Jesse Hamm (sirspamdalot) wrote,

More On Toth

On the occasion of cartoonist Alex Toth's passing, I posted a brief appreciation of his work's merits. To celebrate today's debut of a new book on his life and work, here's a follow-up article, in several parts. This first entry explores how Toth acquired his formidable skills; subsequent entries will analyze those skills.

(EDIT: Part 2 is here.)


"There came a time when I had to unlearn many things." ~Alex Toth

By the age of 30, in the late 1950s, Alex Toth was drawing some of the finest pages in the history of comic art. His work at that time was a rare combination of hard-won realism, dynamic compositions, and clear, simple rendering. Curiously, though, his work from the prior decade shows no sign of his later excellence.

We expect great artists to rocket ahead of their peers in their youth. J. C. Leyendecker's student work was so good that his art school displayed it proudly on their walls, where it intimidated subsequent classes for decades. Frank Frazetta was painting better than some adults by the age of eight, Albrecht Durer drew this at the age of thirteen and this at twenty; here's Diego Velazquez at nineteen, and here's Dave Stevens at the same age. Even the talented-though-less-revered Joe Madureira excelled at the age of 19, and the adolescent work of other notables tells a similar story. But Toth claimed in interviews that he was no prodigy -- a claim his unimpressive early work confirms:

The above pages were drawn by Toth at the age of nineteen, after he had been working in comics for three or four years. The art is clumsily rendered, poorly staged, and full of ignorant guesswork. It's better than what most people can draw, and it met the crude demands of its era, but it's no better than that of the average career-bound young artist. Show it to today's publishers and they would tell you not to quit your day job. Clearly, Toth was not a born genius; some factor other than natural talent was responsible for his later preeminence.

An obvious candidate for that "other factor" is practice. They say practice makes perfect, and Toth did practice a lot. However, if a few years of practice could explain his sudden growth, then surely decades of practice would carry other, more prolific cartoonists beyond Toth's level -- yet the fruit of most lengthy comic book careers shows otherwise. Few cartoonists draw as well by the end of their lives as Toth did by the age of thirty, despite their having spent decades longer than he at the drawing board. So practice alone can't account for Toth's amazing development.

Another factor that could explain Toth's development is his access to useful knowledge. Toth attended a high school aimed at nurturing artists; he knew cartoonist Frank Robbins personally and corresponded with Caniff and Sickles; he enrolled in the Famous Artists Course; he had fine editors in Sol Harrison and Sheldon Mayer. However, countless peers of his had similar advantages. Many of them attended that same high school, many knew and worked with established pros, and (probably) many took the Famous Artists Course. Toth's editors -- Harrison and Mayer -- doubtless offered the same advice ("Simplify!") to every artist in their stable, but Toth is the only one I know of who was so transformed by their advice.

So we arrive at a mystery. Other '50s cartoonists showed equal promise early on, worked as often or more than Toth, and had access to the same knowledge, yet few (if any) of them reached Toth's level by the end of that decade. If neither natural talent, nor years of practice, nor access to knowledge can account for Toth's rapid rise to excellence, then what was his secret? What magic potion turned this adequate beginner into an unsurpassed master within a decade?

In my occasional role as an art teacher, I've noticed a strange phenomenon. The student will learn a new technique -- hear it, grasp it, practice it a couple of times -- and then abandon it, returning to whatever mediocre approach the new technique was meant to replace. Why does this happen? My curiosity on this point led me to read of what educators have called "the learning trough." The learning trough is a period in which the student becomes temporarily less capable than usual, in order to master a newly learned skill. For instance, a typing student who formerly relied on the hunt-and-peck method will find herself typing more slowly while she attempts to master the (ultimately faster) method of touch-typing.

The learning trough stands in contrast to the more familiar learning curve, in which students progress more rapidly in the initial stages of learning. This is because the learning curve results from additive learning: the student is adding knowledge where none existed -- whereas the learning trough results from supplantive learning: the student is attempting to replace flawed knowledge with better knowledge. This is an important distinction. It means that additive learning rewards the ego, while supplantive learning punishes the ego. Beginners exploring wholly new territory (additive) are spurred on by their relatively quick initial success, but advanced students who find themselves in the learning trough (supplantive) tend to rush back to the more familiar territory of mediocrity, because doing the wrong thing well is less embarrassing than doing the right thing poorly. The learning trough is even scarier for professional artists, whose reputation and livelihood depend on appearing skillful. "I have deadlines to meet, clients and fans to impress... I can't take a break from all that to master some unfamiliar method." And so they plateau. To be sure, every artist will happily add a new trick to his bag when one appears -- just not when doing so means trading away an old standby, and briefly floundering.

