"Alex Toth was my friend."
Who knows how many people, usually aspiring artists and writers, said that about the guy who mailed them "kudos" for their work, along with tips and trade secrets, often on the front and back (and sometimes the stamp) of a 3" x 5" postcard—punctuated with his trademark duck (often looking like road kill in recent years )?
Envelopes and real stamps were reserved for sending his valuable 6-inch by 9-inch treasures—his doodles and sketches and artwork drawn with black felt markers on thin Mead pad paper. Along with his fedora-clad heroes, Toth had an old-fashioned 1940s way of talking—"skiddooisms", as someone called them. We were all "kiddo," though was "tho," the graphic business was "the biz" and his "company" was "SagaPix." And he was never one to use one adjective when three or four would suffice—usually separated with innumerable/many/countless/lots of "/"s.
Alex Toth (rhymes with 'both') was a generous friend, an irascible curmudgeon and one of the greatest graphic geniuses of the past sixty years. He died at the age of 77 in May of 2006, and herewith is a tribute to "our friend."
Alex claimed that it was his childhood love of newspaper comic strips and "big foot" cartoonists that inspired him to become an artist. Those childhood "funny papers" made an impression that he carried with him forever. No matter what he did or where he went that inspiration was never far behind, and he never lost that sense of child-like adulation and wonder. Perhaps his favorite was Roy Crane, creator of Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy and Buz Sawyer. In 2003 Alex was still praising Roy Crane as a model for comics artists. In an illustrated article for his web site, tothfans.com, Toth wrote
"With a keen design sense always visible, his stories raced along - had his own present-tense caption writing way - not a word wasted he never used texture marks! Nope! Took me lots of studying his art before - finally - I noted their absence."
Born in 1928 (the same year as Frank Frazetta), he was 16 when his art first appeared in a comic book. That book was Eastern Color Printing's Heroic Comics #32, dated September of 1945. In that issue he drew one illustration for a text story, "Yankee King," as well as a three page war story of bravery in the Air Force entitled "One of Our Heroes is ...Missing!"
A dozen two- to four-page stories for Eastern and a few other small publishers, coupled with constant visits to the offices of the major comic book publishers brought him eventually to DC in mid 1947. There he did a dozen issues and covers featuring the superheroes Dr. Midnight and The Green Lantern. These are over-fondly remembered by fans today. Toth was learning his craft and it is only the superhero nature of the stories (a genre he almost completely abandoned after 1948) that gives them a place of honor in the Toth canon.
He was initially hired by Shelly Mayer and credits Mayer with many of the formative lessons he learned in the "biz." In a 1969 interview in Graphic Story Magazine, Alex says,
Shelly was the first and only really creative and knowledgeable comics editor I've worked for in all these years in the field. He was rough. He'd tear up my pages if I got too cute, too arty in telling the story. He'd tear them up on the spot and tell me to go home and do 'em over again. I tried to put in all the elements that I thought were important. But they weren't important. And Shelly was the one who pointed that out to me. He didn't care how pretty the pictures were if they didn't develop the story. "Stop trying to be another Michelangelo," he'd say, "and just tell the story. Just tell the story." And every time I walked out of his office, I'd learned something—whether I wanted to or not. The direction of action; staging; the importance of dialogue flow, how it should run through a page, panel by panel; what the eye should read first and what you want the eye to see first.
But Mayer quit to devote himself to his art and Alex did much of his early DC work for editor Sol Harrison. Harrison was a tough task master who instilled in Toth the second part of his lifelong mantra: "simplify, simplify, simplify." Shelly wanted him to "tell the story: and Harrison insisted that Alex learn what to omit from his art. "Wellll, Alex," Toth once quoted Sol Harrison as saying, "it's all rrightt, but you still don't know what to leave out."
As the superhero comics faded, there were plenty of opportunities that better suited the young artist who had, after all, been raised on the adventure comic strips of the 1930s. In quick succession, he was assigned Streak the Wonder Dog (in the final issues of Green Lantern), Johnny Thunder (in All-American Western formerly All Star Comics), Sierra Smith (in the new Dale Evans Comics), Jimmy Wakely (another western character with his own title), Rex the Wonder Dog (in his own title), Johnny Peril (in Sensation Mystery) various romance stories and the amazing Danger Trail—to name a few.
