If we were to debate who is the greatest comics artist of all time, many reputable comics scholars have argued that Alex Toth is on the short list of serious candidates. He’s also, unfortunately, among the least recognized names that would enter into such a debate.
However, Toth not only transformed the language of comics as one of the comic book industry’s formative pioneers in the 1940s, he also changed the animation field as well, streamlining character designs and allowing for simpler animation. Toth’s attention to page layouts and panel composition for DC, Standard and Dell Comics during the 1940s and 1950s redefined graphic storytelling on the comics’ page. His elegant designs helped to boost fledgling Hanna-Barbera to a place among the leaders in animation, with striking characters who were easy to animate and memorable to young viewers.
In short, fans of Warner Bros. Animation (particularly the Bruce Timm school) or Pixar owe as much to Toth as fans of Frank Quitely or Stuart Immonen.In 2011, IDW Publishing and the Library of American Comics celebrate Toth’s accomplishments with Genius, Isolated: The Life and Art of Alex Toth, the first of a three-book biography/artbook series. LoAC’s Bruce Canwell provides a full biography, while designer and editor Dean Mullaney, who collaborated with Toth to collect the artist’s seminal Zorro comics over twenty years ago, compiles thousands of images from Toth’s career, including comic book art, animation designs, family photos and more.
The result, if previous Library of American Comics’ offerings are anything to judge by, should be one of 2011’s most sought-after books. We spoke with editor and designer Dean Mullaney about Genius, Isolated and the two Toth-centric books to follow.
While most of the Library of American Comics volumes focus on a single strip – Little Orphan Annie or Dick Tracy, etc., with Genius, Isolated they’ll examine a specific cartoonist. Alex Toth stood out as the artist who deserved this treatment.
Mullaney began, “I’ve always admired Alex’s work, and I knew him – I worked with him back in the eighties. No one had ever done a full-fledge biography of him. There’ve been books covering one phase of his career or a different phase, but no one has ever done a fully researched biography and I thought that the time was right.”
Although passingly similar to 2008’s Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles, an award-winning book with a biographical section and copious other illustration jobs handled by Sickles, Genius, Isolated has no single strip to act as its anchor, as Sickles had in Scorchy Smith.
As a result, “The design of the book is going to be chronological,” Mullaney explained. “Bruce Canwell’s writing the text and I’m designing and handling all the art. We’re starting at the beginning of Alex’s career and going all the way through until 2006. So there’ll be artwork with his biography all along the way.
“We also interviewed all of his children, as well as his ex-wife and mother of his children. We got great family photos, including photos of Alex when he was two, three years old. We have his high school graduation picture, of him in the army and throughout his whole career. We also have a fantastic picture from ’57 or ’58 of his studio and his drawing board in Burbank, and there’s a Zorro page right on the board.”
When the discussion turned to Toth’s popularity among peers seemingly outstripping his fame among fans, Mullaney echoed the common sentiment regarding the artist’s popularity. “I think it’s because he never stayed with one character for too long. He’s not known as the Batman artist, or the Green Lantern artist, or the Spider-Man artist. He’s just known as the guy who could draw the hell out of anything and draw circles around other people. He had a different outlook and a different perspective on how to tell a story, and how to compose a story. One story he did—‘Battle Flag of the Foreign Legion’ in Danger Trail #3 from DC, is a very important one. We interviewed a lot of his contemporaries—guys who were working in the business at that time—and down the line, every one of them saw that story and it blew their minds. He just had a new way of telling a story that everybody wanted to figure out, to be like him.”Initially announced as a single-book, Genius, Isolated quickly expanded to a three-volume set thanks to the kindness of Toth’s fans and family.
Mullaney explained: “I wanted to reproduce as much original art as we could, so people could see– if there are pencil lines in the art, people can see it. And just see his process. Fans and collectors have been so generous; people have sent in scans or loaned us artwork and let us scan it. Between that and the family archives, we had access to so much more material than we ever thought we would. Other books about artists generally will scan from a printed comic – and we’re doing some of that, because you know the art doesn’t exist for everything – but we’re reproducing a lot of original art. And we’ve even located some previously unpublished stories.
“The big find was from the early fifties, when he worked at Standard Comics,” Mullaney continued. “It’s not only unpublished, but it’s actually unfinished, all penciled and only partially inked. It’s a six-page story from the early fifties that no one’s ever seen before.
