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Jesse Hamm

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Yet More On Toth [Aug. 13th, 2011|06:14 am]
Jesse Hamm

I had intended to follow up my last Toth article sooner, but deadlines got in the way, and then there were those YouTube kittens.... Anyway, my copy of Setting The Standard just arrived, and inspired me to get back to work on this stuff. So:

"Alex slowly became one of the best."
~Irwin Hasen


In my previous post on Toth, I described the learning style by which I believe he acquired his skills. Here I'll continue to trace his early development, followed by some discussion of his techniques.


As we saw last time, Toth at age 19 didn't stand out from his peers. Can you tell which page is his?

But within three years, changes had occurred in his work that pushed him to the head of the pack:

"Toreador From Texas" (1950). In addition to sharper draftsmanship, the compositions are bolder and more sophisticated.

I lauded Toth's late '50s work in my previous post, but even his less-accomplished work in the early '50s sparked a small revolution in comics. It was like when Royce Gracie introduced submission holds to mixed martial arts in the '90s: swift ascent, followed by widespread imitation. Gil Kane recalls,"By 1950 he had transcended all of his influences and had become the finest artist that comics ever had. Toth introduced the techniques of magazine illustration into comic books... he lifted the craftsmanship level of the entire field." John Romita confirms this: "Toth led an entire new movement. When I got into comics in the late ’40s, and then in the early ’50s I went over to DC to do love stories, Toth had changed the whole approach to DC Comics."

So how did the improvement seen above occur in only three years? As Kane observed, Toth seemed to be cribbing techniques from the era's skilled magazine illustrators. More than that: it's as though he was trained by them.


Fast forward to 1994. In the "Alex Toth" book published that year by Kitchen Sink, Toth said:

"The 'Famous Artists' course was conceived by [Al Dorne] and best pal Fred Ludekens and fleshed out by Rockwell, Helck, Parker, Whitcomb, an even dozen, as I recall. The text- and workbooks were the best ever! I signed up in its first year, 1951. Sent in two lessons before my freelance accounts demanded too much waking and working time, then a move back to the West Coast disrupted my lessons, open-ended as they were. However, the books' lessons served me well through many years' rereadings, long after the school was phased out." (An interesting sidenote: according to this essay, Ludekens once shared a studio with animation legend Milt Kahl, who was 9 years his junior and was greatly influenced by the precision and analytical thinking of the older illustrator's drawings. Kahl went on to become one of the few cartoonists whose draftsmanship ranked with Toth's.)

Toth even sent his friend Dave Cook a sheaf of copies from the Famous Artists School workbooks decades after taking the course, which shows that the books were still on hand and on his mind. As he says, those books probably were the best ever. Most art teachers' "real world" credentials are unimpressive, but the designers of the FAS course were all illustration rockstars. The knowledge in those massive books had been honed over decades of work -- not in the ivory towers of fine art, but in popular media: a pass-or-fail market where methods are proved or discarded. Whether they realized it or not, the "Famous Artists" were experts in the psychology of visual perception. Their books offered the means to attract and hold readers' attention through pictures. Toth's absorption of their teaching was key to his ascent.

But if Toth took the course in '51, as he says, then what accounts for the rapid growth we see in his work by 1950?

A curious detail about Toth's reminiscence is that the Famous Artists School was not founded in 1951, but in 1948. Also curious is his claim that his lessons were interrupted by his increasing workload. In fact, the only increases in his workload during this period occurred prior to 1951; he drew fewer pages in '51 than in '50, and even fewer in '52. (Incidentally, he was also mistaken when he said the FAS course was defunct.)

I suspect that, four decades after the fact, Toth misremembered when he took the course. I suspect he did enroll during the school's first year, in '48 or '49, and that his lessons were interrupted not by his return to California in '52, as he recalls, but by his initial move to California in 1950. This would jibe with his remark that his increasing workload interfered with his lessons (his page output increased by 28% in '49, and again by 18% in '50). More to the point, it would explain the sudden advances we see in his work in '49 - '50, and account for the similarity between the techniques taught in the course books and the those seen in his work post-'48. I wouldn't suggest that Toth's early progress was wholly due to the FAS books, but do I believe they landed like gasoline on the lit match of his fierce learning style, rocketing him from rookie to game-changer in two years.