All-American Western #103
All-American Western #111
Dec. 1949/Jan. 1950
All-American Western #121
|The Adventures of Rex the Wonder Dog #2 - Mar. 1952|
In the space of four years, Alex went from being "the new kid" to being "THE new kid." Just look at the progression of covers above. His style was crisp and clean and, most of all, clear and readable. He had distilled the "essence" of the comic book adventure style from his amalgam of influences and his constant struggle to see what he had to leave out.
Here's a perfect example. Below left is the splash page from one of Alex's first DC assignments: Green Lantern #28, October, 1947. At the right, just three years later, is his splash page for "Battle Flag of the Foreign Legion" in Danger Trail #3, Nov-Dec, 1950. You can see instantly what is happening in the latter AND Alex made the daring choice to NOT put his main characters (the Legionnaires) in the spotlight, but to barely indicate them in the background. Narratively, it works—it heightens the odds of the battle and casts the French as the underdogs with a glance. Alex would strive his entire life to find that right narrative choice.
It's these adventure and western stories that impressed his peers and spread the "gospel" of the Toth style. He was asked in 1950 to "ghost" the newspaper adventure strip, Casey Ruggles. He moved to San Jose, California where the strip's artist, Warren Tufts, lived. The move netted Alex a wife, but he soon returned to Eastern environs until 1952 when he moved back to San Jose.
In early-1952, Alex left DC and began free-lancing. The impact of his style was felt most strongly at Standard where he spent two prolific years drawing stories and covers in every comic genre. It is easily some of his best work—at least in my humble opinion. All of the work in this two year span is memorable and powerful and simplified. During these two years, he also drew stories for EC, Lev Gleason, St. John and others. But at Standard, his style simply dominated the company's titles. Strong, stylistic artists like Nick Cardy, Mike Sekowsky, Ross Andru, John Celardo and others were either instructed to draw like Alex or else were simply overwhelmed with the "rightness" of the Toth style. At left is one of his covers from November, 1952 on Standard's Fantastic Worlds #6, the second of only three issues.
(note: Standard began each title with issue #5, probably to imply a comic that was already well established. Atlas comics, at the same time, didn't put the issue number on the cover until issue #5. But Ziff-Davis topped them all by starting each title with issue #10. In our current era of first issue "collector's items" these practices seem hard to fathom, but back then comic books were for reading, not collecting.)
Toth was drafted in 1954. Stationed in Japan, he created an award-winning newspaper strip, Jon Fury. Writing the strip from week to week was an unexpected pleasure for him. Despite the tiny size (6"x9") and the primitive "Multigraph" printing, it represented the first time he had complete control over a strip. And he reveled in it. It would be a decade before he would have that type of freedom artistically and 25 years before he would craft stories of a character he created and owned.
When Alex returned from military duty in 1956, he moved to Hollywood. Los Angeles was the headquarters of Western Publishing, whose comic books were released under the Dell label. In late 1956, Toth art began to appear as filler stories in several Dell books. These three- to six-page stories demonstrated his ability to tell a story and to hold a likeness and they quickly led to an assignment to draw a comic book adaptation of the John Wayne film, The Wings of Eagles.
More TV and movie adaptations followed. For four years he drew adaptations of everything from sf films like The Land Unknown, to Disney films like Clint and Mac and Darby O'Gill and the Little People to The Lennon Sisters, and popular TV shows like The Real McCoys, Oh! Susanna, 77 Sunset Strip, The Danny Thomas Show and dozens more. In all he drew 30 issues of Dell's anthology title, Four Color Series.
