Obituary - Alex Toth
Prolific artist whose passion and subtle touches brought superheroes to life
The Guardian, Thursday 22 June 2006
During a restless career of more than 45 years, the American artist Alex Toth, who has died aged 77, drew comics in almost every genre - from war and western to horror and romance - and illustrated stories of Superman, Batman, Zorro, Green Lantern, the Flash and the X-Men. Starting in 1964, he also worked in animation, designing television cartoons of Space Ghost, Jonny Quest, Josie and the Pussycats, Herculoids, Hot Wheels, Shazzan, Fantastic Four, Scooby-Doo, Super Friends, Battle of the Planets and other popular characters.
Toth (pronounced "both") was of Hungarian extraction, but spent his first 22 years in his native New York. His parents were both artistic: his father created and took part in Hungarian plays and musical performances, singing for President Roosevelt's birthday balls; his mother was adept at sketching fashionable girls, which Alex, an only child, would copy. From the age of three he would imitate the newspaper strips, and draw figures and scenes to match the voices while listening to his favourite radio shows.
His drawing skills so impressed one teacher that he recommended him to the High School of Industrial Art. While majoring there in book illustration, Toth sought advice from many of the strip illustrators he admired. Foremost among these was Scorchy Smith artist Noel Sickles, who initiated the newspaper adventure strip's modern illustrative and cinematic techniques. In 1943, Toth's persistent hawking of his portfolio after school hours finally paid off when he was paid for his first drawings in Famous Funnies; two years later, his first comic story ran in Heroic Comics.
A year after graduating in 1946, he was hired on the spot by Sheldon Mayer, an astute editor at DC Comics and a cartoonist himself. Mayer became Toth's main mentor and assigned him the superheroes Dr Mid-Nite, the Atom and principally Green Lantern, at $30 a page. Over the next five years, Toth branched out into other genres at DC, including their new love, mystery and science fiction lines.
Like many comic book artists, Toth aspired to draw for the more respectable and lucrative syndicated newspaper strips. An offer to cover for Warren Tufts - drawing his Casey Ruggles feature - obliged Toth to move to San Jose, California, in 1950, but when their art styles clashed, he returned to New York with his first wife, Christina. Two years later he quit DC, and the couple went back to the west coast, this time to stay. Working for Standard Comics, Toth brought his observation of subtle facial expressions and body language to their particularly fine romance stories written by Kim Aamodt. Another chance at a newspaper strip, this time based on the TV show Dragnet, was cut short by his being drafted for the Korean war. While stationed in Tokyo, he achieved his ambition by reviving his unused weekly strip proposal for a tough adventurer named Jon Fury, and drawing it for the army post's newspaper, the Depot Diary.
Discharged in 1956, Toth wanted to move into car design and use his GI bill funds to study at the Centre School of Design, Los Angeles. Hopes of paying his fees by drawing for the comic publishers in New York were dashed when work proved scarce and page rates abysmal. The industry was collapsing in the wake of the media campaign and senate investigations targeting horror and crime comics, which resulted in the most conservative publishers setting up their own regulatory body to enforce a strict code of content and drive wilder rivals out of business.
Dell Comics in Los Angeles, however, were local, and escaped the furore by playing it safe. Although their rates were modest and artists had to work anonymously, Dell could offer Toth plenty of varied assignments. Over the next feverish four years, he adapted many forthcoming movies and TV series into comics, including Rio Bravo, Zorro and 77 Sunset Strip, by working from scripts, stills and, ideally, preview screenings.
After 1960, frustrated by Dell's editorial policies, he began a fresh decade of opportunities, working with other publishers, sometimes writing as well as drawing his stories, and constantly refining the economy of his line and the impact of his compositions, notably in James Warren's horror and war magazines and Peter Miller's Big Daddy Roth custom car titles.
A year after entering TV animation in 1964, as art director for 52 episodes of the science fiction series Space Angel, he joined Hanna-Barbera Studios, located not far from his home in Burbank. Two later projects involved graphic novels for the European market, comics in book form aimed at adults which Toth had long been keen on.
In 1970, Toth was convinced that the "adult comic book ... [is] going to have to update itself and improve its quality and change its face somehow, so it can go into bookstores and stay on shelves." Commissioned to create one in 1974 by Jean-Pierre Dionnet, editor of the French magazine M\'e9tal Hurlant, he eventually produced Bravo for Adventure, a 48-page period adventure starring daredevil pilot Jesse Bravo, a tribute to Errol Flynn - and Toth's finest personal work. Another opportunity arose in Spain in 1981, when he completed the first two episodes of Torpedo 1936, about a 1930s hitman. But he did not share writer Sanchez Abuli's darkly humorous view of mankind, so drew no more.
After the death of his second wife, Guyla, in 1985, Toth worked on virtually no more comics but produced occasional covers and pin-ups, wrote crit- iques and reflections for magazines, and sketched and corresponded profusely; he died from heart failure while working at his drawing board.
Toth could be both a curmudgeon and a romantic. A man of strong convictions, he was impatient with pedestrian scripts, meddling editors, shortsighted publishers and his own shortcomings. Yet he remained passionate about improving his craft and his chosen media, animation and, above all, comics. He is survived by his children Eric, Damon, Dana and Carrie, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce in 1968.
Alex Toth, comic illustrator and animation designer, born June 25 1928; died May 27 2006.