"I Did My Bit To Make It Work, With Mixed Results, Up And Down, Good And Mediocre..." PEOPLE! Sometimes Genius Is Modest To A Fault!

Sometimes I read books about the people who make comics. These two books were about one man: Alex Toth. Now, obviously Alex Toth doesn't deserve two books. No, he deserves three at least. But only two have come out yet so here’s what happened when I read them and then tried to write about them. photo COVERS_zps2c68672d.jpg

Anyway, this…

All images are sourced from The Internet and this place in particular was very useful: The Library Of American Comics.

GENIUS, ISOLATED: THE LIFE AND ART OF ALEX TOTH By Alex Toth, Dean Mullaney & Bruce Canwell IDW, £37.99 (2011) GENIUS, ILLUSTRATED: THE LIFE AND ART OF ALEX TOTH By Alex Toth, Dean Mullaney & Bruce Canwell IDW, £37.99 (2013)

 photo COVERS_zps2c68672d.jpg

These two volumes comprise the first two thirds of a project to detail and illustrate the talent and life of the monumentally gifted, butchly moustachioed and abrasively tempered comic artist Alex Toth. Genius Isolated (Vol.1) was met with much fanfare and fan love on its release in 2011 while the second volume’s reception was so muted I was surprised when it arrived from my LCS (the LCS of the elephantine memory; no pre-order is too “pre” for OKComics!) having not realised it had even been released. Being enormously perceptive I realised this trend replicated that of the reception to Charles Burns’ THE HIVE (also vol.2 of 3; also consistently stunning; also a sort of an open secret). Hopefully, in both cases when the third volumes drop and the trilogies are complete (the prophecies fulfilled; the circle squared; Stella’s groove returned) the welcomes will be somewhat more raucous. This would be entirely natural as completeness does have a tendency to spur consideration. Hopefully, as I say, since at the moment both series are being a bit short changed in the kudos department. That’s okay because I was looking for a purpose in life! So, yes, I read both Toth volumes in rapid succession and then had a bit of a think. This took longer than I expected as that’s a lot of reading to do and thinking’s not my forte. (So apologies for the delay.) Well, I say a lot of reading, but there was also a lot of looking; for while there is a lot of written information here about Toth and his life off the page there’s also a plenitude of his life on the page in the form of his art, and it’s the looking at (basking in) these pages that slows the reading experience to a gentle stroll. A stroll through some of the best comics scenery you’ll probably ever see. If you've exchanged the not inconsiderable (but far from unreasonable) sums demanded for these volumes Toth’s talent probably isn't a surprise. You’re probably already okay about how much of a knack Alex Toth had at the comic book art lark, and you've probably picked them up to find out more about the man.

 photo Alex_suit_overcoat1_zpse03bb2d5.jpg

And find out about the man you do. These first two volumes cover Toth’s birth, life, work and death. They contextualise both the man and the art and seek to illustrate, if not explain, the precipitous stalling of his output and his eternal interpersonal difficulties. The Authors have obviously done the footwork, put the hours in, manhandled the microfiche and asked the people who knew and ended up with a pretty good picture of the man who drew all those lovely, lovely pictures. While it’s hardly The Running Man it’s no mean feat for Mullaney & Canwell to make the text as interesting as it is. This is, after all, the story of Alex Toth, which is basically the story of a man who sat in a chair smoking and drawing for several decades. His biographers aren't helped in the last stretch of Toth’s life when he packs in his nasty habit and spends most of his time just sitting and smoking. (AKA Living The Dream!) Luckily they have nous enough to realise that this long stretch of very little is a bit of a Mystery and there’s quite a lot of trying to pin down exactly why someone so gifted, so feted and (unusual for comics this) still in demand despite his age found it so hard to produce anything for so long. Toth has the obligatory odd relationship with his mother, a mysteriously detail light (particularly given the obvious research) early marriage, an army stint, alimony, children…basically a Life much like many others. There’s no smoking gun to be found, there’s no childhood encounter with a man in the park, no hiding under a pile of corpses, no secret love of show tunes, just a Life. A life with ups and downs and a marked decline in productivity somewhat sooner than might be expected. Personally, I think he just burned out early. Toth was ridiculously concerned with producing the best art he could and that’s not the best way to achieve longevity in comics. Quantity first and, hopefully, then quality; it remains the same today. He would constantly give his contemporaries (Kubert, Kane, Kirby, possibly even people whose names began with another consonant) grief for their shortcuts and shorthand, apparently ignoring the fact that sometimes you just have to draw someone walking down the street and you aren’t always going to look for a unique way to do that. Except Toth would, and I think eventually he ran out of ways to draw the same things in new ways. Hence his later preference of pin ups over sequential art. Eventually Toth was a victim of his own dizzyingly high standards; finally he found even his own work unworthy. Or maybe not.

