Tuesday, May 30, 2006


So am I supposed to talk about Alex Toth? On the one hand, being a comics blog it would seem slightly disingenuous to blithely go on without some mention of the man's passing. But on the other, I don't really have anything to say on the subject of his death. There has always seemed something vaguely off about the way deaths and other great events are commemorated by blogs: even if someone doesn't have anything particularly important or profound to say about whatever profound thing is occurring at any given moment, does the blogger have a responsibility to mention it simply so that they don't look like a cold-hearted goober, jabbering on about X-Men 3 while everyone else is commiserating the loss of an industry giant?

I mean, I could probably write something about the man, but I don't know if that would be appropriate. I never really felt much in the way of personal attachment ot Toth's work in the same way I did for many of his contemporaries. The only real sensation I associated with Toth in recent years was a general sense of disappointment, a sensation which was corroborated by an older interview of his printed in the Journal sometime over the last couple years, of Toth as a truly great craftsman inextricably wedded to an absolutely pedestrian view of art. This is much the same feeling I associated with the late John Buscema -- someone with so much sheer talent they made it look easy, and whose comics were a joy to read, but possessed by relatively modest ambitions channeled by the circumstances of their commercial employment into flatly unfulfilling channels (although, obviously, Toth was nowhere near the company man Buscema was, and would probably have quit drawing before becoming the proud hack that Buscema became). I must say, as much as I enjoyed reading Toth's letters -- weren't they published frequently in one of the TwoMorrows' magazines for a while there? I can't recall off the top of my head -- they also radiated the unmistakable aura that accompanies any transmissions from the brain of a truly cranky curmudgeon.

Why do we get so many cranks in comics? I mean, I don't want to call Toth a crank as a means of dismissal, because his skill was beyond dismissal, but his letters and attitude definitely carried something of a "damn kids stay off my lawn!" vibe, a disconnect with the actual state of modern cartooning that placed the man's observations at a slightly askew angle. Much like his immediate contemporary Steve Ditko, as well as Neal Adams and Jim Steranko (who were of the generation immediately following Toth's and who followed in his and Ditko and Kirby and Kubert and Eisner's direct footsteps), there was a sense that since he didn't like what had happened to comics, he was simply not going to play the game anymore, opting instead to take his ball and go home. He worked as he saw fit on piecemeal projects, but not necessarily with any overarching philosophy or career goal other than to produce good work. So while he produced a lot of stories, it's all spread out over half a dozen publishers and countless titles, a short story here and a feature there.

He didn't seem like the kind of artist to really pine for a long-running gig on a feature strip -- I'm sure if he had wanted one he could have opted in with almost any publisher at any point from the 50s on through the 70s, at least. But the fact that his body of work is so widely dispersed and eclectic means that, unlike any of the other masters who I mentioned early in the previous paragraph (I would probably throw Joe Maneely in there but for the fact that he died too soon to be more than a footnote) his influence will probably fade from communal memory in a much shorter period of time. As sad as it may be, people will always remember Ditko because Spider-Man and Dr. Strange will always be in print, and Joe Kubert's work on characters like Hawkman and Sgt. Rock will always be well-remembered. But Toth, because he was identified not so much with a specific character as an attitude towards craftsmanship and professionalism, will probably remain a cartoonists' cartoonist, one of those vague names that becomes dimly remembered by all but a few scholars of the art as the decades roll by.

There are a handful of Toth books in print, and hopefully they will remain so as time wears on. I seem to recall, however, that they are either small-press or self-published - it would be nice if a Toth-related book could find the kind of major push that would land it in more libraries and bookstores, ensuring Toth the same kind of relative longevity that Fantagraphics' B. Krigstein volume has for for that artist - an artist, it should be noted, with a similarly scattered output who has nonetheless managed to remain in the critical eye due to the diligence of a motivated fanbase. I seem to recall that Image had a volume of his Zorro strips in print, but have no idea if the book is still available.

Unfortunately, the most in-demand work from Toth's career appears to be the adventure strips he produced for DC in the 50s and early 60s. DC has not embraced the type of high-quality artist-specific books that Marvel has been producing the last few years -- as much as Toth fans could definitely use a Complete or Best of Toth at DC, it will probably never happen. The only artist-specific book I can remember at DC was that three volume set of Neal Adams' Batman stories, but even there, the main draw was probably still Batman -- Batman stories by one of the character's definitive creators, but Batman stories nonetheless. I'm looking at my bookshelf right now and I see wonderful volumes in the Marvel Visionaries imprint dedicated to folks like Ditko, John Romita Sr. and Steranko, really essential books that Marvel can be proud to have published -- but I don't see a company like DC doing that. Call it a hunch but I'd be surprised if we ever see it -- not that I wouldn't love to be proven wrong!

Hmmm. I guess I ended up writing something about his passing after all. I'm just full of it, I guess.

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