The best remembered and the most famous of these were the seven issues of Zorro that he drew between 1957 and 1959. The stories were adapted from the Disney TV show (which was a franchise just as Indiana Jones would be for a later generation). Sparks flew when Alex turned in completed artwork wherein he'd edited and/or eliminated the excess descriptive verbiage he found in the scripts. This was the result of writers (and editors) not understanding the difference between a script for a TV show and one for a comic book. In the former, the writer explains what is going to be seen on the finished episode while in the latter, the artist has already shown it. Often entire paragraphs of captions were only repeating what the reader had already assimilated from the art. The editor's response was "What do you know about writing? You're just the artist." Alex, who has never been one to bear fools gladly or any other way, responded by being "just the artist." He turned in stories that were less than his best because they obviously didn't want his best. Still, when he did do his best on Zorro, it was spectacular.
Looking to expand his talents, Alex accepted an assignment in 1960 from Cambria Studios to be the art director on a new animated TV cartoon called Space Angel. He designed the characters (along with Warren Tufts and Doug Wildey) and made it almost through the first season (1962) before what can only be called "artistic differences" led him to quit. It was back to the comics.
Except for a very few later and mostly forgotten stories, he left Dell/Western in 1960. He went back to DC and did some nice work in the early '60s in their mystery titles and on characters like Eclipso and Rip Hunter: Time Master. At left is page 22 of Rip Hunter #6 (Jan-Feb, 1962) taken from the original art. Click the image for a larger scan.
He even tried his hand at Marvel with a best forgotten X-Men story (over Jack Kirby layouts and inked by Vince Coletta!). By 1964 he was ready to go back into animation, but he still wanted to do graphic narratives. He still wanted to "tell the story." So he abandoned the establishment of the comic books and went to work for mavericks on both coasts.
For New York-based Warren Publishing, Alex produced ten short masterpieces for Creepy, Blazing Combat, and Eerie. Working primarily with writer/editor Archie Goodwin, whom he respected, he was given the freedom to experiment with media and to tell the story as he chose.
in Blazing Combat #2, Jan. 1966
in Blazing Combat #3, April 1966
On the west coast, it was the hot rod cartoon magazines of Pete Millar. At Millar, for the first time since Jon Fury, Alex was writing his own stories and drawing them exactly as he saw fit. The enthusiasm and verve in his work for both of these companies is palpable.
"Big Daddy in Surfside Saga"
in Big Daddy Roth #1, Oct.-Nov. 1964
"Guess Who a-gogo"
in CARtoons #26, Dec. 1965
In 1964 he joined Doug Wildey on Jonny Quest at Hanna-Barbera. He was soon working with character designs for Space Ghost, Herculoids, and most of the other H-B animated series. For four years (where have we heard THAT before?), he devoted most of his time there to drawing model sheets—instructions to other artists on how to draw each character. In 1996, Darrell McNeil and Alex published Alex Toth: By Design which collected nearly 350 of said model sheets. Unfortunately, the visionary publishers were novice lawyers and failed to negotiate the rights to publish all those characters (like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, Sea Lab and Hot Wheels, Thunderbolts and The Herculoids, Lost in Space and The Fantastic Four, etc.) The book was an immediate sellout, and can never be reprinted. The last copy I saw on eBay went for over $250.
"Creative Differences" led to a parting of the ways—Alex wanted to tell stories and thought he knew how to do that, while the H-B folks wanted to make nice, safe Saturday morning cartoons that would be just like all the other nice, safe Saturday morning cartoons they had made for the past four years. Alex came out ahead, though. He left H-B with a new wife, Guyla (at right), who was the light of his later life.
Alex jumped back into comic books with both feet. From 1969 to 1973 (what's that? Oh, yeah, about four years...) he drew new material for DC including some elegant romance stories, powerful war stories, and framing pages and stories for many of the mystery titles like The Witching Hour and Weird War Tales. Perhaps his masterpiece of this era were the five issues of Hot Wheels, which culminated in his own story for issue number five, "The Case of the Curious Classic." As well as being one heck of a great yarn, this story is noteworthy on two fronts. The first is that Alex set himself a rigid, eight-panels-per-page format (which he violated, quite deliberately, only in the penultimate panel). When other writers would use only three to six panels, Alex put you in front of a movie screen and forced the action on you. If was VERY effective. The second noteworthy aspect is that it was the last issue of Hot Wheels illustrated by Alex. Neal Adams did the final issue number six. What did a guy have to do to get some respect?.
