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Jesse Hamm

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TOTH'S LINE (part 1) [Feb. 13th, 2013|09:32 am]
Jesse Hamm
Looks like the new Alex Toth book, GENIUS ILLUSTRATED, is due out today from IDW. (I couldn't find any info about it at the publisher's site, but hopefully they're just playing hard-to-get.) This one covers Toth's peak years (1960 onward) and will surely belong in the library of any serious cartoonist. In keeping with tradition, the release of another Toth book has lit a fire under me to blog some more about his work. (Previous entries can be found here.) This time my post went long, so I broke it up into different sections; I'll upload one every few days.

In prior posts on Toth, I described his development and some of his compositional techniques. Now I want to focus on the skill for which he is best known: his concise linework. As critic R.C. Harvey once wrote of Toth,"He's the indisputable champion of telling simplicity in drawing. [S]ometimes, a single line tells the story, reveals motive or emotion." (The Comics Journal #185) In the same piece, Harvey quotes Toth himself on the subject:

"For the first half of my career I was concerned with discovering as many things as possible to put in my stories -- rendering, texture, detail. For the second half of my career, I have worked as hard as I could to leave out all those things."

Toth continues:

"Now, how do you leave out the right thing -- that's the secret of it."

Our goal over the next few entries is to explore that secret.


A thorough examination of Toth's technique is best begun with a few words about design, a subject cartoonists often neglect. We're all familiar with art's mimetic goals (the goal of imitating reality) and art's thematic goals (the goal of putting across a point), but design deals with art's aesthetic goals: how pictorial information is organized. Though Toth was good at the usual things we praise in comic book artists (accurate draftsmanship, smooth storytelling, etc), it was in the area of design that he reigned supreme.

This has led to confusion and debate over Toth's importance to the comics medium. A fan who values mimetic art may recognize Toth's skill at draftsmanship, but rank him lower than draftsmen whose depictions are more faithful to reality. "Toth was good, but look at the realistic detail in these pages by Russ Heath!" Meanwhile, a fan whose priorities are thematic may discount Toth for not drawing stories with weighty themes. "Toth's work may be drawn well, but it has nothing to SAY!" What both fans miss is that Toth's genius occupied a third category: the artful arrangement of visual information. He was like a pruner of bonsai trees or a planner of rock gardens, but instead of trees or rocks he pruned and arranged lines and shapes. The message of his stories was not a mere "Zorro is heroic," but rather "clarity is heroic." And by "clarity," I don't mean the sterile clarity of an instructional diagram; I mean the clarity of a poet, who attempts to clarify things without making them ordinary. To rid scenes of clutter is the task of a designer, but to do so without ridding them of wonder is the task of a poet, and this is where Toth's artistry lay.

"If you can find interesting ways to be clear, you’re really onto something." ~Steven Soderbergh

So let's look over some general design principles before digging into specifics:

Most images consist of four concrete visual elements -- lines, shapes, dark/light values, and (often) colors. These elements are the image's raw information. By contrast, the image's inferred elements -- its subject matter and its intended point -- are its narrative information. The designer's goal is to offer the greatest amount of narrative information per unit of raw information. The better the ratio of narrative to raw information, the greater narrative reward our brains enjoy for bothering to process the raw info.

The appeal of this work/reward ratio is like that of rich food: when we eat candy instead of cabbage, our body's effort of chewing and digesting is more amply rewarded with calories. Similarly, a drawing with few lines has more appeal to our brains than a drawing that shows the same things with less economy. This ampler reward of narrative "calories" is what we refer to when we call an image objectively attractive. (There are also subjective reasons to find an image attractive, such as a fondness for its message or subject matter, but that's not our concern here.) This is why Toth's drawings grab us. Our brains see the drawing, quickly grasp the relevant information, and go,"Woah, I got all of that without hardly trying. MORE!" This is also why Toth remains appealing to readers who care for neither his stories' message nor their subject matter. As film critic Mike Stoklasa is fond of saying,"You may not have noticed this technique... but your brain did."