 photo P_Underoos1_zps5f7272a0.jpg

As I say, comics has always rewarded quantity and it’s hard to see how Toth could have made a living given the ever decreasing volume of his output. Luckily back then comic artists had two escape hatches – syndicated strips and animation. (Sure there were also the old standbys of insanity, alcoholism, prison, suicide, politics and the foreign legion but those options are open to all of us rather than being exclusive to comic artists.) Syndication was the Golden Ticket; syndication was the one they all wanted. As TV is to today’s comic writers so was syndicated newspaperstrippery to yesterday’s comic artists. Joe Kubert had TALES OF THE GREEN BERETS, Jack Kirby had SKY MASTERS, Gil Kane had STARHAWKS and none of those, absolutely none of them, despite all the talent involved, are why those guys are remembered in all our hearts with more love than we afford members of our own family. It was a tough gig to get, syndication was, and I emphasise it only to show how the book implicitly demonstrates how the market has changed (Newspapers? Print? Eyes?) But I have also used it as an act of cheap misdirection because it wasn’t syndication but rather animation which may have saved Toth from wrestling with rats for scraps. As cheap jack and shoddy as those productions may appear now their impact on young minds is undeniable. While SPACE GHOST means the most to most people it means nothing to me. I’m not having a pop at it I just have no memory of it. However…however finding out that Toth designed the cartoons on The Banana Splits caused an explosion of fizzy and not entirely unpleasant associations from my childhood to sparkle briefly before swiftly dying in the infinite night of my mind.  Toth’s influence and appeal went far beyond comics and the emphasis (an entirely natural emphasis) given to the sophistication of his artistry should never overshadow the simple fact that his work never disdained his audience. Popularity and appeal were at the core of Toth’s work. The complexity of his techniques was entirely in thrall to his desire to communicate with his audience in the most direct manner possible. While the comics cognoscenti and the artistically educated will always, rightly, laud the technique, Toth’s (eternal? TBC!) popularity is due to this desire to be universally understood, to be enjoyed by anyone and everyone but never at the cost of his art and certainly never, ever by pandering.

 photo Sex_zps0c1530c9.jpg

This art, intended for all but unique only to Toth, is plentifully and beautifully reproduced on the pages of both books. The one exception would be the Jon Fury pages which look like they have been reconstructed from pages on the verge of disintegration. Indeed this turns out to be the case; here posterity trumps prettiness, but everywhere else the art is reproduced to startling standards and is a representative mix of original pencils and printed product. Seeing The Crushed Gardenia pages in the original B/W shows just how much Toth was anticipating the colour used in the final version to complete his work. Drawing in B& W and drawing for B&W, Toth knew, are very different. All the art here is informative, educational and just plain enjoyable. Most of the credit is, of course, Toth’s but there’s a lot of credit due Mullaney & Canwell for sourcing it all and presenting it so attractively. 

