Alex Toth Biography

Contributed by: tothfans on Mon, July 3, 2006 / 12:07am CDT

Official Alex Toth website : Articles : Alex Toth Biography


By: Dave Cook Alex Toth was known for a dynamic minimal style that was the envy of every emerging graphic artist and many seasoned professionals. His style is often described in the jargon of graphic artists as “good” which actually means superlative and exemplary, top-notch, clean, perhaps even perfect – what most artists from the Fifties through the Nineties would associate as the ideal commercial style of The Famous Artists School of illustrators, and that makes sense considering Toth’s consistent admiration for Albert Dorne and Robert Fawcett and Noel Sickles, illustrators whose work in magazines such as LIFE, LOOK and Collier’s defined the ideal for illustration in the post-war and “Baby Boom” years.

Toth (pronounced with a long “o” sound like both), born June 25, 1928, in New York City to Hungarian immigrants, was always an ambitious illustrator from his earliest childhood years until his death in 2006. No matter how accomplished and acclaimed he became he was ever striving and never satisfied, not with himself or anyone else, except perhaps the few artists who were his pantheon of greats. That short list began with the pioneers of adventure strips in the newspapers, names such as Roy Crane, Noel Sickles, Bert Christman, and Milton Caniff. Their work was Alex’s “textbook” from childhood until the end. He defined his own reductive style by studying these artists’ techniques, their use of gray tone, silhouettes, and deceptively free-looking line. He also studied their manner of story-telling such as the present-tense narrative of Roy Crane and the bare bones pacing of Noel Sickles. His earliest ambition was really to be a syndicated newspaper comic strip artist, or not finding that to be the best artist in all of comic books. Arguably, he may have realized that second ambition – and many more. His own tribute to Roy Crane is here in the tothfans web site.

Alex was introduced to the comics business, in the Forties still mostly based in his home town of New York City, while he was a teenager in New York’s School of the Industrial Arts. He had already seen dozens of pages published before he joined the publisher then known as National Periodicals that is now called DC Comics. He credits that experience, working with editors Shelly Mayer and Sol Harrison, as the crucible that transformed him into one of the best artists the comic book industry ever produced. Harrison was tough on the young Alex, insisting that he learn “what to leave out.” It became Alex Toth’s mantra from then on, “what to take out”, to “simplify, simplify, simplify.” It went beyond the “standard operating procedure” of “keep it simple, stupid” (Alex’s K.I.S.S. code) to the discovery of a style that seemed to transform everything into such solid unambiguous geometry that his work could stun the most talented artists who saw it, earning him a general reputation as “an artist’s artist.” His articles about those Sol Harrison years are on this web site.

Toth’s prolific production on titles and characters such as Dr. Midnight, Green Lantern, Justice Society of America, “All-Star Comics”, “All-American Western”, and others quickly established him as the guy to emulate. He is often credited as defining “the house style” at DC Comics in the post-war period. He also quickly established himself as something of a free agent, drawing stories for other houses and publishers such as EC Comics

The salad days were interrupted, some might say unfortunately, by the same call that affected millions of other American males in the Fifties – he was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Japan. The insatiable and indomitable Toth wasn’t stopped by “kp duty” but earned a service award for creating a strip for the base newspaper, “Jon Fury”.

The next part of his story is a complicated set of factors that led Toth to one remarkable decision. The decision? To permanently move to California after being freed from military service. What was remarkable about that, you ask? It meant turning his back on the publishing Mecca of New York and risking his fortunes on what at the time was an emerging community on the west coast. He variously credited Warren Tufts who had him ghost on the newspaper strip “Casey Ruggles”, marriage, lower-priced housing, the lure of Hollywood, and a migration in design schools as the sirens that attracted him to The Golden State. Whatever the reasons it precipitated several crises that seem to define Toth’s professional years – he never settled into one fixed occupation or company, at least not for more than four years at a time, and juggled assignments for multiple clients in a bewilderingly prolific array that includes storyboarding for films, pioneering action adventure television animation, drawing some of the most famous comics of the Fifties and Sixties, and making the breakthrough of the black-and-white newsstand format comic-magazines. As famous as he became, he never believed in his “fandom” yet always found time for new talents and wannabes, encouraging the first comics collectors and conventions and fanzines, writing countless letters, and mentoring a generation or two of new “geniuses”.

