In Memoriam: Alex Toth (1928-2006)
Anyone familiar with my work will know that Alex Toth was one of my cartooning icons. So on the occasion of his passing on May 27, 2006, I thought it would be an appropriate time to reflect on his art, his body of work, and his influence on me.
The term that perhaps best describes Toth’s legacy is he was “an artist’s artist.” What this means is that he was arguably better known and respected among his peers and by other artists than he was by the average comic-book fan. I say “arguably” because Toth’s visibility and influence have been as strong as ever recently in the mainstream comic-book market. Just in the past several years, numerous award-winning and best selling collections of his art and, even better, full-length stories from his career increasingly have become more available, which has been a godsend for fans like me thirsty to see more of the master’s work. It’s also important to note that the admiration for Toth came not from his peers in the industry, but peers who themselves are considered among the finest cartoonists of their respective generation, like Joe Kubert, Gil Kane, and Howard Chaykin. Toth was an artist that even great artists “swiped” from.
Like many cartoonists of my generation and younger, I too sought out the master. While I usually am too shy to approach well known artists (Toth apparently received many phone calls and visits from admirers), someone did share his home address with me (he lived in Hollywood, actually not too far from where I lived in West Los Angeles), so I occasionally sent him my comics work. I'm proud to say that I have two handwritten postcards from him, written in his distinctive comic-book lettering style. They were critically scathing to say the least (though the second a bit more encouraging), but of course his comments were spot on and I agreed with them, though such critiques are never easy to swallow. When I mentioned this to a fellow professional once, he basically said to me, "Oh, everyone gets those from Alex," so it was a bit of a relief to know that my experience was not unique. Regardless, I still feel privileged to have received a response to my packages and treasure those handwritten notes from him.
I did not discover Toth until my college years, well after I already had become enamored with the work of Milton Caniff, who through Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon—and along with his studio mate Noel Sickles—launched a whole new stylistic school of cartooning. Toth was a disciple of both Caniff and, especially, of Sickles (with whom Toth shared a similar restlessness). However, because Toth was never associated with a specific series or character, extensive samples of his work were hard to come by outside of sketch books, excerpts, and back issues of old obscure comic books. But beginning in the 1980s—and especially during the last decade as collected works of noteworthy comic book artists became more common place—more of his work gradually became more available. (To date, however, most of the work that has been reprinted appears to be public domain material.)
What made Toth so appealing to artists that many considered him a graphic genius? In essence, he simplified and perfected the approach of these artists, successfully melding skilled draftsmanship with graphic design in a way that rarely has been seen in the medium. As much as I admire Caniff (who worked at a whole other level since his writing matched his innovative drawing skills), Toth along with Roy Crane of Wash Tubbs and Buz Sawyer fame, had a vibrancy, joy and life in his art and his linework that remain unparalleled in the field. I have a bookcase full of my favorite artists’ work, and it is Toth I more often than not reach for first when I need ideas on how to solve a storytelling problem or just need plain inspiration. Toth encouraged me—as well as many other artists—to aspire to much more as a cartoonist.
As one can see in the samples included with this essay, Toth had a clean, bold economical black and white style that told a story simply yet was graphically compelling, often using overlapping shapes to create volume, space and texture. Grounded in classic illustration, Toth was admired for his naturalism and the sense of life and verisimilitude he gave to his people, settings and backgrounds, as well as for his keen eye and sense of editing and storytelling. With the skills of a fine cinematographer and film editor, Toth was a master of capturing a scene at its most pivotal and dramatic moment. (A more complete and thoughtful assessment of Toth’s gifts can be found here.) Almost immediately after Toth came into his own working for various publishers during the 1950s when he was just in his early 20s, other cartoonists starting paying attention to what he was doing. Toth remains a strong influence on artists even today, though some have noted that the epic, operatic nature of the superhero genre which came to dominate the industry from the 1960s on led to Toth’s natural, realistic style to fall out of favor while more hyper-real and outwardly strident work—as led by Jack Kirby—captured the fancy of readers.
