Oliver Frey—A Brief Biography
Born in Zurich in 1948, Oliver Frey grew up fluent in Italian — his parents hailed from Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland — as well as German. His artistic career started in 1956, when he was almost eight, and the Frey family went to live in Britain. On the flight a steward handed the puzzled Oliver a Dan Dare badge. He had never heard of the Pilot of the Future, but discovered tucked under the cushions of a sofa in the hotel the family stayed in for a week copies of Eagle comic, and the badge and the Dan Dare strip matched up.
When he started school in Wembley, young Oliver discovered that his classmates were comic-mad, especially for Eagle. There had been no such comics in Switzerland and he was immediately taken by the quality of the artwork, immersing himself in the deeds of Dan Dare and the dastardly Mekon. He began copying the drawings of Eagle's artists, and their styles became seminal influences. The sensation of bodies in movement, often in violent action, captured his imagination—a quality that has never left his work.
Did he inherit his talent for drawing? ‘I wouldn't say my family was particularly artistic,’ he recalls, ‘although my great-grandfather had been a painter of landscapes and portraits who’d made his way in the USA. I only ever saw a couple of his paintings. My family encouraged me to keep drawing, though.’
After a few years, the Frey family returned to Switzerland. An English friend mailed Oliver copies of Eagle, however, and a weekly dose of comic inspiration arrived in the post. Oliver most admired the work of Eagle artists Hampson (Dan Dare’s creator), Humphries and most particularly Bellamy. ‘Frank Bellamy's line and colour work was so dramatic and action-packed. He was one of Britain’s best comic-strip artists. Mind, I also loved the French 19th-century painter Eugene Delacroix, again, for the drama!’
Oliver sent several drawings to his favourite comics, especially Eagle, then owned by Odhams Press, but while encouraging, the responses were all in the negative. He was, however, once rewarded with a reply from Look & Learn’s Don Lawrence, the man from whom he would one day take over the Trigan Empire strip.
Lure of the movies
While drawing action figures was a vital part of his artistic development, the cinema was another formative influence, Typically, given his preference for the adventurous and the dramatic, it was movies like the James Bond series that had the most impact.
Using an 8mm camera, he directed his younger sister and brother in two lengthy films scripted in English. Playing both the villain and the hero—Apple Apple 7, James Tell—Oliver showed a natural flair for film-making. During the editing process, still frames exposed in the edit-viewer also offered a new perspective on figures in action. Gradually, he began to move away from copying his comic artists heroes’ pictures. The development of his own distinct style owes much to editing these films as he observed how hands, arms, legs and torsos flowed and moved when captured in 8mm still-motion.
Still at school, Oliver's attention was drawn to an advert for an American correspondence course, operating in Europe from Amsterdam, called The Famous Artists. The course comprised 36 lessons, written by a team of professional illustrators and contained in three huge volumes. He has praised the quality of The Famous Artists ever since. Sadly, for today\s aspiring illustrator, it no longer exists in its original form (there is an online version in the US). From its invaluable lessons, the young illustrator learned composition, use of materials, drawing, shading, colouring and the structure and articulation of the human body.
After completing his compulsory Swiss Army service and a short but unhappy stint at Bern University, Oliver returned to Britain and the London Film School (then the London School of Film Technique). Without the benefit of a British educational grant, he supported himself by becoming a professional illustrator. He approached Fleetway and met the editor of the War Picture Library comics, E J Bensberg. ‘A true hero of the back room,’ Oliver later recalled of the man who, more than anyone, put him on the path to his future career.
‘I persuaded Bensberg to let me illustrate a story so I could show him what I could do. I was given a script and told to go away and draw the first five pages. He liked the result and I was commissioned to do the whole book.
‘The comics were small-format, 64-page, 150-frame, black and white picture-strips based on fictitious tales from World War II. For two months, working in my Battersea bedsit during the evenings, between mouthfuls of Heinz West End Grill heated on the single gas ring, I pencilled and inked, and my first full-length story was accepted.’
So began an association with the War Picture Library which resulted in dozens of covers and illustrated stories before he stopped doing them in the mid-1970s. Recently, Prion Books published two volumes featuring, among many others, the work and covers Oliver painted for War Picture Library, one appropriately titled AARRGGHH!! IT'S WAR, the other more sedately called THE ART OF WAR.