Probably the hallmark moment for most aficionados was Toth’s work with Western Publishing, the company that printed and licensed Dell Comics and later Gold Key Comics. Western had the licensing with most of the movie and television studios, so Alex drew comics as varied as “The Lennon Sisters”, “The Real McCoys”, “77 Sunset Strip”, “Sea Hunt”, and a host of Disney motion picture tie-ins. The most famous of these and the one most associated with Toth has to be “Zorro”. The “Zorro” comics sold as many as a million copies of each issue. As if that wasn’t enough to spread Alex’s name and fame, they were reprinted in black-and-white by Eclipse Books in the Nineties and Alex gained a whole new international reputation. The general reaction? As Howard Chaykin said in his introduction for the first volume of those b&w Zorro stories, he saw them and his “brains fell out.” The qualities artists saw in “Zorro”? A remarkably, deceptively free line, fast-paced lean storytelling where no action or space was wasted, a fabulous ability at light and shading and patterns of shadow without over-rendering, and staging. In many cases, the staging of panels and pages is stated as THE admired attribute from these comics.

As I said before, these experiences typify Toth’s California years because he quickly became disenchanted with editors, publishers, writers, and his hungry eye was ever looking for better prospects. He ghosted on several newspaper comic strips but could never seem to originate one of his own, but he did not abandon that ambition. His “ghosting” partner, Warren Tufts, ironically his successor on “Zorro”, introduced Alex to T.V. cartooning with Cambria Studios, the company of the “Three Stooges” cartoons and the first “synchro-vox” adventure series, “Clutch Cargo”. The duo of Toth and Tufts developed the next adventure series, “Space Angel”, and became a trio with the addition of Doug Wildey. Wildey went on to create “Jonny Quest” for Hanna-Barbera, and Toth moved to that studio, drawing presentation art and model sheets for such shows as “Shazzan”, “Space Ghost”, “Hot Wheels”, “Scooby-Doo”, and many of the other Saturday morning cartoon line-up. It’s tempting to define Toth in the Sixties by equating him with T.V. animation, or as many erroneously do with “creating Space Ghost” (he did undoubtedly originate the look of Space Ghost through layouts and model sheets) but that disregards another prolific decade of comic book work, again for publishers as varied as DC, Marvel, Charlton, Gold Key, and Warren, and the debut of characters like “Eclipso” and the witches of “The Witching Hour”, and some of Toth’s most famous stories for writers like Archie Goodwin and Bob Kanigher.

The dissatisfied perfectionist left Hanna-Barbera in 1969, mostly over disputes about thick outlining and silhouetting, and dissatisfaction with “dumbed-down” stories in a medium he believed could offer better. Hopefully I’m not over-simplifying Toth’s case when I say that it boiled down to principles of two-dimensional design – Alex believed that the same things that worked in a newspaper strip and on a good storyboard could be and should be transferred to film and to the screen, meaning that a sort of syntax of darker lines forward, middle lines for middle ground and thin lines for distant objects would work for animated figures and that silhouettes could be used for a multi-plane effect. His colleagues at Hanna-Barbera resisted, so Alex left. Toth detailed his achievements and frustrations with animation in Darrell McNeill’s book “Toth: By Design”.

