Photo by Greg Preston

Alex Toth was another artist whose name was a household word at Continuity of the 70′s.  With a so much seasoned and young talent alike referencing comics art masters, to better evaluate the quality of new work, Toth’s subtle line and mesmerizing imagery were spoken of and shown around frequently. Platitudes for his art covered storytelling intricacies, an almost abstract use of black shapes, delicate drawing and stunning visual clarity. Everyone had something to learn from Alex Toth’s work. In a tribute, upon his passing away in 2006, Tom Spurgeon took note of Toth’s artistic achievement.

People will say he was a great craftsman, and they’ll be right, but what Toth did was a little further along than that. Toth reached that scary point where it felt dangerous to look at some of his best work; you ran the risk of being pierced by a force that practically shimmered on the page, that inhabited every image, like a master chef’s dessert so rich it made your eyes water in protest, or a singer’s voice so pitch-perfect it made you want to leave the concert hall, if only to catch your breath. His handwriting exuded an element of purity in cartooning that could outclass other artists’ fully-rendered sequential art. Toth’s black and white work in particular displayed an almost transcendent understanding of drawn art as a visual story component. When we as readers come to a greater understanding of the effect that great art has on the reading of comics, Toth’s reputation is likely to grow even larger than it is today.

Alex Toth was also known to have a short fuse, especially for young artists seeking advice or criticism of their work. Still, he often extended himself above and beyond the norm.  His informative critiques are considered as gold to the craft. But they also came with a price of  being a target for the master’s angst.

The late Dylan Williams suffered it happily. He eventually thanked Toth with a touching story about their friendship, struck over correspondences that also revolved around their common love for comics art.

I’d take breaks for a month or two. I would eventually dig up some new old art and we’d write back and forth. It was around that time I found out I had leukemia. I never told Alex… I don’t think this comic is much of a tribute to Alex but it is the only way I know of telling him thank you.

Steve Rude suffered a famous encounter after sending a Johnny Quest story to Toth for appraisal. It ended a little less friendly than the affair with Dylan, as Rude elaborated in respones to Toth posted by David Marshall.

Oh, when I did receive Alex’s letter, I called him. It started out nicely enough, but when I attempted to explain the things I felt him in error about, he let out a few curse words and hung up. That’s what I recall of this situation. If it helps people to learn from my mistakes, then all the better.

Some years later, Warren Ellis pulled no punches commenting on the story between Toth and Rude, in his Do Anything column at Bleeding Cool, where he also criticized Toth’s career as being somewhat of an unfulfilled destiny.

Toth was another angry man of comics, a world-class artist who knew everything about storytelling except what made a good story. He was famous for his handwritten critiques of other artists: his destruction of comics artist Steve Rude (who spent a lot of time in the 80s doing Kirby pastiche work) got out into the wild a few years ago, and you can find it on the web fairly easily. It is at once a masterclass in storytelling intelligence — Rude is a wonderfully gifted illustrator, but storytelling isn’t his strong suit — and an appalling portrait of Alex Toth as an embittered intellectual sadist. Nothing he said was wrong, but he nonetheless manages to paint a picture of a man who would argue with his own breakfast over betrayals real or imagined. A man who hated “mature content” in modern comics, he is perhaps best known today for his original design of SPACE GHOST, who survives into the present as a parody show host.

I’m not sure that Ellis’ comment can be considered as entertaining as that it’s delivered by a writer who spares little arsenic and laughs for things that might crawl up his own sleeve.

Only a minor sampling of turbulence that raged within, and around, a giant and master of the comics craft. Like Spurgeon said, recognition of Alex Toth’s influence will only escalate in time. Analysis of his cumulative body of work will become a pursuit of comics readers, creators, critics and historians, for generations to come.

New addition to Portraits of the Creators.

Alex Toth