Setting the Standard: Comics by Alex Toth 1952-1954

By Alex Toth, Mike Peppe & various (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-408-5

Alex Toth was a master of graphic communication who shaped two different art-forms and is largely unknown in both of them.

Born in New York in 1928, the son of Hungarian immigrants with a dynamic interest in the arts, Toth was something of a prodigy and after enrolling in the High School of Industrial Arts doggedly went about improving his skills as a cartoonist. His earliest dreams were of a strip like Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, but his uncompromising devotion to the highest standards soon soured him on newspaper strip work when he discovered how hidebound and innovation-resistant the family-values based industry had become whilst he was growing up.

At age 15 he sold his first comicbook works to Heroic Comics and after graduating in 1947 worked for All American/National Periodical Publications (who would amalgamate and evolve into DC Comics) on Dr. Mid-Nite, All Star Comics, the Atom, Green Lantern, Johnny Thunder, Sierra Smith, Johnny Peril, Danger Trail and a host of other features. On the way he dabbled with newspaper strips (see Casey Ruggles: the Hard Times of Pancho and Pecos) and found nothing had changed…

Continually trying to improve his own work he never had time for fools or formula-hungry editors who wouldn’t take artistic risks. In 1952 Toth quit DC to work for “Thrilling” Pulps publisher Ned Pines who was retooling his prolific Better/Nedor/Pines comics companies (Thrilling Comics, Fighting Yank, Doc Strange, Black Terror and many more) into Standard Comics: a comics house targeting older readers with sophisticated, genre-based titles.

Beside fellow graphic masters Nick Cardy, Mike Sekowsky, Art Saaf, John Celardo, George Tuska, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito and particularly favourite inker Mike Peppe, Toth set the bar high for a new kind of story-telling: wry, restrained and thoroughly mature; in short-lived titles dedicated to War, Crime, Horror, Science Fiction and especially Romance.

After Simon and Kirby invented love comics, Standard, through artists like Cardy and Toth and writers like the amazing and unsung Kim Aamodt, polished and honed the genre, regularly turning out clever, witty, evocative and yet tasteful melodramas and heart-tuggers both men and women could enjoy.

Before going into the military, where he still found time to create a strip (Jon Fury for the US army’s Tokyo Quartermaster newspaper The Depot’s Diary) he illustrated 60 glorious tales for Standard; as well as a few pieces for EC and others. On his return to a different industry – and one he didn’t much like – Toth split his time between Western/Dell/Gold Key (Zorro and many movie/TV adaptations) and National (assorted short pieces, Hot Wheels and Eclipso): doing work he increasingly found uninspired, moribund and creatively cowardly. Soon he moved primarily into TV animation, designing for shows such as Space Ghost, Herculoids, Birdman, Shazzan!, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and Super Friends among many others.

He returned sporadically to comics, setting the style and tone for DC’s late 1960’s horror line in House of Mystery, House of Secrets and especially The Witching Hour and illustrating more adult fare for Warren’s Creepy, Eerie and The Rook. He redesigned The Fox for Red Circle/Archie, produced stunning one-offs for Archie Goodwin’s Batman or war comics (whenever they offered him a “good script”) and contributed to landmark or anniversary projects such as Batman: Black and White.

His later, personal works included Torpedo and the magnificently audacious Bravo for Adventure!

Alex Toth died of a heart attack at his drawing board on May 27th 2006.

After reprinting an extensive interview with the artist from Graphic Story Magazine conducted by Vincent Davis, Richard Kyle and Bill Spicer in 1968, this fabulous full colour chronicle reprints every scrap of Toth’s superb Standard fare beginning with impressive melodrama in ‘My Stolen Kisses’ from Best Romance #5 (February 1952), after which light-hearted combat star Joe Yank nearly lost everything toBlack Market Mary’ in the debut issue of his own title (#5 March 1952).

Perhaps a word of explanation is warranted here: due to truly Byzantine commercial considerations all Standard Comics started with issue #5, although the incredibly successful Romance comics were carried over from their earlier Better Comics incarnations such as New Romances #10 (March 1952) for which Toth illustrated the touching ‘Be Mine Alone’ or the parable of empty jealousy ‘My Empty Promise’ from #11.

The hilarious ‘Bacon and Bullets’ offered a different kind of love in Joe Yank #6 (May) – a very pretty pig named Clementine – after which witty 3 pager ‘Appointment with Love’ (Today’s Romance #6 May) provides a charming palate cleanser before the hard-bitten ‘Terror of the Tank Men’ from Battlefront #5 (June 1952) offers a more traditional view of the then raging Korean War.

‘Shattered Dream!’ (My Real Love #5 June) is an ordinary romance well told whilst ‘The Blood Money of Galloping Chad Burgess’ (The Unseen #5 June 1952) reveals the sheer quality of Standard’s horror stories and ‘The Shoremouth Horror’ (Out of the Shadows #5) that same month proved Toth to be an absolute master of terror.

‘Show Them How to Die’ (This is War #5 July) is a superbly gung-ho combat classic whilst the eerie ‘Murder Mansion’ and ‘The Phantom Hounds of Castle Eyne’ both from Adventures into Darkness #5 (August) once more demonstrate the artist’s uncanny flair for building suspense.

The single page ‘Peg Powler’ (The Unseen #6 September) is reprinted beside the original artwork – which makes me wish the entire collection was available in black and white – after which the experimental ‘Five State Police Alarm’ (Crime Files #5) displays the artist’s amazing facility with duo-tone and craft-tint techniques before the salutary ‘I Married in Haste’ (Intimate Love #19, September) takes a remarkably modern view of relationships.

