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Jesse Hamm

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Toth Remembered. [May. 28th, 2006|07:27 pm]
Jesse Hamm
Alex Toth passed away yesterday, a month shy of his 78th birthday. Toth was known by many cartoonists as the artists' artist, and I'm grateful to say that we corresponded a few times. His critiques and encouragement continue to inspire me.

Most claim that Toth was difficult to deal with, which is no doubt true. He was an outspoken genius surrounded by oversensitive underachievers; of course he was difficult to deal with.

His high aesthetic standards weren't the only strike against his popularity; his contempt for sneering iconoclasm also alienated him from all quarters of comicdom. (That his values were "old fashioned" was probably the only thing the Punisher and Buddy Bradley could agree upon.) I think what Toth most wanted to see in entertainment was valor, a quality so out of step with modernity that few use the word, or even know its meaning. Here's hoping his acorn fell on fertile ground.

If you're interested in checking out Toth's work, the easiest way is to visit the "Page of the Day" archive at http://www.tothfans.com (jump around to find the better stuff), or to purchase "The Complete Classic Adventures of Zorro," published in one volume by Image or two volumes by Eclipse. For a great sample of his writings on all and sundry, have a comic retailer order you a copy of the upcoming "Dear John: the Alex Toth Doodle Book," featured in the June edition of the "Previews" catalog.

Now for 7 Reasons Why Alex Toth Drew Better Than I Do:

Despite resembling quick, offhand sketches, Toth's drawings were very well researched and carefully rendered. Every detail, from the cars to the shirt folds, was drawn from careful observation, and you can tell by looking at his pencils that he really worked at those careless-looking lines.

His foreground, middleground, and background elements were positioned carefully, so that their edges convened and related in pleasing ways while suggesting depth. Imagine hanging a dozen photographs on your bedroom wall, but instead of being square, each is shaped like what it depicts, and they must all overlap while looking orderly and uncluttered. That was a challenge Toth took on with every panel. (Most cartoonists are satisfied if the figures' faces are visible.)

3. "CAMERA" ANGLES (or "station points," if you prefer a drawing-based term).
Toth chose camera angles that not only set the scenes clearly, but resulted in balanced and distinctive compositions. Where others like myself would pick a simple "two shot" of a pair of conversing characters from the chest up, Toth would pull back to include hard-to-draw foreground elements that add verisimilitude and depth, or shift to one side to offset the shot's obviousness with a daring helping of negative space. A conversation on a simple air field might be shot from beneath a nearby plane, whose silhouetted wing and landing gear would frame the figures beneath a diagonal black "ceiling" and "wall," focusing us on the pair while adding visual interest and local color. Toth used this cinematic approach to storytelling better and more often than any other cartoonist.

Figures in Toth's work show us their emotions even in silhouette. Their postures and gestures tell us before they speak what mood they're in. And where the average artist might cheat a pose or gesture into profile for easy drawing, Toth never shied from the difficult task of foreshortening characters' bodies and limbs, often pointing them toward the reader to add depth and lead the eye into a scene.

5. LINE.
Toth's trademark -- the skill for which he is most praised -- was his ability to draw with maximal succinctness. Often this skill is summed up as "drawing more with less," or some other cryptic phrase, but what it comes down to is that he used as few lines as possible to delineate objects, and his lines change direction as infrequently as possible. Where others will trace every nuance in a form's contour in an effort to mimic it, Toth would draw a straight line (or follow a basic curve) along its edge until hitting a hallmark corner on the form, then decisively shift direction around the corner and continue going straight until the next hallmark. His lines are like swift rivers, carving the most direct paths around landmarks, sheering off any trivial corners en route. The result is that the objects and people he drew read like kanji or letter-forms. There's no impediment to absorbing their key visual information; as one critic said: they are easier to comprehend than not to. This approach is difficult even with "cartoony" forms and figures (see Walker's Beetle Baily or Ketcham's Dennis the Menace for fine examples of such), but the difficulty increases the more realism one attempts. No one balances such a high degree of realism with calligraphic simplicity as Toth did.

