Trouble with Comics

Genius, Isolated: The Life and Art of Alex Toth

Writers - Dean Mullaney & Bruce Canwell
Publisher - IDW Publishing $49.99 USD

I get a little uneasy calling anyone a genius, but since many folks I respect got there to slap that sobriquet on Alexander Toth way before me, I can live with it. There are really only a handful of true eccentrics and iconoclasts in the history of the comics medium. In recent years, publishers have gotten around to collecting most of the great comic strips from Herrimann, Schulz, Caniff, King and great comic book work from big names like Kirby, Eisner, Tezuka. Even more recently, reprint projects have begun focusing on early and lesser-known Steve Ditko work than his years at Marvel Comics, and now we get another game changer, this first of a lush, three-volume biography/retrospective on Toth.

As a comics  legend, Toth falls somewhere between Ditko and Wallace Wood. Like Ditko, Toth became reclusive in later years without ever retiring. Like Wood, Toth made some rash decisions that would have negative consequences on his career. This volume covers Toth as a promising young artist learning under mentors like Frank Robbins, finding work fairly quickly and becoming quite a competent, even inventive stylist early on. Even the late ’40s material represented here, while often providing rather mundane, formulaic scripts for Toth, still made me a little frustrated not to be able to read every story through to completion, just to see how he put it all together. Fortunately, there are many complete stories in this volume, such as an early career highlight, 1950’s “Battle Flag of the Foreign Legion,” a brave and successful experiment in unusual p.o.v. and silhouette that works magnificently and was almost certainly an influence on B. Krigstein’s better-known “Master Race” art. 

The ’50s started well enough for Toth, with regular work at National (DC), where he handled Westerns, Science Fiction, Romance and Superheroes with grace and increasing mastery of light, shade and depth, but a fabled conflict with editor Julius Schwartz caused an angry, humiliated Toth to leave DC for a time. In the short run, it was a win for Toth, who did some terrific work at Standard, often inked by his favorite embellisher, Mike Peppe, but in retrospect Toth hasn’t been as influential on succeeding generations of comic artists because much of his work has been hard to find. Every now and then, one sees echoes of Toth in an artist like Mike Mignola, Steve Rude or Michael Lark, but there has never been a wave of minimalism and chiaroscuro in comics. Maybe that’s a good thing, I dunno; you appreciate those folks more when you find them.

Mullaney and Canwell make excellent choices in presentation, sometimes presenting the work as it was printed, sometimes offering original pages to contrast Toth’s pencils with the finished product. As mentioned, even the pap is generally quite entertaining because of Toth’s efforts, his relentless pursuit of fresh perspectives and real-life faces and body language, but there are also some real gems, such as “The Crushed Gardenia,” one of the few Toth stories I was already familiar with from a crime anthology. It’s as stunning a portrait of a psychopath today as it must have been in 1953. “Grip of Life” and “Murder Mansion” are as good as most of the horror stories of the EC Comics heyday, and the complete “Jon Fury,” a crime serial Toth produced while stationed in post-war Japan, proves that Toth had some nascent writing talent he unfortunately didn’t pursue further. The lone Zorro story here is dynamite, and in the preferred black-and-white with the graytones Toth added in the late ’80s for collection.

As this volume closes, Toth has made some inroads into animation, with work on the cult series Clutch Cargo as well as the unproduced Space Angel, on a third failing marriage with a few kids from it, working hard to be a breadwinner while seething with every compromise he had to make. It’s an unalloyed but balanced account, leavened with comments from his children, who found him hard to live with while still feeling his love. Genius or no, Toth walked a rocky path for his art, experiencing great pains in the pursuit of the purest, most impactful arrangements of lines. The work presented is of an artist who could be called a genius, if genius means having a strong vision and the will to push oneself to realize it, while the biography presents the contrast, a man of flaws like any other, trying to be happy and fulfilled and trying to bringing the same to others, while often failing at both. 

—Christopher Allen

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