Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Original Art Stories: Alex Toth's Aussie Connection

As a lad growing up I was a massive fan of Alex Toth even if I didn’t realise it and I strongly suspect that a lot of other people were as well. Each Saturday morning I’d find myself glued to the television watching shows such as Space Ghost, Jonny Quest, Herculoids, Thunddar, Justice League Adventures, the Fantastic Four and many more, most of which, if not all, were designed by Toth as he had a hand in almost everything that Hanna-Barbera produced there for a while. I loved the visuals to death, and I still do. Then I discovered Toth in comic books, via, of all places, DC Comics. The first encounter was a Batman story, then that great Superman annual that Toth pencilled and Terry Austin inked. The simplicity of the line amazed me, so sparse yet so rich in detail. It was if Toth’s artwork was a contradiction in terms and almost at war with itself. It was mind-blowing.

Then I picked up a Walter Simonson book. I was a massive Simonson fan, much to the disgust of a few people that I knew. In an interview Simonson detailed some of his influences, the usual suspects were in there, Kirby, Kane etc etc, and then Walt began to rave on about Alex Toth. I needed to see more. My first stop was a reprint of Zorro material and then, via my Gredown reprints, I discovered yet more Toth. It didn’t matter how much Toth as I could uncover, it was never enough. Then I began to read about Toth and how difficult he was labelled. How he’d not work for Marvel – which annoyed me somewhat as I always wanted to see him working on Spider-Man or The Avengers. How he had a reputation for being one of the grumpiest men in the business. I used to think to myself; surely Toth wasn’t any more difficult than say Steve Ditko? Apparently so.

As I grew older my tastes in artists changed, but Toth has always been the consistent. I could see his influence on many artists, as diverse as Ross Andru, Trevor Von Eeden, David Mazzuchelli, Norm Breyfogle, John Romita, Steve Ditko and a host of others, all the way through to the likes of Steve Rude and Tim Sale. It could be argued that Toth, either directly or indirectly, influenced just as many artists as Jack Kirby did. Everyone read Kirby comics, but possibly more people saw Toth’s designs via the aforementioned cartoons and by virtue of the body of his work.

Now allow me to explain what I mean by that last statement. Kirby was prolific; however Toth wasn’t anywhere near as prolific as Kirby. Once Kirby hit the ground running, in 1941, other than an interruption caused by World War II, he was drawing comic books continuously until the early 1980s when he all but gave the medium away. He dabbled after that date, but, for all intents and purposes, Kirby retired once he left Marvel and DC. Kirby also worked for the major companies, on several titles, on a regular basis. From Kirby’s imagination came the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the New Gods and many more and he worked on those titles, with varying results. For example, he drew 102 issues of the Fantastic Four alone. On the other hand Toth worked for companies such as Charlton, Atlas (Seaboard), Archie and Warren, smaller companies that allowed more freedom but not as much exposure. He steadfastly refused to work for Marvel, other than one X-Men job that Kirby laid out and Vince Colletta inked, but that was that. He seemed more content to do the occasional job for DC where his behaviour was tolerated, thankfully. Talent doesn’t come cheaply, and I don’t mean financially.

What this means is that Toth never really had the chance to turn in a bad job, nor was his work really ruined by bad inkers. Kirby worked with several dozens of inkers, with varying results. For every Joe Sinnott there was a Vinnie Colletta. For every Mike Royer there was a D Bruce Barry. Each man had their merits, but clearly some inkers were better for Kirby than others. On the other hand, virtually every job Toth did he either inked himself or he was assigned a top inker, such as Terry Austin. As such its neigh on impossible to find a bad Toth job, but I’m sure there’ll be some people out there who’ll point me towards one. I am betting that there are more bad Kirby jobs, either when Kirby lost interest (Super Friends) or badly inked, than Toth.

That’s not to say Toth wasn’t prolific in his own right. Toth used to draw constantly, just not all of it was for publication. In recent years there’s been a massive influx of notebook pages all with doodles and illustrations apparently drawn by Toth as he watched TV, warmed up for the days drawing or was just killing time. In the same manner that a guitarist will just sit and pluck away while the television is on, Toth drew. Thus it’s relatively easy to obtain a page of Toth’s artwork, albeit unsigned.

The other field Toth was prolific in was correspondence. Toth replied to almost every letter he got with a postcard and was free with his information sharing. For all the accounts of him being a grumpy old man he was very generous and giving when it came to writing to people, as I found out firsthand when I corresponded with him about Ross Andru. What struck me about Toth was his use of Australian slang, which prompted me to ask him how he came to know about our expressions. Toth explained that he’d lived in Australia in the early ‘70s and had met a lot of the artists and cartoonists of the time. That prompted me to send him a copy of Bonzer which, to my eternal delight, reached him on his birthday. This was one of those rare times when something hit the mark perfectly, and I was more than happy when Toth wrote back to say that he had not only read the book (I was afraid that he might have already had a copy) but that he loved it as well. A small thing for some, but one that made me walk three feet off the ground for weeks to follow. He may have been grumpy to some, but then I never asked him for anything, other than some basic information, and I suspect that I might have been one of the few to send the man a gift with no strings attached, and a gift that hopefully brought back some warm memories of the past.

I can’t fault Toth, not by a long shot. I love his art and no matter how grumpy he may have became, his kind words about his copy of Bonzer showed that even the grumpiest of us can be reached. Kirby may have indeed been the most creative genius the comic industry may see, but Toth was possibly the closest to a true genius that the comic book industry will ever see. With the likes of Toth and Kirby, along with Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman and a few others, we are reminded that giants walked amongst us, disguised as artists. Long may their influence be felt.

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