 photo Awesome_Toth_zps21bd0b18.jpg

Now, while these books are perfectly enjoyable in and of themselves they can be enhanced by also dipping into ONE FOR THE ROAD (Auad, 2001), SETTING THE STANDARD (Fantagraphics, 2011) and ZORRO: The COMPLETE ALEX TOTH, Image, 2001). These are all easily available and the STANDARD art documents a period for Toth of incredible output where quality was married to quantity and the great and sympathetic inking of Mike Peppe is seen at full force. The ZORRO book is generally agreed to be Toth’s greatest sustained burst of solo art and has even had grey tones reworked by Mr. Toth, thus making it as Artist Approved as anything by Alex Toth is ever likely to have been. The ROAD book collects a fat wodge of neglected strips about cars, surfing, girls, girls and, indeed, girls etc. where the free reign given to the artist results in Toth unclenching somewhat and producing some of his most innovative and exuberant work. I would like to recommend a volume showcasing his DC work but until DC produces one I can’t.

 photo WhiteDevil4_zpse19360f2.jpg So, yes, visually, as befits books about Alex Toth, these are some handsome volumes right here. Beyond the art there are also pictures of the man. And if the number of photographs is surprising then the number of them on which Alex Toth is clearly happy is a revelation. Given Toth’s reputation as a curmudgeon non-parallel it’s important (and pleasant) to remember that sometimes his temper took time off and he was a normal person; one remembered as cheerful, funny, helpful and generous. Until he wasn't. It’s pretty obvious Toth had some problems and I’m no more going to pop psychoo-analyse him than the authors do. He was what he was and the nearest we can get to that is via the testimony of those who were there. And as I say, he seems like a nice man most of the time but, obviously, the other stuff remains more vivid and it all gets one more go round, a definitive go round given the authors’ thoroughness. There’s the Julie Schwartz Spat, the Kubert and the Art in The Car Boot Debacle, all the timeless standards and family favourites collected for all time in one place and extra bonus! -  a whole bunch of new people who Toth just cut off contact with because, well, because he could be a bit of a bear with a sore arse sometimes. But that’s a perhaps ungenerous and certainly one-sided way to remember Alex Toth and to their credit the authors make a concerted effort to show Toth finding a bit of light in his life towards the end with reconciliations and concessions raising up once more many of the bridges once thought burned beyond repair. It’s a biography not a comic so Toth still dies at the end, but the reader has a sense that he died well and with a measure of peace; a measure he would probably have never expected. I’d count that as a happy ending as far as these things go. Even happier, Alex Toth’s life and work are celebrated in his absence by a series of books which, thus far, are VERY GOOD!

The forthcoming third volume GENIUS ANIMATED: THE LIFE AND ART OF ALEX TOTH will apparently be a dedicated art book showcasing model sheets and presentations for the many animated series Toth worked on or pitched.

That’s going to be something to see even though it isn’t strictly speaking - COMICS!!!

"Watch Yer Noggin!" Comics! Sometimes They Are About Losers!

I read an old ‘70s DC war comic and I liked what I saw. Because what I saw was drawn by Joe Kubert, Alex Toth, Sam Glanzman and John Severin. I am good to my eyes. It cost 25 cents. Well, in 1971 it did. Photobucket

OUR FIGHTING FORCES # 134 By John Severin, Alex Toth, Joe Kubert & Sam Glanzman (a) with Robert Kanigher (w), lettering (probably) by the artists and colours by U.N. Known. The colourist no one knows but is known to everyone! Ho! DC Comics, Nov-Dec 1971, 25 cents (7½ pence)


"Joe Kubert edited this so if he wants Japanese soldiers on the cover when there are none inside, By God, there will be Japanese soldiers on the cover!"

It’s probably untrue to say that OUR FIGHTING FORCES (OFF) isn't anyone’s favourite comic but you could probably fit all the people who’d choose OFF before all other comics into the snug of a small pub. Personally I chanced upon this issue due to a weakness I have for smelly, yellowing non-tights’n’fights ‘70s mainstream genre comics. Sure, some men have a weakness for dangerous women or the thrill of the hunt but that’s their loss. I wasn't expecting much is what I’m saying. But what I got was Toth, Kubert, Glanzman and Severin. And I also learned some exciting facts about dogs.


"An awesome pause and then  - mad shit busts loose - it's SEVERIN!"

