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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Thoughts on Toth

Ah, Alex Toth. I'm sure I first encountered Toth's work long before I knew the name, from his TV animation work, in particular the 1970s Super Friends series that I know I watched. The first comic I can recall seeing his work in was the 1983 SUPERMAN ANNUAL #9, featuring a team-up of Superman and Batman against Lex Luthor. Apparently the story was done for some foreign publisher originally, and showed up in the annual. Anyway, a real eye-opening story. The main Superman and Batman comics of the time hewed very close to a house style that was a combination of Curt Swan and Neal Adams, a style I did like then and still like now. This story was one of the first non-reprint stories I saw that veered sharply away from style, in ways almost counter to it. I liked what I saw, in part because one of the strengths Toth has is an ability to get down the essence of a character, and while he didn't draw Superman like Swan or Batman like Adams, you could see what made the character work in his art, and that makes you appreciate both his work and those of other artists.

Still a lovely story, by the way, and I don't think it's ever been reprinted. A shame.

Kept encountering his work sporadically over the next decade, and hearing more about him as well. His work was invariably a highlight of whatever reprint collection it would be included in, and he seemed like an interesting guy. Anyway, it wasn't long before I was specifically seeking out his work.

So much interesting stuff. He worked with a lot of interesting people over the years, always doing a good job of realizing their scripts to the fullest potential. Robert Kanigher was a frequent writer for him back in the 1950s, and they re-teamed for a few stories in the 1970s that were highlights in the careers of both men. "Soldier's Grave" is perhaps the most remarkable of those stories, pretty close to perfect as it tells the story of a poor old Egyptian man who joins the army in order to feed his family.

Also of note among their stories in that era are "The Tally", "The Glory Boys", "White Devil... Yellow Devil" and "the Mask of the Red Fox". Special stories all, and "White Devil" in particular is like a little lesson in storytelling.

Among Toth's mentors in comics was Sheldon Mayer, one of my favourite comic book creators. He would frequently mention in his letter/essays some aspects of Mayer's involvement in his early days, the very tough but invariably useful advice and criticism, always with a great deal of affection. Mayer and Toth would work on two stories together in the mid-1970s. "Is a Snerl Human?" is one of my favourite short stories ever, an oddly affecting parable. "Who Is Haunting the Haunted Chateau?" is a nice little war/ghost story, with some clever little bits of storytelling.

Toth had a few interesting collaborations with Archie Goodwin. A few stories for Warren back in the 1960s, I especially liked the two in BLAZING COMBAT, "Lone Hawk" and "Survival". They did a few more for DC in the 1970s, both returning to the aviation theme, with a Batman story "Death Flies the Haunted Sky" and "Burma Sky", which I've seen on more than one list of the greatest comics of all time, and I'm not disagreeing.

So much more worth mentioning. He only did a handful of stories for Kurtzman's war comics at EC, but those are interesting. I briefly talk about one here. His Zorro comics are a lot of fun, and the still-in-print Image edition of them is one of the best $13 you'll ever spend if you don't have a copy yet. BRAVO FOR ADVENTURE, of course, that's some interesting stuff, and proof he had some writing chops as well. He did a lot of unfortunately unreprinted work in the 1950s, pick up some of Eclipse's SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT books of the 1980s for a taste. A lot of covers and pin-ups over the years, almost always a highlight of whatever project they appeared in. There's HOT WHEELS, now there's a book that was much better than it had any right to be thanks to Toth. And that's only scratching the surface.

I think I'll probably go on a bit of a Toth kick for the next week or so, posting various pages that leap out at me while re-reading some stories. Of course, you don't have to wait for me, go over here and look around.

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