How did Toth optimize the raw/narrative information ratio? Through good design. A good design increases differences and similarities in the raw information to reveal differences and similarities in the narrative information. For instance, a picture's most important character may be given a unique color, while members of the supporting cast are rendered in more uniform colors. This purposeful adjustment of raw information (color) enables viewers to quickly grasp the image's narrative information (the characters' roles). In the coming sections, we'll look at several such ways in which Toth accomplished good design.

First up:


People often praise a drawing's succinctness by saying that it has "few lines," but what does that mean? After all, the drawing at the left uses only one line, but the drawing on the right looks more succinct, despite using several lines.

I think the real test of linework's succinctness is not the number of lines, but rather the way the lines continue, conclude, or transfer.

A line continues when it proceeds in a uniform direction, either straight or along a uniformly angled curve:

A line concludes when it stops against a corner, or against another line, or in empty space:

A line transfers when it smoothly changes direction, or when it joins another line running in a similar direction:

Continuations of line are a similarity of raw information; conclusions of line are a major difference in raw information; transfers of line are a minor difference of raw information. So in a well-designed line: continuations mark narrative similarities, while conclusions mark major narrative differences, and transfers mark minor narrative differences.

In the tree drawings above, the tree drawn with one line has numerous corners (conclusions) and bends (transfers) -- far more than are needed to convey the narrative information that the image is a tree. Though it has only one line, that line's excessive conclusions and transfers result in a poor narrative-to-raw information ratio. But the other tree has fewer conclusions or transfers, and then only to distinguish its major parts and convey "tree-ness." Most of its lines "continue." Therefore the latter tree is more succinct and better designed. (That is, assuming "tree" is the only intended narrative. Further narrative -- "gnarled," "magnificent" -- may require more conclusions & transfers, but the principle of economy would remain the same. More on "how much is too much" here.)

(Two corollaries of the above principles are tangencies and interruptions. A tangency is a transfer or continuation that occurs where a conclusion should have occurred. Tangencies are bad design because they create raw info similarities between elements that are narratively different. By contrast, an interruption is a conclusion that occurs where a transfer should have occurred, or a transfer that occurs where a continuation should have occurred. Interruptions create raw info differences between elements that are narratively uniform.)

Back to Toth!

Among Toth's "secrets" was his ability to use conclusions and transfers (and avoid tangencies and interruptions) to clarify the narrative information his linework was meant to convey. We can best see this in comparisons between his art and that of other artists who drew the same subjects:

Above: Jack Abel (left) and Toth (right) illustrate the same scene in House of Secrets #66. Here we see random passers-by being thrown through the air. Using numerous transfers, Abel includes far more information than Toth about the folds in the man's clothing...but is it necessary? Notice especially in each drawing the contour from the near armpit to the near knee. Abel unduly interrupts the man's jacket mid-way down with a conclusion of the line. Toth, by contrast, not only unifies the jacket with a single, continuing line, but goes on to unify the pants with the jacket as well! Two objects; one line -- as if to say simply "suit."

Above: Toth and a young Bernie Wrightson illustrate the same scene in The House of Mystery #194. Note the way Wrightson's line undulates on the fingers, recording trivial curves, while Toth's line records each finger in a couple of bold arcs. Wrightson's line control was excellent, so this difference wasn't a matter of dexterity but of willingness to sacrifice detail. "Truth is beauty -- clarity -- simplicity and economy!" Toth once wrote,"It can stand naked! It needs no embellishment!"

(Click here for the image; it was messing up my formatting.)

Above: Toth's animation designs compared with drawings by Alex Ross for a toy line based on Toth's designs. This comparison is especially instructive, because in addition to using the same poses, Ross uses roughly the same number of lines as Toth used in these drawings (aside from the shirt & hair textures). So the difference in economy results not from an excess of lines in Ross's drawings, but from more curves (transfers) in the lines he does use.