"Think -- experiment -- move your objects around in depth
until you arrive at arrangements that are different and
interesting. That is what the best artists do."



Compare these lessons on overlapping, cropping, and indicating depth with pages from the 1950 story cited above. I've color-coded the methods and where they appear in Toth's panels. Orange lines show where he overlapped figures for interest & depth rather than by necessity, green arrows show where he has cropped figures for interest, and blue lines show where he has included depth cues, angling objects or lines into the scene on the Z axis (more on that below).

Similar comparisons could be made between Toth's work and numerous FAS lessons. Anatomy, clothing, perspective, storytelling -- in every area, the FAS provided a thorough grounding for Toth's eager mind.


Let's take a closer look at the FAS lesson on indicating depth. Even amateur artists know that accurate perspective makes drawings appear more convincing. However, the FAS doesn't recommend depth only for realism's sake, but also to affect readers on an emotional level: "It is not enough to create depth in a picture. We must do it in an interesting way."

For example, we tend to favor views that offer something theorists call "prospect/refuge." Prospect/refuge views are those which reveal the most surroundings while hiding the viewer. So, a skybox at a football game offers prospect/refuge, because it's placed high enough to reveal the whole field, but its walls and windows hide its occupants from others. A high-riding SUV with tinted windows offers a similar advantage. In art, prospect/refuge is achieved by showing as far into the distance as possible, and including foreground detail that seems to offer the viewer refuge.

Toth intuited this preference, as seen often in his work. In each of the panels below, objects in the near foreground help frame the scene, increase the sense of depth, indicate the period and locale, and offer the viewer a potential hiding place, or refuge:

This bold use of near-foreground elements was uncommon in comics before Toth popularized it. Compare the four pages at the top of this post with the samples above and you'll see what I mean. It's counter-intuitive to block your scene with intrusive props, burying your characters in the distant middle ground, but Toth soldiered past his natural aversion to that approach, resulting in sophisticated compositions that lure the reader in.


Toth also went out of his way to angle objects toward the Z axis (the space between the viewer and the distance) rather than leaving them on the X and Y axes (the flat horizontal/vertical space in a picture).

Other artists tend to leave objects on the X/Y axes, because this calls for less linear perspective and foreshortening. This is perfectly acceptable from the standpoint of accuracy: there's nothing inaccurate about a flat wall or a horizontal row of objects. However, the result is a flat, stagebound quality that lacks the appeal of deeper compositions. Notice the flatness of the backgrounds in this page by Toth's friend and colleague Pete Morisi:

I added pink lines to highlight objects that are organized along the X & Y axes. Compare Morisi's three figures in panel 4 with this FAS example (at upper left) of what NOT to do.

Morisi was a skilled draftsman, able to draw people simply and accurately, but he was content to take shortcuts that deprived his work of depth. Comparing Toth's work to Morisi's, I'm reminded of this comment about Rembrandt's The Night Watch: "It is so picturesque, so beautiful in its arrangement, and so powerful, that, by its side, in the opinion of many, other canvases look like playing cards."
~Samuel van Hoogstraten (emphases mine)

Witness Toth's effort to grow beyond the sort of shortcuts Morisi took. Compare the cars in the first batch of panels with the cars in the second batch:

I've colored the cars orange here because Toth seems so eager to hide them.

This first batch of images was culled from three pages of a story Toth drew at age 19. In five instances, he opts to draw the car directly from the front or back, avoiding tricky perspectives. Cars that do appear at an angle in this story are usually obscured by characters or panel borders, further sparing Toth the challenges of perspective.

This second batch of images was culled from four pages of a story Toth drew four years later:

In each of seven instances, he angles the car to the side. This approach required the use of foreshortening and sometimes a vanishing point -- complexities he could have avoided, as he had before -- but the benefits are clear. As in Al Parker's FAS lesson above, the angled objects add a greater sense of depth, and avoid the monotonous symmetry of a frontal view.