Aggravated and frustrated by comic-book publishers and the industry—which one will see was a recurring theme in Toth’s life and career—the artist eventually gravitated towards the much better paying world of television animation. He worked almost exclusively for Hanna-Barbera, and his design imprint can be seen in programs like Jonny Quest, Space Ghost, and numerous other shows. Within the animation industry, he remains a legend. His model sheets still circulate and, reportedly, are the source of continued inspiration—and outright swiping—for artists today.
AT LEFT: Toth model sheet for Hanna Barbera's Jonny Quest.
Art and characters © Hanna Barbera Productions.
Some have said that Toth never achieved the fame and stature he deserved, and that he fell short of his full potential. This can be attributed partly to the fact that Toth never became associated with a signature character or feature. Caniff had his Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon; Will Eisner had the Spirit; Kubert Sgt. Rock; Chaykin American Flagg!; even one of Toth’s artistic mentors—Noel Sickles—who worked in comic strips for only a brief time in the 1930s, had Scorchy Smith. Many of these artists went on to produce more varied and, at times, more ambitious work over their careers, but their association with a single series ensured for them a following in the comic-book industry. And though Toth could turn nearly any story into a graphic tour-de-force, much of the work-for-hire stories he was assigned to work on during much of his career frankly did not come close to matching his artistic ambitions or gifts. (He once admitted that he was his own biggest disappointment.)
The closest Toth came to a signature feature was Bravo for Adventure, created in the mid-1970s. The series was commissioned by a French publisher, which—in recognition of the high esteem he was held even overseas—gave him the freedom to develop a vehicle of his own that he would own himself. This dream assignment led to the creation of Bravo, about a soldier of fortune and Hollywood stunt pilot named Jesse Bravo who bore a close resemblance to Errol Flynn (one of Toth’s favorite actors), set during the 1930s jazz age. Toth at last had a vehicle that he had total control over that would embody his interests and values. Yet Toth only produced two stories, frozen both by his perfectionism and personal issues.
As this suggests, the greatest obstacle to Toth’s productivity was ultimately himself. First, Toth was an artistic perfectionist. He was known to tear up a page when he thought he could do better (Toth, at his worse, of course, is something any of us lesser artists would have been more than happy to aspire to). Though he was known occasionally to publicly praise certain artists and works, more typically he railed against the quality of present day comics, the low standards of the industry, and the overall decline of modern society—Toth never seemed to reconcile himself to living in a world that no longer conform to a romantic world view. While it could be argued that Toth’s standards for what after all is a periodical commercial business that was considered pulp trash were impossibly high, one could never argue that Toth didn’t hold himself to the same standard.
Second and more significantly, however, it likely was Toth’s own irascibility that limited his output. As has been well documented, Toth was a well known curmudgeon and misanthrope, to put it mildly. By the end of his life, he unilaterally ended many of his friendships, sometimes for the mildest of slights. It says a lot about his reputation and the high honor he was held that even despite these peccadilloes, his colleagues—many of them slapped down by the man in some form or another—still admired him greatly and young artists continued to seek him out. (In the final year or so, he reportedly made peace with many people and was touched by the outpouring of respect and accolades he received after news of his declining health became known.)
In some ways, Toth was a tragic figure who was the victim of his own inner demons and an industry uninterested in “art.” Toth never reached the heights he probably was capable of, even when he was given the freedom and opportunity to soar on his own. And while he leaves behind an impressive body of work, it’s clear he could have produced much more, particularly in his latter years. Nevertheless, Toth’s legacy is without peer and his influence and reputation only has deservedly continued to grow in recent years, ensuring that he will be well remembered by future generations of artists and comic art fans.
SOURCES USED FOR THIS ESSAY AND OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
- The Mark of Tyrone Power: An Appreciation of Alex Toth by Bob Levin from the Comics Journal #262
- Toth Remembered by Jesse Hamm
- Toth fans website
- Los Angeles Times obituary (June 4, 2006)
All art reproduced above from the Toth fans website and are © Alex Toth and the respective copyright holders: Bravo for Adventure © Alex Toth; Johnny Thunder © DC Comics.