Saturday, November 22, 2014

“Dear John” - Never Before Seen Alex Toth Letters

Toth by Michael Netzer
Alex Toth should need no introduction to anyone with even a passing interest in comic books and art.  Toth began drawing comic books in the 1940s and was widely regarded as being one of the most visionary artists to ever grace the medium.  His influence can be seen on any number of artists, from Ross Andru and Doug Wildey through to Steve Rude, David Mazzuchelli and Tim Sale, Toth left an indelible impact.  His art work transcended what people believe is comic book art and entered the realm of fine art and his work remains in print and is keenly sought after.  More than that, Toth was a scholar of art and comic books and was widely versed in its history. He was also an avid correspondent, albeit one that had a reputation for not suffering fools lightly and for being abrasive and brutally honest and blunt in his appraisals of others and his views. 

In 1960 Toth moved into the field of television animation where, as with anything he would do, he left his mark.  Working for Hanna-Barbera through the 1960s and early 1970s he designed characters such as Space Ghost, the Herculoids, Birdman and more and worked on the Super Friends series, which saw DC characters introduced to Saturday morning cartoons.  As part of his animation work, 1973 saw Toth living in Sydney, Australia, for five months working as a design artist producing the aforementioned Super Friends.  While in Australia he was feted by the local, and then thriving comic art community, in particular John Dixon, Phil Belbin and, Stanley Pitt.  By all accounts Toth was impressed with the Australian artists and commented to myself, over thirty years later, how their art still impacted upon him.  He also met, for the first time, Australian comic book historian John Ryan.

Toth and Ryan hit it off famously and thus began a correspondence that lasted until Ryan’s untimely death in 1979.  Both men had a lot in common, they were keen to learn, they loved comic books and the rich history that came from it and neither could tolerate fools.  Sadly not all of the correspondence between the two men survived, none of Ryans letters to Toth exist as far as I’m aware (although it is entirely possible that they still survive in Toth’s own archives) but what does remain is a series of fascinating letters to Ryan from Toth, which begins when Toth was still living in a hotel in Sydney and continued when Toth returned home.  In the exchange Toth wrote of the loneliness that he felt living alone and separated from his wife and family but mainly focused on his views about art and the state of comic books as a whole.

This correspondence has only been seen by a few people since the National Library obtained John Ryan’s archives in the 1980s, but it is worth reading.  To that end I have edited the letters to remove the more personal information, along with some not so kind references to the personal habits of people who are still alive.  That’ll be a post for another time.  I’ve also added notes to the letters where appropriate, if only to explain the context of some of Toth’s comments, otherwise the letters, and Toth’s words, are here for you to enjoy.

25th June, 1973. Toth’s 45th birthday saw him complaining about how old he felt before he then began to talk about a recent volume of Hurricane Hawk that Ryan had sent him. The letter then extends into a study of Toth’s artistic tastes and his view towards the artists of the day.

14th July, 1973. Toth, at Ryan’s request, had contacted Joe Kubert, Archie Goodwin, Sal Gentile and George Wildman with the view of obtaining work for Stan Pitt at either DC Comics, Marvel or Charlton. Toth then tells Ryan to write to Rene Goscinny (of Asterix fame) with the view of getting Pitt work at the French company, Polte.

29th August, 1973. Toth passes on the replies that he received from Kubert and Goodwin. The replies were positive.  Toth had also listed Phil Belbin and Ken Emerson as possible artists.  Sadly this would go nowhere as Pitt was reluctant to work for the American market at the time due to bad experiences in the past, mainly around payment (the exchange rate wasn’t the greatest) and time frames.

14th January, 1974. Toth had been telling Ryan about Charles Raab, enclosing two strips for Ryan to see. This letter then delves into the gossip of the day.

25th April, 1974. Toth comments on Denis Kitchen’s Krupp Comics Works and Comics International. In one of the longest exchanges in the collection, Toth vents about his feelings towards the then popular Argentinian artists working in the USA and much more.

9th August, 1974. Toth and Ryan had been debating the merits of reprinting old newspaper strips. Toth was all for it, Ryan foresaw problems, editorial wise.  Toth then touched on issues he was having, both with DC and Denis Kitchen.

16th January, 1977.  Toth had read Maurice Horn’s The World Encyclopaedia of Comics and was not impressed.  Ryan had contributed to that book and he had also been disappointed with the way his entries had been edited and pertinent information left out and unsubstantiated ‘fact’s inserted.  Once Toth had said his piece, he was keen to talk about his new book, Bravo For Adventure’.

25th August, 1977.  Toth talks extensively about the comic book industry here and offers some great insight.  Readers will notice that a name has been redacted from this letter. It’s probably more fun trying to guess who Toth was talking about.  The only hint, the person is still alive.

11th October, 1977. Toth talks Al Capp and the dangers of over drawing.  Toth was about making his line simple and evolving and was harsh on artists who felt that more detail was better.

10th November, 1977.  Toth became by talking about Roy Crane and Buzz Sawyer, before recounting a recent conversation with Milton Caniff.

9th January, 1978. A short note, Toth talks Marvel and DC.

24th February, 1978.  Another conversation with Caniff and Toth details the problems with the comic book industry as he saw it.


Over  the years I’ve been lucky enough to purchase some original Toth letters and postcards, including these two.  The first is Toth’s reply to a fan who wrote to him asking if he’d contribute a Space Ghost sketch to a ‘jam’ that he was collecting (a jam session – whereby many artists all draw the one character, with the end result being a large collage).

The second letter shows Toth again reflecting on his past efforts and those of others.  What set these letters apart are the wonderful drawings showing that even when Toth was sketching – from memory – he was a better artist than most people will ever be.


Rodrigo Baeza said...

Thanks for posting these, Daniel. One detail: the first part of the letter from 9th August, 1974 seems to be missing.

Interesting to see Toth mention DC's "new formats" in the August 1973 letter (a couple of years after Kirby's "In the Days of the Mob").

rnigma said...

Wasn't HB outsourcing animation of "Super Friends" and other shows to Eric Porter Studios (which HB would buy)? That explains Toth's being in Australia.

Cam Ford said...

Hi - Great to read the letters of Alex Toth. I'm the animator Cam Ford mentioned in the 14th January, 1974 letter, and I greatly enjoyed working with the hulking Hungarian. I also felt privileged to be able to draw the old iconic SuperFriends heros and probably put more work into the animation than some of the other animators who only looked upon the show as "just another job". Alex and I had many long, boozy conversations about comic art - or the lack of it - over the time he was at the Eric Porter studios, and we often wrote back and forth after he returned to the US.
H&B never owned the Porter Studios; they had a studio of their own in Australia (which was later bought by Disney) and subcontracted several series to Porter's, such as the Chan Clan, Superfriends and Goober & the Ghost Chasers, plus the odd TV special.