Robert Kanigher writes all the tales between these two tatty covers and if any one man personified DC’s war comics it is Joe Kubert. But after Joe Kubert it is definitely Robert Kanigher. Now while on a purely human level it seems Kanigher was certainly “difficult” on a professional level he was certainly, well, professional. Unlikely to be critically lauded anytime soon Kanigher could not only fill pages but, even better, he could fill lots of pages and better still he could do it without surcease. Robert Kanigher was a writer when a comic writer’s job was to write and no one can deny the fact he did that. When Joe Kubert replaced Kanigher as DC’s war books editor Kubert kept Kanigher on as writer. Whatever ill feeling there was Kubert did what it took to deal with it in order to keep the man he felt was best suited to the job. That’s a pretty solid tribute to the man’s talents. Either man. Anyway, Kanigher could churn this stuff out and like anyone who ends up as a churner the results were mostly mediocre with the odd brush with greatness and far more belly-flops into incoherence. Given the rate at which he pumped this stuff out it’s also easy to spot his style so although the last story here (“Number One”) is not credited to a writer I’m pretty sure it’s Robert Kanigher.


"Wait 'til he sees her teeth. (British people's teeth - comedy GOLD!)"

If it isn't Robert Kanigher my gast will be flabbered because the story is very, very Robert Kanigher. It’s a variation on his old standby of someone repeating a phrase embodying something they want to do while the events of the story conspire to prevent them and usually leading up to an ironic ending. Where “ironic” usually means “coincidental” rather than “ironic". It also has another signature Kanigher move – the lone soldier who pretty much unfeasibly kills his way to the end while the threats ascend in scale and danger; here our plucky dogface bests a plane, a gunboat, a U-boat and finally a pill box with three ’88 guns. That’s not bad for one grunt. I’d guess this one isn't writer-credited because it’s a reprint (the page filling banner across the top clues you in) but Joe Kubert has stuck his name on the art. This is lucky because it looks a bit like he was in a rush and so it resembles the work of someone who has just left The Kubert School rather than someone who will soon open the Kubert School. It’s OKAY!


"There's practically nothing there but everything essential is there - it's TOTH!"

Preceding Number One there is “Soldier’s Grave” by Robert Kanigher and Alex Toth. Yeah. Alex Toth. Not much to say really as it’s Alex Toth so the page designs and layouts are wonderful, the brevity with which he visually communicates the necessary information is borne of skill rather than sloth and, look, it’s Alex Toth. Kanigher’s tale tells of an aged Egyptian who joins the Pharaoh's armies so that the pay he will receive on fighting will take care of his family. Now, I’m a Dad and a Partner while also having, shall we say, a certain Autumnal mental aspect so that kind of stuff gets in me and hurts. The poor sucker can’t make it into the fight (so his family won’t get any moolah) but luckily he lucks into holding up the Persians while his forces retreat. This costs him his life but the Eygptian leader promises to see his family right by giving them the valuable dagger that slew their paterfamilias. Again, I think Kanigher is reaching for irony here but ends up kind of edging more into the area where the dagger is a symbol for a kind of old timey Death In Service payment. It’s not a terribly convincing ending but there is an effective playing up of the disgusting waste of the Pharaoh and the parlous state in which his subjects live. It’s kind of clever really. With the exception of one panel the story shows just desert, pyramids, rocks and soldiers; it’s barren and harsh and then there’s the single panel showing the Pharaoh's tomb filled with food and loot. It would of course be cleverer without the big word balloon spelling it out for us but back then over-egging the pudding was par for the course. So, Kanigher’s script is okay but Toth’s art lifts it up to VERY GOOD!


"It's okay all that'll end up in a British museum - because we are stealers!"

