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Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Ghost of Toth -- At Warren Ellis's message board The Engine, there's a very good discussion about the legacy of Alex Toth, both in terms of his influence on comic art, and what is and isn't available for modern readers.

When I think of Alex Toth's art, three stories come immediately to mind -- Bravo for Adventure, which was a superbly drawn backup series in one of the 1980s Warren black and White magazines, perhaps The Rook or 1984; the Superman/Batman team-up Toth pencilled and Terry Austin inked that appeared in a DC annual somewhere around 1983; and an aviation-based war story that appeared in an EC Comics titled edited by Harvey Kurtzman, either Two Fisted Tales or Frontline Combat.

My memories of Toth's art coincide with the thread at The Engine because, as you may have noticed, I can't remember exactly what title and issue number any of those stories appeared in. Contrast that to another masterwork discussed in the thread, Bernard Krigstein's "Master Race," which I know appeared in Impact #1; or Lee and Kirby's "This Man, This Monster," which I immeditely remember was published in Fantastic Four #51. Or "Ice Haven," which was featured in Eightball #21.

Those latter three stories are all great examples of the very best of what has been accomplished in comics, and information about them is seared in my brain. Yet, where some of Toth's best work appeared somehow has not been so specifically imprinted on my brain. Why is that?

As noted in the thread, he did a lot of stuff for a lot of publishers, but it's hard to pin down anything you'd call a landmark run (perhaps his Eclipso, which is invoked in the thread, but I think I've maybe seen one of those stories, in an old reprint somewhere, and no real impression remains).

Digression: I just remembered another fantastic example of Toth's artistry: A Black Mask story that was a backup feature in an Archie superhero title in the 1980s; The Fly? How many of those did he draw? 2? 3? End of digression...

So Toth's influence was pretty wide -- as mentioned in the thread, we'd hardly have Steve Rude without him, and countless other very good artists have learned volumes by studying the way Toth used black ink and negative space -- but it seems unlikely any publisher would be able to put together a truly representative volume of the very best of the man's art. Too many copyrights, too many publishers, too many stories, not enough landmark moments or key runs.

I don't agree with the poster in The Engine thread that claims Toth was more of an innovator than Krigstein; I don't think the next ten guys in line thought as much about what could be done in comic art or accomplished as much, with as many obstacles in his way, as Krigstein did. And luckily Fantagraphics has two enormous and vital books dedicated to Krigstein's achievements, B. Krigstein and B. Krigstein Comics, which are mandatory reading for anyone who wants to enter a discussion of the peaks comic art has reached, and the potential yet untapped.

But Toth was a master artist, there's no doubt about that. If I were writing it today, certainly I would include him in my essay Ten Great Comics Artists, but perhaps it's this diffusion of Toth's impact over time that led me to neglect to include him.

It's telling, though, how many of the artists on that list demonstrate at least some, and in one case very powerful, influence by Toth's artistry.

I'd love to own the thousands of scanned pages Steven Grant talks about in that Engine thread; maybe someday, it will be legal and possible for such a project to happen, whether on a CD ROM, or more preferably in print, where Toth belongs.

In any case, at least people are talking about him again.



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