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Review: Genius Illustrated: the Life and Art of Alex Toth

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks

It may only be February, but we already have a very strong candidate for the best archival comics work of the year.

Following on from its 2011 companion Genius Isolated, Genius Illustrated tells the story of the second half of the life and career of perhaps comics' greatest iconoclast and its strongest advocate for the "less is more" school of comics art. This book spans the later years of Alex Toth's life, from 1957 to his death in 2006, and thus presents the greatest artwork from the greatest period of the life of one of the most incomparable cartoonists of our time.

 

 

In this volume as in the first volume, co-writers and editors Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell tell the story of Alex Toth's life in fascinating detail while also presenting what seems like a nearly infinite number of classic Toth masterworks in this book. Anyone who enjoyed 2011's Genius Isolated, from the same writers and publishing house, knows the quality of material to expect from its sequel. Those readers will squeal with joy to see that this new book is the equal of its predecessor. Genius Illustrated is immaculate. The generosity of artistic material in this book knows no bounds, and the quality of the biographical material is absolutely unparalleled in comics scholarship.

 

 

Alex Toth was, simply put, a true genius of comics. His linework was always beguilingly simple on the surface but breathtakingly complex the more you studied it. It was full of verve and energy and an incredible amount of personality -- for better or worse, you could always see Toth's approach to his life and his work in most every line that he drew.

 

 

Toth's work always seemed effortless, almost magical in its simplicity and grace. While it's true that virtually no cartoonists could match Toth for his astonishing less-is-more approach to his work, it's also true that Toth was also a master storyteller, the type of comics artist whose composition made most every panel shine, most every page a clinic on storytelling, most every story a seemingly effortless soufflĂ© of joy and energy and enthusiasm. Even his model sheets for animation studios like Hanna-Barbera are still studied today for their masterful grace and simplicity. Toth made everything he drew look so tantalizingly easy to draw, but of course the great creators in any field always do make their work look easy. 

 

 

In this book, Canwell and Mullaney present excerpts from relatively well-known work like his "Eclipso" (reprinted in a Showcase Presesnts volume) and from his work for well-archived Warren magazines like Creepy, Eerie and Blazing Combat. But Mullaney and Canwell also revive material that is often so rare and obscure that even the most devoted Toth collector has likely never seen it before -- stories from old Twilight Zone comics and Dragtoons magazine and from old advertising storyboards. We even get sample sheets from Toth's animation period and a full, glorious, "Bravo for Adventure" story reprinted from the immaculate original art.

 

 

Best of all, every page of material in this book is presented in the best possible format, with incredibly crisp reproduction and the same eye for detail that these folks devote to all of their books. But if you've read Genius Isolated, you already know that this is an immaculate book.

Bruce Canwell's outstanding biography of Toth takes up roughly half of the book, interspersed with the artwork. Canwell's bio is obviously meticulously researched, with smart and pertinent quotes and anecdotes from Toth's friends and family that illuminate the life of this often most complex and difficult man. Canwell clearly earned the trust of most everyone he spoke to, because he presents Toth's life, warts and all, in a way that betrays a casual, insider's intimacy with the life of the man he's profiling.

 

 

Bruce's writing in Genius Isolated is crisp, fascinating, insightful and extremely detailed. Canwell's text does an outstanding job of presenting Toth's artwork in real context, reflecting on the artist's complex life in a way that allows us to better understand his sometimes puzzling eccentricities and complexities. We see Toth veer and change throughout this book; often unpredictably, sometimes without a moment's notice. He would frequently cut off friends for arbitrary reasons, treat family badly, and never appreciate his children as well as they wanted. Alex Toth wasn't a bad man at all. He was just a complex man, in a way that belied the magnificent simplicity of his artwork. I'm sure I'm not the first commentator to contrast the master cartoonist's elegantly clean art style with his surprisingly complex personal life.

 

 

This is true throughout the book, but it's most obviously true in the latter sections of Genius Illustrated, when Canwell discusses Toth's very difficult final years. I had always heard that after his wife Guyla died, Alex lost a lot of his lust for life. He had long suffered from depression, and without his true love, the great cartoonist isolated himself from his friends and family. Toth closed himself up in a filth-ridden house at the top of a long staircase in Southern California, choosing only to speak to the people who he wanted to speak to and only doing the things he wanted to do. 

Toth would send letters to fans and friends like epistles from a mountaintop -- sometimes lecturing, sometimes reminiscing, always charming in their own way. One absolutely precious letter reproduced in this book, from Toth to his devoted admirer the cartoonist Ken Steacy, is filled with so much practical advice that it could be used to teach a master class on cartooning.

A less empathetic biographer might paint Toth as just an eccentric old man, living in the hills around LA in a quiet, dark house and isolating himself from everyone who he believed had slighted him. But in this book Canwell does just the opposite of that: he uses this era of Toth's life to humanize the master artist, to show how desperately Toth missed his beloved wife Guyla after she passed away in 1985. 

 

 

Guyla was the only one of Toth's four wives who seemed to have the ability to make Alex completely happy and ground him in the world; without Guyla, Canwell argues persuasively, Alex felt thoroughly lost, without a welcoming place in the world. His lingering depression flared up horribly during this time period, when he felt isolated and alone in the world. These passages unfortunately reminded me quite a bit of my mom's final months after my dad passed away, when she was content to live in her very quiet apartment without ever talking to anybody. She isolated herself from me and my sister and seemed happy to live alone with her dog and her memories of better days. This section of the book really helped me to empathize quite a bit with both my mother and with the obvious turmoil that Alex Toth was feeling during that time. And I could most certainly relate to the feelings of powerlessness that Toth's children felt in that era.

Without his beloved ray of sunshine, darkness descended into Alex's life and he literally felt he had to cut himself off from the world in her absence. Canwell does a masterful job of placing the reader inside Toth's head as the artist battles his own personal demons without those thoughts feeling like an intrusion or like unwarranted gossip. 

As well Canwell also places us inside that too quiet, too dark house that Toth inhabited. With Canwell's highly descriptive biographical sketches, it's easy to feel like a fly on the wall inside that darkened living room with Alex Toth, seeing the pain and frustration and lack of rootedness in every line on the cartoonist's face.

 

 

But I make this book sound like a downer, and it most certainly isn't a depressing book at all. No, this book is a celebration of the life and career of one of our greatest cartoonists. All you need to do is stare at one page of the man's artwork to be filled with wonder and joy.

Under the hands of Bruce Canwell and Dean Mullaney, Genius Illustrated sets the absolute gold standard for deluxe artist biographies. There have been some wonderful comics history books released in the last few years, but this book surpasses them all in terms of its production values, its comprehensiveness and the quality of the biographical information presented. Alex Toth was one of the greatest artists ever to work in the comic art medium. This book merits the highest possible compliment: it's a worthy tribute to Toth.

 


 

 

Jason Sacks is Publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow him at @jasonsacks, email him at jason.sacks@comicsbulletin.com or friend him on Facebook.

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