Toth went on to use this technique countless times with countless objects throughout his career. Note these examples, in which he could have used an X or Y axis side view, but chose instead a Z axis angle:


Not only did the above approach offer greater depth, it also helps explain how Toth got away with using fewer lines. Much of the "hay" that Toth condemned is made up of shading lines that are intended to show depth. Artists often need that shading to show depth because their objects are positioned on the X/Y axes:

They may try to emulate Toth by leaving the shading out of their drawings, but then their drawings end up looking flat:

But if they were to position objects along the Z axis, as Toth often did, the need for that shading would disappear:

...which gives you this Batman (thighs and feet on Z axis, arm overlapping face; no shading required),
instead of that Tarzan (spread-eagle on X/Y axes; shading needed to prevent flatness):

That's all I have time for now. Next time, I'll cover Toth's use of line.

[User Picture]From: stanleylieber
2011-08-15 04:08 am (UTC)
also great! have you been able to examine all or most of these FAS books?
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-08-15 04:58 am (UTC)
Thanks Stanley.

Yeah, I've examined most of the FAS books, though I can't recall if I've looked over all of the material. It's 24 lessons, spread over four giant three-ring binders (which I call "books") -- 6 lessons each. The lessons on draftsmanship (anatomy, clothing, perspective, etc) are sound and informative, but standard. The lessons on composition are where I see the clearest connection to what Toth began doing in '49 or so -- arranging and cropping shapes and varying their sizes and distances for clarity and drama. It's hard to find books on that subject even now, but it would have been nearly impossible in Toth's day. (I once asked him in a letter what books I should read on composition, and he said there weren't any. I've since found a few, but it's a surprisingly arcane field of study, given how crucial composition is to a picture's success.) Any artist can find lessons on anatomy or perspective in books or art classes, but lessons on composition are so hard to find that I think the FAS section on the subject offered Toth a strong advantage over his peers.

I should mention that the FAS books I've looked over are sets from '54 and the early '60s, rather than what Toth would have received in the late '40s, but the changes were so minor in the books I've seen that his books were probably identical to the '54 set.
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[User Picture]From: david_porta
2011-08-15 09:21 am (UTC)

Z-ANGLE = Now I see Toth with new eyes


So, on a Cartesian plane, it is the one coming AT you. A 3-D effect.
(I guess that's not really a Cartesian plane, is it?)

Okay, I see what you mean, from the green lines.
Now I see Toth with new eyes.

This makes me appreciate more my sister's comment when I showed her some John Byrne work in 1980, which I liked so much (he was the super-hot X-Men artist in those days), the which she dismissed with, "Very two dimensional. No foreshortening."

So, I forget what publisher is buying your Toth essays.
And when will they be collected under one cover?

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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-08-15 10:02 am (UTC)

Re: Z-ANGLE = Now I see Toth with new eyes

Ha -- no offers yet. But why buy when people can read them here for free?
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[User Picture]From: mattdicke
2011-08-15 04:43 pm (UTC)

don't forget Sickles and Caniff

THis is a great analysis of Toth- the perspective and cropping in his work has always stood out and even more so in your essay. And I do agree with you that he was looking at illustrators and I am sure the FAC was a huge influence but I think Sickles and Caniff were just as, if not more important in his early development. In the new Setting the Standard book the article/interview in the beginning Toth states that Sickles was his biggest influence. If you look at his Scortchy work and Caniff's Terry from the 30's and 40's you'll see a lot of the panel design, composition and use of blacks were inspired from that work. Here are some examples that i could find online. not 100% sure on teh dates but shows some of the design things you were talking about (caniff from the FA cartoon course:
check out the last panel in this one or even the first panel


At least in my opinion. But Toth did take these principles and really really pushed them into a new design direction. There is an essay/comparison on the internet about how Toth and Hugo Pratt took the Caniff/ Sickels influence in totally different direction. http://www.comicbookbin.com/Milton_Caniff_Alex_Toth_Hugo_Pratt001.html
not the best art examples but a good read.
Thanks again for a GREAT essay I can't wait to read your next one on Toth;s line!
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-08-16 07:35 am (UTC)

Re: don't forget Sickles and Caniff

Thanks Matt!