Science Fiction was the metier of Fantastic Worlds #5 which provided both the contemporary ‘Triumph over Terror’ and futuristic fable ‘The Invaders’ to finish off Toth’s September chores after which ‘Routine Patrol’ and ‘Too Many Cooks’ offered two-fisted thrills from This is War #6 (October).

‘The Phantom Ship’ is a much reprinted classic chiller from Out of the Shadows #6 and October also offered the extremely unsettling ‘Alice in Terrorland’ in Lost Worlds #5. Toth only produced four covers for Standard, and the first two, Joe Yank #8 and Fantastic Worlds #6 precede ‘The Boy who Saved the World’ from the latter (November 1952) after which service rivalry informed ‘The Egg-Beater’ from Jet Fighters #5.

The cover of Lost Worlds #6 (December) perfectly introduces the featured ‘Outlaws of Space’ after which the single-page ‘Smart Talk’ (New Romance #14) perfectly closes the first year and sets up 1953 which opens strongly with ‘Blinded by Love’ from Popular Romance #22 January) in which the classic love triangle has never looked better…

This was clearly Toth’s ideal year as ‘The Crushed Gardenia’ from Who is Next? #5 shows his incredible skills to their utmost in one of the best crime stories of all time. ‘Undecided Heart’ (Intimate Love #21 February) is a delightful comedy of errors whilst both ‘The House That Jackdaw Built’ and ‘The Twisted Hands’ from Adventures into Darkness #8 perfectly reveal the artist’s uncanny facility for building tension and anxiety.

The cover to Joe Yank #10 is followed by the splendid aviation yarn ‘Seeley’s Saucer’ from the March Jet Fighters (#7) whilst the clever and racy ‘Free My Heart’ from Popular Romance #23 (April) adds new depth to the term sophisticated and ‘The Hands of Don José’ (Adventures into Darkness #9) is just plain nasty in the manner horror fans adore…

‘No Retreat’ (This is War #9 May) offers more patriotic combat, but ‘I Want Him Back’ (Intimate Love #22) depicts a far softer and more personal duel and ‘Geronimo Joe’ (Exciting War #8 May) proves that in combat there’s no room for rivalry.

Toth was rapidly reaching the peak of his design genius as ‘Man of My Heart’ (New Romances #16 June), ‘I Fooled My Heart’ (Popular Romance #24 July, and reprinted in full as original art in the notes section) and both ‘Stars in my Eyes’ and ‘Uncertain Heart’ from New Romances #17 (August) saw him develop a visual vocabulary that cleanly imparted plot and characterisation simultaneously.

He often stated that he preferred these mature and well-written romance stories for the room they gave him to experiment and expand his craft and these later efforts prove him right: especially in the moving ‘Heart Divided’ (Thrilling Romances #22) and compelling ‘I Need You’ from the September Popular Romances (#25).

‘The Corpse That Lived’ was a historically based tale of grave-robbing from Out of the Shadows #10, whilst the deeply affecting ‘Chance for Happiness’ (Thrilling Romances #23 October) is as powerful today as it ever was. ‘My Dream is You!’ (New Romances #18) offered a fresh look at the old dilemma of career or husband whilst a far darker love was displayed in ‘Grip on Life’ (The Unseen #12 November), but true love actually triumphed in ‘Guilty Heart’ from Popular Romance #26.

Another ‘Smart Talk’ advice page ends 1953 (New Romances #19 December) and neatly precedes an edgy affair in ‘Ring on Her Finger’ (Thrilling Romances #24 January 1954), after which ‘Frankly Speaking’ from the same issue leads to a terrifying historical horror in ‘The Mask of Graffenwehr’ (Out of the Shadows #11).

February produced a fine crop of Toth tales beginning with charming medical drama ‘Heartbreak Moon’ (Popular Romance #27), spooky mining mystery ‘The Hole of Hell’ (The Unseen #13), one-page amorous advisory ‘Long on Love’ (Popular Romance #27), the lesson in obsession ‘Lonesome for Kisses’ and two further advice pages ‘If You’re New in Town’ and ‘Those Drug Store Romeos’ all from Intimate Love #26.

These last stories were eked out in the months after Toth had left, drafted and posted to Japan. However, even though he had presumably rushed them out whilst preparing for the biggest change in his young life there was no loss but a further jump in artistic quality.

One final relationship ‘Smart Talk’ page (New Romances #20 March 1954) precedes a brace of classic mystery masterpieces from Out of the Shadows #12: ‘The Man Who Was Always on Time’ (also reproduced in original art form in the ‘Notes’ section at the back of this book) and the graphic wonderment regrettably concludes with the cynically spooky ‘Images of Sand’ – a sinister cautionary tale of tomb-robbing…

After all this the last 28 pages of this compendium comprise a thorough and informative section of story annotations, illustrations and a wealth of original art reproductions to top off this sublime collection in perfect style.

Alex Toth was a tale-teller and a master of erudite refinement, his avowed mission to pare away every unnecessary line and element in life and in work. His dream was to make perfect graphic stories. He was eternally searching for “how to tell a story, to the exclusion of all else.”

This long-awaited collection shows how talent, imagination and dedication to that ideal can elevate even the most genre-locked episode into a masterpiece the form and a comicbook into art.

All stories in this book are in the public domain but the specific restored images and design are © 2011 Fantagraphics Books. Notes are © 2011 Greg Sadowski and the Graphic Story Magazine interview is © 2011 Bill Spicer. All rights reserved.

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