It's probably not fair to Alex Toth's memory that he is best known for his work with Hanna-Barbera, where he created '60s-era animated heroes such as Space Ghost, Birdman, and The Herculoids. Some people remember those cartoons fondly, but Hanna-Barbera has never had a reputation for excellence.
A new book from Fantagraphics helps restore the balance to Toth's broader reputation. In Setting the Standard: Comics by Alex Toth, 1952-1954, editor Greg Sadowski has assembled all of the crime, war, science-fiction, horror, and romance titles that Toth produced during his two years working for Standard Comics.
Among comics aficionados, writers and artists, Toth is remembered as one of the finest and most influential artists who ever worked in the medium.
He is especially lauded for his draftsmanship and for his acute understanding of the storytelling potential within the visual element of comics.
After he began his career with Heroic Comics in 1945, he moved up the ranks to DC Comics, before a falling out led him to head west and join Standard.
Setting the Standard pays tribute to Toth — a Los Angeles resident for the last 40 of his 77 years — by collecting genre-bound stories that the artist made fascinating through the sheer force of his talent.
Following are five highlights from this new collection:
5. The Blood Money of Galloping Chad Burgess
Only in the 1950s would anyone have thought to name the ghost of a 19th century English highwayman “Chad.” This story, as with much of the writing to be found in these comics, is not a major selling point. What Toth does, however, is de-emphasize the writing by providing a wealth of narrative information in his designs. His other specialty is atmosphere — loads of it. The middle-right panel on this page shows a shadowy figure in the foreground; those bulbous eyes force the reader into a double take, revealing the face of the ghoul hidden in the folds of a cloak.
4. Joe Yank
Toth illustrated a few titles for this short-lived series, which features a weird combination of silly war-zone hijinks and combat scenes. The title character routinely winds up in the midst of some misguided scheme. In the story pictured here, he has accidentally thwarted his sergeant's undercover operation to expose Korean black marketeers. What's most germane about this page are the panels that show Toth's fluid, cinematic handling of action. He repeatedly shifts perspective, sustaining a visual variety that helps move the story forward.
3. Alice in Terrorland
Dad buys his kids a set of Alice in Wonderland-inspired dolls, only to have them come to life. They reveal that they are a group of alien terrorists. They tell the children that “Wonderland” is real — it's their home planet, and they intend to return there, kids in tow. I'm not kidding. Toth's interpretation of Carroll's Duchess is pretty vile, but the boy in the story looks like he'd roast kittens alive. Toth's Mad Hatter lies somewhere between Tenniel's original and Jervis Tetch of Batman fame.
2. Outlaws of Space
Of the sci-fi tales herein, this one has some of the nicest planetary imagery and space-age ship design. The plot concerns the pursuit of villainous space bandits by heroic space cops — in space! But the design is a fantastic parade of yesterday's ideas about tomorrow: bullet-shaped rockets, hooded flight suits, and laser beams galore.
1. Man of My Heart
This opening splash page says it all. The book has plenty of great, soapy romance comics — an under-recognized staple of the Golden Era — and this one is as good as they get. Torn between two men (nice guy Jim and older rich guy Dan London), Priscilla King wants Dan's lavish lifestyle and Jim's decency. Can she possibly have both? Of course not. We know from the start that the “distinguished” gray of Dan's temples and his Euro-fancy cigarette holder won't do. But Toth's character design is wonderful in this one.
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