Looking Forward to Looking Back #17
As Bill's still busy completing April's Previews orders for both stores, I thought I'd step in with another long winded post about classic comic collected editions on the horizon. Like last time, I'm just going to focus on one upcoming book, because it's easy to say so much about the man it is devoted to cover. The man was Alex Toth, the book is called Genius Isolated, and publisher IDW has scheduled this book for Fall 2010. This book is the project of IDW's king of comic reprints, Dean Mullaney, and he had this to say recently to Zack Smith of newsarama.com:
"We're in the midst of a sprawling biography of Alex Toth, titled Genius, Isolated and due out in October. We view it as sort of a bookend to our 2008 Scorchy Smith & The Art of Noel Sickles, which I think would tickle Alex, since he was such a huge Sickles fan."
"We're working with the approval and support of the Toth family, and in addition to detailed coverage of Alex's life story, we'll be presenting many rare or never-before-seen visuals, as well as complete reprints of several of his stories. We're excited to be offering readers new insights into the mind of Alex the man, and fresh, full-color examples of the work of Alex the artist's artist."
To say I'm very excited about this project would be an understatement. I find the older I get as a fan of comic books and as someone who is still trying to develop as an artist just in my own right, that there's this list I have of creators who inform and inspire me and Toth has taken a firm seat at the top of that list. My first exposure to Toth was the reprint of his and writer Archie Goodwin's story "Death Flies the Haunted Skies"(Detective Comics #442) that saw Batman go up against a killer using a Spad XIII plane as an instrument of vengeance. It was a thrill of a tale. Well paced, action packed, cinematic in its panels' angles and changing points of view, beautifully rendered (of course) with a line style honed to capture the important,elegant, and realistic points of a scene, this mere 11 page story left me wanting more. Okay... back then I just liked the fact that the blacks seemed so stark and the panels felt "simple". But I liked it. I wouldn't know until years later how much thought went into the "simple" simplicity of those well crafted pages. It also took me years to find much more of his work. Original comics with his stuff are hard to find and there was little reprinted by any publisher. When I did have the luck of finding something though I was really in luck because his stuff never disappoints.
Born in 1928, Toth had a long career in comic books from the early 1940s to the 1980s, but sadly to many readers today he is not a creator that has the recognition of a Jack Kirby or Joe Kubert. Maybe this is due to the fact that he didn't produce a body of recognisable work to match that of his contemporaries. Toth certainly produced many early super hero stories at DC Comics in the pages of All-Star Comics, All-American Comics, Green Lantern, and All-American Western, where he created the western hero, Johnny Thunder, with writer Robert Kanigher. As Toth developed as an artist though he seemed to gravitate more to work on genre books, which he enjoyed. He thrived as an artist on westerns and romance comic books. His eye for character interaction and his knack for drawing believably beautiful and captivating women enhanced his work greatly on these comics. He produced some incredible war comics for Standard Comics, DC Comics (see his story, "Burma Sky" in Our Fighting Forces #146) and other publishers, particularly when focusing on his admiration of aviators. In this area, Toth earned a distinction that not even Kirby could claim, as he received work from EC Comics on their two of their war titles.
Toth produced many comics based on TV and movie personalities, his most famous work on Zorro for publisher Dell. He also worked developing cartoon properties for Hanna Barbara such as Space Ghost and also DC Comics' Super Friends. Toth created many memorable horror stories for Warren Publishing and numerous other companies in his day. His sense for shadows lent itself perfectly to the atmosphere of the work and Toth could bring more terror to a scene more even in just using silhouettes than most artists now will ever understand in the violence they portray on page. Toth also had a passion for cars, and his Hot Rod comic stuff is highly sought after by comic and car enthusiasts alike! Toth was particular about projects he was offered and had many frustrations about the direction he saw comics going as a creator, and by the 1980s he bowed out of comics entirely but for the occasional pin up for he felt "the party's over, kiddies" and the comics had become too bleak, the heroes too twisted, the value of the storytelling too weak. Toth was never shy about these feelings, and through his correspondence with other creators and friends, and his magazine contributions often made his feelings known.
"I'm rewriting this for the umpteenth time, in different ways, yet saying the same thing -- that the party's over, kiddies! Since I was born in 1928 -- and was just old enough to applaud the first comic books in the early and mid-1930's, I've witnessed the best and worst of the form from then to now -- I loved the medium of the comic book as I did the syndicated comic strip in its countless forms, subjects, treatments -- in my time. Now in the autumn or winter of my life, my eyes have seen the bad drive out the good, the terminal deterioration and all-but-lost/dead adventure strip -- and the fun and magic, and delicious innocence and surprises in the comic book; which, unless room is made for such again, will not, cannot, should not, survive..."
Maybe Toth would have benefited being born maybe 20 years earlier, as his heart was always in the spirit of classic comic adventure strips of his earliest days. Maybe if he could have worked in that field before "everything changed after the Second World War" as he often lamented, his abilities and his pursuits would have placed him firmly amongst those comic strip creators like Roy Crane, Milton Caniff, and Noel Sickels whom he admired so much. But Toth worked in the time he lived and stayed true to who he was, and showed us the best of what he could do and contribute to the medium of comic books. One can receive a serious art education just reading Toth's work. I have taken his cue of framing shots naturally, not being afraid to obscure a character -even their face if it serves the scene, changing up perspective and point of view, using close ups only as needed... the list goes on and on. It serves my work as well as honouring his work. I think that's why Toth is an artist's artist. For as much as he was ever critical of the work of comic books, he also truly loved it as an art form and has left a body of advice as a creator that any artist could take to heart and apply to their own work.
"Study films, photographs, paintings, etc. for composition! For cutting, cropping out of non essentials, pacing, punch, economy, forceful and direct impact. But also for beauty and subtlety -tension, suspense, action, humor, light and dark, balance, line vs mass, ad infinitum! Use it all!"
"Emphasize what is important in a scene. Save drawing!"
"Strip it all down to the essentials and draw the hell out of what is left!"
"See---observe---remember! Build up your memory file!"
"Analyze everything you see-be critical! Positively so!"
"You must be your own best teacher all your life- with no 'middleman' to muck it up/confuse/dazzle you, with peripheral concerns having nothing to do with the truth, as you see it, draw it -your truth! It'll carry you through life."
"Don't play Maestro! It's a killer, for the adding to the accumulation of knowledge! Stay the wide-eyed student who needs to know more! Be curious!"
This isn't bad advice for most fields in life -artistic or otherwise.
There's been some notable books on Toth's work and his career by Kitchen Sink and Auld Publishing, but all of these are long out of print, so this news from IDW's very worthwhile. Toth deserves a retrospective like this on his life and his career. After reading the book IDW did on Noel Sickels, I can't wait to see the material that will be offered in this book!