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What We’re Reading: The Disparate Works of Alex Toth

2014 April 3
by Aaron King

What We're Reading

Alex TothYou’ve probably seen the work of Alex Toth, if not in its original context, then in its repurposed format as Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Harvey Birdman, or Sealab 2021. He designed those characters, along with a number of others, for Hanna-Barbera, in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Toth (rhymes with “both”) was also an accomplished comics storyteller, but unlike his contemporaries, he never spent a long time on a single title or with a single company. Even in the current golden age of comic book reprints, you’ll find more books about Toth in a bookstore than books by Toth. To find him, one must resort to the venerable tradition of crate-diving.

This whole escapade started with a dollar copy of Black Hood #2 and an amiable guy behind the counter of my favorite comic/junk store, The Nostalgia Zone. “You like Toth? We got lots of it.” He pulled out flawless, magazine-sized books with crisp black-and-white art. They had price stickers on the front with handwritten comments. Nice Toth. Great Toth. 6 Pages Nice Toth. By the time I left, I had a whole bundle of cheap comics from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. In chronological order, then, let’s take a look at Alex Toth.

One of Toth’s most sustained projects was pencilling Zorro comics for Disney. Even this early, Toth’s proficiency with body language and character design are on full display. The panels are often much, much busier than they are his later work, though. Look at all those crosshatched lines on the wall around the woman. What purpose do they serve?


When Toth pulls away for the long shot below, though, you can see his tendency towards abstraction. The rocks, the dust, and the people and horses are indicated with spare linework and messy blacks—just enough to tell a reader what’s going on.


The storylines are bland but cathartic: Zorro is dashing without being sexy, rebellious without being political; good wins out over evil and people learn the error of their ways. This was apparently the kind of story Toth wanted to tell—swashbuckling adventure with simple, Errol Flynn morality. It was how he thought the world was (or at least how it should be).

Flashing forward about 10 years, we find Toth in Sorcery #9 (Red Circle Comics, a division of Archie). Perhaps inspired by his time in animation, Toth’s distinctive lettering is evolving, becoming part of the page:


Gone are the pointlessly busy crosshatchings that filled the space of his Zorro work. It’s replaced by brave chunks of black. However, Toth can still whip out the obsessive detail when it serves the story. Compare the two panels below.


While both women’s rooms are stuffed with, well, stuff, the differences are striking and contribute to defining them as characters without wasting space on exposition-via-narration.

And another decade forward, in 1983, we come back to Black Hood #2, where Toth writes and draws an 8-page story about a black-suited character named The Fox. His lines have become thicker and shorter, almost impressionistic, and more and more of his panels fill up with black. Concise, economic lines inside swaths of negative space become the rule.



The words in the story become less relevant as his lettering morphs more and more into a design element. The shapes of the speech bubbles and the rhythm in the placement of the narration become more important than what’s being said.


(panel from Superman Annual #9, also from 1983)

Take in the full glory of the image above. I can assure you that, even in context, it’s just as absurd. A cackilng Batman, a grinning, chummy Superman, and a Lex Luthor who looks like a grownup Charlie Brown—what does it all mean? Does it matter, or is it enough for the image to just look striking and nice?

I used to be sad that the world never got a longform Toth story. Didn’t he want to cut loose? Spill his guts for the world? But I don’t think Toth was ever about volume (audible or size-wise). His beliefs were clear and simple, and his style was similarly graceful and trim. Even as mainstream adventure comics in the ‘80s and ‘90s were moving toward full-time glam grunge rock-and-roll showmanship, Toth was content to play the part of your quiet uncle that only shows up at weddings and funerals, dancing his little waltz he’d perfected across the years.

I can’t help but compare it to other mediums—can a well-shot movie save a bad script? If the song is played well, do the lyrics matter? Can a precise artistic vision be reason enough to tell a story, or can style trump substance?


One Response
  1. Jannes permalink
    August 27, 2018

    Few, but well-picked images to show (at least parts of) Toth’s evolution! I love 60s and 70s Toth the most- he didn’t “lose it” later on after all, just a matter of taste, also his output became pretty sparse.
    There’s just two things I wanted to add, even though this post is already more than 4 years old… but since I just read it, so will others!

    1.: You’re right about Toth’s deep appreciation about Old-school-swashbuckling and that he wished for comics to be less grim’n’gritty and more uplifting and light-hearted fun, but while he loved Zorro as a character, he disliked the comic book version he worked on very much and even said that he just hacked it out after he realized that he had no say in the content. He was all about visual storytelling, but the scripts for the book were mostly slightly reworked scripts from the Disney-TV-series. TV was, especially at the time, designed to be consumed without really paying attention to it while still getting what is going on, so it relayed heavily on expositional dialogue and less on visual information. That, and the stories were pretty shitty to begin with. That doesn’t mean that his Zorro Run is worthless in the least, when really competent artists work fast, their skills often come through the clearest. Even if he basically intended it to be a hack job, he couldn’t help being a great artist and putting quality on the page. Overall, this was just one of many instances where he felt really disrespected as a craftsman by editors and writers who, according to Toth, didn’t know their shit. Maybe it’s a testament to his love for the character that he stayed on the book for so long (is this even Toth’s longest run on any character? I’m not that familiar with his 40s and 50s work, I know the Standard stuff but that’s mostly it. I know he worked on a western called Johnny Thunder for a while)- or maybe he just really needed the money.
    (I got that mostly from an in-depth interview from the 70s, hope I remember it correctly)

    2.: I get the analogy about Toth being the quiet uncle in regards of his art being reduced to only the important elements (I still wouldn’t call it quiet though), but it doesn’t fit his character- he was more the fighting uncle type;) …at least when it came to standing up for his ideals… many even believe him to have been bipolar, I don’t think it was ever diagnosed.
    …but maybe that’s not what you meant at all.

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