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. . .