“That’s a gem, and the other highlight in the first book is the complete Jon Fury, which was a weekly strip he did while in the army. It only appeared in the camp newspaper when he was posted in Tokyo during the middle fifties. The only place the strip really appeared was in that army newspaper on that base. I think they printed 200 or 500 copies just for the guys on the base. In the seventies, seven of those pages were printed in a fanzine and later on in an Alex Toth book, but aside from those seven pages, the stories have never been reprinted. We’ve got Alex’s own set of photocopies, which are pretty poor – we had to do a lot of restoration work on them – but it’s going to be the first time anyone can see the complete stories.”
Publisher IDW greeted the expansion of Genius, Isolated with open arms, Mullaney said. “Everyone loves Alex’s work, so everyone came back saying ‘the more, the merrier.’ I’m getting emails from many people, and everyone’s thrilled. They’d rather see it done well than have us try to squeeze it into one book and cut out things that should really be in there.
“The first book will take us from the beginnings of his comics career in the forties through the early sixties when he first entered the animation business. The second book, which will be called Genius, Illustrated, will be published in October of 2011, and will pick up from there and cover the second half of his career.
“The third book,” he continued, “is going to be essentially just pages and pages of his animation drawings – his model sheets, character designs, storyboards, color presentation pieces that he did to help the studio sell cartoons to the network. There’s so much fantastic, original artwork.”
Among the many famous characters Toth has illustrated, the Golden Age versions of DC Comics’ Flash, Dr. Mid-Nite and Green Lantern. In animation, he designed Hanna-Barbera mainstays Space Ghost, Birdman and the Herculoids, in addition to design work on the DC-based Superfriends during the 1970s.“Well, we can’t print Green Lantern stories or anything,” Mullaney admitted, “but we’re showing examples from that work. And there are plenty of stories that were not for DC – he worked for Standard and Dell, and of course the Zorro comics. And then we have the Jon Fury, which is, I think, 44 or 46 pages.”
Readers will see pages from Toth’s DC time, and full stories from the other publishers.
“We’re going to print a lot of complete stories as well as rarely-seen pages. For some of the early fifties DC work, we’ve got specific pages that have pencil drawings in the margins – which were never published. And they have Alex’s notes to the colorists how to color the characters, and interesting comments on the artwork,” Mullaney expanded.
Mullaney recalled having worked with Toth during the 1980s at Eclipse Comics on a collection of Toth’s Zorro comics. “It was a thrill for me to do the Zorro books with Alex back then. He hated the coloring in the original Dell comics, so he did all-new tone work for the collection.
“Absolutely. We’re going to print some of the Zorro material” in Genius, Isolated, he added.The Toth’s family involvement went far beyond expectations. “They really want to see a fitting tribute to their father,” he said of their commitment to the project. “We’ve uncovered a lot of work that they didn’t even know about or they hadn’t seen. They shared the family archives, and Bruce interviewed all of them to create as complete a picture of Alex Toth as anybody’s going to create.”
During his career, Alex Toth wrote hundreds of essays and criticisms of the comics industry and comic book art, often for Comic Book Artist and Alter Ego magazines, and Mullaney agreed that these hand-written pieces are an important part of Toth’s oeuvre.
Mullaney: “Those’ll be in the second book. Alex was famous for his correspondence, and we’ve got hundreds and hundreds of those letters. We also have sketches and doodles – we’re not going to go crazy with the doodles since John Hitchcock’s Dear John book was so good – but we’re going to be including some. I just came back from Ohio State researching the Milton Caniff art book that we’re going to publish next year, and in the Caniff collection there were letters from Alex from the seventies. And he’d send sketches and drawings on the back of envelopes to Caniff too. He just couldn’t stop drawing. Every letter I had from Alex had some drawing on it.”And for any readers interested in having all three books, you won’t have to wait until the end if you want the slipcased edition. “I’m not sure how that’s going to be handled, but the slipcase will be sold, I think, at the same time as the third book,” Mullaney said. “And then probably after all three books are out, it will be sold as one complete set. You’ll definitely be able to buy the slipcase separately when the third book is out. Obviously, no one wants to wait. You want to buy the books as they come out, so when you get the third one, you’ll get the slipcase with it.”
Genius, Isolated: The Life and Art of Alex Toth ships in April 2011 from IDW and the Library of American Comics.