Sam Glanzman’s U.S.S. Stevens’ tale “In Tsingtao” takes us almost to the front of the book and, like all it’s author’s work, it has a lot of heart that makes up for most of the rough edges. Glanzman actually served aboard the U.S.S. Stevens during 1941 – 45 and I believe (although you may correct me) that these stories certainly draw upon his experiences if not actually document said experiences. It’s knowing this that lends a certain generosity to my reception of the strip. While I might otherwise be unimpressed by what appears a muddled attempt to contrast the comic book mythology of Superman’s invulnerability with the very real vulnerability of four sailors slain on shore leave; knowing it is probably based on a real event means that I can be more impressed by it as an attempt to embody the sadness and waste of such an event and that reading more into the panel where the sailors watch a Superman serial than the fact that sailors used to watch Superman serials is entirely my fault. Which is a long and tedious way of saying In Tsingtao is short and affecting and GOOD!


"Man, I bet the guys who created Superman died rich!"

Luckily any reader will have been prepared for Glanzman’s depressing tale by the feel-good fun facts of “Canine Corner”! This is two pages of dog facts and pictures which are linked to the military theme of the book by the fact that some dogs were used by the Army as they could “giving warning of enemy infiltration at night”. i.e. they barked.


"For Mr. Graeme 'The Dog Botherer' McMillan"

Which brings us to the tale at the front of the book - “The Real Losers!” I have worked my way backwards because like the immortal Vanessa Williams song I like to leave the best ‘til last. This isn't the best story because of Robert Kanigher’s script but because of John Severin’s art. The script is basically an excuse to build to a scene where Gunner (the young blonde Loser) rediscovers his will to fight the good fight. Like all Kanigher’s war scripts the plot has little to do with reality but for it to work it has to at least appear to be grounded in reality. Given Kanigher’s shortcomings as a writer this is a task the art has to shoulder. John Severin’s performance on these pages is more than suited to the task. I like to group Severin amongst my personal roster of Quiet Giants of Comic Art. He rarely appears on anyone’s best of list but he certainly deserves to. It’s probable that working with the inestimable Harvey Kurtzman on EC’s war stories cemented in Severin a certainty that research and authenticity were essential to successful verisimilitude. See this panel from pg.8:


Now I've read a lot of war comics so I've probably seen more bullet riddled German soldiers fall out of trees than is strictly healthy but what strikes me about that panel is the level of detail. The insignia on the helmet is clearly visible, attention has been paid to the studs on the soles of the boots and, best of all, Severin has drawn the lining in the helmet. Now I’m not a WW2 obsessive so I can’t vouch for the veracity of these elements but the wealth of them convinces me of the reality of the image and makes me shake my head in admiration at the effort that could have been so easily avoided but wasn't. Later (pg.13) Severin draws a bunch of howling Wehrmacht bursting from a landing craft. According to a WW2 obsessive and pedant (how often the two are paired!) I once worked with it seems holding a Schmeisser by the ammo clip wouldn't work due to its instability when firing. So, I’m not unaware that Severin gets things wrong but the things he gets wrong are the things everyone gets wrong and the things he gets right are things most artists wouldn't even bother about.

But Severin isn't just about the detail, which in isolation would make his work err towards the clinical, but also about body language and expressions and it’s these that give his work heart. By pg.11 Gunner and Sarge are on a beach with a bunch of walking wounded when they are made aware of an impending German attack. At this point Gunner still won’t pick up his gun to fight but at the OIC’s command of “Walking wounded!—Grab your weapons and form a line at the water’s edge!” Kanigher steps back and lets Severin’s lines speak with dignity and sureness:

Photobucket Of course Kanigher has to spoil it on the next page with some customarily hilarious over-egging (“Who needs FEET to SQUEEZE a TRIGGER!”) but look at that last horizontal panel. Look at Sarge’s face; his expression. That’s a complex piece of “acting” right there. It’s class and John Severin is a class act all the way. It’s a sad thing that such excellent work has to be stumbled upon in back issue bins by accident. But it’s a good thing I did because I got to tell you about it. Assuming you’re still here. John Severin’s excellent work lifts The Real Losers! up to VERY GOOD!

So there’s an old DC war comic I wasn't expecting anything from but got a Hell of a blast out of. And me? Like The Pharoahs I'm history!

Have a nice weekend all a youse stumblebums!