Perfect in Every Panel: What Made Alex Toth the Master
On July 25th, 1928, Alex Toth was born in New York City. Through several decades’ worth of comics, and his design work on Hanna-Barbera’s classic animation lineup, Toth established a legacy as one of the best and most influential comics artists of all time. And most comics readers don’t even know that.
In his six-decade career in comics, Alex Toth worked on relatively few superhero titles, preferring pretty much anything else: pulp heroes, war stories, horror stories, westerns, romances, racing, and adventure. For that reason, few comics readers have as much first-hand experience with his work as his work deserves; most of his comics have been out of print for a long time, and there’s not much demand for new editions of Hot Wheels.
It’s a testament to Toth’s unparalleled skill for the medium that he’s considered by many to be one of its greatest practitioners without much work in its dominant genre.
Like many at the time, Toth got started in comics young. As a teenager, he attended the famed School of Industrial Art in New York, a legend-making factory whose other notable comics alumni include Carmine Infantino, John Romita Sr., and Neal Adams. He began working professionally around graduation, first in Famous Funnies, the first comic book, and soon found steady jobs DC (National at the time), where he developed — quickly — into one of the most dynamic artists of the era.
Although he drew his share of superhero stories to begin his career — most of them when he was still fairly crude — it was in Westerns that Toth shined, particularly on the “Johnny Thunder” stories for All-Star Western in particular. With simplified realism, a nimble pen-stroke, and rapidly-evolving use of blacks and negative space, Toth quickly eschewed DC’s house style, and following his run on Danger Trail with Robert Kanigher, became the house style.
Throughout the 50s, Toth bounced around a little, both physically and professionally. He left New York for California, DC for Standard, where he did just about everything, usually better than everybody else. Romance, war, crime, horror — no matter what genre, Toth’s work from that period looks like the only way it should be done. He was drafted by the Army in 1954 (and it’s perplexing to consider that he’d been a working professional for several years and was still young enough to be drafted) and served in Japan, taking more creative leaps and bounds on Jon Fury in Japan, a weekly adventure strip with a design sensibility years ahead of its time.
After returning to America in the late fifties, he worked primarily for Dell, where he produced perhaps his best-regarded work, Zorro. A manual on adventure storytelling, Zorro is visually as quick, as cutting as a foil, with jabs and feints from panel-to-panel; brilliantly-placed blacks and motion in every molecule of the page.
Like everything else, his run on Zorro is painfully short. In yet another oddity for an undisputed giant, Toth didn’t stay on one title — or even in one genre — for too long. In the early 60s, he ended up back with DC on more of their anthology titles, but with war, horror, and crime comics dwindling, Toth turned to animation.
Toth’s work with Hanna-Barbera animation is what placed him on a much larger cultural map. He created character designs, backgrounds, layouts, and storyboards for classic animated series like Johnny Quest, The Herculoids, Space Ghost, and Super Friends, and some much, much worse ones.
Hanna-Barbera’s cost-cutting measures, assembly-line production methods, editorial control, writers, and directors resulted in a watered-down Toth reaching the airwaves, but even that work can be considered iconic.
When he returned to comics, he did so at the peak of his skills. From the late 60s to the mid-80s, he worked primarily for DC and Warren Publishing (with another animation stint working on Super Friends in the early seventies) producing arguably the best comics of his career. There are many unquestionably great artists who hit their peaks long before they retired; who grew until they hit a wall, and stayed there. Toth kept evolving.
On the day Alex Toth died, Tom Spurgeon said it best: “Toth reached that scary point where it felt dangerous to look at some of his best work”. There’s something visceral about his greatest comics; blacks and angles and movements that throw your guts into your knees.
In his Warren work with Archie Goodwin in particular, there’s a sense of perfection in every panel; an absolute sense that his way of telling the story is the best way to tell that story, period.
Toth had a reputation for being difficult to work with, a cloud that followed him throughout his career and grew into mythical status. Like almost all stories and reputations about legendary creators, you have to take it with a grain of salt and accept that some of it is true and some isn’t. It’s been said that he frequently rewrote scripts or sent them back, but in most cases it seems more likely that he corrected them; that he adapted them into a visual medium with storytelling instincts that seem almost preternatural.
At the very least, he was a true perfectionist, and unafraid to speak his mind, two qualities to which the comics industry has never been overly kind.
Despite all his skill and influence, it still feels like Toth never really got his due, only a portion of it, near the end of his life. A significant chunk of his comics output feels like a waste of his monumental talent. For all his work on House of Mystery and Creepy, and Torpedo, there’s an equal amount of unchallenging romance comics; schmaltzy pap that, despite being beautifully drawn, misused his incredible ability. For every Bravo for Adventure — Toth’s last great comic book – there’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People.
Toth took uninteresting, unimportant and poorly-written comics and made them sing. On the good work, the important work, comics for good editors and writers like Goodwin and Kanigher and Toth himself, he outdid just about everybody else who ever placed pen to bristol. He effectively retired by 1990, but new drawings still came out anyway, pinups and covers and doodles in magazines; he kept drawing until the day he died. He had four children, a legacy unlike any other, and he died in 2006 much the way he lived: at his drawing board.