Words of Questionable Wisdom: The Passing of Alex Toth
By Paul Sebert
Alex Toth passed away this weekend at the age 77. Like many fans my age, I have alas far less comics work from the man in his prime than I would like. Toth’s work spanned many genres from superheroes, to horror, to western, to crime, to romance. Toth stayed active in the medium from 1940s, to the early 90s but alas precious little of his work has been reprinted in trade format. There is a book of his sketches coming out in August.
Toth’s impact on the medium can be felt in the works of artists like Cameron Stewart, Darwyn Cook, and Mike Allred among others. His signature style somewhat cartoonish by today’s standards, but is filled with energy and subtle details. He was a master at body language, storytelling, and facial expressions. No lines are wasted in best works. They are constructs of elegant simplicity at it’s finest.
Toth is also one of the men who saved American animation.
In the early 1960s, the market had dropped out for theatrical animated shorts. Animation studios were forced to evolve or die which more often than not meant producing cartoons for television. This was a very different, and some curves had to be cut. Rather than making one eloquently animated short film for theaters, many episodes for television had to be done on a budget. This resulted in more simplistic designs and limited animation.
Hanna Barbera was at the forefront of this field, but the problem was that the “Yogi Bear” style that H-B looked cheap, primarily because it was cheap. The style used by other studios looked even cheaper. The most memorable shows from this period such as “The Flintstones” relied on great voice acting and fanciful concepts rather than visual aesthetics. The best show of it’s day was Jay Ward’s “The Rocky And Bullwinkle Show” used fast-paced dialog, puns, and topical humor to overcome it’s rather limited visuals.
While these options work perfectly fine for comedy and funny animal cartoons, they don’t help make a better superhero show. It almost doesn’t matter who’s doing the voice of Superman if he doesn’t look well… Super.
Which is where Toth came in. As writers and network executives hammered out ideas for new shows, it became Toth’s job for Hanna Barbera to sketch out the initial designs for characters and concepts. Toth was responsible for the visual designs of such memorable shows as Space Ghost, Josey and the Pussycats, The Herculoids, Johnny Quest and Superfriends among others. Toth’s designs while simple, were fluid, detailed, and in the case of the DC characters very true to their source. Like Hanna Barbera’s other shows they were
produced on a budget, but few could accuse the characters designed by Toth of ever looking cheap.
The cartoons Toth worked on suffered from many limitations. Television networks fearing offending parents and teachers groups imposed draconian limitations on depictions of violence, animations budgets were always limited, and the studio always had to live up to demands of sponsors.
Still the ingenuity and genius of Toth’s designs managed to stand out and live on in the minds of the children who saw those shows. Programs like the Superfriends and Space Ghost live on in televised reruns, DVD collections, and parodies on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block. You can also see the earliest roots of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s animation style in the works of Alex Toth.
Alex Toth was many things; one of the longest running artists in comics history, an innovator in visual storytelling, and his later years a harsh critic of the darkening of Super hero comics. Perhaps however he’ll be most remembered for his contributions to animated character design, and as the man who made American television animation safe for superheroes.