Caniff and Sickles were indeed huge influences on Toth, but I suspect Toth needed the FAS course to help him unlock how C & S achieved their effects. His pre-'49 work lacks the strong draftsmanship and design of his post-'49 work -- despite the fact that he had followed Caniff and Sickles for years by that time. It seems like something clicked for him in '48/'49.
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[User Picture]From: mattdicke
2011-08-15 04:45 pm (UTC)
forgot to mention- loved the bathroom signs for explanation of the Z and shading effect. perfect way to explain it! Just like Toth the simpler the better.
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[User Picture]From: freade
2011-08-15 10:35 pm (UTC)

Fantastic post

Thanks for putting the work in on this; it's not just a great breakdown of 50s era Toth, but of comic art in general. Loved the amount of detail.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-08-16 07:39 am (UTC)

Re: Fantastic post

Thank Frank. I debated whether to include so much. Ironically, where examples from Toth's oeuvre are concerned, MORE is more!
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From: (Anonymous)
2011-08-16 04:09 am (UTC)
Superb essays, Jesse - WOW!

I've long been disinterested in Toth's earliest work, but with the new books out couple with your articles, teh pieces are falling into place as to why, when and how. It's striking to discover what a leap he made, and so quickly! Your point in post #1 is well taken, though as Chaykin recently observed in a review of Genius:Isolated, Toth had to have been a precocious talent in some fashion to improve as he did, at such an early age.

I've seen some of the FAS stuff before, but never realized or applied it as you have with Toth and his work. A revelation! I've picked up these principles and tried to apply them in my comics, largely through observation and analysis of Toth's work over the years. Second-hand, apparently!

Thanks for taking the time for such exhaustive and insightful pieces. When you recover and have time - more, more!

BTW - I wrap up my 14-part series on The Land Unknown tomorrow:

Paul Fricke
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-08-16 07:47 am (UTC)
Thanks Paul, and thanks for the link.

Everyone should check out Paul's blog for detailed analyses of Toth's comics.

I'd agree with Chaykin that Toth was a precocious talent, but I'd qualify that to say that Toth's genius was more as a learner than as a draw-er. I see kids on DeviantArt who can draw circles around the adolescent Toth, but ten years from now they'll be far behind where he was at 25.
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From: (Anonymous)
2011-08-18 03:41 pm (UTC)
I know you disagree, Jesse, but I'll say it again: both Frazetta's and Toth's work (might as well throw in Al Williamson, Jeff Jones, and even Berni Wrightson - his '72-'73 Swamp Thing era) quickly leaped forward once they started making extensive use of PHOTO REFERENCE. Yes, they studied and grew, but those early Toth samples are drawn from his head; the ones from two years later have the unmistakable stamp of photography on them; the angles, the cropping, and so forth. We see in stereo, and the camera sees in mono. The look of drawing from life vs. drawing from photos, however simplified one's style might be (like Toth's) is detectable. This doesn't take away from the skill or intelligence of any of the aforementioned artists. Neal Adams lauds photoswiping, even tracing backgrounds (he praised Bryan Hitch for doing so) in order to get the job done more quickly.

For example, the protagonist in the 1968 "Devil's Doorway" story for HOUSE OF MYSTERY looks like he was based on photos of Toth himself. It would interesting to see what his daughter says of the little girl's model. Neal Adams used his own daughter for reference in his HOUSE OF MYSTERY story "Nightmare" from 1969, and has openly said so. Wrightson has mentioned in interviews how he had Kaluta crouching among the foliage in NYC's Central Park for reference in SWAMP THING. Jeff (and Bruce) Jones was so reliant upon photo reference that he often reused the same shots in paintings AND comics.

What makes me shake my head is that so many artists, like Toth and Frazetta, have denied the extensive use of photography when their work shows otherwise. Why not own up to it? It doesn't hurt the "legend" one whit.

