Fifteen Seconds of Fame
Thanks to Bensberg keeping him busy. Oliver earned the then astronomical sum of £4,000 a year. At the London Film School he met Roger Kean, who had switched from a fine arts course, and the two got on well, agreed on many things and agreed to disagree over Kean’s ‘arty’ penchant for the films of Truffaut, Godard, Fellini and Pasolini.
They parted company—temporarily, as it turned out—at the end of the two-year course in December 1970, Oliver returning to Switzerland, unable to get work in the film business because of union regulations over foreigners, while Kean got a job as an assistant film editor at the BBC. Living at home near Bern, Oliver continued to earn a living with work for the War Picture Library.
In 1973, Oliver gained permission for a UK residency and settled in Highgate, North London. Throughout the 1970s he established himself as a freelance illustrator working on strips for IPC Comics’ Look & Learn and its spin-off Speed & Power. He also did covers for Souvenir Press novels, video inlay jackets, lollypop wrapper designs for Walls and illustrations for children’s book publishers, including Hamlyn, Usborne and Oxford University Press.
In 1976 a weekly strip came Oliver’s way that he could hardly refuse. Some 17 years after receiving a letter of encouragment from Don Lawrence, the great man abandoned IPC Comics for more lucrative European pastures, and Look & Learn’s art editor asked Oliver to step into his shoes and paint the Trigan Empire. It was, of course, flattering, but the chalice was tinged with poison. The brief was to reproduce Lawrence’s famously painterly style slavishly.
‘I admire Don's work,’ Oliver said in an interview, ‘but I’m not really happy with the full-blown painting thing; it doesn't suit the gutsy verve of the comics I like.’ On the other hand, having to paint that level of detail proved to be a useful
discipline. Some of this style can be seen in The Terminal Man, the comic-strip he produced monthly in CRASH Magazine, albeit he could not bring himself to abandon his beloved line undertones that give so much life to the surface of his artwork.
By the second half of the 1970s, Oliver’s work was reaching a large audience—but one piece in particular reached a massive circulation when he was commissioned to create the opening for Superman, The Movie. ‘My rough for the cover was accepted on the spot and used as it was in the pre-title sequence, along with the finished version of the strip. It was thrilling to go to the Empire [Leicester Square] the day after the premiere in 1978 and see my work flash up on that vast, luminous screen. Just for about 15 seconds—and that was that.'
A new direction
Through visiting Ludlow in Shropshire to see an actor friend appear in the annual festival play there, Oliver formed a lifelong attachment to the medieval town and eventually moved from London to Ludlow towards the end of 1982. He was joined shortly after by his younger brother Franco, who had become involved with a German firm which wanted to import games software for the Sinclair Spectrum. Franco and Roger Kean joined forces with Oliver to launch a games magazine for the hugely popular 16K Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer and went into business in 1984 as Newsfield Publications.
Until 1991, Oliver worked non-stop for Newsfield’s stable of magazines; among many, CRASH (for the Spectrum), ZZAP!64 (Commodore 64), AMTIX! (Amstrad), The Games Machine (multi-format) and Fear. For this last, influential periodical, Oliver created some of his most striking cover paintings.
He also got his own comic-strip—The Terminal Man. ‘Each of the first twelve issues of CRASH carried the four-page serial [it later reappeared in ZZAP!64]. It was written by 2000AD editor Kelvin Gosnell and featured the adventures of spacefaring Cross, a man so damaged in an explosion he had to be re-created as a computer-generated image.’ When the story concluded and issue 13 of CRASH appeared without The Terminal Man, there was an outcry from thousands of readers.
In the later 1980s, Newsfield branched out into software publishing with its own label, Thalamus Games. The company produced high-quality Commodore 64 games, and Oliver created several of the inlay illustrations, such as Heatseeker and Snare.
Computer-generated and traditional
Throughout the early 1990s, Oliver's work continued to appear on and inside magazines such as Commodore Force, Sega Force and SNES Force. In the mid-1990s, the Frey-Kean-Frey team moved away from magazines and began packaging books for publishers like Virgin, Carlton and TOPPS-Merlin, which eventually led into becoming fully-fledged publishers under the (re-used) name of Thalamus Publishing. In one of their books—The Complete Chronicle of the Emperors of Rome—Oliver provided 380 portraits of men, women and children, all drawn from busts or coins of the people featured.
The way that Oliver Frey produces his artwork has changed over the years, from chunky acrylics to inks and airbrush, from brushes to Macintosh. There was a time when he asserted that he would never abandon traditional methods for computer-generated art, but the illustrations for the Emperors book were all finished on computer. The advent of Photoshop (Adobe gave a beta copy to Newsfield to test in 1990) began the change, and since then he has produced literally hundreds of illustrations on the Mac.
But at last Oliver has again taken to his inks, acrylics and brushes to begin painting in the ‘old-fashioned’ way. The results—as they are finished—will start appearing here. Meantime, the pages of this site are filled with galleries of Oliver Frey's fantasy art, free of the cover lines, logos and slogans of the magazine days. It’s an opportunity to see some of the finest action images from this unique artist who insists he’s merely an illustrator.
Roger M. Kean
Adapted from text in The Fantasy Art of Oliver Frey, Thalamus Publishing
Fusion Retro Books
A page from Look & Learn depicting Maori warriors hunting a fabled beast.
The cover for the Thalamus Games productions of Hawkeye, Armalyte, Snare
One of Oliver's covers for the Souvenir Press
A spread of the Trigan Empire. Oliver based the character second left, bottom row, on himself.
Two pages from The Terminal Man comic strip in CRASH.
Roger Kean and Oliver Frey during a break in filming a London Film School exercise in 1969.
© 2020THE ART OF OLIVER FREY