Design is an ambiguous term in art, but it usually refers to the way lines are bent and arranged for compositional purposes. When shapes are arranged to look nice, we call it composition; when values are arranged to look nice, we call it spotting blacks and greys; when lines are arranged to look nice, we call it design. Toth is highly praised for his design, which is perhaps best seen in the model sheets he drew for Hanna Barbera. Any good animation designer knows that simplicity is paramount, but Toth often excelled his animation peers by alternating curves with straight lines. It's tempting when aiming for unified simplicity to reduce a figure to a series of curves and bends, or a series of straight lines and sharp corners. But the eye craves variety. Toth found ways to introduce variety in his lines without adding detail or creating disunity. He'd use curves to delineate one side of a limb and straight lines to delineate the other side, or straight lines for taught folds and curved lines for loose folds, rounded bends on one limb or fold and sharp corners on another...etc. The result is a pleasing verisimilitude of form that sets his designs above most Disney offerings (which err on the side of curves) or, say, Mike Mignola's excellent work (which errs on the side of straight lines and corners).

Toth lit scenes for drama. Lesser cartoonists like myself typically light every scene like an office cubicle, with no dramatic shadows in sight... or inconsistently, with occasional shadows to shore up a weak figure or composition. Toth was more diligent than that, choosing lighting for each scene to give it a sense of time and place, and to establish mood. A lit desk lamp in a darkened office... the last lateral rays of sunlight stretching across a plain... shadows cast on a storefront by figures passing a streetlamp... his scenes were often lit with the care of a movie set, to great effect. And always, his patterns of dark and light strike a pleasing balance of order and variety.

From: (Anonymous)
2006-05-29 03:54 pm (UTC)
As always, Jesse, you've put a lot of thought into what you like about an artist. However, as always, you tend to reduce aesthetics to technical skill. Toth clearly had the latter, but used it for nothing of importance, just cheap stories aimed at entertaining kids of a bygone era (now it's video games). One man's valor is another's "read something other than cheesy adventures stories." We lost a great technician, but a great artist? Give me a break.

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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2006-05-29 07:08 pm (UTC)
You're just fixing for a fight, Charles. Whose phrase was "great artist"? I can almost see you slapping yourself with a glove and calling your seconds over to sign me up.

Anyway, drop me an email and let me know what you're up to these days. jessehamm@verizon.net
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2006-05-29 07:32 pm (UTC)
I've been perusing the obits, and I'm sorry to report that most people eulogizing Toth have a poor grasp of what he actually worked on. People keep remarking that they plan to raise a glass to his memory while watching re-runs of 'his' shows Josie and the Pussycats, Jonny Quest, and Harvey Birdman. But Toth didn't work on those shows, except to design some incidental characters and backgrounds. In fact, the full extent of most of his animation work was just to design the way things looked. Yes, even the mighty Space Ghost was the creation of others, apart from Toth's costume design.

The blogger below offers a good summary of Toth's actual career, with artwork. So, hoist ye a beer and read this!

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[User Picture]From: ericmonster
2006-05-29 10:27 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting and linking to all of this, Jesse. My appreciation of Toth is focused mostly on his Warren and DC horror stories -- you've captured very well what makes his art on those so special.
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[User Picture]From: dculver
2006-05-30 12:25 am (UTC)
Nice breakdown.

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From: (Anonymous)
2006-06-04 10:44 am (UTC)
Thanks for posting and linking to all of this, Jesse. My appreciation of Toth is focused mostly on his post-1964 horror and war work for Warren, and DC (and occasional super-hero stuff for DC), and The Black Hood for Red Circle (The Fox series) -- you've captured very well what makes his art on those so special.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2006-06-04 11:34 am (UTC)
Thanks, folks.
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-06-04 04:01 pm (UTC)

Toth obit in L.A. Times

L.A. Times has finally posted an obit: Here's the link:


I'm sorry to say that it is still the sadly skewed perspective that has dominated describing Alex in recent years.

There are smidgens of his influence and energy referenced, but not much about his generosity, affection, imagination, hope, humor, and the things he deeply, passionately loved.

If you haven't grasped that the man was passionate and loved life, then you ain't ever gonna get it...!!!
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-08-10 05:39 pm (UTC)

I should say

Thanks for the post
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From: williamstout
2011-05-09 07:43 pm (UTC)

To Toth Obit Post

Alex had all of the qualities you mentioned --- and more. You mentioned that he "loved life." Perhaps, but as I (and many of Alex's friends) can attest, one of the most common phrases I heard from Alex is "I'm going to kill myself." I was alarmed the first time I heard him express that thought and desire. But he told me (and later, I discovered, many others) that he was going to kill himself so often that I (and many of his friends) soon began to just ignore that repeated expression of his.

There's no denying the man's passion, though. Nor his immense talent.
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