Best regards,


P.S. I use photo reference (sometimes) ;)
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-08-18 07:20 pm (UTC)
As far as I know, Toth never denied using photo reference. Rather:

"...I don't like to work from photographs; I like to study them, get the impressions and tone of the film [referring here to his movie adaptations], and then put them away and start to draw, rechecking, when necessary, for accuracy. Too many artists just copy photos, or somebody else's art. Same angle, same detail, nothing changed. Not my way, thank you!"

He looked at photos for ideas about props, fashion, architecture (such as in this example), and so on. And certainly his work benefited from observational drawing (as did Frazetta's, Jones's, etc). Drawing from photos or life is crucial to building up a mental storehouse of reliable imagery.

However, I believe the leap in Toth's skill and influence was not due to greater accuracy, but to better design. There were others around who could draw realistically -- Dan Barry, Mac Raboy, Nick Cardy, Al McWilliams, John Prentice, Jose Salinas, etc -- but Toth added strong design to the mix, such as in that panel where the cowboy helps the senorita off the statue, in the 1950 pages featured above. Without that design sense, he'd have been just another excellent draftsman.

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From: (Anonymous)
2011-08-18 08:31 pm (UTC)

This "Burma Sky" splash page looks lightboxed to me, and a few years ago someone on the Tothfans site alleged that he has a WWII book with the exact photo in it. Likewise the splash for Toth's "F-86 Sabre Jet" story and many others like it. It's not at all cartoonish like much of his comics work, and has a lighting/texture that belies photographic origins.

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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-08-19 06:50 am (UTC)
Alec, now you're calling Toth a liar, and you have zero basis for it. The Burma splash "looks" lightboxed?
"She looks like a witch! We added the nose..." It's no more realistically lit or drawn than the rest of that story, or most of his war stories.

I looked up that message board allegation, and it was in reference to panel 6 of the second page (a simple shot which plane-loving Toth could have drawn in his sleep), not the splash you claim it for. The writer asserted that he has an identical photo "in a history book packed somewhere, but I'll see if I can find it on the web somewhere." If only Perry Mason were so thorough.

Claims of tracing are often bandied about when someone draws with impressive realism. Reminds me of my English teacher's claim that I must have plagiarized my book report on "1984," because it was too well written. It's tough to answer accusations offered without evidence, though, so perhaps all one can do is cite a continuity of similar performance, and quote Acts 13:41.
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From: (Anonymous)
2011-11-03 09:26 pm (UTC)


I'm still waiting for your next promised essay on Toth. I liked the last one, particularly the stuff about prospect/refuge, which I hadn't consciously noticed until you pointed it out. There's a lot needs to be written about Toth's cropping - look at the Crushed Gardenia (in Setting the Standard), one of the most celebrated Toth stories. The cropping is crazy! Quite often reading Toth stories, I feel claustrophobic, because he's giving me so little of the scene - an arm or a head is obscuring half the background. It makes you want to peer round it to see what's happening! I'm still deciding if this is great or annoying, but a deeper analysis of this trait would really be interesting.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-11-05 12:30 pm (UTC)

Re: Toth

Thanks for dropping by. I've got a lot planned for the next Toth entry, but it will be at least a few weeks before I have time to put it together. I don't know if I'll touch on cropping, but I'll keep it in mind.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-03-28 12:44 am (UTC)
A minor detail about the FAS. Toth was right about the school going out of business, which was around 1969. It was eventually acquired by the current owners, Cortina, in the 70s. Cortina eventually re-instituted the FAS, but there was a gap in time. FYI.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2012-03-28 03:19 am (UTC)
Thanks Kevin. I checked it out, and found a recent quote from the managing editor of the FAS saying that they've "been selling art courses for distance learning for 65 years now," indicating there's never been a break in the course (and apparently counting 1948 and 2012 as full years). That might just be a fib to cover an embarrassing hiatus in the '70s, but I've seen workbooks dating from '68 through the early '70s online, and artists claiming to have been enrolled until as late as '73, as well as workbooks published in '77 and '78. I did find a reference to a "re-organization" in 1974, which may account for the gap you referred to, but it looks like that gap lasted no more than 3 years, if that.

In any case, thanks for the tip. It's useful to know there may have been a gap, especially since most of the available history of the company is written (perhaps self-servingly) by the company itself.
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