Getting back to Toth, I'm convinced that Toth's "magic potion" was his willingness to brave the learning trough in search of greater skill. When editors critiqued his work, he didn't just add their tips to his flawed body of knowledge, or pour greater effort over the same old methods, as artists typically do when they try to improve. Instead, he tore up his art (sometimes physically; often metaphorically) and re-drew it, arduously replacing familiar methods with the better ones his editors recommended. A supplantive learning approach, rather than the additive one typical to others. The ground-up improvement of his work throughout his twenties bears witness to this.

Compare the following examples. At the outset of his career, Toth favored the standard, conventional approach of giving ample space and light to characters' faces:

But he soon began experimenting heavily with ways of obscuring characters' faces. If used well, this approach has a variety of advantages: it can add depth, lend faces greater mystery, foster a spontaneous "hand-held camera" feel, direct readers' attention elsewhere, or vary the heads' shapes for a more interesting design. Here's Toth using this approach masterfully in the late '50s, when he was around 30:

This panel is especially sophisticated. The severe cropping of Whitey's chin
bounces our attention back into the panel, ensuring that we notice the figure
watching him from the crowd. Had Whitey not been cropped, our satisfaction
at seeing his entire face may have prompted us to move on without noticing
the watching figure.

However, in inexperienced hands, this approach can misfire, and look downright weird. You can see Toth struggling to master it in these earlier examples -- and failing:

Above: a distracting fur collar intrudes on the speaker's face.

Here, we can hardly tell that the man is speaking to his lover (represented by the mound of hair at the right).

These two unfortunates look like they're trapped in that 'mirror prison' from Superman II.

This guy's apparently using his martini to herd poor Ginny out of the panel.

This scene's photographer has slipped and cropped off the women's mouths.

What on Earth are they doing?!

These failed experiments weren't private; they appeared in print for all the world to see. Toth's early '50s work is full of such missteps. But he had to brave the embarrassment of poorly composed panels in order to graduate to the sophisticated compositions that distinguished his work by the end of the decade. Let me repeat that this improvement wasn't a matter of adding bells and whistles to a standard approach. Toth was recasting his approach at its foundations, like a cyclist shifting into higher gear instead of pedalling harder. It was this willingness to swap out inferior methods for more effective ones -- even at the cost of embarrassment during the interim -- that put him ahead of other great draftsmen, who merely continued refining the familiar methods with which they first established their careers:

Early and later work by top cartoonist John Prentice, adding sharper skill -- but little else -- to his scenes.
Fine improvement, but dull compared the trio of bold Toth compositions farther up.

During the '50s, Toth probably spent more time in the scary headspace of the learning trough than any of his contemporaries. "Of all the artists I've met," recalls veteran illustrator Greg Theakston,"none have been so quick to crucify their work, and with so much disdain." Of Toth's written self-appraisals, cartoonist Derik Badman observed that Toth "spends more time analyzing what went wrong, what he’d like to have done differently, than discussing anything else, as if all he could see were the flaws." Spending so much time outside of his artistic comfort zone must have taxed Toth's emotional health. Toth later admitted that his intense devotion to art wore heavily on his family. He also learned late in life that he was bipolar, and I suspect this condition was worsened by his pattern of entering and leaving the learning trough: alternating the brief joys of achievement with the ongoing burden of new failures.

On the other hand, these efforts left him with skills that most of his peers could only dream of. In Part 2, we'll take a close look at some of those skills.


"It was great fun, to learn anew. You think you know enough, but you don't. You must open up; let it in. receptive, admit what you don't know, which few are willing to do. Start from square one. Again!" ~Alex Toth


(More on the learning trough here. I haven't yet bought "Genius Isolated: The Life and Art of Alex Toth," but I look forward to it. It can be purchased from Amazon at a 37% discount, plus free shipping.)
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