Alex Toth

Comics artist and animator

Alexander Toth, comics artist and animation designer: born New York 25 June 1928; married (two sons, two daughters); died Hollywood, California 27 May 2006.

The comics artist Alex Toth is rated by the cognoscenti as perhaps the greatest American adventure strip artist of all time, as well as the creator of the clean action style of television adventure cartoons from the 1960s onwards.

Raised in New York, the young Toth (pronounced like "both") was fired by an early passion for syndicated newspaper adventure strips to enrol at the High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan, with the ambition of becoming an adventure strip cartoonist. Realising adventure strips were on the decline, he switched to comic books and, at 15, secured his first paid freelance assignment ($5 for a spot drawing) from Steve Douglas's Famous Funnies.

In 1947, he was hired by Sheldon Mayer for DC Comics, home of Superman and the American comics industry's top publisher. Mayer, his mentor, drummed in one lesson above all else: "Tell the bloody story!" Toth took it to heart, and was thrown into pencilling strips in many genres (superhero, western, romance, crime and mystery) as demanded. Ever the perfectionist, he boned up on the work of his artistic heroes (the cartoonists Noel Sickles, Milton Caniff and Frank Robbins) and honed his own cinematic artwork until, at the age of 21, he was dubbed "the best artist in the entire business" by his fellow artist Gil Kane, and had become the company's highest-paid one.

Bored with the inane scripts he was offered, in 1950 he left DC to freelance for a variety of publishers, until his call-up in 1954 into the US Army (where, stationed in Tokyo, he had his own weekly adventure page, "Jon Fury", in the base paper, the Depot Diary). Following his discharge in 1956, he signed up with another major publisher, Western Publishing, where he concentrated on comics adaptations of film and television shows, most notably Zorro, derived from a weekly Disney series.

Throughout this time, by combining solid observation and draughtsmanship with matchless design skills, Toth's approach to storytelling had become ever more succinct. When he had pared away all but the essential in his drawing, what was left became so abstract, so easy to read, that it approached calligraphy in its clarity - and all achieved without sacrificing realism.

However, by the early 1960s, this carefully crafted nuanced naturalism looked increasingly at odds with the resurgent bombastic superhero genre, which began to elbow aside the romance, mystery and western titles he had made his name on. Finding his work ever less appreciated, although he would continue to contribute occasional tales for the likes of Warren Publishing, Marvel Comics, DC and Dell right up until the 1980s, he shifted his focus to animation.

Starting in 1960 as art director for Cambria Studio's Space Angel television series, by 1965 Toth had become chief character designer for Hanna-Barbera Studios. When Hanna-Barbera needed a quick set of designs for a new show they wanted to pitch to a TV network, they would call on him to prepare art boards to show to the network executives. He would also provide character model sheets for other artists to follow. In this fashion he created the clean, minimalist look of such Saturday morning staples as Space Ghost, Super Friends and Jonny Quest, which in turn became the house style for many subsequent adventure cartoons.

By the 1980s, Toth's career was winding down, but his reputation has since soared ever upwards. Much of his comic work has been reissued in such publications as The Complete Classic Adventures of Zorro (1999), Alex Toth (1995), Toth: Black & White (1999) and Alex Toth: One for the Road (2000), while his character designs for Hanna-Barbera have been captured in Alex Toth: by design (1996).

Despite a long illness, he died at his drawing table at home, pencil in hand.

Alan Woollcombe

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