover art by John Duillo.
As I said, John Duillo also did paperback covers. Here's one for Evil in the Family by Grace Corren, a Lancer book from 1972. Sorry for the poor quality image.

You wouldn't know it to read anything on this lousy Internet we have to deal with every day, but John Duillo's wife is also an illustrator. Elaine Isobel Duillo was born on July 28, 1928, in Brooklyn. (1) She attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan and studied under the cartoonist and illustrator Charles Mazoujian (1917-2011) at the Pratt Institute. She and her future husband met when they were teenagers and were married in 1949. Their two daughters are also artists. Elaine Duillo's first published work as an illustrator was for Seventeen magazine. She also contributed to Good Housekeeping before becoming an illustrator of paperback romances and Gothic romances. That part of her career began in 1959. Eventually she would earn the title "Queen of Romance Cover Art" for her five hundred or more cover illustrations. Among her accomplishments is the discovery of the Italian male model Fabio. Elaine Duillo was elected to the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 2003. You will find an entry on her in The Illustrator in America: 1860-2000 by Walt Reed (2001). You can also read an article about her from People Magazine, May 15, 1989, online.

Elmo John Duillo died on April 5, 2003, and was buried at Long Island National Cemetery under a stone that reads in part: "Through Art He Found God." Frank Frazetta died on May 10, 2010. It is in observance of his birthday--February 9, 1928--that I write today. Happy Birthday to Frank Frazetta, and Happy Belated Birthday to Elmo John Duillo, the two Lancer Conan artists.

Update (Apr. 16, 2022): I learned today that Elaine Duillo died on July 30, 2021. She had just turned ninety-three years old. You can read more about her and see her paperback covers on the following websites:
(1) Frank Frazetta's wife, Eleanor Kelly Frazetta, was also an artist. She was born on June 15, 1935, in Middleborough, Massachusetts. She and Frazetta were married in 1956 and spent the next fifty-three years together. Ellie Frazetta died on July 17, 2009. Her husband survived her by less than a year.

Text and captions copyright 2014, 2022 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Vol five is my favorite with a wild eyed Conan leaping onto the back of the ape-like creature Thak, from my favorite REH story, Rogues in the House. Thanks for the look back!

  2. You're welcome, Charles,

    I'm glad you liked my article. It's hard for me to choose my favorite among the illustrations here, but the cover of Conan (Vol. 5) is at or very close to the top of the list. Now that you have mentioned "Rogues in the House," I think I'll reread it after many years.