Thursday, June 29, 2017

ALEX TOTH REVISITED




When I was a young lad one of the favorite movies I saw was the 1960 George Pal version of The Time Machine. A classic story that I’ve rewatched many times (it was my
viewing to welcome in the new millennium) I loved Rod Taylor, the Morlocks were truly creepy, but most of all I think Yvette Mimieux introduced me to lust. When the Dell comic book version of the movie came out, I immediately glommed onto it, and couldn’t believe the sacrilege. Every male character in the story from Taylor, to Sebastian Cabot, to Alan Young, and even the housekeeper Doris Lloyd was spot on…and Weena was so off she didn’t even have the same haircut as Ms. Yvette. I was outraged and disgusted and when I discovered later that the art was done by someone named Alex Toth I knew I was never going to warm up to him as an artist.





As I became more involved with comics and got into comic fandom, I discovered that this Toth character was a bit of a legend. Like my idol Joe Kubert, Toth had started out working as a teenager, most notably on the Golden Age Green Lantern, and had also done a number of the western books for DC. Carmine Infantino was also in with this group, and while he and Kubert were mainstays at the company, in contemporary comics I would only occasionally see a Toth job. While I liked the Rip Hunter character, I wasn’t impacted by the art, and while I started to warm up to the art by the time Eclipso came along, I wasn’t that fond of the character. And the resentment of The Time Machine probably still lingered.








That all changed when I started to get serious about drawing, storytelling and perhaps even trying to get work in the field of comics. Alex Toth’s work then took on a new dimension for me when I started to examine his craft. It helped that about this time he was starting to do some of his most brilliant work for Jim Warren’s black and white horror magazines. Suddenly I became aware of the importance of picture making, the use of black in design, and how even in simple drawings, that draftsmanship was essential. And this Toth guy was inking all this was just a marker…which was a tool I often used and was more comfortable with than a pen.





But if you wanted to get work in comics in those days, you needed to concentrate on Jack Kirby and the Marvel style, because even though you might get more lip service at DC about being your own man, what they really were looking for was Jack Kirby inked by Neal Adams. You didn’t get work imitating Alex Toth. Joe Orlando told me one time that while he loved Alex’s work, the fans screamed about him using an amateur when the work was printed. Alex refined everything he did to the simplest of lines, much like his idol Noel Sickles. For comic fans, the more lines that were used the better the art was supposed to be. And while your average reader (like that twelve year old who read The Time Machine ) couldn’t relate, virtually every artist I met in the business admired and respected Alex. He was an idol in the business, as well as having a reputation for being a truly volatile personality.









When I first visited Los Angeles in 1975 I had the temerity to call up Alex and ask if I could come by and visit and he graciously invited me over to his apartment  off of Highland Avenue in Hollywood. When I showed him my work, he was a tough, but fair critic. He asked me if I was afraid of black…and suggested that I learn how to letter and color because it would help in my understanding of creating the design of a finished page. Somehow me drifted into politics, and I happened to mention the word fascism, and things looked like they might be going south, when my ex-wife, who had gone shopping at Frederick’s of Hollywood showed up with her purchases. Alex immediately reverted to his most charming and the visit ended very upbeat. 


I would occasionally get a postcard from him over the next few years. I would see jobs by him ever so often, and hear great stories from all my cohorts in the business. Howard Chaykin was the most adamant of his artistic supporters, and he was continually pointing out little pieces of brilliance in his work to me. I was opening up to all kinds of new influences and art styles at the time, but Alex was definitely making a mark on me.

In 1985 I eventually moved to LA with the love of my life, my wife Annie, and soon started working in animation. I reconnected with Alex on Bionic Six, where we were both doing character designs for art director Bob Dranko. Bob had been friends with Alex and his wife Guyla, who had died recently. Alex was pretty depressed and Bob got him involved both because he was a terrific artist, and to help him get on with his life. The work he did on the show was again brilliant. Whenever he brought in new characters, my good friend Zhara who was the production assistant, would make sure I got a pristine xerox of everything. Occasionally Bob would hand me one of Alex’s drawing and say, “Here,
fix this.”  First off, if Alex ever found out I was “fixing” his work, I was dead. Secondly, how you fix something Alex Toth does. I understood in a way what Bob wanted- mostly stylistic adjustments: this was the 80’s and Alex still gave us things from the 50’s. Still, it was intimidating.





One night Annie and I invited Alex over for dinner. He was a chain smoker, and I think he was the only person I’ve ever seen my wife allow to smoke inside her house. Once again, he was at his most charming; Alex really did enjoy being around what he considered ladies. He also brought along a copy of Preston Sturgess’s  classic film, The Palm Beach Story, which we ended up watching. I quickly became of Sturgess fan and tracked down everything else I could find by him.


(The above two shots are from the Palm Beach Story and the two below from
the classic The Lady Eve.)

When you talk about Hollywood, I think you really get to the one of Toth’s great centers of ambivalence. He was a child of the Great Depression, living through the misery, despair and poverty that permeated America at the time. And yet when Alex looked back at that era, what he truly remembered was not the actual reality, but a world that existed only on film. He saw a vision of hope, and an honor in the way people treated each other. He laughed at a whimsical madcap world. In Errol Flynn he saw all his youthful enthusiasm  and joy of life. He loved The Thin Man movies, screwball comedies, and especially anything to do with airplanes. But he never would acknowledge all the dark side of that era, and it kept him from reaching that next level as an artist.



After Bionic Six, we had a falling out when I started working with Chaykin on American Flagg.  I got the letter; well everyone eventually got a letter from Alex listing their failings (and how they had failed him). Eventually, something pissed off Alex and he wrote you a dismissive epistle, and rarely got over it. Even Leonard Starr mentioned it to me, musing on Alex as,’the saddest man I ever met.”  A couple of years before his death we spoke once or twice on the phone and it was good to hear him again. He was someone who had taught me an immense amount, and also someone who was always entertaining. I miss him.




His work was… brilliant. As someone said of him, he took comics and lifted it to the level of illustration. Like Wally Wood and Steve Ditko, in  comics he was a man out of his time, working in a field that wanted to homogenize your work to fit their marketing scheme. And that was never going to work for Alex. I often kick myself for never asking him about that Time Machine job and my reaction to it. After working in entertainment I realize that while Alex could certainly have done an excellent Yvette Mimieux, but had probably been instructed not to; maybe they hadn’t the rights to use her likeness. Who knows…and I passed up whatever chance I had to find out. Oh yeah, and if you get chance, make sure you check out that Time Machine adaptation; if you’re not twelve years old it is truly brilliant.  

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely overview of a great artist. Thanks Mike

    ReplyDelete