Above, and throughout his work, Toth often lets his line "continue" in uniform arcs and straights along the edges of an object, as if to say,"This is all essentially the same object." His line often cuts right through places where little interruptions would occur in real life, such as wrinkles or bumps in clothing or anatomy, because he wants his raw information (the line) to emphasize the object's narrative unity. (E.g., the man's suit in the Toth/Abel comparison.) Meanwhile, he uses sharp conclusions to give character and emphasis to those details which he felt merit notice. (Note in the Aquaman sketches how Toth occasionally includes a sharp conclusion at a knee or elbow, while Ross depicts joints with nothing but transfers, granting none of them special emphasis.) And where a change of direction is necessary, but needs no special emphasis, Toth uses transfers. (Notice for example the smooth S-curve from armpit to knee on his largest standing Aquaman; Ross interupts the same contour with a creased oblique below the belt, and the hint of a hip bone.)

"Any 'transmitting' device or applied technical method, which gets in the way of the 'transmission'/message/story, etc., is a negative element, garbling that which ought to be clear and instantly understood, and ought to be simply-stated with economy!" ~Alex Toth

It can be tricky to grasp the significance of Toth's techniques because the difference between competence and excellence -- or even excellence and genius -- is so subtle. His genius often comes down to something as apparently trivial as the way a line is angled, and we may question how so slight a difference can account for anything. One answer is that our subconscious is sharp enough to detect and enjoy nuances that are hidden from the conscious mind. Another is that small features add up throughout a drawing to produce an overall effect that can't be explained by any one feature. Toth's superiority to other fine cartoonists is often just the sum of numerous tiny excellences.

That's all for now. Tune in again soon when we'll be comparing Toth's backgrounds with those of a Mr. Burne Hogarth. And feel free to comment!

From: (Anonymous)
2013-02-13 11:38 pm (UTC)
Very nice. Maybe it is just line intensity, but there is a POWER to Toth's Aquaman that simply is not matched by Ross' version.

And how would you compare/contrast Toth's "Simply stated with economy" to Gil Kane's "Lyric dynamism". (I wish I could find his actual quote. But I know it was "lyric".)
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2013-02-14 03:13 am (UTC)
Many fans would prefer Ross's more nuanced version, at first blush. But I think Toth's more succinct version gives it more "brain appeal." I'm reminded of remarks I've seen by fans who rejected Toth's stark style when they saw it as kids, preferring guys like Murphy Anderson or Curt Swan, only to find Toth's sublime economy calling them back over the years, and finally winning them over.

This may be the Kane quote you're thinking of:

“So I know the one quality that I’m always trying to push through in my work is grace and power. Sort of primitive lyricism that I’ve been capable of." ~Gil Kane

In addition to well-informed draftsmanship and uniform line-weights, Kane's work resembles Toth's in that he relies heavily on continuations of line, which grant his lines more power than those of fussier artists. In the contours of the objects he drew, he (like Toth) was more willing than most to cut through a lot of B.S.

A major difference, which may be where the word "lyricism" becomes relevant, is that Kane's continuations are almost always curved, whereas Toth's were often straight (e.g., the edge of the man's suit in my Toth/Abel comparison, above). This gives Kane's work a more fluid, "Art Nouveau" feeling than Toth's has. (See also Willy Pogany, Alfonse Mucha, and Frank Frazetta for this sort of thing.) Another difference is that Kane used more line-hatching than Toth to shade and texture his drawings, which robbed his work of some of its economy. Also, Kane was less willing to leave lit areas white and shaded areas dark; he would always delineate forms even in parts of an object where extreme light or shadows would, in reality, wipe out any detail. In contrast to this it's helpful to study Toth, Mazzucchelli, Frazetta, or Jeff Jones.
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From: (Anonymous)
2013-02-14 06:52 am (UTC)
Have you looked at the work of Tonci Zonjic? His work always make me think of Toth.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2013-02-14 07:04 am (UTC)
Yup! Tonci's great.
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From: (Anonymous)
2013-06-05 01:26 pm (UTC)
Wow. I am not an art student but you explained Toth's genius so well I not only followed you I felt more informed on art than I ever have been before. Thank you SO much - I am a huge comic book fan and have always wondered why Toth is considered a genius by artists. Now I understand. I also see myself drawn to artists like David Aja because it reminds me of Toth's simplistic genius.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2013-06-05 04:15 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the valuable feedback! And I'm glad you've discovered David's excellent work.
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