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Alex Toth, 77; Maverick Artist Drew Comic Books

Obituaries

June 04, 2006|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Alex Toth, a maverick figure in the comic book world whose mood-driven, highly stylized work influenced a generation of artists even though his strong-willed ways left him underused within the industry, died May 27 at his drawing table. He was 77.

Toth died at his home in Burbank, according to his son Eric, who also said Saturday that the cause of death had not been determined.

Toth had been in failing health in recent years but had continued to work and, through well-wishers, gained a sense of validation in his twilight time.

"For 50 years he did what he wanted to do -- smoke cigarettes, sit on the couch and draw," his daughter Dana Palmer said Saturday. "But in his final year there was such a great spirit in him, and he had made peace with everybody on Earth that he needed to make peace with."

Toth's most enduring contribution to pop culture came through television, as his character designs for such Hanna-Barbera Productions as "Superfriends," "Space Ghost," "Herculoids" and other heroic series of the 1960s and 1970s created signature images.

His thousands of drawings for those series were used to pitch the shows or set the visual standards for animators and now are prized by collectors.

"The work he did there touched more lives than anything else he had done," Paul Levitz, president and publisher of DC Comics, said Friday. "He found ways to take characters [like Superman] from their more complicated printed form into a simpler form for animation that still held on to their power and majesty."

That lucrative but limiting work in animation came after decades of achievement and frustration in the comic book field, where Toth bounced from company to company, according to noted comics publisher and critic Gary Groth.

Toth was an irascible figure with "rigid principles," Groth said, and a nuanced drawing style that didn't always suit the bombastic story lines of comics. Well-known comic book artist Jack Kirby created densely detailed alien worlds that jumped off the page with kinetic fury; Toth's genius was in composition, economy of line and quieter moments of suspense.

"Toth was one of the most brilliant artists ever in comic books but also someone who was the odd man out in many ways, which made him bitter," Groth said. "He was never associated with a particular character, and he was pushed off to marginal titles."

The restless Toth not only constantly changed his style with a zeal to learn more, he also seemed to sabotage himself with personality conflicts with editors and harsh public critiques of peers. In a 1970 interview with Graphic Story magazine, Toth said of his career: "I expected to have done a lot more with it than I have. I am my biggest disappointment."

Toth was born an only child in New York City on June 25, 1928, the son of a house painter. He developed his childhood love of sketching at the High School of Industrial Arts where, even before graduation, he was making money drawing short stories and small illustrations for "Heroic Comics."

In 1947, he got a big break when Sheldon Mayer, an editor at DC Comics, hired him to work on Green Lantern and Dr. Mid-Nite.

But Toth's guiding passion was not heroes in tights; his style was shaped by Hollywood swashbucklers, the romanticized adventures in Milton Caniff's "Terry and the Pirates" comic strip and, perhaps most powerfully, the vivid work of illustrator Noel Sickles in magazines and in the "Scorchy Smith" comic strip.

He sharpened his skills and, by 1950, had become "the finest artist that comics ever had," as his far more successful peer, Gil Kane, wrote in a 1977 essay. Kane added: "His focus was on picture making and its elements, drawing, composition, pattern, tonal values, depth of field and shape.... Toth's investigation into stating form and design with utmost economy lifted the craftsmanship level of the entire field."

Will Eisner, a giant in comics and the father of the graphic novel, said that Toth showed "a mastery of realism within a stunning illustrative style."

By the end of the 1950s, after a stint in the Army, Toth settled in San Jose, a rare decision in the comics and cartoon industry, which was concentrated in New York. Working for Dell Comics, he became a specialist of sorts in titles that adapted comics from television shows and film, among them "Sea Hunt," "77 Sunset Strip" and, perhaps most memorably, "Zorro," based on the Disney TV series.

Superhero comics staged a major revival in the 1960s, and mystery comics, romance titles and westerns -- the fare that Toth was given and most interested in -- moved further to the fringe.

Far from Manhattan's ink and paper community, Toth gravitated toward California's animation opportunities. He moved to Southern California and in 1964 did his first work for Hanna-Barbera, which made good use of his affinity for economical composition.

Toth appeared at comic book conventions and became notorious for his strident views on art and peers.

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