Alex TOTH and me – Part Three

In the early 1970s there were two comics publishers based in the Los Angeles area. One was Western Publishing, who produced the Dell and, later, the Gold Key comics. The other was Petersen Publications, with Hot Rod Cartoons, Car-toons and Cycle-toons. Toth created a substantial body of work for both publishers. I went to work for Cycle-toons, which was edited by Dennis Ellefson.

When Dennis found out I knew Toth, the first thing he asked was, “So, did Alex tell you he wants to kill himself?”

I said “No.”

“He will. He always does,” said Dennis. “I got so sick of his telling me that I told him,’OK! Then just DO IT! I’m sick of hearing you talk about it!’”

Dennis told me it was Alex’s way of getting attention and sympathy from folks. “Oh…poor, poor Alex,” said Dennis. “Bullshit!”

The more friends of Toth I met, the more I heard that story. Eventually, Alex confessed to me that he wanted to kill himself. I nodded in acknowledgement of what he had just said then quickly changed the subject.

Ironically, it was Dennis Ellefson who took his own life. Alex eventually did, too, if one considers cigarette smoking a slow form of suicide.

In my youth I made a list of the four comic book giants with whom I wanted to work: Harvey Kurtzman, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby and Alex Toth. I ended up getting to work with Kurtzman on “Little Annie Fanny” for Playboy (and a number of other projects as well); with Jack when I got to ink an issue of The Demon; I also inked two of the pin-ups he drew for his wife Roz: The Demon and Devil Dinosaur. I jumped at the chance when Will Eisner asked me to ink over his pencils (and then color) on a cover for The Spirit.

I almost got to work with Toth when I was working as an assistant (mostly inking and coloring) to Russ Manning on the Tarzan of the Apes Sunday and daily newspaper strips. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. decided that they wanted to try their own hand at publishing comic books starring ERB’s famed creations. They made Russ the chief editor of this new comics line. Russ and I were also working on Tarzan graphic novels while we did the newspaper strip work.

“How would you like to ink Alex Toth?” Russ asked me one morning.

Russ had written a ten-page prologue to our latest Tarzan graphic novel. It took place in the past, so Manning figured that a different art style (as long as it was inked to look somewhat like Russ’ Tarzan) for the first ten pages would not be out of line, that it could work well within the context of the story. Russ called Alex and gave him the penciling job.

We eagerly waited for the pages to arrive. I was there for the Big Day when Toth’s package was delivered. We were stunned.

It was awful.

Quite frankly, it was one of the worst things I ever saw by Toth, a complete strikeout — not even a base hit (to push the analogy). There was none of Toth’s romance, nor nary a whiff of the exotic qualities we cherished in his art. It was dull, dull, dull. The drawings of Tarzan were stiff and the Ape Man looked overweight. I watched as Russ was forced to erase and redraw 80–90% of Alex’s ten-pager. A disappointed and despondent Russ ended up inking it all himself.

To Be Continued. . .

7 Responses to “Alex TOTH and me – Part Three”

  1. James Van Hise says:

    Didn’t I hear that Alex Toth then complained about how Russ inked the art and changed it?

  2. Bill says:

    I heard rumblings like that but never directly from Alex.

  3. Jorge Farfan says:

    Loving these journal entries Bill. Thanks for sharing your experiences, very much appreciated! Do you have any clue why Alex’ pages turned out so bad?

  4. Bill says:

    @ Jorge:
    I don’t know. Tired? Uninspired?

    Honestly, I don’t care who you are (myself certainly included)…Even if you always try to do your best, there are the occasional lapses in anyone’s career in which they turn out a dud or two. This was the only time I can think of when it happened to Alex, at least in regards to his serious, dramatic comics work (I never liked his humor stuff; I thought — and still think — he was really wrong for that genre. His dinosaurs aren’t so hot, either).

    What shocked me was that he didn’t just turn in a story with a random bad page; the entire ten-pager he drew for us was awful. I’d watched him tear up lesser work of his than this; I couldn’t believe that he couldn’t see how much he had missed the mark on this one. The Toth I was familiar with would have ripped this baby all to shreds rather than sending it out to be inked.

  5. Jorge Farfan says:

    Were you still in touch at that point? Did he know you were involved with the project, much less inking it? I hear you about duds, I’ve had my share. Just recently I had to do a convention sketch on one of those blank white cover comics, of the Hulk. Well, it started out going in the right direction, but somewhere along the way his head got too small! Easy enough fix I thought, but I had been working so fast I didn’t realize I had picked up a 2H and drawn the head with it. It was practically engraved into that damn cover, as if the smooth silk finish on that paper didn’t already cause enough problems. I tried to fix it the best I could, but there was no helping that one! Ha…the worst part was handing it to the guy the next day and trying to hide my embarrassment and shame! The horror of it all…

  6. Bill says:

    @ Jorge: For sure, we were still friends and in touch at that point. If I was still working for Russ then I hadn’t yet embarked upon my film career.

    I hate that slick finish board; give me kid finish any day over plate finish.

  7. Alec Stevens says:

    I had a lengthy phone call with Toth back in the summer of 2001, and one topic that sent him into a fit of fury (amongst others) was Disney’s “Tarzan.” He especially railed against Glen Keane’s character design, saying, “It looks like a little old woman. Not heroic at all!” At the outset Toth told me he never saw the film, then he began to complain about Phil Collins’ music and said there weren’t enough quiet scenes. I cited a few, and he said it needed more. I then told him, “I thought you didn’t see the film,” and he quickly moved on to the next topic.

    Like Scrooge’s epiphany and change of heart at the end of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” I’ve heard from several people of Toth’s great change once he finally quit smoking and moved into the seniors’ community, made new friends, actually went out for dinner, and had a social life once again. It seems he genuinely reconciled with his children, too, sometime before passing.

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