The Seventies were a difficult decade on a lot of fronts – the “Baby Boomers” were growing up and Saturday morning cartoons were losing audience and comic books were losing buyers. New strategies emerged as well as issues about free speech and the use of what many considered to be kid-based media for a more adult audience. Toth was in the thick of all of it, as well as trying again to be a pioneer, this time for self-publishing or independent publishers. He advocated such and for new formats such as graphic novels at most of the conventions of the Seventies. He returned to his roots, trying to create a property of his own that echoed the “Golden Age” of 1937 that he loved so much. What emerged was a character named “Jesse Bravo” modeled on Toth’s childhood film idol, Errol Flynn. He contracted with a French publisher, “Nathan’s”, to print his magnum opus “Bravo for Adventure” in color, but the deal with Nathan’s fell through. He ended up serializing two chapters of “Bravo” into the Warren magazine “The Rook”, then into one black-and-white comic for Dragon Lady Press.

But the golden moment of Alex’s life, as far as he would be concerned from 1968 to his own death, was his last love, his beloved wife Guyla. They met at Hanna-Barbera and married soon after his divorce from Christina Hyde. He spoke of Guyla, used her as model in stories and storyboards, and sang her praises until the end. Yet for them there was tragic separation, cancer and medical treatments disrupted their lives and hampered Toth’s artistic endeavors for most of the decade until her untimely death in 1985. For him a darkness denser than the rich black ink he loved so well settled over his world and Alex retreated into their house in the Hollywood hills and became the most infamous hermit in comics.

He continued to produce cover art, pin-ups and occasional pieces, mostly as favors for friends old and new, but there would be no more stories and no new characters for the last two decades. He launched into something as “old-fashioned” as Mike Peppe considered his inking style – he became a prolific writer of cards and letters, articles and columns, sometimes rants and diatribes, but all treasures. Usually on 6”x 9” memo pad paper, with the marker pens he adopted for inking in the Seventies, Alex Toth inundated friends and enemies alike with “doodle” pages and occasionally with small masterpieces as breathtaking as any of his earlier works. The cover of “Batman Black and White” no. 4, for instance, became a whole new icon for the new millennium. Three things could be credited with bringing Toth renewed acclaim and introducing him to new generations: The reprinting of the “Zorro” stories by Eclipse; the publication of two award-winning collections on Toth by Manuel Auad; and the debut of The Cartoon Network and their use of the old Saturday morning adventure shows along with their new spoofs, “Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast” and “Sealab 2021” as part of the innovative “Adult Swim”.

A lifelong chain-smoker – and stubbornly, nay, proudly a smoker, he settled into a sedentary routine of smoking, television, drawing, and writing that led to hospitalization in his middle seventies. His self-portraits were always with a cigarette dangling from his lips, smoke curling past arched brows and squinted eyes, the icon of curmudgeonly irascible defiance and scrutiny, until 2004 when he was forced to quit smoking and he had me remove the cigarette from his logo self-portrait on his post cards and web site.

The defiant Toth, reclusive only in the sense that he wouldn’t leave his house (how do you call a guy reclusive who papers America with post cards and opinions?) began to suffer health problems as he reached his seventies and in 2005 had to emerge from his Broadview Terrace Fortress of Self-Imposed Solitude and rejoin the rest of the world by transferring to Belmont Village in Burbank. No, he didn’t like leaving his home and his things but in one of those odd twists it was one of the most wonderful moves of his life. He rediscovered the world and his faith in humanity. Burbank was a renovated and renewed city, and in Belmont Village he found other Hungarians, heard the folk songs and stories he hadn’t heard and longed for through decades, and was inundated with something he believed had eluded him – fanmail. Only at the end, as interviewers and former colleagues made pilgrimages to his hospital room, as bags of mail arrived daily, as old friends and old adversaries made amends, did Alex Toth come to accept his almost universal adulation.

In 2004 Wizard Magazine listed Alex Toth as one of The Top Ten Artists of All Time, in the realm of comic books and illustrators. To editors, other professionals and teachers, Toth is still and perhaps always will be the guy that prompts them to pull out a book of his work or a sheaf of photocopies, hand them to a young wannabe and say, “See this? Learn to do it his way.” He would never believe it, but it’s what the self-proclaimed know-it-all always wanted.

Article Copyright 2006 Dave Cook


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