As he continued to make a living illustrating the words and characters of others, Alex began to craft a character of his own. It was to be Jesse Bravo, an Errol Flynn-like adventurer whose 1930s adventures echoed the style of the material Alex was raised on. For whatever reason, the mid-70s creation did not see print until 1980 in issues three and four of a new Warren magazine called The Rook. It was published 25 years after he had created and drawn his own Jon Fury.
The Witching Hour #1
"The Case of the Curious Classic"
in Hot Wheels #5 - Dec. 1970
"Bravo for Adventure"
in The Rook #3 June 1980
in Creepy #76 - March 1976
Then it was back to Warren Publishing for several excellent black and white Creepy and Eerie stories like "Unreal" above, which he also wrote. Occasional forays at Marvel and Red Circle (the "adventure" brand of the Archie Comics publishers) and the alternative comics publishers rounded out the 70s and early 80s.
Hanna-Barbera TV Stars #3
Black Hood #2
in Dragon's Teeth #1, 1983
The decade from 1974 to 1984 was rich in its art and experimentation. The work was also sporadic and occasionally perfunctory. In 1985, Guyla died after a lingering decade of cancer and cancer treatment, and a lot of Alex died, too. He withdrew into his West Hollywood home and built barriers around his heart. He let people into both occasionally, but just as often forced them out again. He was always a maverick and opinionated, but now he became an unhappy maverick and an opinionated loner.
From here on, the "establishment" couldn't (or wouldn't - Alex had burned a lot of bridges over the years) get him to draw for them, but his fans and friends were deluged with page after page of those doodles mentioned in the second paragraph. Here are just two of the dozens he sent me over the years. There were few comic editors who could wrangle an illustration out of him, but Mark Chiarello, an editor AND a fan, got a cover out of him for Batman Black & White #4 in 1996.
Folks like Manuel Auad managed to work with him long enough to edit and publish three books on his work. Dave Cook, who helped write this and looked it over for accuracy, brought him into the computer age by getting him involved in Jeff Rose's website, tothfans.com. Alberto Becattini edited an issue of Glamour International in 1997 that featured him. I sold him books and had long, joyous phone conversations about art, comics and illustration. During these last twenty years, Alex filled his days with cigarettes and doodles, interacting with the world at his convenience and on his terms. A drawing here and there would get published. His postcard thoughts and ramblings appeared in Roy Thomas' Alter Ego for years.
At the end he moved into an assisted living home and quit the cigarettes, but it was too little too late. He died at his drawing board on May 27, 2006 amid sacks of mail from fans—some of whom weren't even born when Alex quit the "biz." Despite not having drawn a comics story in 20 years, Wizard Magazine, that icon of modernism, named him one of the top ten comic book artists of all time. The Comics Journal, that bastion of exclusion, featured him on the cover in 2004 and printed a 25-year-old interview with him as well as an extended overview of his career and 36 pages of color comic story reprints. Yes, his place in comics history is undeniable and deserved, but that's not the most important thing.
"Alex Toth was my friend." And as I type this the tears keep streaming down my cheeks. Damn, I miss him..To find out more about Alex Toth, see:
|The Comics Journal #262||Klaus Strzyz/Bob Levin, 2004 Fantagraphics Books|
|Toth "One for the Road"||Manuel Auad, 2000 Auad Publishing|
|Toth Black & White||Manuel Auad, 1999 Auad Publishing|
|Alex Toth: By Design||Alex Toth/Darrell McNeil, 1996 SagaPix/Gold Medal Productions|
|Alex Toth||Manuel Auad, 1995 Kitchen Sink Press|
|The Alex Toth Index||Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr., 1987|
|The Art of Alex Toth||1977 Feature Associates|
|Graphic Story Magazine #10||Interview with Alex Toth - Bill Spicer, 1969|
|The Vadeboncoeur Collection of Knowledge||Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. 2006|
Illustrations are copyright by their respective owners.
This page written, designed & © 2006 by Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. Updated 2011.